Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Khartoum: Wide City Work - Emmanuel Iduma

Promenade - Khartoum (Emeka Okereke)

We woke with the determination to make an open city our workspace. The experience of the previous night was still fresh; particularly, I was interested in investigating the modes in which Khartoum had, despite reaching out for modernity, retained its past. Good enough, our encounters were laced with historical anecdotes and references to Khartoum’s past.

Ala pointed to the Omburman Old Bridge, the oldest bridge in Khartoum, which had stood for close to 120 years. We crossed the bridge en route the Omburman market, an old and large market. The present buildings in the market had been built in the 1960s, but the market is said to be three centuries old. At the market, we were treated even better than at the newer market which we had visited the evening before.

I find it worthy of note that markets catch our attention in each city we have stopped so far. In this regard, therefore, the market presents itself as a useful marker in the collective existence of a city. The purchase and the sale of things, it seems, tells life. Is there any doubt that what is eaten, worn, used, narrates who an individual is – and by extension, who a people are?

Portrait of a Trader - Khartoum (Emeka Okereke)
Portrait of a Tailor - Khartoum (Emeka Okereke)

At the Omburman market, we were divided unevenly into small groups. Unlike the day before where we had Ala, Faisal and Yassir, there was only Ala who understood and spoke Arabic. We split, nonetheless. As we would discover, being human is stronger than speaking a language; true, language unites peoples, and might even rank high in the scale of social networking tools. Yet, I find that having a face, being able to gesture, being able to smile, lets a visitor into the space of his hosts. And being guests is a useful way to consider our Omburman experience. Almost at every stall, there was a welcome smile, a question about our origin, and often a request for a photograph. Emeka’s hair morphed him into Stephen Worgu, a Nigerian footballer based in Sudan. Once we mentioned that we were Nigerians, faces lit up, and some of the men we met sermonized on how Sudan and Nigeria were united in many ways. (Worgu, from a report I found online, was fined in 2009 for driving after drinking alcohol. It is noteworthy that Sudan, being an Islamic state since the late 1980s, illegalized the drinking of alcohol, such that ‘non-alcoholic beer’ is sold. As a necessary corollary, night life is practically non-existent. Ala tells us that people are in their houses by 11.00pm, at most).

There was a guy who had warned us not to take his photo. After we had interviewed a man at the stall before his, and given how exuberant and ebullient our interaction was with the men in the shop, he joined us, making a photo of Emeka and I with his phone. Such interaction, void of hypocrisy, clearly open, reminds me of Yassir’s comments the previous day, “Sudanese people are very simple people, and very humble.”

“Sudanese people are very simple people, and very humble.” Emmanuel with one of the traders

I stop myself from being verbose in describing the ease with which we have carried out our work here; this space is so different from N’djamena that suddenly it seems as though we have been idle all along (Emeka’s face, for most of the time, is furrowed into a workaholic frown; I think he has rediscovered photography, for the umpteenth time!) My interest, irrespective of being blessed with this open city, is to investigate the mode of living, the characteristic vestiges that stand out, pointing to Khartoum’s reality.

Which is why I was elated when, at the Goethe Institute, a member of staff spoke to us about her 18-month experience in Sudan, and what she thought about the country. She noted that Khartoum was experiencing what she considered a cultural identity crises, hanging between being Arab and being African. Her idea was that Sudan was on a waiting phase, given the changes that had occurred in the country’s political landscape. I liked this consideration, because after that moment, once I crossed the street to our van across, I saw the city differently. I felt that up till that moment, I had seen superficially, carried away by the smiles and the willingness of residents to converse.

The Gabbana Ladies - Khartoum (Emeka Okereke)

I am thankful for that shift because when, afterwards, we crossed some part of the Nile, and stopped over at Tuti Island, I walked ahead of the pack to find some instrospective crack in Sudan’s surface. I cannot say I was successful; perhaps things became clearer when Ala explained that Tuti Island was the hotspot of activities before Khartoum became prominent in the 1700s. Before the 1700s, Khartoum was a forest with a bunch of farms. In the 1800s after the British came, Khartoum became the seat of government. Clearly, politics changes things. Our pack was an interesting mix of Sudanese photographers and two Professors of Law from Tunis and Paris.

Tuti Island represented, for me, a place that had decidedly remained still and antiqual. Upon entry, it strikes as a locale that is placed between the past and present. Yet, it does not appear to seek a sync with Khartoum’s modernity; if anything it might have retained a grouse with Khartoum for stealing its show. Tuti Island is favoured by its closeness to the River Nile – even more by its closeness to the point where the Blue Nile meets the White Nile. (Although we were shown this intersection, it was difficult to see the colours that made the rivers ‘blue’ and ‘white.’ We are told that in summer, the colours are clearer and easily distinguishable).
Cabbie - Khartoum (Jumoke Sanwo)
There’s a Sudanese saying that when a person drinks from the Nile River, that person will surely return to Sudan. Nana took a sip from a paper cup filled with River Nile water, after Yassir shared the proverb with her – Yassir drank two cups! Since I had not heard the proverb before seeing Nana drink, I wondered what-in-God’s-name she was doing. Ala later explained that the water was so clean that on camp trips across the River, indigenes  usually did not bother to come along with extra water.

City Scape - Khartoum (Jumoke Sanwo)

Our day ended with the Nile River. Jumoke, Ray and Kemi had some Sudanese coffee, which later made the ladies exuberant as though they had taken some liquor! This is understandable, given the illegality of alcohol; who knows if Sudanese people are seeking alternatives to getting drunk!

We are scheduled to have a workshop with local photographers. Ala says there is a Facebook group 3,000-member strong composed of Sudanese photographers. This encouraging development is akin to the work the Goethe Institute is doing in the Sudan Film Factory, providing an avenue for the training of filmmakers, and the production of Sudanese films. A copy of the first film by the Factory was given to us, and we are taking turns in seeing for ourselves this mode of telling Sudan that is unpopular.

Hang Out at the Blue Nile, Khartoum (Emeka Okereke)

I received an email from a dear friend who noted, profoundly, that one should not blame the talebearer but the one who hears. He stated that he would not believe my single story of Khartoum. My friend intends to combine my ‘single’ story with that of CNN, Richard Dowden, Tade Ipadeola, Paul Theroux, and every other narrator who has­ written about Khartoum. I am hoping that as our Khartoum story unfolds and is told, all those who read and listen to us will not think of our work as exhaustive, or as wholesome narratives.

For in the multitude of representations, reality is safe.