Volunteer Experiences

The following accounts from former volunteers, organised by location and year, are extracted from the annual SVP newsletter. Full newsletters are available to download here.

Khartoum

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Jamie Prentis (UK, 2015-16)

What I have loved is being thrown headfirst into Khartoum; it really has been a thoroughly immersive experience. Being exposed into a world so (wonderfully) different has been an eye opening, jaw dropping experience. For me, the chaos of downtown Souq al-Arabi was what I craved and sought. I wanted somewhere far away from the sanitised, structured tedium I was enduring in the UK. Sudan provided the perfect remedy.

Yet my purpose in Sudan was to teach English, something I had never previously done. I would be lying if I said I’d really considered teaching before, seeing myself as someone without the skillset or patience to make a competent educator. I also wasn’t particularly sure I’d find it very enjoyable. With this in mind it meant I spent the days before my first days at SELTI in all honesty quite frightened. I’ve never really been a shy person but the idea of standing in front of a class of 30/40/50 odd and teaching, even in my own language, scared the life out of me. What if they couldn’t understand me? What if I wasn’t very good? What even really is a lesson plan? I questioned whether it was something I should really be doing with no experience or formal qualifications. Fortunately Tim our ever-reliable ‘Man in Khartoum’ was there to ease my nerves. He had this wonderful ability of being able to calm me down, focus my mind and boost my confidence without necessarily treating me like child or mollycoddling me. Sort of like an eccentric older brother or uncle I guess. And teaching turned out to be ok. More than ok in fact. It really is like being dropped in the deep end teaching in Sudan, because I was expected to just get on with it. This aided my development hugely and meant I learnt quickly as I went along. I was forced to adapt and find a variety of ways on the go of how to get the best out of my classes and to further the learning of my class. I found the students to be generally highly motivated, regardless of what level they were. Whether I was teaching the difference between ‘have’ and ‘has’ or if we were discussing ways of promoting policies to counter climate change, it was a richly rewarding experience because the students were open to learning and new ideas. I was always struck at how excited they were to learn from a native speaker and how highly they valued this as they sought to improve their language skills. Time away from lessons was typically spent having relaxed conversations because they understand and valued the impact this could have on their ability. As I said, I never saw myself as someone who was particularly interested by teaching. But as time went on I understood the feeling of satisfaction one can feel as you see someone grow and improve before your eyes.

For my first break I planned three weeks travel through as much as Sudan as possible. My first destination was the town of Kosti, four hours south from Khartoum in White Nile State. Travelling by myself, it took me all of 45 seconds to be invited to stay in someone’s house that evening. Bashir, the gentlemen I was sat next to, struck up a conversation, slightly bewildered to find someone so clearly foreign perched next to him. It is a sign of the remarkable trust that the Sudanese can make you feel that I didn’t hesitate to take him up on his offer. Following the Nile south, as the volume of farmers and donkeys became increasingly numerous alongside the ever-growing number of green pastures stretching into the horizon, we told each other about our families, our history, our hopes and our desires. I was continuously looked after, almost attended to. Staying with Bashir offered a wonderful glimpse into the day-to-day life of a typical Sudanese family at home and the differing roles for each member. He wasn’t poor, but certainly not rich either, and shared everything he had. Moments likes those are not particularly adrenaline infused or fast-paced, but they nonetheless are exhilarating as you realise how precious an experience it is to be able to spend time with people so willing to allow you into their home. I will never forget drinking milk out in the courtyard under the stars, clear away from the city. Bashir would constantly say how he would never forget such a special day. I always had to remind him that neither would I-how could such a special experience every slip my mind. Like everything in Sudan, what a privilege.

Damian Kruz (New Zealand, 2014-16)

I had been in Sudan for all of three days before I was thrown into the role of teaching. My body clock was still set to Greenwich when I turned up to my first class at Comboni College to take a beginners English course. I was told that in my case it was trial by fire and my previous teaching experience had consisted solely of taking a discussion club the previous day which had helped me get an idea of how things worked but left me with questions about how to actually work things. My apprehensions about how fast things were developing were eased somewhat by being told by the SVP programme manager that this was Sudan and things can all change in an instant.

So there I was in front of a class for only the second time as a teacher in as many days and feeling wholly under prepared. I had a course book to teach from and my wits to tackle the daunting task of the next two hours. I made it through. And after a few classes I found something of a rhythm that the students seems to respond well to.

I was lucky to have a great set of student who were relaxed, hungry to learn and worked well as a team. Many of my first experiences in Sudan were related to them before, during and after class and often became topics of debate if one felt that another way of, say haggling, was better than the advice of another student.

As the course wound down and many first experiences had been dissected and shared with the students from the class it followed that my initial understanding of Sudan was shaped by the students themselves. I had opened up to them and they had interpreted my experiences and offered suggestions, a cycle of exchange had been put in place that was filled with good will and excitement.

I never again found that initial excitement of it all being new; there was something about those nascent experiences shared with my first students that were free of repetitions cynical edge. Being thrown in the deep end had, after some initial splashing, created something that was very special for me. So it was strange when the class finished, like I had lost an adopted family or a gang had been broken up. But thankfully with everyone having phones some of us were able to keep in touch and remain involved in each other’s lives along with many cups of tea and coffee.

Briana Humphrey (USA, 2014-15)

Into the night we traveled across the stretch of desert road between Atbara and Ed Dammer, returning from Ustaza Fatimah’s house. We reluctantly tore ourselves from the warmth of the smiles of Habooba, Nabawiyya, Amal, Ahmed, Malaz and Ustaza Fatimah. Of course, Ustaza Fatimah had invited us to spend the night but we had early class the next day in Ed Dammer at the local boys secondary school and still hadn’t come up with a lesson plan.

Because it was fairly late there were no regular big buses in the station so we had to take the much smaller, more expensive, quicker minibus. Along the way, the minibus picked up and dropped off patrons. It was dark night and I was mystified how the patrons knew where exactly to snap their fingers to signal to the driver that it was their stop and how the driver, through the vast, dark desert, saw the people on the side of the road waiting to be picked up.

As my co-volunteer and I chatted in English about the next day’s lesson I could sense the curiosity that was building up in a group of teenage boys sitting behind us lingering on to our silences and holding on tightly to every word of English. Finally one of them got our attention asking us where we were from. Intrigued, they asked my co-volunteer about her time in Sudan but when it came to me, and being black, they did not quite believe that I was American.

I knew that somehow my skin colour would be a part of my experience here. I noticed the confusion in the eyes of the people and I tried to digest the sometimes abrupt words told me in Sug Arabi what I understood to be orders to cover my head. I sought guidance from past volunteers and previous SVP staff members, but got no answers that quelled my confusion.

Perhaps because when they see me they see themselves. It is very hard for some people in Sudan to believe that I am American. In my skin and braids they see their sisters, their mothers, their female cousins, their aunts and their wives. They see themselves in me. To some people I absolutely cannot be American. Some think that I am simply pretending or am flat out not telling the truth. Some ask me, after I tell them I am American, ‘But where are you really from?’

I then tell them that my mother, my father, my grandfathers, my grandmothers are all American. “Kullu min America.” (every one of them from America.) After saying this, most of them just say“okay” but some of them feel the need to say ‘But you are African.’ – as if that settled the point.

In America because of the existence of so many race issues, discussion in my circles, only address the meaning of Blackness on our lives, on our American lives in America. I am not often confronted with the idea of “being African”. Discussions of nationality or belonging to the actual continent of Africa are secondary, if addressed at all.

As an African American in Sudan, my experience thus far has definitely been a unique one especially compared to volunteers who are visibly (have White skin) ‘khawadjas and khawadjiyyas’ (male and female foreigners) I can travel around Khartoum with no one asking me to teach them English, or wanting to practice their English with me. People do not treat me as if I am more special. I am not often overcharged by amjad or rickshaw drivers. Because I have brown skin and usually wear a scarf over my head, I am usually able to just ‘blend in’. Blending in has allowed me to see a different side of Sudan. A side that is not ‘made up’ or that is not made to look “pretty” or made to seem as ‘perfect’ possible. Through this I have been able to see the ugly sides of people here. There have been times where I have been treated rudely. At times I have learnt what it is required of a Sudanese woman. I have also been treated as if I were an Ethiopian woman who, in the eyes of some in Sudan, are seen as dirty, stupid, sexually promiscuous, and without morals.

While it has been fun living life within the different spheres in Sudan, I believe this experience will bring more clarity about my identity and my role as a ‘not-quite-a-foreigner’. Now, when people do not believe I am American, I no longer try to explain myself to them. After all, it doesn’t matter if they think I am Nigerian, Tanzanian, South African or Ethiopian. I know I am American.

Jessica Tana (Australia, 2014)

The smell of dust grows heavy on the setting sun. A gust of warm, thick air brings with it other smells, of ginger, gasoline, frying oil and garbage. We live in a concrete box high above Souq Al Arabi, glimpsed between the hanging scarves on the balcony. Hawkers crying out, honking cars, distant Sudanese rhapsodies played on metallic speakers, the calls of the faithful, chatter, a splash of water and the humming of fans makes up an afternoon in Khartoum.

One block down on a sandy patch of garbage or a garbage dump of sand, young men sell deep fried falafel rolled into balls and squashed into morning baked bread rolls. Add a boiled egg, lime and chilli sauce and a handful of chopped coriander and 4SDG makes for an addictive lunch. across the road a turbaned man in white takes our order for mixed juice greeting Dominic with his usual “Emrikki! Salam!” and politely ignoring me. Climbing the stairs back to our apartment with buttocks aching, the door handle lifted rather than turned, we communally sigh entering the relative cool and darkness of our sweaty plastic armchairs and dusty floors. I live in Sudan now.

Although I haven’t begun teaching in the village-something that will, with a certain amount of patience, eventuate; Khartoum has become a series of small pleasures, won victories and irritations. From the man who refused to shake my hand and touch a woman, to the joy of filling the air with cherry smoke and stories around the sheesha. From walks along Nile street with my beloved, a fleeting touch of the hands acting like the other young Sudanese lovers who dare to make intimate gestures in public. To bumpy rides with sweat soaked thighs along dark passages of train-tracked bus stations. The constant crying of “Hawaja!” whenever we walk past, the children discovering hawaja live in the flat and knock on the door for money, the smiles of shy women catching my eye, sometimes the crinkle of the eye between the niqab and the hijab, letting me know they are smiling back. Laughter. At us, with us, from us. Countries are challenges. Like learning to walk again, you must have some humility when you fall, some humour to laugh at yourself and the patience to get back up and try again.Wa Alaikum es Salam- Go in peace.

This is the story of how I ended up floating down the Nile in a leaky, wooden dinghy and had to be rescued by Sudanese fishermen. Climbing down the steep brick steps to the muddy water of the Blue Nile below, the first thing I noticed was the floating jetty was neatly tucked away on the shore. The boats were still tied to it though and with a bit of clambering and a small jump it was still accessible to our party of six. We were celebrating the breaking of fast one muggy Ramadan night, with a picnic by the famous waters of the river, Blue. Sudan has both the White Nile and the Blue, converging in the capital Khartoum.

Someone has the bright idea of climbing into one of the boats. We pick, amongst an array of motor boats, water homes and the like, a small, white, paint peeling dinghy. Immediately our shoes are soaked from the brown, murky water swooshing around inside the vessel and we laugh as it sways precariously back and forth, desperately trying to hold our weight. Then someone has the even brighter idea of untying the boat. ‘Why not!’ we cry, and I think to myself, ‘What a great photo opp.’ As soon as the rope is untied the once sad, unassuming dinghy leaps into action. It pushes away from the ledge and catapults itself into the oncoming current. Still laughing we realise the paddles on the boat are actually just two long wooden sticks that fatten about two inches at the end. The guys heave and push and throw water about until we are spinning round and round like a ballerina, all the time rushing further away from the shore and faster along the Nile.

There is a point here, were the laughter fades away and we gaze around at the dark rippling waters sprayed with reflecting specks of gold from the lights on Tuti Bridge. The giant egg-like shape of the Corinthian Hotel (formerly Gadaffi Hotel, but recently changed) looms in the distance and the air is filled with the shrieks of tiny birds and bats. The full moon lights the dusty sky and for a moment a look of awe crosses every face huddled on the creaky, wooden dinghy.

