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Postcard No. 1: Istanbul to Meröe

File:Merowe-sm.jpgFor the longest time, it seems as if the only people getting on the Turkish Airline flight to Khartoum are me and a lone man perched on a wooden stool – I am assuming that this hole-in-the-wall gate goes with the status accorded to suspicious characters headed for one of those nasty places on lists:  no seats, a modest counter and one stool, occupied. His rumpled, desert-grey suit is draped over a thin frame, his teeth not a priority, long facial features below a thinning crop of shiny grey-brown hair.  As usual, my curiosity about what takes people to Sudan impels me into conversation.  He is an engineer, French, as his accent suggests.  He has been working on the Meröe-Hamdab dam for several years.  I’ve toured the Meröe pyramid fields on a camel once and I’m wondering how much land has been inundated.  He responds, ‘You mean destroyed.’ I nod my agreement, disguising my surprise that the project’s collateral damage was an item of interest to him.  The dam is situated at the Nile’s fourth cataract, only 40 kilometres downstream from the royal fields.  ‘Homes, fields, antiquities, stories… all gone,’ he says softly, looking up at me from his perch.

At nine kilometres in length, cresting at 67 metres in height, restraining upstream 12.5 km3 of water, an amount equal to 20% of the entire volume of the Nile, Blue and White – a staggering figure! – it is the largest hydro-electric project in all of Africa – exceeding even the iconic Aswan High Dam, the product of Nasser’s imagination and the local fulcrum for US-USSR cold war games.  The people displaced by the Aswan, through an agreement with Sudan– surely their Nubian relatives – were re-located in north-eastern Sudan and placed in neat rows of tukuls, whose roofs were woven through with Canadian crisotyle (asbestos).  That first wave of hydro-electric project-impelled Nubian displacement has issued over the intervening decades in the highest rates of mesothelioma in Africa, continuing to claim scores of victims each year.

A few more people join us at the gate just as a DELAYED sign goes up in Turkish.  Through the glass walls the rain can be seen pouring down across the runway, obscuring the houses that are built almost to its edge.  In another age and time, a three-hour tootle around the city would have made for a delightful pastime; no longer.  All the rules have changed. Having said that, Turkish Airlines security is a walk in the park compared to Heathrow.
In a secular, but majority Muslim state, the airport looks like it fell out of Fifth Avenue; all the big names in clothing, leather, and jewellery are here.  What one can’t find is a pharmacy to get an aspirin and replace a hairbrush that didn’t get packed.  There is one exception:  The Old Bazaar makes a valiant attempt to assert itself, an ironic bit of Turkish exotica amongst the Armani, the Hermès and Ermegnegildo Zegna.  Its shelves and walls are jammed with the work of artisans, potters, weavers, chefs, goldsmiths and chocolatiers. Some of its staff are dressed in gold-braided fez and vest to enhance the soupçon of the ancient Ottoman Empire.  I buy myself a map instead, unable to conjure up where exactly I am in relationship to everything else.  Lingering over a lovely, malty Turkish beer, I study the names.  Istanbul! caught between the Seas of Karadeniz (Black) and Marmara, its large footprints extending along both the Anatolian and Thracian side of the Bosphorus; ancient Byzantium, imperialConstantinople. Other than ancient memories of Ataturk in history class and the more recent accounts of the country’s spooning with the European Union and the struggles of the Kurdish minorities that straddle the Turkish-Iraqi border, the only other reference points are seminary classes, maps with names likeEphesus, Tarsus and Sparta.

The plane is sparsely occupied with what appear to be a few peacekeepers, a nun or two, serious backpackers or humanitarian aid workers and a few business men.  The lights of Cairo and Luxor give way to mostly darkness, the few lights visible map out the winding contours of the mighty Nile.  The aeroplane touches down in Khartoum just after 3:30 in the morning, where the 19 degree air feels cool and refreshing – odd words in my vocabulary for describing Khartoum.  Worn out by the travel, I am way too pleased to accept the ministrations of the Acropole employee who steers me out of the line and takes care of everything.

