There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Sudan ma Kwaiyis, Sudani Kwaiyis: The Remarkable Story of a Khartoum Taxi Driver

'Sudan ma kwaiyis, Sudani kwaiyis’ (Sudan bad, Sudanese good) was a phrase we heard many times during the months we lived in Khartoum. If the speaker was a taxi driver, the next phrase was usually ‘Sharia ma kwaiyis’ (Road not good) as his cab bumped into a pothole the size of a modest meteor strike.

In July 1987 Lynne and I had climbed out of a rut by taking jobs in an international school in Khartoum, dragging six-year-old Siân along with us. We intended to stay for two years, but contractual difficulties meant we were home in November.

In the late nineteen eighties Sudan enjoyed a brief flowering of parliamentary democracy between the Numeiri dictatorship and the present fundamentalist military government. Sadly the continual fragmenting and rebuilding of coalitions and shuffling of ministers resembled rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic more than it resembled government, and everyone knew that a coup was on the way.

The Sudanese have been ill served by their governments for decades, but if the country is not good, the people really are. They cheerfully mock their own inefficiency and lamentable time keeping, but they are intensely proud of their reputation for hospitality, friendliness and honesty and they work hard at living up to it. Nowhere else have we been welcomed into the homes of so many local people, nowhere else have small acts of kindness by complete strangers been such a commonplace. But the events I will describe out-Sudanese the Sudanese. Such stories have people shaking their heads and saying: ‘you couldn’t make it up!’ Actually I could, but I didn’t. It happened exactly as I tell it.

In two months we had seen only one camel. Feeling this was less than our due, Lynne, Siân, and I, along with our friend Martin, decided to visit the Omdurman camel market.

On a warm September day (most September days top 40ºC) we walked out onto the sandy square behind our home in the southern suburbs and flagged down a taxi. Although we lived in a modern block surrounded by other new or partly finished residences we were half a mile from the tarmac road. Undeterred, taxi drivers criss-crossed the desert on invisible tracks.

We quickly found a ride, but not all the way to Omdurman. If Khartoum has any similarities with London, and few are obvious, the attitude of taxi drivers to venturing south (or in this case, west) of the river is one of them. We negotiated a fare into the centre, where it would be easier to find a driver prepared to cross the Nile.

Outside the main souk we found a cab heading west and drove out along the south bank of the Blue Nile. ‘El Khartum’ means ‘the elephant’s trunk’, a fanciful allusion to the shape of the land where the two Niles meet. At the tip of the trunk Khartoum ends and the White Nile Bridge begins.

The Blue Nile really is blue (well, it is bluer than the Danube). It is huge, clear and serene. The turbid waters of the White Nile are nowhere near white and it is a far less romantic river. Even a thousand miles from its delta, it is a substantial body of water and the bridge is long. Crossing it is a journey from one world to another; from bustling, cosmopolitan Khartoum to the sprawling overgrown village that embodies the heart of the Sudanese people. Khartoum has the presidential palace, office blocks, empty international hotels and the embassies of every country in the world. Omdurman has the Mahdi’s tomb, a small museum containing relics of the Gordon/Kitchener era and endless streets of hot sand, lined with single story dwellings and ramshackle workshops.

“Wen?” said our driver as we arrived in Omdurman. This means ‘where?’

“Souk jamal” I replied in my pidgin Arabic. Classical Arabic speakers despise Sudanese as being a pidgin language. If that is fair, and maybe it is not, I spoke pidgin pidgin.

The driver was unsure of the camel market’s location, so we stopped him near the town centre and climbed out of the car. Feeling that he was failing in his duty of hospitality the cabbie accosted a passer-by. The passer-by was also unsure so he asked someone else. Minutes later we were surrounded by a crowd, all talking at once, all giving advice and all doing it in a language of which we had only a very rudimentary grasp.

With a coup in the offing, we had been advised that Omdurman was safe to visit, but it would be wise to keep a low profile. That was exactly what we were not doing.

I fished a 20 Sudanese Pound note from my shirt pocket and gave it to the driver We thanked the crowd and walked off towards a distant television mast, which was, we had read, a marker for the camel market.