And then, reality: ‘How do we get back? Guys row in time!’ More sploshing of water around, more spinning, desperate grabs at passing reeds and tree branches, more laughter, although this time there is a hint of anxiety in it. What we don’t know at this stage is that the jetty was tucked away because of a no-row policy in place. After rains the Nile expands rapidly, stirring the thick, gloopy mud to the surface. It is extremely dangerous to swim at this time as the mud weighs down on people and can pull them under. It is fortunate none of us got in the water, although it was heavily discussed. Turns out later, the reason for not swimming was due to my good friend wearing a thong. A thong may have saved her life.

The Nile is filled with sediment washing down from mountainous regions (the Blue Nile starts in Ethiopia, the White through Uganda, as far down as central Africa) and bringing with it nutrients and minerals that are integral to desert civilisations such as the Sudan and Egypt. It can be said, that these civilisations existed for hundreds of years purely on the fertile sediments flowing in from the Nile.

It is this, life-sustaining sediment, which could have easily drowned the lot of us. A fishing vessel from Tuti Island, warned by our anxious picnickers back on the shore, hurries out to meet us. They have a large boat with a roaring motor, which still struggles against the heavy current of the Nile. We bring back our now water logged dinghy safely to shore and apologise to the owners, who accept with gracious good faith, our foolish endeavour.

Dominic Ronzo (USA, 2014)

21 May Khartoum: Another lull. A half sleepless night leads to a tired, hot afternoon. Souq al Arabi bussels. More waste lines the unpaved streets compared to Khartoum 2, or Amarat. We learned that the bus is easy to catch. Spotting the part of town one is looking for is a more skilled process. Luckily, today we rode with four eyes. The two Sudanese Pounds paid for the two of us to ride sure beats what we pay for private transit. Tonight we will have to decide on a different sleeping arrangement. Although the air conditioning has dampened in racket and increased in cooling, the vibrations still wake me at regular intervals. That is a worry for later on. In this moment I enjoy the fragrance of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and the sounds of the international news. I have felt, for the first time, how heavy the eyes of the populous can be upon the foreigner. Sitting, sipping tea, the locals glance over or ignore us entirely. These small actions are the driving motivation for learning Arabic. Always, there exists this yearning to communicate.

19 May Khartoum: It must be the hottest part of the day. The city has slowed substantially. Men nap in courtyards, the taxis even seem to roll down the dusty streets at a more leisurely pace. Under the breeze of the ceiling fan, sweating subsides. Cooking onions sting our eyes. Many American movies play on television. In this metropolis, home life feels natural. Outside the apartment walls, this world is how I hoped. Even though people move and work just the same as in any city, the modes, the feel, is simpler.

25 June: Very sleepy by days end. Now, days beginning as time tells it. The sun still makes us wait, we do so in our sleep. A most wonderful time travel. She types, her eyes scan the virtual plane. I rest my body, much needed, I’ve ignored the aches of a cold. We have missed the open hours of sights unseen, causing our wanderings to meander through the streets. We have searched for thirst, quenchable, resting in the shade of trees. Each step through doorways accompanies the oddities of new smells, and sharp stares. The black, bubbling oil of the street gutter is one of a few constants. A head peaks up from murky water, a gasp, a thud, he is gone. The man-hole cover awaits his return. Cars roll by and the flooded street ripples.

Jonathan Hargreaves (UK, 2013)

Where does one start with such a great experience? Of course, Sudan’s many qualities – such as the innate friendliness of the people, (localized) peace and quiet, and lots of good food and drink – so differ from the otherwise accepted external image as to now be clichés, especially among those with prior knowledge of the SVP. For that I must apologise for re-treading the same old ground. And yet to me the simple and not so simple acts of generosity by Sudanese, both rich or poor, Arab or African, never failed to pleasantly shock, even at the point of compromising my closely-guarded Anglo-Saxon-abroad personal space.

Some memories nonetheless stand out. But, whether getting driven home at 4am from a party in a cement mixer, relying on local ingenuity amid Khawadja incompetence to fix a flat while roadtripping to Kassala, or enjoying the privilege of sharing Eid al-Adha with Rami in his home village – where street corners would seemingly reveal scenes not out of place in a Tayeb Salih novel – I had a uniquely superb time.

I hope too that some of my students at central Khartoum’s Comboni College conversely enjoyed the experience of having a bumbling, disorganised non-teacher attempt to teach them some of what he himself learnt over the years. Of that I am not so sure – partly because I was not able to stay as long with SVP (just three months) as I would have initially liked to. On the other hand, I think the impromptu English poetry classes, mass debates, or lessons on famous assassinations in global history were at least refreshing, and ‘horizon-broadening’; in my opinion the foremost element of the SVP ethos.

Kathryn Bruce (UK, 2013)

I cannot help missing the buzz of downtown souq arabi. I loved the fact that all essentials were within reach, the mixture of sweet and sickly smells, the constant throb of vehicles and people and picking your way between street wares and prayer mats where men worship throughout the day. I am very glad I was able to live there, albeit very briefly, as I felt it gave me a better understanding of Khartoum’s heart.

Trying to teach someone from scratch when you cannot speak their language is immensely difficult but with the use of some photos and a lot of mime acting, I was able to communicate some basics. We managed to learn numbers, the pronunciation of the alphabet and even draw basic family trees (I spent a lot of time pointing to a picture of Kris, my brother, saying ‘I have one brother’). It was brilliant to see how delighted she was when she managed to tell me ‘I have four brothers and three sisters’, even getting the plural correct! I shall ensure I have far more photos and prompts for our next lesson as she is incredibly eager to learn and I would love to help her if I can.

This afternoon I had a fantastic conversation class regarding crime and punishment. I was a little bit nervous, recognising that the subject could be controversial but the resulting discussion was fascinating. Using a role play one of the other volunteers prepared and kindly shared with me, I asked the class to consider the feelings and potential actions of various people at a crime scene, including the victim, the witnesses, the perpetrator and the perpetrator’s family. The following discussion was both thoughtful and insightful and we were able to discuss a range of emotions and terms that really tested the students’ vocabulary. This class continually impresses me and I think they are really enjoying stretching their knowledge, with students often staying behind to ask further questions and continuing to build on what they have learnt.

After class, rather than go home and eat in Burri as usual, I asked my second year class where I could get good, Sudanese breakfast food nearby and they pointed me in the direction of the tarpaulin covered restaurant area next to the university. I had walked through this place a number of times and found it crowded with a nice, busy atmosphere but had been a bit overwhelmed by the absence of menus so had not eaten there. Just as I stood pondering what to order, a group of my first year students invited me to have breakfast with them. So it was I had my first experience of ‘bush’. Served in a large silver bowl it comprised lots of ripped up bread with fuul, hard cheese and some sort of leaves mixed through it. As was to be expected, it was eaten family style with the right hand and my students seem amused to find I really enjoyed it. As I ate (messily I might add!) I was quizzed about Scotland and its cultures, food and ways of life. I answered the questions between large mouthfuls of food and really enjoyed sitting and chatting with them.

Another really wonderful day was spent it with my adult conversation class venturing out of the city centre on a trip. Our destination was Jebel Oulia – the site of a huge dam, over 70 years old and, according to the signage, built by a Glasgow engineering company.

My class have been promising a trip for weeks and this did not disappoint. The large expanse of water glittered in the sunshine, dotted with small boats from which men bathed and fished. There were fresh fish sellers galore – raw and cooked, allowing you to literally pick your fish, watch it be gutted and then fried (the children could clean them ready for cooking in seconds) – and people selling sweet treats for children and adults alike. A large expanse of sparse woodland to one side of the dam provides a popular picnic destination for families and a venue for people coming to pray.

Mary Atkinson (UK, 2012-13)

What justice can any words do to this country of warm hearts, easy laughs and sequins aplenty? I don’t usually like to generalise, but it is proved to us SVPers every day that Sudanese people are some of the most welcoming, generous and easy-going you could hope to meet anywhere in the world. A simple rickety bus-ride is still an adventure, frequently sound-tracked by Bob Marley and the hissing or clicking that replaces ‘ringing the bell’, and sometimes hair-raising (a bus door flying off its hinges on a bridge over the Nile, leading to the blinking of not one eye from the rest of the passengers). And this is not to mention the many accidental trips to markets at the end of the route line, the air heavy with spice, dust and the shouts of boys selling mysterious things in small bags. Teaching is no less of an adventure; no matter how much of a struggle the lesson has been, a student always comes up at the end and says thank you for the lesson. Imagine a university student doing that in England! It’s hard to pinpoint my favourite thing about teaching, but highlights include the frequent shouts of ‘Teacher! How?’ (a direct translation of the Arabic, which doesn’t quite come off), hearing the random phrases which have drifted from 1950s English over to Sudan over the years (and trying to teach my boss to say ‘higgledy-piggledy’) and seeing the students grow in confidence. All in all, I feel I’ve only just started to discover for myself truths about what Sudan has to offer, summed up neatly by the motto of a women’s empowerment charity over the Nile in Omdurman: – the diversity of beauty and the beauty of diversity.

Polly Steele (UK, 2012)

A long distance bus journey in Sudan is usually accompanied by the soundtrack of a recorded concert of a Sudanese singer, a religious lecture or the same inexplicable comedy show where one man speaks in a squeaky voice. I and two other volunteers found ourselves on such a bus headed to the town of Kassala on the Eastern border of Sudan. On the way, the bus stopped at a service station, which consisted of a small cafeteria and a couple of stalls. As it was our first trip on our own out of Khartoum we had no idea how long the bus would stop for or how long it would be until our next stop. Not having eaten for a long time Marthe and I eagerly ordered some Fuul and Tamiya. As soon as we had taken the first bite we heard loud musical tune of the bus calling us back to resume the journey across sparse desert landscape. This was not a big problem, we were sure to receive some honey flavoured cake on the bus and our next meal would probably not be long . . . yet Marthe and I were sad to leave our fresh bowl of fuul.

Back on the bus we muttered under our breath about the unfairness of the world! Why had we been allowed one bite? It was almost worse than none. Time passed, the bus remained stationary and we got more annoyed- we could have eaten our lunch! In a moment of hunger induced anger I jog up the bus aisle and out of the bus to the cafeteria where I scan the room for our abandoned fuul and bread. The waiters catch my look of disappointment as I realise they have cleared it all away and embarrassed that they caught me dashing back for a bowl of fuul, I run back to the bus, just as it is about to leave.

None of this was particularly remarkable and could have happened anywhere else in the world but what happened next typifies the many times I have been struck by people’s concern and willingness to bend over backwards for you in Sudan. As the bus was pulling out of the stop, a waiter came running out and waving, running in front of the bus. As he climbed in and scanned the seats of the bus grinning, we realise he is heading for us with four fresh fuul sandwiches.

Kassala was great; we spent a day climbing the mountain and met the people living in the village on the other side. One evening we met some men riding their horses in the dry river basin (al Gash) and they let us ride their horses for a little while along the river basin.

Hugh Cotton (UK, 2012)

The weekend before I left Sudan I managed to escape Khartoum for a 4 day trip. The plan was to go with Tanya – also leaving Sudan after a year teaching in Khartoum. Once a trip is mooted in Sudan inevitably others will join in and 2 young Sudanese friends both called Omer offered to drive us on our first leg to Ed Damer about 350 kilometers north of Khartoum. Later we would go on to Karima by bus before returning to Khartoum – a round trip of 1000 km. 7.30 a.m. saw us starting the long drive through the desert; though it was still officially winter temperatures were up to 35c. We were going to Ed Damer to see Kate and Rebecca, volunteers who were teaching there and to stay with Fadia. From the main road we crossed a large dusty open area and then followed a sandy lane down towards the green of the Nile farms to find their house at the end of the lane. As usual the compound is surrounded by a high wall and you can’t see anything from outside but once through the gate a lovely vista of a beautiful green opened up and a long low house. We were enthusiastically received by Fadia, her husband Abdul Rahim and son Ali aged 11. Soon we were sitting on the porch drinking lovely cool juice and plied with copious tea and food.

With Kate and Rebecca we set off for a walk to the banks of the Nile, crossing about half a mile of cultivated land – a variety of crops and fruit trees and a network of irrigation channels. Farmers were at work as the heat of the day had passed. Power is provided by water buffalo and other than the pumps there is very little mechanization –a landscape that has not changed for thousands of years.

