Reclaiming Sudan

To say that I am a fairly vociferous critic of the United Nations around the world is probably something of an under-statement. It’s not that I don’t recognise the value of the UN – heck, we certainly don’t want another holocaust. It’s just that the organisation seems to be so dreadfully run.

Seeing the UN up close and personal in Sudan really hardened my stance against them, and a barrage of somewhat hostile blog entries followed. Not about individuals within the UN, you understand – some of my best friends in the country worked for this monstrous beast – but against the fact that the UN was doing more harm than good to the country. I could never for the life of me understand why 2500 logistics personnel were needed in Khartoum, and why they need to clog the roads with their 4x4s and push up accommodation prices into the stratosphere. Juba was even worse.

Next month, at long last, the UN’s mandate in the country comes to an end. Despite some pleas to remain, Khartoum has said it must leave. Only the UN Security Council can extend this mandate and this looks unlikely. From what I hear, getting all these UN personnel out of the country is quickly becoming a logistical nightmare – the UN, I gather, has only just cottoned on to the fact that actually it does have to leave.

Good.

The south has now separated more-or-less peacefully. It is time to watch the situation from afar and reduce the UN’s carbon footprint on the country.

We are back in Sudan for a month, to update our guidebook. At first, as I started walking the streets, notepad and pen in hand, I thought little had changed. Many familiar restaurants and hotels were still there, a handful of new ones had opened, some had shut down, as you might expect. The old building we used to live in is still there, although the Darfuri security guard, I noticed, has now got a job at nearby Ice Cream 41. He remains as cheerful as ever.

Despite this, I have had the nagging feeling that something quite crucial has changed in Khartoum, which should be reflected in the update of our guidebook. Today, I realised what it was..

The khawadjas (foreigners) have disappeared. Not all of them you understand, but enough to be noticeable. When we were here before, walking the length of al-Amarat without seeing a gleaming white face was unthinkable. Yesterday, I managed this.

Many of the old khawadja restaurants are still here, but foreigners are no longer their main clientele. I am writing this entry in Solataire, one of the most successful western-style cafes in the country, and not one foreigner is in the room. All around me are the middle class Sudanese – all of them under twenty. Scores of young women are clustered around a table not far from me. Some of them have shrugged off their traditional hijab headscarve, which they would never dare think of taking off in the streets. Courting couples sit on small tables, not holding hands but close enough to think that electricity must be passing between them.

This is all very good. The middle class come to rebuild their country. Let’s give the country back to them. It is theirs, after all. Yesterday, an estate agent told us that rental prices in the country have been steadily falling – a sign that finally the UN workers and NGOs are going home.

I believe this is something good for the country. But I can’t shake that nagging fear that it isn’t good for us.

We have come back to Sudan to update this book – a book that is very much targeted towards foreigners living here. If all the foreigners have gone home, then how well is our book going to do next year?

But such thoughts must be dismissed and Sudan’s welfare put first. I have tried to explain countless times to UN members of staff why they may not be quite the saviours that Sudan needs, but I am rarely listened to. Too many vested interests are tied up in the future of the country.

Still, I do hope the new edition of our guidebook does well.  Perhaps we should think about translating it into Arabic.

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