Sudan's lesson in patience

‘Living in a country that has come out of a 21-year civil war, that still battles with the issue of Darfur, gets to you, but the people are amazing.” That’s the standard response I give to anyone who asks the inevitable: What was it like?

Nobody asks for hard knocks. It is not what I had expected during my seven-month stint in Sudan to acquire the Arabic tongue, to work with aid agencies and bleed words from my fingertips as a freelance journalist.

I landed in a boiling Khartoum — the North African country’s capital city — on July 1 2007. I had enrolled for an Arabic language course at the International University of Africa, but should have guessed that facilities would be way less than grand.
This so-called university seemed worse off than a poverty-stricken primary school in rural South Africa.

I was also introduced to the world of aid agencies, organisations that aim to improve life in conflict hotspots such as Darfur. This took me to various parts of Sudan and offered insight into the strength and resilience of the warm Sudanese citizens.

It also brought me face to face with the military regime that governs this land with little mercy.

These trips took me back to the first time I visited Darfur, in October 2004, to accompany a South African aid agency to deliver aid to displaced persons. During that trip, children’s smiles reached out to me, somewhat in defiance of their miserable fate in a refugee camp near Al Fashir town in Darfur. By the time I returned, my responsibility to one particular aid agency was to photograph and write about relief activities, which exposed me to the depth of need in Sudan. The country has been plagued by conflict for almost as long as I have been alive. Its post-colonial history started in 1956, when England and Egypt handed back the reins of leadership to the local population.

Despite not having learned as much Arabic as I had hoped, there were numerous encounters with remarkable people. I ditched my university course; instead, I focused on my writing, photography and sold work to Reuters news agency, the South African media and even a major newspaper in London. But I soon felt ready to leave Sudan after months of learning patience and more patience with life’s hardships.

It is the first attribute one acquires in this harsh climate with its floods and overbearing heat, especially when dealing with an infrastructure that needs to be upgraded. What one learns most from the Sudanese is humanity: how to treat another human being who shares the world around you.

And so the daily life struggles of the ordinary citizens are eased by the communal nature of being in Sudan. Nowhere, previously during my travels had I been invited for lunch by complete strangers on the city’s streets. This is regardless of the fact that the person inviting one didn’t have much for himself.

Sudan has etched on my soul an understanding that there are so many more important things to worry about than trivial material issues.

Through this experience I have also learned something vital about the Sudanese. Their patience and faith will carry them through the toughest times.

The exhibition Sudan under my Skin is on at the 38 Special Gallery, Buitenkant Street, Cape Town until mid-October. Tel: 021 462 1348. For more information visit

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