On Saturday morning we were going to go quite early to visit the weekly camel market. The camel market was a very interesting but potentially dangerous place! Hundreds of camels on display, racing backwards and forwards to show their speed and prowess. I was offered a ride. I noticed that the camels were very lively. I could see these were much friskier than the one I had ridden the previous year at Meroe and I politely declined.

Susanna Miller (USA, 2012)

One day in September, only two weeks after I arrived, Tanya and I went to two debates in English at the University of Khartoum, at the medical school campus. It was on our second time that we were greeted at the university by very friendly 2nd-batch students. [Don’t ask me why they distinguish years as if they are trays of cookies.] Unfortunately, the power cut out, so the debates were delayed a few hours. While we waited, we were brought dinner and chatted with three students. When Tanya mentioned wanting to get her eyebrows done, they decided we had time before the debates and drove us right across the city to a beauty salon!

 On the way, we got our second rain of the year, lasting a mere 6 minutes.

In typical Sudanese fashion, the girls insisted on paying for Tanya’s eyebrow shaping and also bought us juice while we waited. Men are not allowed in salons, so I finally got to see what women’s hair looks like here. I had only seen it in public peeking out behind a scarf.

 When we got back to the college, we were escorted to the hall and placed on a stage behind an enormous judges’ table. I was to judge vocabulary (use, richness, and pronunciation), much easier than judging grammar. The debaters’ grammar is just about perfect, but their vocabulary and pronunciation could use improvement, so it was easier to score. I found my 7th grade math came in very handy while averaging lots of figures quickly to determine scores under the pressure of a loud crowd.

When the winner of the first debate was announced, the audience loudly voiced their disapproval. Out of the blue, a water bottle came flying through the air, inches away from my head. I thought it was a bat at first, but it was really shocking. They said it was the first and only (?) time something like this had ever happened, and our hosts couldn’t apologize enough.

After the second debate, Tanya had an awful headache—credit dehydration, loud crowd, and her upset at the bottle incident. Our hosts were very concerned and rushed to find painkillers that gradually eased her headache. Then one student took us home, though we were stuck for ages in heavy traffic, at 10 pm! Where I grew up (Malawi), the streets would be dead at 7 pm. It’s a different world here.

Andrew Lawrie (UK, 2011)

Dr Hala, the Director of the English Language Institute, welcomed me to her rapidly expanding and respected operation. Improving the spoken English ability of post-graduate students’ has proved rewarding beyond anything I imagined. Contrasting the confidence and language proficiency of my students this January with October last year fills me with joy. They needed to be gently reminded that making mistakes and occasionally hazarding a guess (and possibly losing face in front of both teacher and class) are essential steps to enhanced learning outcomes. A non-intimidatory atmosphere where students are steadily nurtured is conducive to the free-flow of existing memory-pool access; this arena was previously denied by the constricting barrier of fear. Buoyed by the realisation that English is not so tough and they can speak English already, the subsequent desire to improve ability via reading and practicing (and watching TV!) is increased.

Manchester United played Chelsea recently in a big league game. A Sudanese friend led us up some (health and safety defying) steps behind a shoe shop in Souk al Arabi. We paid 30 (UK) pence to watch the game on two big TV’s. The atmosphere was electric. Roaring animated discussion regarding the minutiae of play made us feel like all the men who sport ‘Rooney’ or ‘Drogba’ shirts in dusty Khartoum were present! I no longer view British football supporters as being sufficiently passionate about the game . . .

Stepping into a tuk-tuk the other day I had to squeeze into my seat due to a large teddy-bear tied to the back of the driver’s seat. Inscribed on the bear’s chest was ‘I LOVE YOU’. Repeating this loudly – over the sounds of manic traffic – to a previously unsmiling man probably near the end of a 16 hour shift, won the responding yell of ‘I love you too!’ Accompanied by a beaming Sudanese grin of course! When I return to the UK after being away from home for any length of time, it is always these seemingly insignificant moments that I recall with greatest fondness. I am extending my time with SVP in Sudan so I can carry more of these memories back to the UK.

Harriet Cross (UK, 2010)

I began to fit into Sudanese life much more quickly than I had expected. It was very easy to do due to the generosity and friendliness of many of the people I met. They would bend over backwards to make sure you felt at home and were enjoying Sudanese life. Much of this was in the form of tea drinking, and the Sudanese do not drink tea with sugar, they drink sugar with tea. My teeth are still suffering from this excessive amount of glucose. I miss many of the friends I made and the connections I had, from the young girls and boys I taught at a centre in Omdurman, to the friendships I had with lots of the staff at various universities. I still miss being called Miss Harry Potter by the students at the International University in Khartoum.

My time in Sudan was not just as a volunteer teacher. I also had the chance to pursue my interest in radio and present on an English show at a private radio station in Khartoum. I had an incredible time and learnt more about Sudanese youth culture than I did from teaching. I was able to meet and interview Sudanese disc jockeys and various artists all in the Sudanese music scene. Often I was learning nothing new as the music interest and style resembled American and British rhythm and blues (some good, some bad) but I had a lot of fun doing it. My time in Sudan was too short, and I will be going back. But meanwhile I would encourage many others to go as soon as possible.

Andy Watkins (UK, 2009-10)

We were talking about my plans, and I said that I would likely be in Sudan for three months. As I write this that dinner was nearly ten months ago and I won’t be leaving for at least two months. Such is the allure of Sudan and its people. When I arrived I began teaching at Nileen, Sudan’s largest university. Myself and four other teachers took over the summer program and were barraged with over 300 students all of whom struggled to fit into our large lecture hall to attend class. Eventually we expanded into four massive halls to hold separate classes. Before arriving, I was worried because I had no training as a TEFL teacher. But what I quickly learned was that while many of the students did indeed need very basic English instruction, many others were in need of simply dialoguing with a native English speaker, a very rare commodity in Sudan. So we set to work designing course plans that included debates about the role of women in Sudanese society, discussions on the biggest challenges facing Sudan in the 21st century, role plays about job interviews and games focused on various types of specific vocabulary -business vocabulary for example. By the time we finished three months later, we had scores of ideas for lessons. While the class was amazing, it was not without its hurdles. Classrooms at the beginning were hard to come by, books were in short supply and the library was severely lacking. Internet was not freely available to all students and chalk was priceless. The nature of the students however, their love of education and thirst for knowledge, their overwhelming hospitality made these difficulties seem almost non-existent. The most significant thing I’ve experienced here however took place outside of the classroom when students would stand to recite poems from memory. Some they wrote themselves, others they had memorized from books or magazines. All were delivered to perfection amidst applause from their classmates. One day over tea with a number of students, I brought up the topic of poetry and asked why so many students prepared such writings. Similar things were much less common when I went to university in Washington – recitation in front of a hundred strangers was unheard of. They told me that poetry allowed them to express themselves truthfully. Many Sudanese are die-hard romantics I learned. So, as I was working on the English language daily The Khartoum Monitor I proposed featuring an example of my students’ poetry everyday. Thus we began putting these sometimes eloquent, sometimes satirical, but always sincere verses in print. The looks on the faces of my students when they came up with a fist full of newspaper with their names on the headline were priceless, perhaps the most powerful moments that I have experienced, moments I learned to treasure, when you can open a window into a student’s heart and see what it is that makes it beat. For some it’s poetry, for others literature or politics, but when you see it and have a chance to do something, anything, to nurture it, those are the opportunities that offer the chance for lifelong memories, there only for those who looked.

Debra Winters (UK, 2009-10)

The alarm going off at 5am is never for me the best start to a day. It is especially unwelcome when that day is Christmas Eve, a day set aside by me for last-minute shopping, meeting friends and generally being self-indulgent. I struggled out of bed, stumbled to the bathroom and was out in the cold morning air by 5.10 looking, in vain, for an amjad (private minibus taxi). After walking for what seemed like hours but was actually only a few minutes I flagged down a bus. Explaining I wanted to get to the bus station to go to Port Sudan I was let off at the end of a dark littered street. At the far end a lone tea lady was doing a brisk trade and braziers glowed dimly to light the area. An amjad deposited at the bus company’s office at 6.04 am and was feeling pretty pleased with myself until was told I was too late and my seat had been reassigned! My initial reaction was disbelief…I was only 4 minutes late! I realised that my seat had probably been sold off hours ago. Angrily I pointed to my name, still written in the space next to seat number 8- a prime seat; on the shady side, not too far back, next to a window. The ticket seller shrugged and looked uncomfortable. With true Sudanese generosity towards ‘khawajas’ he tried to defuse my anger by getting me a very welcome cup of tea which I accepted ungraciously. As the soothing sugar entered my system I remembered Abu Bakr, a great guy who helped all us new volunteers when we arrived, telling me that just the same thing had happened to him a few weeks before. At that moment I received a text from none other than Abu Bakr himself, wishing me a safe trip! He was clearly awake so I felt no guilt at involving him in my troubles. With a catch in my voice I called him and explained the situation. As I was talking to him the ticket seller started to tell me that he could get me a different seat- number 51- which he proudly pointed to on the bus-seating plan. It was right at the back in the middle of 5 people…no, thank you! Abu Bakr told me he would be in touch soon and not to worry. I hung up and prepared to wait. It was about 6.15 and I had been told all the Port Sudan buses leave by 6.30 as the journey takes so long. Unsure whether I should have accepted the awful, bouncy seat at the back, I decided to leave that bus company’s office and go into the bus station itself to see what else was available. Just as I stepped out of the office two things happened at once; my phone buzzed with an incoming text and a man said ‘Debra?’’ in a questioning tone. I answered ‘yes’ to the unknown man and opened the text- from Abu Bakr telling me a policeman named Ahmed would meet me outside the office! Ahmed swept me off to the bus station, and led me to the police office for my papers to be scrutinised before I could travel to the area of Port Sudan. While I was queuing to be dealt Ahmed vanished. I wasn’t too concerned as I was feeling more confident by this stage that somehow I would be on a bus to Port Sudan that day. And I was right. By the time I had finished being processed in the security office Ahmed had returned waving a bus ticket. It was for seat number 4- even better than my lamented number 8! The bus was due to leave at 7; Ahmed showed me where it was, arranged another tea for me and walked away, waving away my profuse thanks. I was instantly on to Abu Bakr telling him what a wonderful human being he was! He too brushed off my thanks and told me just to have a great Christmas. As the bus set off I sat in my perfect seat and smiled…I continued to smile through cheesy Sudanese music and a truly dire Egyptian movie until we finally reached Port Sudan 13 hours later. The next day I celebrated a slightly unorthodox Port Sudan-style Christmas with taamiya sandwiches and mango juice for lunch. Delicious! Thanks Abu Bakr!

Noorun Khan (UK, 2009-10)

I began this trip with not knowing what to expect. I quite fancied the unknown with no fixed agenda or times. Well, that’s perfect for Sudan! Everything is chilled out – except the weather. My first observations of Khartoum were when I looked out from the balcony on my first morning, I thought it was my sleepy eyes, people were moving as though in slow motion. Welcome to Sudan I thought, colourful elegant fabrics floated past with gleaming white robes and smiles, lots of chatter – all in slow motion.

My experiences of Sudan have been made by the people. I have an endless list of names and characters that have made my teaching, living and travelling experience so unique. The land of mafi mushkillah is just that. The people are so hospitable with their strap line of – ‘no problem’ brings ease.

The Sudanese love to ask how we find Sudan, the typical answer being Kwais (good) but that’s an understatement. I have had experiences of being lost in Khartoum where a school boy has escorted me home and paid for my bus fare, amjad drivers (Taxi) who found out I was a foreigner and wished me a good stay without accepting money, fruit sellers who get so happy with my few words of Arabic that when I get home I find a whole variety of fruits I never paid for. One thing is for sure, the hospitality and generosity of the people means you will never starve here.

The fruit seller, Ismael who lives in one of the poorest parts of Khartoum invites us to his house for dinner, and insists on buying us mineral water and tea just because we come by to say hi. The building where his stall was based was torn down, when I went to visit him I was sad his place of work is now turned to rubble, he smiled and began his sentence with mafi mushkillah! The man has lost his livelihood, but it’s no problem he says, he is healthy and will be able to provide for his family ‘Inshallah’ (God willing). His faith and optimism a true inspiration. His fruit stall now a bunch of banana’s on a cardboard box.

