januari 26, 2009
I’ll share an experience with you. Maybe it’ll help you imagine this place and the atmosphere that surrounds us. Fortunately, it is not only the impressions of human suffering that remain with you when looking back on a MSF mission. The smells, sounds and tastes of everyday life in a community so profoundly different from your own make an equally important contribution to a memory. There are a numerous different ways to make these experiences, but some carry more weight than others. Partaking in the celebrating of a wedding in the local tradition is a must, and equally important is dining out.
Serif Umra is the centre point in a bigger locality, and consequently the place to be on a market day, soukh day. Hundreds of craftsmen, camel herders, farmers and men with influence gather to trade, make money and above all make connections. Tuesdays and Saturdays means a significant influx in the movement in and around the market, and are also our busiest days in the clinic.
Today, together with a number of colleagues from the office, I ventured out of the dispensary premises to join in the commotion, a welcome break from the house-office-dispensary routine. We walked the road along the wadi, reduced to a wide stream of sand now in the dry season, towards the market. You must picture the movement around us as we followed the stream of movement to and from the marketplace. Camels, bound together in groups of fives and tens trotting by, men in sunglasses on motorbikes, men with whips on horseback, women in colourful scarfs on donkeys or on carriages and finally big trucks whipping up dust engulfing the moving crowd. We join our assistant field coordinator under a shelter in the meat section of the market. Now, here is a man who knows the circles, truly irreplaceable when it comes to navigating the complicated politics of this place.
Anyway, we assemble among butcher’s benches, cooking fires and tealadies, where the scent of blood and guts is strong in the air. Soon we are guided into the back of one of the butcher’s shops where carpets are spread out on the ground under a shelter. There’s the mandatory hand-washing, thank goodness, and many greetings and handshakes, after which we take our shoes off and sit down, gathered on the carpets around two big plates. This is the way to dine in the Sudan, you eat from one massive communal plate, filled with little dishes from which everyone help themselves, using fingers or flat bread. I make a second experience with camel meat, I expect there’ll be many more, much better than my own failed attempt at a Christmas dinner anyway, and on the side we have tomatoes, fried liver, spicy sauces and bread. I stuff my face and enjoy, there’s something particular about eating with your hands. Someone told me that the real question is why anyone would like to use a foreign, cold, metal object like a fork to eat with when you can use your fingers, which are natural and familiar? Well, I’ll leave that for you to think about. The eating process itself is quite swift without a lot of conversation.
Inevitably, towards the end there’s the whole competition in politeness where the local staff make sure to offer the expatriates have the last pieces of meat and the expatriates in their turn try to respectfully offer back. In the end there’s some sort of a draw and we leave to make room for the next group of diners. We search for a good spot to relax after dinner and finally spread our carpets and ourselves out in the shadow of an old truck.
This is the true moment of communion where you discuss manly matters over a glass of sweet tea while digesting. I learn that marrying is quite expensive these days and that love is complicated also in Darfur. Someone brings and chops up sugar cane for dessert, and hence the conversation stops once again. Looking at this stick in my hand I wonder what in the world to do with it, though I presume it’s somehow for eating. Glancing right and left I learn how to peel one section of the cane at a time with my teeth, chew off the flesh and suck down the sugary juice before spitting out the starch. Imagine us sitting on that carpet with a pile of canes in the middle, piling, chewing, sucking, spitting; a striking picture. Spending time together with your co-workers in this way is precious and probably the best way to remove barriers between staff, not to mention it’s great fun and a nice perk to aid work. It lasts an hour, then we head back towards the office, duty calls.