Friday, December 18, 2020

Africa Memoir: Like a Thief in the Night

(Photo by Ahmed Rabea. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)
(Click here for earlier installments of this series)

I soon moved out of Aaron and Anne’s house, and down to the guesthouse operated by SIM (formerly Sudan Interior Mission)—one of the few avowedly Christian organizations allowed to operate in the city. I was nearer the center of the city now, in the downtown district creatively called "Khartoum Itneen" (Khartoum #2). I had a small room on the second floor of the guesthouse, arranged like an open-air motel. There was a guarded gate and a high wall around the guesthouse, as is common for such things. I didn't give the security level there a second thought, at least not for the first few weeks.

I had all the necessary amenities at the guesthouse—a cot, a fan (it was so hot that you could only sleep by lying almost completely bare, without a sheet, directly under the fan), an old computer for doing my linguistics work; and, in the common area, there was a small kitchenette and even a bathroom with a proper sit-down toilet. A small handful of foreign workers came and went during my months there, but never more than four of us at one time. The guesthouse was attached to the compound of KIC, Khartoum International Church, where many of the Christian expatriates (such as embassy staff) would come to worship, as well as hosting an Amharic-speaking Ethiopian church. The church I attended, Khartoum Christian Center, met on Fridays in a nondescript building downtown, and my times of worship there remain some of the best memories of my life. (More on my church experiences in an upcoming post.)

Even though I lived closer to the heart of the city, I was still expected to join my team’s meetings every morning in Diems. The first time I tried to navigate my own way from Khartoum to Diems was slightly unnerving. I went down to the main bus depot in the center of the city (a vast, dusty yard where hundreds of buses were parked, with not even a building, a terminal, or even a desk where one could ask questions) and I found a small van that I believed was going the right way. But they started off on a route I had never taken before, even though I thought they were driving in what was generally the right direction. I stared out the window for ten minutes, watching this city of several million roll by and hoping desperately that I could see a familiar landmark. And then, finally, I saw it—a gaudily-painted minaret that I knew was just a few blocks north of Ernest’s house. In the end, I hadn’t needed to worry—the van had taken a route that went straight down into my old stomping grounds on Sharia Wahid-wa-Arobayeen; but I can still remember that stomach-sinking sensation of being driven off into a city that I didn’t know very well, and where I couldn’t yet speak the language. 

After that, I got quite a bit better at navigating around by myself. There were still a few customs to learn—how to flag down a bus by waving one’s hand in a particular way (there were no official bus stops, so if you didn't master this skill, you'd never be able to ride one); how to snap one’s fingers to get the bus to pull over and disembark; how to read the numerals on coins so as to render the appropriate fee. There was one time I rode down Sharia Wahid-wa-Arobayeen in a motorized rickshaw, knowing that the fee was 300 dinars. When I got out, I handed the driver some coins, but he immediately rattled off a string of angry Arabic that I couldn’t follow. So I pulled out one of the most common and useful phrases of Sudanese Arabic, “Ma fih mushkila” (“There’s no problem”), to which he responded indignantly “Fih mushkila!” He drove off in a huff, after which I studied the coins in my hand a bit harder and discovered that the pieces I thought were hundreds were really only tens, so I had only offered him 30 dinars for the ride. Aside from that minor bump, though, I started feeling pretty good about getting around by myself. 

More often than not, I chose to walk rather than ride. Khartoum is generally a safe city to walk about in, so long as you're not crossing too many major roads. I would walk all the way from my room in Khartoum Itneen to Diems for the team meeting—a walk of about fifty minutes—and then over to the language institute in Amarat, a walk of another thirty minutes or so. Lucky for me, I was there in the cool season, so it only got up to about 115 degrees. I got to know the main sites on my route pretty well—the Saudi Arabian embassy near the institute, St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral, and the one and only Western-style store that I laid eyes on, no bigger than a few small rooms but with several essentials for my life there—eggs, ramen noodles, mango juice, bread, and toilet paper (the last of which had absurdly inflated prices because only foreigners used it). There was also a shop near the guesthouse that served beef-kabob sandwiches at a walk-up window, and they still seem to me about the best sandwiches I've ever had. 

Over those months, I managed to get around largely on my own, to feed myself, and to get my work done in a fairly efficient manner. But there were still surprises, to be sure. While my guesthouse had a basic level of security, I put more faith in it than I should have. One night a thief broke in. I had left my room door unlocked that night, perhaps assuming the walled compound and the guard were sufficient. I started suddenly awake around one or two AM to see someone open my door, poke his head in, and then, when I sat up, quickly close it again. In my half-asleep state, and dressed only in boxers, I just rolled over and went back to sleep, but discovered in the morning that it hadn’t been a dream—several electronic gadgets had been plundered from the common room of the guesthouse. After that, I locked my door. Just as in Jesus' parable of the thief in the night, if I had known he was coming, I would have been better prepared for the threat. It didn't really rattle me, but it did remind me to stay watchful--not only for my personal safety, but to be ready for whatever attacks of spiritual warfare the enemy might try to launch our way. 

Over the next few weeks, I would see firsthand the oppression under which the churches of Khartoum labored and strove. The greatest threats came not from thieves in the night but from persecutors in the highest levels of government--indeed, within a decade of my time in Khartoum, all three of the institutions I mentioned--the SIM guesthouse, Khartoum International Church, and Khartoum Christian Center--were each forcefully seized by the government and shut down. It was not a matter of wolves sneaking into the sheepfold: here we were sheep walking in the shadow of the wolves' own den.

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