In talking about my experiences of the people I remember this young man I met on Tuti Island. He over heard us speaking in English and just tagged along to practice. He brings his ancient English book with him and begins to ask for definitions and how to pronounce certain words. He inquisitively asks, ‘when do you use this sentence ‘make haste.’ I didn’t know where to begin. He then flicks to the health pages and asks what ‘hunchback’ means! I was humbled that this 1960’s publication was his source of learning English. Yet that didn’t stop him, he was so keen and eager to learn. He was a pleasure to sit with and defined the need to improve English language teaching.

We arrive in Sudan at a poignant time in its history. We’d have a grim view of Sudan if we relied on the news, however, my personal experience of the people is so conflicting to the civil wars we hear about.

While the people from the South decide on cessation, there is work to be done for the SVP volunteers. Our placements await us. I was fortunate enough to experience teaching at the University of Khartoum and Ahlia college in Wad Medani. Both placements brought with them very different teaching and living experiences.

The University of Khartoum gave me some excellent opportunities in developing my teaching skills. The Deputy Dean, Dr Gammar was keen to work on my strengths and he gratefully didn’t dump me in the syntax or grammar classes! I was given the scope to develop a class structure of my own with the sole purpose of encouraging the students to speak confidently in English. As a result of this I also worked on some teacher training projects as well as working with the Management school to work with new graduates approaching the job market. This can be daunting, feeling totally unprepared, but when you get to meet the students and get to know them you’ll see a group of mixed abilities who have a passion to learn English. They are so eager to please, respectful and just need encouragement. Once you get to know them and their interests your resources and class ideas will be abundant. Let your students take the lead, this will make your sessions more interesting and rewarding.

By having the chance to work in different departments I was able to work with a mixture of students. Sudan offers you plenty of opportunities, the people are very welcoming, and provided you have an interest and some ability they really do believe in you.

My second placement was based in a college in the Gazira state. The teachers and students were very welcoming with picnics and family dinners. I straight away noticed a big difference to teaching in the city. The students came from more rural areas and many had never heard a native speaker before.

Everyone knows everyone and I was suddenly adopted three times over! The warmth of the people has been overwhelming. A fellow teacher Ustaza Salwah invited me for a Sudanese meal. When I arrived at her family home they had slaughtered their sheep for me and cooked an absolute feast. I was overwhelmed with their reception and genuine welcome. I was offered their home and the children of the family came in turns to practice their English. The women were all highly educated with masters and PhD’s.

The people here really value their education and appreciate the simple things in life. The interaction between young and old is lovely to see when the Habooba (grandma) jokes around with the youngsters and when the parents tell me tales of how they got married. The Sudanese are a nation of romantics they love to talk about weddings and crave happy endings. Their love for Celine Dion can almost be forgiven when you’re on the receiving end of their charm!

Omdurman

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Stuart Perks (UK, 2014-15)

Sudan had never been a place high on my agenda to visit, despite being a travelling culture vulture for most of my life, yet I had long held a curiosity about the place. I recall in Cairo, 25 years ago, meeting a Sudanese camel merchant in my hotel who invited me and my travelling partner to visit him in Khartoum. Various visa complications made this impossible, despite spending a day trawling Cairo trying to sort the paperwork to go and I had always felt a bit cheated of the opportunity. I also recall when at Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, staring south across the desert in the knowledge that Wadi Halfa and a whole other world was just a stone’s throw away. Fast forward 23 years and I was in Bangkok in another hotel meeting another Sudanese businessman by chance and for the first time since Cairo. He told me a lot about his country and now with the advent of the Internet, was able to show me pictures too. The seed that had been sown 23 years before, finally began to germinate as the idea of teaching in Sudan, teaching now being my career, began to flourish. But how? A quick google search brought up SVP and I promptly applied, got accepted and was all set to go within 8 months of the meeting in Bangkok. I was excited. I had grown up in Africa, South Africa to be exact and had twice lived in Egypt. In Sudan I was expecting to find a blend of both Africa and Arabia and that is what I got and a whole lot more.

I felt a lot more comfortable upon arriving in Khartoum as a ‘khawaja’ than I had done in Cairo, somehow a lot less ‘visible’ and preyed upon by locals. But what struck me most from the start was the overwhelming friendliness and hospitality of the people. I quickly lost count of the many times complete strangers paid for my coffees from the tea ladies in the street or occasionally, my bus fare. I had experienced overwhelming hospitality before in many countries, both Egypt and Japan standing out as fine examples but this was something else! In fact, I can’t recall a single time when I didn’t feel welcome in Sudan. I was only ever welcomed with open arms with a grace and sincerity that could only ever be African.

Some weeks after arrival (unexpected and very frustrating delays kept me in the base transit flat) I began my placement at Omdurman Ahlia University and moved to Omdurman. I loved it there. Omdurman had a slightly less frenetic feel to it after the chaos of downtown Khartoum, even a slightly rural feel in parts. The first morning I woke in my new apartment, I could hear birds chirping outside instead of the din of marketeers coming from various megaphones. Instantly I knew I was in the right place.

Teaching at OAU was a unique experience. I loved the students as they generally demonstrated a motivation and determination for learning the English language I had rarely seen across the many different cultures I had previously taught. Being late to class was often an issue but cultural norm which exists across Sudan and often frustrating for a westerner to have to deal with. Resources were also quite minimal but it was a case of being inventive and resourceful with what was available and more often than not, I was able to pull off a lesson that was communicative.

I managed to find some private work too which the visa allowed and this was a great help financially as well as getting to know some of the older students. I think my greatest difficulty in Sudan which began slowly and then seemed to gain in momentum was the oppressive heat. It was 48C some days in my last few months and I began to dress increasingly local most of the time – galabayahs were just far more practical. I had a/c in my bedroom but the rest of the flat was like walking into an oven each day when I got home. I vowed I’d never grumble about British weather again (says he who is now writing from the UK where it is currently -2C outside and fond memories of Sudan are wafting back!)

I really enjoyed Sudanese food and found it a lot more hearty than expected. Lots of meat and gravy-based dishes and a good variety of different things to try. It may be tricky for a vegetarian there but not impossible.

My time flew by and before long my 7 months were at an end. I was ready to leave on the one hand, mainly because of the heat, but on the other, felt once again cheated of being somewhere where I wanted to stay longer yet couldn’t due to other commitments. Sudan has left a huge impression on me and I am still in contact with many of the new friends I made. I hope I will always be and hope to one day repeat the experience again. The seed that got planted 25 years ago in Cairo and began to grow in Bangkok only 2 years ago, is now a fully-fledged sapling and it is my intention that it will grow into a very solid and strong tree which will live for many years to come! If you have the time available to do this and enjoy a worthy challenge, I strongly urge you to apply!

Tanya Williams (UK, 2012-13)

Just over a year ago I embarked on a journey which changed my life. A journey that was only meant to last 5 months and a bit, turned into a journey that lasted a year, and has left me with half a heart. The other half of my heart, is floating in the Nile, or running around somewhere on Shariah Jamhuriayh looking for me. I left England with very little expectations of Sudan. If you were to read the newspapers and believed everything that was said in the media, you may think I was mad to make such a journey as did my parents. Being from the Caribbean, they thought I was crazy for wanting to go to a war torn, 3rd world country, “where women are disrespected”, when they, my parents, worked hard and did all they could to come to a land, that would ensure their children would always have opportunities. That land being England, of course. But being a part of several minority communities, I decided that the media don’t really know as much as they claim anyway. And seeing that I had a friend who had been living in Sudan for 3 years, I decided it was safe. Enjoy the ride I did, the ups and the downs. But Sudan is one of the most wonderful places you can dream to visit.

So what is it? I think it is the warmth, heart and dignity of the people. I challenge you to find anyone who can host better than the average Sudanese citizen. Subhan Allah! They care, I mean they really care. Their hospitality is second to none. I was really taken in by families like a daughter. It had nothing to do with, being black, Muslim or from England. In fact in some situations these things can actually act as a barrier. It’s because there is something in their very nature that tells them to host and to be good. They are so trusting and willing to spark up a conversation with you, whether it is on a bus or sipping tea at tea lady’s. For most Sudanese people that I came into contact with, as far I was a guest in their country and so they had to treat me with respect and love.

What is unique and amazing about SVP as a charity, is how grassroots and organic it is. SVP in no way competes with any of the larger charities, the living allowance is humble, the accommodations are also somewhat humble, but as a result the volunteers eat, sleep, drink and laugh with the normal people in Sudan. We use the same buses and shop on the same souks as normal people in Sudan. SVP has a network of hardworking people who are there to help you, and want to be friends with you. Yes there were times when I complained and I could not help but wander into ex-pat land, where I ordered chicken wings, beans and chips, and read a British Newspaper whilst being air conditioned. But SVP being the sort of charity that it is, attracting the sort of beautiful volunteers that it does, having the type of connection with normal salt of the earth people that it does, means that when you go to Sudan, you are already someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s cousin and friend, and all you got to do is be open to it, have no hidden motives and accept the good and the bad.

As a result of that that 5 months and a bit trip, which turned into a year, many great things have happened to me.

Vanessa Volland (Germany, 2012-13)

Before leaving for Sudan, I tried to fight my ignorance, but the media portrait of Sudan is not exactly favourable and makes one believe conflict is ubiquitous and poverty is so bad that everyone lives in little mud huts without running water or electricity. In order to deal as efficiently as possible with the unexpected, I tried to think of all possible scenarios, so when I prepared my departure and packed my things, I packed an entire pharmacy but did not give too much thought to clothes and shoes. This ended in a rather frustrating and unsuccessful day spent in Suk Omdurman and Suk Al Arabi. It did not help that a couple of weeks prior to my departure, the UK and German embassies were attacked. Fortunately, SVP & some ex-volunteers were very encouraging and portrayed Sudan in a very different way. Generosity and incredible hospitality were very high on the list but also dust, heat and dust. I went with the expectation of the unexpected, of conflict and hospitality, of poverty and generosity, and of dust and heat. The first confirmed expectation was the heat. I arrived in the middle of the night and it felt like Europe in a summer heat wave. As I found out the next day when I had the idea of wandering around Suk Al Arabi at midday, it can get a lot hotter. On my walk, I also realised that it was indeed rather dusty. As to generosity and hospitality, it’s definitely something which other nations can learn from the Sudanese. As a European, it is sometimes hard to accept everything without a chance of reciprocating. It all starts with a cup of tea here and there and continues to be a meal here or there, and ends up being an invitation to everything. As the invitations accumulate, there is a slight feeling of guilt slowly but surely surfacing. Sometimes, I have just given up on trying to give something back, so I accept gratefully with a big smile feeling a bit stupid. However, sometimes I see my tiny chances. For example, the other day on the bus I wanted to pay for the young lady sitting next to me as she was very nice and helpful. I handed over the money for two passengers and sat there smugly congratulating myself on my success. It did not last long. The money was returned despite my wild gesticulations and efforts to refuse the money. In any case, I experienced the peak of generosity and hospitality (thus far) when travelling around the country for roughly three weeks. Apart from seeing pyramids and other amazing archaeological sites, climbing mountains, riding horses and camels, snorkelling and much more, the people helping and hosting us were incredible. We were welcomed warmly and fed and spoilt.

Isatu Haddi (UK, 2012)

Today myself and my flat mate woke up to a thick layer of dust buttered all over our living room floor. During the night there was an enormous dust storm. This is just one of those things you become very used to in Sudan- DUST IS EVERYWHERE. I have been in Sudan for about 2 months and I absolutely love it here! At the moment the temperature is perfect- about 29C with a really nice breeze. At night the breeze is even better.

I arrived in Sudan On 10 January 2012. I was to be greeted by the SVP Assistant co-ordinator Rami. I did not need to look for him for very long because he was standing there with a big sign saying ‘SVP VOLUNTEERS’, he was accompanied with the previous SVP assistant coordinator Abu Bakr. I was told that another volunteer will be arriving in about an hour so it would be best if we just waited for her. Ten minutes later out jumps Joanne (my soon to be flat mate). At this point I remember looking around for the first time and seeing a procession of Sufi Ansar, chanting and clapping, the bright green and red signature colours of the Ansar draped across their bodies. I was in Sudan.

