Flights to and from Khartoum had been cancelled all day, we heard.
Not because of Covid-19, which was yet to stifle travel in most parts of the world – but because of a sandstorm.
It was a Thursday in early March, and my colleague Julie and I were due to fly back to Europe the following day. Back to Europe meant returning to what felt like the eye of another storm: Italy was by now the tragic centre of the coronavirus outbreak, and the rest of the continent wasn’t far behind. I half-hoped the dust in Sudan would continue, and we’d be forced to extend our stay, delaying a return to the surreal, unknown reality back home.
It was ironic, in a way. I’d been a little apprehensive about the week-long trip to a country associated, from the outside at least, with war and dictatorship. Those associations are due an update now, after former president Omar Al-Bashir was overthrown in April 2019. But today’s peace is fragile. While preparing for the trip, I asked a friend – a researcher on the Horn of Africa who regularly travels to the region – for something reassuring I could tell my family. It wasn’t so helpful. Sudan is ‘generally ok’, he said, ‘but unpredictable’. And he was right. An hour or so into our first day of workshops in Khartoum, the prime minister survived an attempted assassination on the other side of the city.
The incident meant we needed to be a little extra cautious for a couple of days, but otherwise things remained stable. And the tingle in the air of a country on the cusp of renewal was thrilling. The very recent past of fear and repression has been replaced by freer forms of cultural expression, from graffiti to music to the clothes women can now wear in public. Compared with a few years ago, as one British diplomat told us, “the whole mood of the nation is palpably different now.”
The social entrepreneurs we meet ( have ambitious plans. They frequently refer to the weeks-long ‘sit-in’ last year – the pro-democracy peaceful protests led by women and professional classes, and characterised by music and poetry – and tragically, by a bloody crackdown that killed 100 or more. And they talk about what comes next. They’re planning (or already growing) businesses that give opportunities to the unemployed, projects that strengthen pride in Sudanese culture, companies that will play a proud role in meeting national environment targets.
One of them, Samir, set up Qahwa Republic, a popular, western-style cafe with a strong focus on encouraging and supporting young people into careers in the catering industry. The energy from the sit-in, he tells us when we visit his buzzing locale on the Friday evening, was “contagious”, and his thriving business “is just an extension” of that period. “We feel like this is how we build our country by having a good business, supporting these youth, and giving the ultimate experience to our customers.”
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Before Qahwa, though, we visit Sudan Drums, a performance group founded in 2007 that also hosts workshops. There’s been a power cut and the studio indoors is dark, so the group are playing in the front garden when we arrive. Inevitably, Julie and I are persuaded to have a go, and Rabah, seated next to me in the circle, begins patiently demonstrating a slow, repetitive beat. My complete lack of rhythm bewilders me briefly, but she continues, and soon the dozen or so of us are drumming sort-of in time with Abdul, who directs us onto new rhythms, starting slow, then picking up the pace until our hands can’t drum any faster and we give up, laughing – and then start once again, beat by beat.
The session goes on longer than I expect and the heels of my hands are starting to feel tender. But, walled off from Khartoum’s dusty streets, with the temperature surprisingly cool today after a week of pushing 40°C, I feel content to spend time with people in this easy way. A couple of them have long ago grabbed my camera and Julie’s iPad, taking over our recording and doing some impromptu commentating while our own hands are occupied. In about five hours we’ll have to join long check-in queues, then board a plane taking us to a country that’s about to face up to its all-consuming, most deadly crisis since the second world war. For now, here, we can just keep drumming.
* * *
The storm is already on its way to this part of the world, though.
That same day, Sudan confirms its first coronavirus case (also its first death caused by the virus), despite many in the country suggesting that they’d be spared because it surely couldn’t survive in such heat. Soon, the World Health Organization would make it clear that hot-climate immunity is a myth. As of today, 20 April, there’s 92 confirmed cases, and Khartoum has just begun a 3-week lockdown.
It’s heartbreaking to think what this might mean for Sudanese people. Here in the UK, 4+ weeks into lockdown, things are not good and the suffering and loss still to come is bleak. But even with the catalogue of apparent errors committed by our leaders, there’s a sense of being somewhat in control, and we’re supposedly past the first peak. Meanwhile, Sudan faced a raft of problems even before this virus hit. Relief agencies estimated that more than 9 million people (23% of the population) would need humanitarian assistance this year, with the country’s health system “collapsing”. Now, the threat of the virus is exacerbating political tensions, according to reports.
The possible projections of cases and deaths for Africa as a whole are frightening. But governments may be able to learn from the hard lessons learned elsewhere Even in early March, we were greeted by two temperature checks on landing in Khartoum, while London Heathrow had no such measures in place. Sudan’s population is much younger than that of Italy, Spain or Britain, so people may be spared the worst. There is still a possibility that the disease will not spread as fast as we fear.
I want to stay optimistic. Disappointed that we wouldn’t have time to visit Sudan’s historic sites on our short trip – the country has more pyramids than Egypt – our hosts and interviewees asked when we’d visit again.
“Soon, hopefully,” we would answer. “You’ll be back before the end of the year, I guarantee,” one of our new friends responded.
I like to think he’s right.
All photos ©Anna Patton