May 26, 2016

Integration of the World. And Heat Rash.


The intensity of pre-conceived notions is heavy.

Genocide. The president is a wanted war criminal by ICC. U.S. sanctions. Sharia Law.

When I was offered the fellowship in Omdurman, Sudan last summer I yelled at my computer, "SUDAN??" I took 24 hours to research what living in Sudan meant - I didn't want to be closed minded, but eventually I turned it down because 1. I am way too much a free-bird for Sharia law 2. HEAT, 3. Terrorist sympathizers as neighbors...ya....not so much. My next match was Rwanda, I accepted happily (moderate weather, moderate people, moderate freedom), and the rest is history.

What I didn't know is that though I turned down the chance to live in Sudan, I would be given an extraordinary opportunity to visit Sudan and collaborate with my fabulous co-fellows. It ended up that the fellow in Sudan and I became very close through messaging and emails over the first semester. When we all met in Ethiopia in February, my boss, her boss, and the Sudan fellow, Denise, were having beers one night in the hotel and Denise mentioned she wanted to plan an event and have the Rwanda fellows join her since we are close friends. My boss is great at going with the flow and throwing US dollars at our ideas, so he was quick to say yes! As was her boss. Denise was then tasked with getting us into Sudan (not an easy task) and planning a conference in the dead of summer in Sudan.

After much bribing, emails, being sent out of the Sudan embassy in Kigali, a million small passport photos sent here and there and everywhere...we were eventually granted visas to Sudan. We still aren't sure exactly how it happened - but the important thing is that it happened. Thanks to the steadfast support of the international school where our conference was going to be held. Getting international visitors into Sudan to hold a conference based on teaching best practices is not something that happens every day. The school really placed value on our attendance and apparently was willing to front a bunch of black market money to make it happen.

Leanne and I flew first to Khartoum because Robert had some trainings to finish up in Rwanda. Stepping off the plane in Khartoum the dry air hit my face like I had opened a giant oven. I smiled and laughed to myself - I was walking into Sudan! How serendipitous.

Over the next 10 days we facilitated a teacher - training conference with over 60 teachers from across Sudan. A large tent with giant fans was rented, it was bright red and looked like a fancy wedding tent (probably was). A generator was rented and we did the best we could - eventually teaching over 10 presentations each over the course of the week. It was like teaching bootcamp and there couldn't have been a better staff of teachers.

Each morning we put on our long skirts (no calves allowed), our scarves (no necks allowed), and got picked up by a driver to head to the school. After work, we went to eat amazing Lebanese food with Denise's friends or laid on her floor in the air condition and drank smuggled vodka. (It's amazing the lengths the US Embassy goes to to get alcohol into the country, like, it's not that important, guys, but thanks anyways).

It was all a hot, sticky whirlwind that concluded with a day trip to see the Meroe Pyramids a few hours north of Khartoum. In ancient times, Egypt and Sudan were one civilization and there are smaller, but better preserved and more remote pyramids in Sudan! An interesting thing about Sudan is that there are no tourists. You can't just go to Sudan for fun. (And why would you? It's hot as hell). But there are a lot of interesting things to see, which means when you go see those things (like the pyramids) you are ALL ALONE. As a world-traveler and someone who has stood in the shadow of the Great Wall, Taj Mahal, Victoria Falls etc, I can tell you that being alone and quiet in a tourist destination is priceless and rare. It was surreal. It was also surreal when my chacos literally melted into the sand beneath my feet. The heat was so hot it felt like science. Hot science whirling around you.

I was touched by Sudan. There are so many directions I could write about. And I hope I do. I just want something up on the website to commemorate the experience because these days are a whirlwind and I might soon forget. I have more "friends" in Sudan after 10 days than I do in Rwanda after 8.5 months. It's just a warmer, more friendly, outgoing culture. You would have to work hard NOT to make a friend with a Sudanese person. In this way, I was quite jealous of the Sudan fellow and wishing I had taken the job! (Also her washing machine, cable tv, and access to having international mail made it look posh.) In the end I am thankful for my time in Rwanda, as chaotic and far from what was promised as it has been. If anything, I am thankful for the experience to see Sudan with my own eyes, shake hands with the people, share tea and cake, and be taught that not everything is on the surface. International travel warnings do not a culture make. There are vague, distant warnings, and then there is humanity. I will take this lesson away from my time in Africa at large, and specifically Sudan.

During the tea breaks, I would pause and look around and often would get a sense that we were part of something much bigger than ourselves. Something that will outlast us and our little conference the desert. To the average American, Sudan is a place Osama Bin Laden used to hide. To the average Sudanese, an American is a closed-minded twat who is aggressive and Islamophobic. Both of us are wrong, in many ways. Sudan is not a place to be feared, and I, as an American, was very happy to be there with my Muslim brothers and sisters. Laughing at jokes, drinking endless amounts of tea, complaining about the heat. To be there and to be welcomed, and also to be a gracious, curious, and respectful guest, was such a powerful experience. For all. Perhaps some wayward pre-conceived notions were dropped on both sides. Inshallah. ;)

During one of the closing remarks, the founder of the international school said this,

"If you do not know the other, you will consider them something to fear. We are here for the integration of the world."


We are here for the integration of the world.

Thanks for the memories, lessons, and heat rash, Sudan. I will cherish those days in the desert.

walk slow. xoxo. 

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