The food here in Sudan is quite basic. People generally eat either Foul or Tamia Sandwiches. I wasn’t a big fan of Foul until I went to a village called Begarawia just outside Khartoum and I ate the most delicious foul ever! Foul consist of fava beans which are boiled and seasoned, at times are accompanied with mashed Tamia and fresh vegetables. Tamia are simply Sudanese Falafel! As a vegan I find I can get a good range of fruit, watermelons, the most delicious grapefruits, oranges, and bananas.

Ahlia University is truly special; there is an extremely laid-back, ‘hakuna-matata’, atmosphere. The University reminds me of SOAS in London. I teach first year students in10 classes a week which are mostly focused upon encouraging students to develop their spoken English. You find that many of these are on an English degree programme but struggle to say a simple sentence. They seem to know many grammatical rules but have no understanding of how to put them into practice. So I try to organise my lessons into various fun activities, whilst using the various grammatical rules that they already know. The students are extremely polite and generally keen to develop their proficiency in English. Despite what I heard before I left London I have found that female students are just as keen to speak, a number are the most feisty and enthusiastic of all which is always a pleasure! I absolutely love Sudan. It is Home!

Joanne Lewis (UK, 2011)

People here are amongst the nicest people on the planet, ready to help their neighbour (or a slightly lost foreigner) for no reason other than kindness. More than once someone has taken a bus with me all the way to my destination simply to make sure that I got there safely. The second thing you learn is that ‘time’ has no meaning in Sudan. Leave your watch at home! Everything here happens bokra inshaAllah – tomorrow if God wills it. The third thing you learn is that Sudanese love a party. Not a weekend goes by without us witnessing some kind of celebration whether it be a wedding, a festival or simply the weekly gathering of the whirling Sufis at Hamed Al Neel Mosque (which luckily is just across the street from our house). My Sudanese dancing skills are at tiptop condition after two months of practice.

It can be tough moving to a new place, experiencing a new culture and being away from the things that you are used to but whether it be riding camels in Meroe, dancing with grandmas at weddings or simply visiting Ustaza Shadia or the tea lady after work, it can also be a epic and rewarding new adventure. Thank you Sudan.

Wad Medani
Mark Ozanne (UK, 2012-13)

Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to stay for the weekend with a Sudanese friend at his home in Sennar a quiet agricultural town on the Blue Nile about 200km south of Khartoum. Three to four hundred years ago it was the capital of the Funj Kingdom and one of the most powerful cities in Africa but today there are no visible remains of this once great city.

We arrived late on Thursday evening to be served a huge meal which we ate sitting out in the garden – there is always more food than you can possibly eat but you have to try especially as the best bits of the food are usually being pushed in front of you! The highlight of my trip was a visit to the Maulid celebrations of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. For about ten days leading up to the day itself, there are festivals during the evening in many towns. In Sennar about six different Sufi orders (Tarigahs in Arabic) had their own enclosure in a big field. In their respective enclosures they each demonstrate their own style of music, ‘dancing’, and recitation. All the orders are also distinguished by their own brand of clothing such as orange caps for one order and white for another. The most entertaining was the Mukashafiyah who wore bright red and green cloaks and were led round in a circle by an energetic man wearing a big red and green jester’s hat and holding a huge wand. The dancing was very energetic with the leader going down to the floor at one point and others behind him doing somersaults. The music and dancing reached a crescendo of ‘La Illah Ila Allah’ – ‘There is no God but one God’ – a striking expression of the African music and dance within the ritual of Islam, and in some ways this sums up Sudanese culture where an Islamic culture that has not forgotten its African roots.

Jessica Pratt (UK, 2011-12)

Each morning I rush out of my guesthouse, thinking I’m late for the bus which will take me to Ahlia College where I’m teaching . But invariably I stand on the street corner for a good few minutes, looking out at the expanse of the Blue Nile and the passing rickshaws.

At the college I teach English clubs. I showed them Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch the other day to try and explain idioms. Another day one student described his favourite place: where all the people are free and happy and there is a tower with a clock, called Big Ben. I don’t think he realises the streets of London are paved with puddles and chewing-gum.

Some students ask me to explain poetry to them in the library. Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot are on their syllabus. They extract crumpled photocopies of study-guides from exercise books, but never the actual texts. Talking about modern poetry, I ended up trying to explain the First and Second World Wars to one student. She had never heard of Hitler.

Dr Selwa is one of the few female teachers. She brings me lunch each day and we sit in her office eating salad sandwiches. She tells me about past volunteers, Sudanese culture and Oprah’s latest advice and asks me about the finer points of English usage and British culture. She is always telling me “Akli!” “Eat!” and invites me round for huge meals at the weekend with her very welcoming family.

I walk home from the bus station to my guesthouse each evening along Sharia an-Nil. Strangers ask me “How are you? Are you fine?” or more often than not simplya friendly shout “khawajia!” (foreigner) as I go by. I pass the church where I worship on Sundays. There are rows of plastic chairs, the women on one side and the men on the other. The service is in Arabic and the music is chanting and clapping with African drums and huge smiles. I try to clap in time and I can’t help but smile.

Noorun Khan (UK, 2009-10)

I began this trip with not knowing what to expect. I quite fancied the unknown with no fixed agenda or times. Well, that’s perfect for Sudan! Everything is chilled out – except the weather. My first observations of Khartoum were when I looked out from the balcony on my first morning, I thought it was my sleepy eyes, people were moving as though in slow motion. Welcome to Sudan I thought, colourful elegant fabrics floated past with gleaming white robes and smiles, lots of chatter – all in slow motion.

My experiences of Sudan have been made by the people. I have an endless list of names and characters that have made my teaching, living and travelling experience so unique. The land of mafi mushkillah is just that. The people are so hospitable with their strap line of – ‘no problem’ brings ease.

The Sudanese love to ask how we find Sudan, the typical answer being Kwais (good) but that’s an understatement. I have had experiences of being lost in Khartoum where a school boy has escorted me home and paid for my bus fare, amjad drivers (Taxi) who found out I was a foreigner and wished me a good stay without accepting money, fruit sellers who get so happy with my few words of Arabic that when I get home I find a whole variety of fruits I never paid for. One thing is for sure, the hospitality and generosity of the people means you will never starve here.

The fruit seller, Ismael who lives in one of the poorest parts of Khartoum invites us to his house for dinner, and insists on buying us mineral water and tea just because we come by to say hi. The building where his stall was based was torn down, when I went to visit him I was sad his place of work is now turned to rubble, he smiled and began his sentence with mafi mushkillah! The man has lost his livelihood, but it’s no problem he says, he is healthy and will be able to provide for his family ‘Inshallah’ (God willing). His faith and optimism a true inspiration. His fruit stall now a bunch of banana’s on a cardboard box.

In talking about my experiences of the people I remember this young man I met on Tuti Island. He over heard us speaking in English and just tagged along to practice. He brings his ancient English book with him and begins to ask for definitions and how to pronounce certain words. He inquisitively asks, ‘when do you use this sentence ‘make haste.’ I didn’t know where to begin. He then flicks to the health pages and asks what ‘hunchback’ means! I was humbled that this 1960’s publication was his source of learning English. Yet that didn’t stop him, he was so keen and eager to learn. He was a pleasure to sit with and defined the need to improve English language teaching.

We arrive in Sudan at a poignant time in its history. We’d have a grim view of Sudan if we relied on the news, however, my personal experience of the people is so conflicting to the civil wars we hear about.

While the people from the South decide on cessation, there is work to be done for the SVP volunteers. Our placements await us. I was fortunate enough to experience teaching at the University of Khartoum and Ahlia college in Wad Medani. Both placements brought with them very different teaching and living experiences.

The University of Khartoum gave me some excellent opportunities in developing my teaching skills. The Deputy Dean, Dr Gammar was keen to work on my strengths and he gratefully didn’t dump me in the syntax or grammar classes! I was given the scope to develop a class structure of my own with the sole purpose of encouraging the students to speak confidently in English. As a result of this I also worked on some teacher training projects as well as working with the Management school to work with new graduates approaching the job market. This can be daunting, feeling totally unprepared, but when you get to meet the students and get to know them you’ll see a group of mixed abilities who have a passion to learn English. They are so eager to please, respectful and just need encouragement. Once you get to know them and their interests your resources and class ideas will be abundant. Let your students take the lead, this will make your sessions more interesting and rewarding.

By having the chance to work in different departments I was able to work with a mixture of students. Sudan offers you plenty of opportunities, the people are very welcoming, and provided you have an interest and some ability they really do believe in you.

My second placement was based in a college in the Gazira state. The teachers and students were very welcoming with picnics and family dinners. I straight away noticed a big difference to teaching in the city. The students came from more rural areas and many had never heard a native speaker before.

Everyone knows everyone and I was suddenly adopted three times over! The warmth of the people has been overwhelming. A fellow teacher Ustaza Salwah invited me for a Sudanese meal. When I arrived at her family home they had slaughtered their sheep for me and cooked an absolute feast. I was overwhelmed with their reception and genuine welcome. I was offered their home and the children of the family came in turns to practice their English. The women were all highly educated with masters and PhD’s.

The people here really value their education and appreciate the simple things in life. The interaction between young and old is lovely to see when the Habooba (grandma) jokes around with the youngsters and when the parents tell me tales of how they got married. The Sudanese are a nation of romantics they love to talk about weddings and crave happy endings. Their love for Celine Dion can almost be forgiven when you’re on the receiving end of their charm!

Kassala

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Joseph Payseur (USA, 2014-15)

The University of Kassala closed for thirty days between the winter and summer semesters. Patrick, another SVP volunteer placed in Kassala, and I decided that this would be not only a great opportunity to travel, but also to further immerse ourselves in Sudanese culture. Understanding our ambition, Adham a mutual friend of ours invited us to experience the State of Al Jazeera by staying with him in his home village of Alti. Whilst there we would attend his cousin’s wedding. Unbeknownst to us, this would mean a great amount of traveling and a greater amount of hospitality.

Arriving at the Kassala Souq al Shabi bus station early in the morning, Adham explained to Patrick and I that since he invited us on this journey we were his guests, and that we were forbidden from buying anything while on this trip, as it was his duty to do so. Adham informed us that since we were guests in his home it would be shameful for him not to provide us with everything we need. He was much too adamant, and it was much too early to protest, so we gratefully accepted. Six and a half hours later we were in Alti, a small village located along the Blue Nile between Wad Medini and Khartoum. Upon arrival to Adham’s home, in a neighborhood named Rasa Hilla, we were greeted by his brother and sisters with what can only be accurately described as a feast. After a few days of feasting, exploring, and meeting family and friends it was time to travel to Medini to attend the wedding. This meant piling into the back of a pickup truck and racing one hundred and twenty kilometers south down the highway.

Driving through the winter night, the high speeds and fierce winds provided a chilly adventure, but the dim flash overhead of a shooting star brought an auspicious peace. When we arrived in Medini we were welcomed warmly by the groom and his family, and informed we would be spending the next few days here in their home. Since this was the night before the wedding, we had arrived just in time for the henna party. The house was filled with the smell of burning bahore incense as the groom’s sister entered and began preparing the henna. The groom was to be first, and as he is seated having henna placed on his hands, he asks me if I will join with him in receiving henna. Acquiescingly I sat down next. Sensing my reluctance, Adham and Patrick reassured me that they would both get henna as well. While waiting for the henna to dry we all walked outside to witness the slaughter and cleaning of a sheep which would become tomorrow’s feast.

The next morning, the day of the wedding, we immediately began by meeting arriving guests and feasting. The day was filled with nonstop eating, chatting, and relaxing, all fueled by bottomless cups of coffee and tea. By dusk it was time for the wedding party, which meant traveling to the bride’s home of Managil, a village southwest from Medini. Back into the bed of a pickup truck and we were off. The formerly sequestered men and women converged in a party tent, outside the home of the bride, where we began to dance and celebrate. After the party, we were invited into the home of the bride’s family to feast yet again.

We returned to Medani late at night a happy band of brothers and sisters. The generosity I received on this trip was not limited to the material. We all shared together in the anxiety, joy, and exhaustion of a Sudanese wedding. Sudan is a place where a simple backpacking trip transforms into a cathartic journey.

