Friday, October 09, 2020

Africa Memoir: It's All Who You Know

So there I was, sitting in the vacant Khartoum airport as midnight slipped by toward one o’clock, with a gun-wielding soldier at my side to make sure I didn’t move. I’ve called myself an illegal immigrant at that particular moment, but it should hopefully be clear that I didn’t ever intend to try to enter Sudan without the proper papers: all the arrangements had been made in advance, but somebody dropped the ball. I soon found out who that somebody was.

Oddly enough, as I sat there with the threat of deportation or imprisonment looming over me, I didn’t feel worried at all. There was a deep sense of peace that had rested on me from the moment I was waved over into the official’s office; I can only attribute it to the many prayers that were said in my behalf from friends back home.

It was about half an hour later that a tall, big-bellied man with a broad smile sauntered into the airport, papers in hand. He was gregarious and self-possessed, and the customs officials all seemed to know him and to be on quite friendly terms with him. He grinned at me, waved, and then came up to shake my hand.

“Good evening and welcome to Sudan!” he beamed. “My name is Ali, and I am your travel agent here in Khartoum. I must apologize for not being here sooner, but I was stuck in traffic.”

This was a ridiculous excuse, and we both knew it—there are no midnight traffic jams in Khartoum—but it was clearly a polite cultural way to save face and pass smoothly over any disagreements. No doubt he had forgotten about my arrival, had gone to bed, only to be roused by a desperate phone call from my team leader Ernest.

But I didn’t mind; I was happy to have him there. He had documents in hand, and we went back into the corner office and breezed through the applications. Ali was cracking jokes in Arabic the whole way through, and whenever he told me to get out some cash to pay this or that entry fee, I did exactly as he said. Within just a few minutes, my passport was festooned with brightly-colored Arabic stickers, and they waved me through without even the compulsory check of my one piece of luggage. The customs agents just grinned and shook their heads at Ali’s jokes, slapped some yellow stickers on my suitcase to show (falsely) that it had passed inspection, and handed it over to me.

This was one of my first introductions to dealing with bureaucracy in Africa, as done by its expert practitioners—have money ready, keep smiling, and, above all, know the right people. So, with many prayers answered, I stepped out as a legal foreign worker into the hot, dry midnight air of Khartoum.

Ernest was outside the airport, waiting for me beside his car. He was a tall European fellow with blond hair. Looking back on it now, he was young to be a team leader in a place like that—in his late twenties, or thirty at most—but to me at twenty-one, he was enough my senior that I never gave it a second thought. The tenor of his voice in welcoming me betrayed the fact that he had experienced more than a bit of worry while pacing around his car. It was only when I met him, shook his hand and noticed the nervous quaver in his voice, that I truly realized what a dangerous situation I might have just been in a few minutes before.

He drove me through the dark, empty streets into a suburb called Diems, where our team made its home, and left me to sleep the remainder of the night in the house of Aaron and Anne, two young missionaries who were also from Europe. I was really too tired at that point to form much of an impression of them—I was grateful to be done with my journey, and to be in a safe place where I could sleep. Their house was built around a small inner courtyard, as many Sudanese homes are, and they led me to a little room just to one side, where I found a cot, crawled under its dusty mosquito net, and went to sleep.

I awoke a few hours later to the sight of sunlight streaming through the barred window of the room, and the wild, careening cry of “Allahu akhbar!” sounding from the loudspeakers of the mosque next door.

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