The official exchange rate was LS2.5 to £1 sterling, making 20 Sudanese pounds £8. At that rate the tiny chickens in Agami’s Supermarket (think corner shop, halve the space and remove nine tenths of the stock) were over a tenner. The street rate was LS13 to £1 so, realistically, I had paid about £1.50. Khartoum taxis are unmetered and although we usually negotiated a fare in advance we had not done so this time as we were unsure of how long the trip would be. I knew I had overpaid him, but not by much, and we wanted to get away from the crowd without fussing over small change.

We never did find the camel market but we did find a car parts market. Oil smeared blankets spread on the sand served as stalls. One had a stripped down diesel engine, the next a pair of well-used shock absorbers, a third a collection of nuts and bolts, some of which fitted each other. Poverty is a powerful incentive to inventive recycling. As if to emphasise that there was not a single working engine in the place, customers took their purchases away on donkey carts.

A week later, the four of us were walking along Jamariyah, Khartoum’s main drag. Behind us someone shouted “Hey, Khawaja!”

‘Khawaja’ literally means ‘foreigner’ but colloquially it means ‘white European foreigner’. Such people were thin on the ground, even in cosmopolitan Khartoum, so there was little doubt who he was shouting at.

I turned and saw a soldier running towards us, waving. The Sudanese do not run. At 40º running is like wading through hot soup. Local people proceed with a languid, loose-limbed lope. Even us stiff North Europeans had loosened up since we had been there, and we had slowed down too. Not only was he running, he was running in army uniform. Sudanese army uniforms looked like they came second-hand from some Eastern European army where a cool climate had dictated the material. And not all Sudanese army boots had laces.

He arrived breathless and sweating. When he had composed himself he said:

“You take taxi Omdurman.”

We told him we did not want to go to Omdurman at that moment.

“No,” he said, “You take taxi this man.”

A figure emerged from the bustle of the street. He was some thirty years old, of medium height and slim build with a thin sensitive face. Like almost everyone else he wore a sun-bleached white robe and a small white turban.

“Taxi this man. Last week.”

Was he the driver who had taken us to Omdurman? Riding in taxis was a daily occurrence; I could not remember all the drivers.

“He say you pay more.”

“No.” I replied, trying to sound firm. “I paid twenty pounds - ishriin jineeh - it was enough.”

The soldier looked exasperated. Having tested his physical resources running after us, he now found his linguistic resources being stretched beyond breaking point.

“No, he say you pay too more.”

The taxi driver’s hand disappeared inside his robe and reappeared clutching his wallet. He extracted a brown LS10 note and tried to give it to me.

Lynne and Martin and I looked at each other. None of us wanted to be the first to voice our thoughts, what seemed to be happening was too unbelievable.

But we had to believe it. This man had been so troubled by the over payment that, seeing us in the street - and we must have been a distinctive little group - he had enlisted a friend as interpreter and chased after us to give us our change.

I was, until I retired, a teacher so I am not a rich man. On the other hand, each month I was paid five times the annual earnings of an average Sudanese. He was offering me what I thought of as loose change; to him it represented the better part of a day’s pay.

Of course, we could not take the money, but refusing without giving offence required diplomacy. Happily, the encounter ended with smiling handshakes all round.

I hope the driver felt happy, keeping both the money and a clear conscience. I felt elated. A world in which people do such things was a better world than I had taken it for. I also felt humble, if fate had dealt the cards the other way round would I have acted in that way? I doubt it. Would a London cabbie have acted that way? Almost certainly not. What happened was extreme, even for Khartoum, but could it have happened anywhere else in the world? It is difficult to imagine.


  1. A great story! Another good story - Not to upstage yours, but just because it is another story of a taxi driver demonstrating the kindness of strangers, that I have read recently.

    1. Thanks Alison, Adam Gopnik's story from the BBC website is a good one with some obvious similarities. It supports my argument that the world is a better place than we often take it for and our fellow human beings are largely honest and decent. He makes a point I did not make because I wrote my piece before the current political climate arose, 'Fear of the Other' is a pernicious influence on our society and is heavily promoted by some politicians and large parts of the press - and it tends to evaporate when you meet the Other face to face and discover they are not so Other after all.