Tom Wharton (UK, 2012)

Goodbye Khartoum! The bus journey itself is worth a column alone. No journey in Sudan would be complete without the obligatory seven hours of WWE wrestling re-runs. I grew up with wrestling, abandoning it at the age of 8, so those seven hours were actually more of an exercise in nostalgia. I looked around and realised all other grown men on the bus were doing exactly the same thing, cheering, booing and tutting in unison as Rey Mysterio was denied a shot at the championship belt much to the chagrin of the entire bus.

East Sudan as seen from a bus window is incredibly flat, indescribable just how far the horizons stretch in all directions, let alone how vast this country is (I still can’t quite believe nine hours of journeying on fairly adequate roads represents only a few inches on my map.) The most obvious facet of Kassala life are the mountains. These dramatic ‘Jebels’ that spring from the flat plains of the east as confusing as they are beautiful, as if some invisible hand has taken the most dramatic peaks of grander mountains and placed them haphazardly in the desert, stretching all the way from here to Eritrea and apparently crawling with roving brigades of baboons and the occasional hyena. Kassala really does feel like Africa closer to the ends of the world than it does Khartoum. Men proudly stroll the streets with large swords hanging from their belts, the tea ladies which frequent the streets of Khartoum in large numbers are almost nowhere to be seen here, in their place are men selling coffee men stronger and spicier than my European palette is accustomed to. In fairness most foods here seem to have an emphasised taste, even salads taste better.

André Figaro (West Indies, 2011-12)

My first day in Khartoum at the SVP flat with Coordinator Paul Major and colleague Nabeel Hassan was great as we spent hours speaking about their experience in Sudan as well as a host of other topics, thanks to Paul’s incredible knowledge of all things archaeological.

I have been in Kassala for almost four months and to say that life here is totally different to Khartoum would be an understatement. The ratio of donkey and horse drawn carts to lorries is close to 1:1 and the pace of life here slows down to a crawl. It was only after recently spending six weeks travelling to other towns in northern Sudan that I realized how much I truly love life in Kassala.

Since it’s quite a small community at Kassala University, we have formed a very close relationship with our students at the Faculty of Education. I won’t be the first to admit that it was unnerving at the very beginning to walk into a lecture hall with about 70 eager university students all focused on you. However, thanks to the teaching training workshop provided by Dr Hala at the English Language Institute in Khartoum I felt a bit more prepared for the task ahead of me. Over the course of several weeks I have gained the confidence necessary to stand in front of 200 students at other faculties and give lectures.

A couple of tips to potential volunteers reading the newsletter: duct tape will be a life-saver in many situations and 50ft -500lb parachute cord will come in handy in more ways than you could imagine. Keep an open mind and try and say yes a bit more than you would usually. Good things come from chance meetings more often than not. Malaria is not cool. Take all steps necessary to prevent it.

Fadil El Obeid (UK, 2011)

Once in Kassala the natural beauty and serenity that I had heard so much about became apparent. I met with the other teachers I would be staying with, who were all friendly and welcoming and was immediately taken to the suq in the centre of town where I was introduced to Eastern Sudan’s main recreational hobby, drinking sugar with a dash of coffee and some ginger powder. ‘Jabana’ the name that refers to the metal pot the coffee is served from is consumed in huge amounts in casual outdoor cafes all over the suq during all hours of the day by mostly young unmarried men. Care must be taken when enjoying ‘jabana’ on a cool breezy evening in the suq because it is very strong and can cause sleepless nights.

Being half Sudanese I knew the culture and customs beforehand and was only rarely called ‘khawaja’ – foreigner in public. My poor Arabic provided the university staff with plenty of entertainment. The university itself was less modern than I expected but the staff on the whole were very dedicated and intelligent, al-Omerabi, Atif and of course Dr al-Tayyeb were particularly charismatic and friendly, which on a hot day after working several hours was very welcome. Except during exam time the campus had a very relaxed vibe and a lot of time was spent socialising with members of staff and students. The classes themselves were an opportunity to engage in discussions with students of a similar age to myself, which I found very interesting. I feel that students who regularly attended my classes benefited in terms of improving their vocabulary and confidence in speaking. Introducing students in the English club to the Beatles was entertaining but their unquestioning devotion to Celine Dion quite unexpected.

Will Berridge (UK, 2009-10)

As a location in which to work and write up your PhD, Kassala differs very much from Gilesgate Durham. In Durham, as I typed I was staring out of my window at the Esso Garage, a busy road, and the (now somewhat mercifully shut down) Durham Light Infantry pub. Here as I walk out of the house I can gaze away at the towering Taka-Totil mountains, and open green spaces with an endearingly gormless herd of goats. The university student union has a pool table, however, which is all I need to remind me of Durham- me and Kate also found a rod football table in ‘Timintai’ restaurant, which provided the only 5 minutes of ‘sport’ I’ve engaged in the trip so far. In short, the quiet and dreamy nature of the city offers a merciful antidote to the hustle and bustle of Khartoum.

The ‘Mez al-Mu’allimin’, or ‘Teacher’s Mess’, is something of a mixed bag. The fridge, telly and wireless internet all brought joyful tears to my eyes as a technophile Westerner. I have even come to understand my interaction with the bathroom facilities as a character-building experience. Two days ago some water came out of the shower head which was a special treat. However, since it is an all boys flat the kitchen unsurprisingly looks like 28 days later was filmed it (there is a scorch mark the size of a man behind the stove). However, the genial nature of the company more than makes up for the purely decorative nature of the shower head. They have all provided good company and been exceptionally helpful in erecting my mosquito net- my own inept attempts to do so seem to have provided endless hilarity. Al-Omarabi is a lexical wizard from the English department who delights in coining new words in both English and Arabic (istamwaza- to go for the bananas). He is also, to date, the only Sudanese man I had met who uses the word ‘willy-nilly’.

There is also Omar is a very genial man from Berber whose favourite hobby is trying to make me jump by pretending to be a vampire. Dr Yusuf is an esteemed Hadith scholar who loves to play Grand Theft Auto on his computer. Zahir is an economist from South Kordofan who is as I write taking the mickey out of my pronunciation of the Arabic word ‘to eat lunch’. Zahir has given me many nicknames, including ‘the bird’ (at-tayyara), ‘the pipe’, (al-ma’asoura), ‘the really big pipe’ (al-khazoug), and something to do with the bit of cow hide that covers a drum (al-dilbuka). I am fairly certainly that ‘pipe’ is an affectionately mocking term, but have no idea what the other two denote. Presumably it can’t be much fun being the cow-hide on a drum though, having some bloke whacking you with two sticks all day. Maybe that explains the meaning.

I have also had a discussion with Dr at-Tayyib, the head of the English department, about whether I should be a peacock, and donkey, or a dog. Apparently a peacock struts around in nice clothes dazzling everyone and generally enjoys life, whereas the donkey gets married and is burdened by the duties of being head of a household, and the dog has many children he is permanently chasing everywhere. I asked Dr Tayyib if it is possible to remain as a peacock forever, I argue surely it must be, but he insists that you must also choose at some point in life to be a dog or a donkey, which doesn’t seem to be a particularly attractive prospect to me.

The teaching is really fun: at the end of every class I am expected to do an impromptu stand up act by telling everyone what I know about the Mahdist state in Arabic- not sure what it has do with teaching English for specific purposes to nurses and accountants, but it invariably gets me a round of applause which is quite nice. Asked my conversation class to name me a famous Briton the other day- what did I get- Shakespeare maybe? Dickens? Charles Darwin? No, the first name raised was that of everybody’s favourite squeaky-voiced footballer.

About six weeks ago we all swanned off to Eastern Sudan to enjoy our Eid break. Every been to Port Sudan? Never drink the water. Ever. Four khawajas out of seven got stomach bugs, and the crew functioned as a kind of mobile patient’s ward for the rest of the trip. (I myself bucked the trend and got the flu. Apart from that Port Sudan is a nice clean place – the ubiquitous flies aside – with a good climate and a nice ice cream parlour. We sat eating some crunchy fish on the seaside next to a massive generator which meant we had to yell at each other to be heard. We popped into the Hipton hotel (which I think is meant to be a Sudanese take on the Hilton) and surreptitiously used the bathrooms, before declining the ridiculously expensive prices offered for use of the swimming pool. We slept ‘under the stars’ for a couple of nights, once near Suakin and once on a sort of pier by Port Sudan, took a nice dip in the warms waters by Suakin but we were warned off swimming in the sea by Port Sudan due to the presence of something called ‘Abu Shouk’, a nasty fish which can lash your flesh. We later figured out this was a stringray. When I came back to Kassala and told my Sudanese friends we’d slept under the stars, they thought it was hilarious- apparently it’s not often done here! We visited the old Ottoman and British ruins at Suwakin which gave me a chance to impress everyone with my historical expertise (‘as you can see, it got bombed’).

Rupert Horsley (UK, 2009-10)

It feels as if I arrived in Kassala only a little while ago, and already it is time to start thinking of leaving. My experiences here have been very good. The teaching was slow to start but this allowed me time to get used to the work which was fine. More than anything I was nervous of the teaching, but soon found that the atmosphere was relaxed and the hours were filled easier than expected. It took a while to work out what worked, but once I had most of the classes were reasonably successful. The students were all lovely, some very quiet and some very keen, all of them late, and it became a good and relatively permissible environment to air our very different views on the world. In the end the teaching, of which I had been so nervous, has become a pleasant and none too taxing routine, the background to my life in Kassala. The rest of my time here is spent on the whole calmly. Kassala is a pleasant, even beautiful town. It has a small, rural feel (donkeys generally outnumber cars), a lively market, numerous fairly distinctive tribes (the least interesting topic of conversation, I found), some alarming sugar loaf mountains, a ruined mosque and a dry river. While the vibe is small town it is actually quite large, as you see when you climb the feet of the mountains for coffee amid the boulders, if anything it is genteel. Or at least, not frontier. My days will generally be a combination of preparing a class, taking a class, reading (an awful lot), going to the market, going to sit and read in the mountains, going to sit and read at the ruined mosque, drinking tea with a number of people with my friends, communicating with my housemates in rudimentary Arabic, checking my emails, walking or taking a bus from place to place. One of the pleasures is ample free time: I had anticipated this and my luggage was mostly books; Kassala has been the perfect setting in which to read. Kassala is simply a very pleasant place, the happy medium between busy industrial town and agricultural back water, while there are undoubtedly many poor people around the level of visible suffering is remarkably low, which helps the spirits, in the mountain gives the height and spectacle which more than replaces a dearth in entertainment, there are a few places which serve descent food, there is enough greenery around to keep the eyes of a northerner from drying out completely, and people are as friendly as possible to each other at all times while leaving the option of walking off when you have had enough. This is the making of a nice town.. Needless to say I will be happy to go home, but I will be happier that I came.

El Obeid
Vanessa Volland (Germany, 2012-13)

Before leaving for Sudan, I tried to fight my ignorance, but the media portrait of Sudan is not exactly favourable and makes one believe conflict is ubiquitous and poverty is so bad that everyone lives in little mud huts without running water or electricity. In order to deal as efficiently as possible with the unexpected, I tried to think of all possible scenarios, so when I prepared my departure and packed my things, I packed an entire pharmacy but did not give too much thought to clothes and shoes. This ended in a rather frustrating and unsuccessful day spent in Suk Omdurman and Suk Al Arabi. It did not help that a couple of weeks prior to my departure, the UK and German embassies were attacked. Fortunately, SVP & some ex-volunteers were very encouraging and portrayed Sudan in a very different way. Generosity and incredible hospitality were very high on the list but also dust, heat and dust. I went with the expectation of the unexpected, of conflict and hospitality, of poverty and generosity, and of dust and heat. The first confirmed expectation was the heat. I arrived in the middle of the night and it felt like Europe in a summer heat wave. As I found out the next day when I had the idea of wandering around Suk Al Arabi at midday, it can get a lot hotter. On my walk, I also realised that it was indeed rather dusty. As to generosity and hospitality, it’s definitely something which other nations can learn from the Sudanese. As a European, it is sometimes hard to accept everything without a chance of reciprocating. It all starts with a cup of tea here and there and continues to be a meal here or there, and ends up being an invitation to everything. As the invitations accumulate, there is a slight feeling of guilt slowly but surely surfacing. Sometimes, I have just given up on trying to give something back, so I accept gratefully with a big smile feeling a bit stupid. However, sometimes I see my tiny chances. For example, the other day on the bus I wanted to pay for the young lady sitting next to me as she was very nice and helpful. I handed over the money for two passengers and sat there smugly congratulating myself on my success. It did not last long. The money was returned despite my wild gesticulations and efforts to refuse the money. In any case, I experienced the peak of generosity and hospitality (thus far) when travelling around the country for roughly three weeks. Apart from seeing pyramids and other amazing archaeological sites, climbing mountains, riding horses and camels, snorkelling and much more, the people helping and hosting us were incredible. We were welcomed warmly and fed and spoilt.

