Buses, white men and UN paranoia

“The buses were jam packed and I had to wait ages before I could get in,” I apologised breathlessly, as I turned up half an hour late for a meeting with a friend.

Still taking the buses? Tut, tut, tut. The sorrowful shake of the head said all that needed saying.

But it’s not easy weening oneself off the buses here in Sudan. I’m not even sure I’d know how to hail a taxi any more. I am so used to the buses here now, and find that they can take me to most places almost as fast a taxi can for about a twentieth of the price, that I just don’t think I could stop using them. It’s sort of an additcition. I’m much happier to click my fingers and hop out at a chosen spot, than I am to say “agif hinna, my good man” and part with a large sum of hard earned cash.

Plus, the same self-evident truth holds in Africa as in Europe. Taking public transport (even smelly Sudanese buses) is better for the environment than if everyone took out a separate private vehicle on to the road.

Last week, in one of those rare occasions when I did find myself travelling in a private vehicle, I heard the driver curse under his breath about all the buses on the road, and how they were causing the dreadful increase in traffic that Khartoum has been experiencing over the past few years. Clearly not the smartest driver in the world – and I didn’t waste words explaining to him that public transport is actually supposed to make the traffic situation better. (Of course, were these buses not there, the people that take them would probably not be able to afford taxis or cars and so would walk everywhere – so this shows that in fact some arguments are different when you apply them to the developing world; I stand corrected).

This afternoon, walking back home, I encountered a security official who, in order to practice his English, called out to me: “You like to walk every where?” I said that I did, marvelling at how surprised he was to see a huwaja come out of a supermarket and not get into a four-wheel drive heavily-polluting land cruiser. “Great weather for it,” he said, in what was a thin attempt at Sudanese sarcasm. My t-shirt was clinging to my body and I looked as though I had just been dragged out of the Nile.

I blogged some time ago about the fact that I have never seen any other white guy ride a bus (something that still holds true to this day), so maybe his surprise should not have been so amazing.

Back to my friend. We were talking about my love of Sudan and his love of the money that can be made in Sudan.

“The thing is, Blake,” he said. “You don’t see many of the tensions that are under the surface of this society. Khartoum may feel very safe – but there are some very real dangers lurking out there.”

His words were probably true. In the wake of the JEM attack and the ICC inditement of President Omar Bashir, I blogged about how safe Khartoum is, in a bid to persuade more cautious travellers not to abandon their plans to visit the country. After all, these are the very people that would be buying our book. I still feel far safer in Khartoum than I do in London – largely because I know that most Sudanese would come to my aid should something happen to me. I seriously doubt the same would go for people in London.

Needless to say, this particular friend was very much with the UN crowd. The UN have been all jumpy since the ICC ruling, fearing that their staff could be targetted, and ordering the spouses of all employees out of the country. Apparently, the UN has ratchetted up its security warning to staff since then, believing that there is a very real threat out there. The embassies are also taking a potential threat to Westerners seriously.

But, for me, I have not substantially changed my views about the safety of Sudan since I arrived in the country over a year ago. Through the Gillian Gibbons case, the death of John Granville, the JEM attack, the ICC ruling, the current security paranoia… I’d still rather face the streets of Khartoum, with all their sinister Al-Qaeda sympathisers, than the streets of London, with all their knife-wielding maniacs.

Of course, there is a good chance that, as my friend suggests, I am really being blind to the dangers, out there, just below the surface, and the UN isn’t really paranoid after all.

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2 Responses to “Buses, white men and UN paranoia”

  1. Violet Says:

    Hey, I love the buses, too, and I also never saw another white person on them – not even you! Is is good to get into conversation with people on the buses, look at what they are reading and so on. And walking home from the bus stop, of course many people, mainly those poor bored security guards, want to talk or just greet you. And hurtling over the bridge to Omdurman with loud Sudanese music playing is so nice… that unbeatable “monocultural” feeling we have forgotten in Western cities with our obsession with “diversity”.
    I would not encourage people to go to Sudan. As you said, it feels very, very safe, but if you knew too much, or were in the wrong place at the wrong time, things could be different. And let’s keep tourists out of Sudan…please? Let’s keep it nice, keep it “our secret”.

  2. blakerig Says:

    Keeping Sudan a secret has its benefits, but doesn’t do much to increase sales of our guidebook!

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