It’s about 5:30 by the time I fold myself up in the familiar surroundings of the Acropole.

The Khartoum Monitor is filled with pre-election news.  Elections have been rare in this country over the last six decades.  Brief, hope-filled, passionate blossomings of democratic reform are soon overtaken by renewed dictatorship and war.  Tribal rivalries and the requisite nepotism that goes with them have shaped so much of the post-CPA[1] South, its new Parliament and related institutions that rarely a day goes by without new reports of corruption and internecine violence.  Some say the troubles are stirred up from below by a central government that wants an end to fantasies of Southern independence; others, friends amongst them, insist that the stew in which the South sits is of its own making.  Though ethnic-based militias are re-arming, undoubtedly with Khartoum’s support, the ‘loopholes’ generously provided by the ruling SPLM, as one writer in today’s Monitor puts it, are big enough to drive an oil tanker through.

Each day’s newspaper provides more lists of candidates for presidents (of both South Sudan and the so-called Government of National Unity (GNU) inKhartoum), governors and district commissioners.  Three candidates for president were rejected by the National Elections Commission due to their failure to get the obligatory number of signatories (15,000) from 18 of the 26 states.  One of those is the sole woman to contest the GNU presidency.  Other women are standing for election as state governors and other positions.  The SPLM issued a warning today to all of those card-carrying members who, having been passed over for the SPLM nomination, have thrown their hats into the ring as independents.   Issuing from an African Union meeting in nearbyAddis Ababa is another warning:  unless the issues around the census are settled, the April elections will be invalidated by a southern boycott.

A year ago the compound we have used so many times was bombarded by one of the Darfurian rebel groups, led by Khalil Ibrahim.  The Episcopate had to rebuild some walls and add supplementary fortifications to the bishop’s house.  The alternate location is a tight squeeze, but break-out space is beautiful, under the shade of giant palms, coconut and date.  Our translators, Sayda and Laban, a physician and a teacher, respectively, are ‘graduates’ of the training and members of the Non-violence Forum. With only a few hours to prepare with them, we are ready to go.

Eighteen people from eight ethnic groups, mostly from Darfur and the Equatorias greet us in that unique Sudanese way: right hand clapped gently on right shoulder, right hand shake accompanied by a litany, ‘Salaam aleikum!’ ‘’A aleikum salaam!’ ‘Sabah il khir!’ Sabah innur!’ ‘Kaif?’ ‘Kwayissa!’ ‘Tamaam?’ ‘Tamaam, il hamdu lilla!’  To the strangers, a slightly more formal version that includes, ‘Ahlan wa sahlan! Winti izzayik? ’ Welcome. How are you?  A few who are volunteers with FVFS[2] are also part of the group.

As part of an introductory exercise, participants sit with someone whom they have never met, share some facts about their lives, name, tribe, occupation or organisation and then attempt to draw a picture of the other with their ‘wrong’ hand.  Going around the circle each pair introduces their partner, displaying their frequently hilarious attempts to sketch their new friend.  Already it is clear:  this is a different kind of workshop, a different kind of training.  The walls that people attempt to keep in place as long as possible, from behind which they can safely view the proceedings and gradually make their own choices about how and when to enter in – are very quickly dismantled, at least begun, as they are enjoined to listen to another’s story, select the salient or safe parts of their own story to share and pay awkward tribute with a drawing that falls short of flattering.  Laughter soothes, stretching and lowering a threshold for all to walk through.


Lee McKenna is on her fourth trip to work in Sudan. BPFNA's World Peace Networks is helping to fund her efforts.

[1] Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed 9 January 2005, bringing an end to more than two decades of war between the North and the South, the latter led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army iconic John Garang Mabior, who died later that year in a helicopter crash.

[2] For a Violence-Free Sudan is the local partner with the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation (SweFOR) and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  It was founded by Southerners during their long exile in the IDP peripheries of the capital, Khartoum, beginning with programmes on gender, HIV AIDS, democracy and human rights.


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