Helen Lamb (UK, 2011-12)

Celebrations and Festivals in El Obeid Having just spent a hectic Eid week of eating, visiting and partying, I can categorically say that the Sudanese sure know how to celebrate – and without the aid of alcohol!

The week before Eid I was lucky enough to attend a graduation ceremony at the University. So as I took my front row seat at the University of Kordofan, Faculty of Arts 2011 Graduation Ceremony, I prepared myself for the usual long speeches and even longer lists of names that would be even more tedious as I wouldn’t understand any of it! Thankfully I couldn’t have been more wrong! For me it was exactly the sheer organised chaos and excitement combined with the contrast to a “Traditional English Graduation” that made it so thoroughly entertaining! These students had worked hard for 4-5 years, and families had supported them and made sacrifices to keep them at University – they were all very proud and they were showing it! Whole families were there, some of whom had travelled miles, none of this “two tickets per graduand” nonsense that we have back in the UK. Once the “formal” part of the ceremony had been completed, one of Sudan’s popular singers took to the stage and all the students were cheering, dancing and singing and throwing each other up in the air. It was at this point that myself and my colleagues made a dignified exit and left them to enjoy the rest of their evening!

The next day Majid picked me up and took me to his house to have henna applied to my hands and feet, which is a tradition for married ladies in Sudan. I also had my hair braided and his wife showed me how to dress myself in the beautiful green tobe that Majid had given me earlier. All I needed to do now was get the right shoes and skirt to wear with it! So the next day I ventured to the market alone to shop. Luckily I ran into my colleague Elzain, who was out shopping with his wife and daughter and they helped me pick out some “ship ships” (leather flip flop type sandals) that would show my henna off in all it’s glory! After that, various strangers took me all around the Souk helping me to find the perfect skirt at the right price.

Eid week is a popular time for weddings, with many people finding themselves double and triple booked and having to attend several parties during the week, some on the same night. After my non-stop week of celebrating I was happy to get back into my work routine – until Christmas in Khartoum of course!

Georgia Newsam (UK, 2010)

Well, I’ve finally arrived in El Obeid. The good news is my bungalow has internet and a TV with one English channel plus a nice big walled courtyard to relax in. The bad news is there is no running water and yes, that includes no flushing toilet. A man comes every 3 days or so and fills a medium sized tub of water which we then have to make last a full 3 days. That’s one tub between 2 girls to wash hair, clothes, dishes, flush the loo, shower and finally drink. Already my flatmate has asked the unaskeable – ‘should we flush the loo or wash our hair today’. Oh dear… Sleeping arrangements are ok. It’s too hot to sleep inside the house so every night we take our beds outside and sleep in the courtyard under the stars. I was a little paranoid about tree snakes but I’ve been assured they are not very common in this part of Sudan so that will have to do. I had an exhausting couple of days going round the university being introduced to approximately 1 million people, or that’s what it feels like anyway. No one can pronounce my name either so it looks like I’ll be answering to JuJu or JaJa (the most popular attempts) or worse, Bushie (a misguided attempt to explain that it was ‘Georgia, like George Bush). I’m pushing for JaJa. Anything but Bushie. I’ve also had two marriage proposals since I arrived in El Obeid, neither particularly romantic. The first was from a 17 year old student, about two inches shorter than me. He announced that he wanted a visa to go to the UK, said I had nice eyes then popped the question. Smooth. The second was from a middle aged lecturer (or should that be lecher…) who offered, via a translator, to buy me a nice car if I became his third wife. I asked what kind of car and he said… a Volvo. I also got a very odd text message from a man I met for 5 mins saying my hair was like the sun, my ears like the rain. I’m not sure quite what to make of it all.

22/06/2010. All is well here. I had my first proper class today and it was EXHAUSTING. I don’t know whether it was the heat or having to answer the same questions over and over but by the end of the lessons I could barely speak. Everyone wants to know what I think of Sudan, what the difference is between the UK and Sudan (where do I start?) and why don’t I speak arabic very well (how rude!). I’m off to a henna party tonight to help prepare the bride for her wedding on Friday. The dust storm you caught me in a couple of nights ago when my phone cut out led to a blissfully cool day yesterday so all is forgiven. After I spoke to you, I decided to head over to the French Cultural Centre round the corner and meet some of the students there. I was mainly motivated by hunger as there was no food in the fridge and I didn’t know where the nearest shop was. I walked in to a room full of strangers and announced ‘bonsoir, j’ai faim’. Sure enough a chair was pulled out for me to sit on and some poor flunky dispatched to pick up a delicious kebab of peanut-coated chicken and rice. I love Sudanese hospitality!

29/06/2010 I had a new class today. I was told there were only 10 students who regularly showed up so I planned my lesson accordingly. However when I walked into the lecture room I was greeted by the sight of 150 students who all spun round to look at me. Someone handed me a microphone and led me up onto the stage – it was literally the stuff of nightmares! I think it went ok but it’s all a bit of a blur…

04/07/2010 I did a lesson today with my 4th year medical students on ‘love’. It was a very boisterous lesson, lots of laughing and fiesty debate. I started the lesson with the quote: ‘love is a temporary insanity, curable by marriage’ which had a significant proportion of the class solemnly nodding their heads and clicking their fingers in agreement. Oh dear! After the lesson I had a long line of students wanting to tell me in private about their own secret ‘love story’. I felt like a priest in confession and by the end of the day my head was spinning with some seriously juicy goss. The highlight though was when one of my students, a massive hip hop fan, introduced me to his headscarf-clad girlfriend: ‘Miss Georgia, I want you to meet my ho’. I just stood there open mouthed as he beamed proudly back at me and his ‘ho’ stood there giggling shyly. Errr, think we might need to re-phrase that Mohammed…

Dongola

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Robert Dvořák (Czech Republic, 2012-14)

Eid al Adha – one of the most important Muslim holidays – was approaching. All the hotel guests had already left to stay with their families or friends, even the employees were packing their bags. Only I didn´t have a place to go. There was no other guesthouse within hundreds of kilometres, and no transport . . .‘I’m leaving – like everybody else – and the hotel will be closed until next week,’ the owner confirmed. Then quickly added: ‘But you´re from far away, so if you want, just stay. Here – take the keys.’ – a more than generous offer from someone who had only known me a few days.

My earlier backpacking trip to Sudan had not lasted more than a month. But I could still remember the omnipresent hospitality, friendly atmosphere as well as the unique landscape, and so it did not take much to make me fill in the SVP application to volunteer!

For my placement as a volunteer I asked for Delgo, a small town in the far north, where everyone knows everyone, the donkeys are still parked in front of the houses and nothing has to be locked.

Most of my working hours are filled with teaching at the local college and other schools in the region. Accommodation in an old traditional house among the palm groves is an experience in itself. I am staying with three Sudanese colleagues, who have become great friends, always ready to help – especially with my Arabic. However much the foreign visitor tortures Arabic grammar, in Sudan his linguistic attempts are always welcomed with gratitude and enthusiasm. Meanwhile local textbooks keep a student’s motivation up thanks to absurd dialogues and model sentences like: ‘Mum, what´s the long thing over there? – That’s a giraffe, my boy.“

When living in a small town, it´s easy to join in the usual activities of neighbours and friends – work in the field, baking bread, fishing in the Nile. Maybe because of the simple living conditions, many Sudanese appreciate food more than a sleep. It can happen that with all in the house asleep, suddenly at midnight the neighbour bangs on the door and announces the serving of late refreshments. In Europe he would not encounter such a positive response . . .

Many afternoons and evenings are filled with festivities and celebrations, the most frequent occasion for a party being a wedding. Weddings in the capital tend to be show off events – with expensive cars, halls filled with tables, a music band and only a small space for dancing. Many guests take their seats and spend the time watching or chatting. Village parties require a more active approach. Often no tables and chairs are available, all the guests must go and dance – whether they want to or not.

And celebrating Christmas in Africa? Under the moonlight the sand´s colour turns white and the countryside resembles a snow covered plane. Then you just have to find the right palm tree and decorate it.

Whenever there´s a chance, it´s easy to take a backpack and set out for a trip. I have always felt safe and welcome in big towns as well as small villages. The only moment when my friends and I had to walk around armed with sticks was during hikes in the Kassala mountains. Some of the local baboons with sharp teeth are all too often ready to taste part of your supplies.

Sudan, until recently largest African state, remains an extraordinary mosaic of cultures and landscapes. ‘How many countries are all these pictures from?’ some of my friends asked when I showed them photos from Sudan. One day you can ride camels in the desert, stroll in the shade of palm trees along the Nile, a little later dive in the Red Sea or trace wild animals in the savannah of Dinder National Park.

And – where else in the world are visitors allowed to camp near the pyramids or wander around ancient temples at midnight? Because of the people´s friendliness and unforgettable landscapes the right question for most SVP volunteers is not whether they will miss Sudan or not after they leave. The question is how soon they will start missing it. And start planning to come back . . .

Atbara
Rebecca Mallinson (UK, 2012-13)

Teaching in Sudanese secondary schools has been a very interesting and rewarding experience. I have found myself in a variety of schools ranging from a technical school to the top model school in the whole of River Nile State.

When I arrived in Khartoum I was prepared by the English Language Institute in Khartoum to ‘teach the teachers’ rather than the students, to set up English Clubs and to concentrate on ways to improve speaking and listening skills. This seemed a scary prospect as a newly qualified TEFL teacher, but it hasn’t been the disaster it might have been.

The school year runs from June to March, although teaching ends in February. There is a three tier secondary school system, based on exam results at the end of basic school at 14 years old. At the bottom are technical schools, where boy students are trained to be builders, electricians and carpenters. I am not sure what the equivalents are for girls. Next up are the secondary schools. At the top are the model schools. Funding is based on results, so the model schools get the best deal but even then there’s not enough. At the technical school they struggle even to buy textbooks and the training areas for vocational skills are bare.

With preconceptions about Islamic societies, I have been surprised how girls are generally far more motivated than the boys and more confident communicators, also far more ambitious for the future, with their eyes set on university.

Methods that work: My TEFL training, even though completely theoretical until I got here, has been a great help. I have made use of the internet for inspiration. Lack of materials makes creative thinking essential. There are usually a few students at the front of each classroom who are able to answer questions, while the rest (always at the back) sometimes literally go to sleep. The teachers concentrate all their attention on those who put up their hands. To counteract this I find that using a ball and throwing it around the class when I want students to speak is a huge success. It keeps students alert and ensures that everyone tries because they don’t know who will be asked. The boys are particularly enthusiastic even if they really struggle to answer! I use pair work to let the students practice on each other before speaking in front of the class because they go into panic mode otherwise and become completely speechless.

I have found that putting the class in competitive teams is an effective method whenever possible. This is a completely revolutionary thing to do here and the students respond with great excitement and try really hard. I have often been asked to take revision lessons (for monthly exams). I’ve turned vocabulary revision into a competitive game and with literature revision by asking teams to devise hard questions for each other’s teams and then holding a quiz – to give a literature lesson a solid speaking and listening component.

Coming here has been immensely rewarding for me personally. Schools in Sudan need a lot of help to improve standards. I have been told numerous times that it is very encouraging to have a ‘native speaker’, both for the teachers and for students. Even with the slow progress, I think this is a very strong reason to continue.

Chris Allen (UK, 2009-10)

I’ve been living in Atbara for two months now – ostensibly as a teacher, though I’m doing most of the learning. I agree with and understand other volunteers who write about being ‘overwhelmed’ with the amount of new things to encounter. It goes way beyond ginger in your coffee, and it’s what makes living here great. Maybe because of the newness, I treasure my most mundane routines and even look forward to them. Like sitting in a mini-bus coming home from visiting friends in El Damer, a nearby town south of Atbara along the Nile. Often it’s around 5 or 6 pm, low sun making the dull dirt color a warmer richer yellow. In bus there is practically no talking, at that calm time of day. People climb on and pack into every available inch and the bus boy snaps his fingers to collect fares. It’s a close knit society, so almost always one old man in his turban and jalabiya will recognize another with a friendly greeting. When people reach their stops they click back and he hisses between his teeth to signal the driver. At first the clicking and hissing is a bit strange, but it’s a relaxed and well rehearsed system. Atbara is the last stop, so I sit and observe while the warm air rushes through the open windows. There are two big Chinese-Sudanese cement factories in the distance, lit up like cruise ships and actually quite nice to look at. The rest is what you might call boring landscape: some regular Sudanese houses, trees along the river to the left, and a straight road to Atbara 25 minutes away. I most enjoy this kind of non-event for it’s lazy participation in Sudanese life. I’m not forcing anything, not being the foreigner. I’m just sitting there squashed like everybody else, staring out the windows secretly quite happy about it all.

Ed Damer
Kate McIntosh (Australia, 2013)

Things progressed rather quickly after my application was accepted by SVP. I was living in Italy at the time and there was paperwork to organise, a flat to pack up, a stream of medical checks, goodbyes and last coffee meetings. It was easy to imagine I was simply going on any other trip. Sudan in my mind still seemed very far away, undefined and unknown. By the time I was preparing to leave Sudan about 11 months later, my initial trepidation had given away to a sense of familiarity and acceptance.

People greeted me by name on the street. I had grown accustomed to bargaining with rickshaw drivers and vegetable sellers. I also had a wonderful circle of friends and adopted family, who accepted my strange foreign ways and helped cushion the effects of culture shock. The morning call to prayer, parked donkey carts and men in white jellabiyahs and turbans have become part of the daily fabric of life, as have spontaneous neighbourly visits complete with deliveries of mint tea, biscuits and soup.

Home for me in Sudan was Ed Damer, a dusty town about four hours north of Khartoum, where I have been working in various secondary schools in the region as part of a pilot programme by the Sudanese Ministry of Education to help improve English levels.

Sudan’s real treasure is its people and their extraordinary capacity for hospitality and kindness – and this is even more so in a regional area like Ed Damer, not usually accustomed to foreigners. I assumed a kind of celebrity status in town and was never short of lunch invitations or offers of tea. It was not uncommon for strangers to wordlessly pay my bus fare and slip off before I had a chance to thank them.

Living in Ed Damer has also given me a wonderful insight into Sudanese life and culture that I simply wouldn’t have received on the same scale in Khartoum. I would certainly encourage future volunteers to consider a posting outside the capital if they have a chance, as there is an even greater need and local people will appreciate that you came to their community as a volunteer.

Like anything in life, you have to take the good with the bad, but in Sudan even a bad day is usually an interesting one. If you approach things with patience and an open mind, Sudan will reward you with wonderful friendships and a truly life-changing experience.

Shendi
Lykke Stavnes (Norway, 2010-12)

Oh Sudan… This must be the friendliest, warmest, most hospitable and genuine people I have ever come across. In general the capital is dusty, worn down and slightly suffocating but it still has a magical Aladin-like feel to it. Yesterday we went to photocopy an Arabic-book in this ruin of a building where our fruit-vendor-friend Ismael works, and since it took forever we thought we’d go for tea while waiting. So we sat down at one of these corners where men sit on tiny stools drinking tea and coffee and within seconds we had a huge crowd of curious guys surrounding us. Most don’t speak more English than “how are you” but they are still really eager to practice that one line. We ended up sitting there for two hours, a man started singing to us with a very feminine voice and old men told us we had to teach their children English. People ran to nearby shops to buy us cakes, fruit, water and pepsi. It is all quite overwhelming but SO beautiful how welcoming and humble they are. They always refuse to let you pay for anything and simply tell you it’s their “duty”…

I have to watch myself not to use pompous clichés when describing the scene but it’s hard because this place is just unreal. We went to Sufi-dancing last Friday. It’s kind of like gospel church, only it’s Muslim and happening outside a mosque in the sunset. They all just chant and dance and spin around praising Allah, wearing Jamaica colours and saying “Ya’maaan” in a cloud of incense.

They haven’t exactly introduced the healthy living-food products here. So far I’ve been happy as long as I could identify what I’m eating. But a lot of the times you just have to nod and smile and try the slimy sweet things they serve you which usually turn out to be pretty good.”

Three months into the Sudanese experience, it’s pretty hilarious to see what I wrote to people back then. I feel very settled in and at home in Shendi. Ok, so it may not be the most eventful town in the country but it is an amazing place to live and work. We have a local kisra-lady (aunty Miriam) and the numerous khudra and okra-sauces are less of a challenge now. I have even started craving fool in the morning. It’s WONDERFOOL as Um Rhea so beautifully put it. It’s like we’ve stopped noticing all the things that surprised and amazed us in the beginning. Suddenly it all just makes sense, like “all the bottles are in the right place” (Colo jkarna fi makana) – quote William James Berridge (Eid celebration at Osman’s).

In addition to our fellow SVPers and the German visitors above mentioned we had all of our friends, colleagues and students over for Christmas on 24 December, which was really nice and slightly bizarre as always. The guests insisted on listening to “My heart will go on” by Celine Dion on repeat and everyone were dancing in the back yard and pretending to be digging into our khawaja-dishes that we proudly served Sudanese style on the big trays magically balancing on shaky stools that never fall over. It was definitely a Christmas to remember.

At the moment Rhea, my co-volunteer, and I, are both tired after a long day of lecturing and socializing with our lovely students. Our semester 8-student and good friend AbdelRahman just left after having been fed German Christmas-cake specially imported by Rhea’s mom and fish from the market. He just came for a break from the library and he thinks our eating-times are completely weird, but given the amount of times we have been incredibly generously stuffed by various family-members of his since we got here we never allow him to leave without eating something. Now he’s off to his second supper of the evening.

I am still hoping to head to Kassala next after the placement in Shendi but it will be horribly sad to leave. I feel like we’re really making progress with the teaching and we have made some great friends here in what can only be described as the Sudanese heartland. My friend from university in Scotland came visiting for new years and I constantly caught myself showing off the wonders of my new home like a puppy with a wagging tale – just as proud of the donkey-carriage mode of transport, the mystical, colorful market and the oasis that we live in by the football pitch inside the Faculty of Arts.

Ma Salama for now, the mosquitoes kept me up most of last night so it’s time to crawl into my net… Thanks for making all of this possible, SVP!

Karima

Sofia Wachtmeister (Sweden, 2010-11)

Me and volunteer colleague Jack have been in our desert paradise of Karima for about six weeks now and the experience just keeps getting better and better. Despite the small and relaxed nature of Karima there is never a quiet moment in the place because of the characters it contains and its sheer beauty. Karima lies on the Nile complete with date palms lining either side and boasts a mountain better known as Jebel Barkal beside its very own pyramids. After teaching one day Jack and I decided to go and fly my kite by the Jebel. As normal on the walk out to the pyramids we were greeted very kindly by all those we passed, with the usual stream of “Keef [how are you]? Tamam[alright]? Inshallah kwaiseen [with God’s will you are well]? Allah yebarrack feek [God bless you]. Elhamdulillah [praise God]!] and a smile of course! The children of Karima who usually play on the street are slowly getting used to the two white people walking around but seem to also find it necessary to remind us that we are white shouting ‘khawajja’ [‘foreigner’] after us! The kids are supercute and friendly, usually insisting nothing more than that we take a photo of them. This is usually organised by the older kids who line the kids up making sure they’re all in and visible in the photo.

Although we have countless photos of the kids we never tire and they certainly don’t either! The children who spend all day playing on the sand streets of Karima usually kicking an old football around are always smiling and chatting as if they don’t have a care in the world. At first they were slightly wary of us flying the kite not sure what to make of the khawajjas and their strange ways this time but it didn’t take long for them to join in- chasing the kite when it crashed and calmly taking it turns flying it! It turned out that one of the older boys was actually studied in Khartoum and was a student of another SVP volunteer. He was keen to keep up his English during the University holidays so we organised to meet once a week for a language exchange.

Our Arabic is coming along slowly but surely. The teachers at the university, Karima market stall holders and taxi drivers are always keen to teach us new useful phrases usually resulting in many laughs as we try to remember and then pronounce the words! Karima is such a small and friendly town that most of its inhabitants know of us and will greet us with a huge smile when we enter their shops or stalls, usually throwing in a goody or two! We sometimes cook for ourselves; buying meat from smiley Abdul Azim, fruit from overjoyed Ibrahim and staples from gentle Adam. They usually enquire what we are going to make with their ingredients; banana pancakes we answered one day. All three insisted that we bring them a taste of this British- Swedish concoction the next day. We made sure to douse the goodies in vanilla and honey to cater for the sweet Sudanese tooth!

Merowe
James Riley (UK, 2015-16)

I have been here in Merowe for about nine weeks now and I have to say it’s a pretty special place. It sits right on the bank of the Nile, about 200 miles north of Khartoum and 350 miles south of the Egyptian border. It moves to its own lazy rhythms, which ebb and flow like the river lapping against its banks.

Most things happen at a snail’s pace, the people never seem in much of a hurry to do anything. I’ve no idea how many live here, no more than a few thousand I would guess. I’ve asked around but my question is usually met with a shrug. ‘I’ve never counted’ was one response, accompanied by a cheeky smirk.

I live in a house with my fellow volunteer Mats. Originally built for the Chinese and German engineers working on the Merowe Dam, it is extremely modern by Sudanese standards and has everything we need. It sits on a typical Merowe street; wide, quiet and dusty. Every morning we take a minibus from the university’s administrative buildings, at the top of the road, across the riveer to the medical campus in Karima. As we wait for the bus we sit in the university reception, which is a crumbling brick building manned by a group of convivial, underemployed security guards. Merowe is an incredibly peaceful place and as a result there seems no need for the university to have this level of protection. In truth there is little worth stealing. Nevertheless there is always a minimum of two guards on duty, but often as many as six or seven men sitting around chatting. We always share a cup of tea, and despite the language barrier, still manage to share a laugh and a joke. My Arabic is not brilliant, and neither is their English, but we often end up proper belly laughing as we theatrically mime to one another. These morning encounters offer the perfect illustration of the Sudanese character; warm, funny and hospitable.

The bus is supposed to arrive at 7.45am but like everything else, operates according to Sudanese time. The bus journey is probably the best part of my day. I love watching Merowe’s wide and dusty streets pass by, as the sun seeps in through the window. It can get very hot here in the desert, as high as 50 degrees in the summer, but the weather is lovely and warm on the morning bus ride. There are few cars and a handful of donkeys meandering through the streets. Merowe sits slap bang in the middle of the desert and as we move past the edge of town, it’s just miles and miles of golden sand as far as the eye can see. Taking the bridge across the Nile and watching it glint in the morning sun is quite something. We also pass by the magnificent Jebel Barkal (the ‘holy mountain’) and its accompanying pyramids and ancient ruins. It’s a morning commute like no other.

We arrive at Karima campus where we teach medical and nursing students. Again they are in no rush to start lessons and often filter in slowly during the first twenty minutes. This can be frustrating but I’ve come to accept it as a fact of life in Sudan. Despite their tardiness, they are extremely well-mannered and eager to learn. The lessons are a lot of fun and when they are over I usually spend time in the office with the students, either correcting their written work or chatting away to them in English. This is a great chance for them to practise their language skills they wouldn’t get if we weren’t around.

We take the bus back at 4.40pm and usually get home around 5.15pm. The university has a chef who prepares home-cooked meals for all the staff. Shortly after we get back, she knocks on our door and hands us a tray laden with food; a mountain of rice, white bread and a big pot of piping hot Sudanese stew. The food is delicious and extremely hearty, though I’m not sure how healthy it is for me to be overdosing on all these carbohydrates. After dinner my stomach is so heavy that I usually have to lie down and give myself time to recover! There isn’t much to do in the evenings but we do have a television which has a few English channels so we usually just veg out in front of that. Then it’s off to bed to get some rest and ready ourselves for another day in sleepy Merowe.