December 05, 2005
Observations on Khartoum
A popular blogger based in Darfur has recently posted an entry from Khartoum. While generally her observations are well informed (she is a releif worker), reasonably dispassionate and genuinely involved without losing perspective, I found the post from Khartoum to be rather shallow albeit written with a rather refreshing fascination with the city.
The occurences in Darfur, although tragic, have diverted the spotlight from Khartoum, the emerging political culture, the deep-rooted corrpution and obscene social disparities that exist. One finds very little meaningful exposition of Sudanese politics and culture now outside the frame of terrorism and Darfur. While Sleepless's efforts I am sure are appreciated, the Khartoum she sees is a sanitised NGO/diplo/rich kids version that only a miniscule fraction of the population are fortunate enough to see.
Another blog, run by a Christian church group in Pensylvania, posted an entry from khartoum two weeks ago and the author also seemed to be impressed by the facilities, hospitality, food and idyllic old world atmosphere on the banks of the Nile.
It is interesting and rather paradoxical that Western aid workers react to Khartoum in this way. Firstly, this is not the first time that the city had displayed the manifestations of modernity, it is merely the first time during the tenure of the current government. During the late 60's and 70's, Khartoum was a destination for regional immigrants and boasted theatres, cafes and restaurants. Even throughout the Numeiri governments and sporadic democratic periods, the city witnessed periods of prosperity and social activity. The present government has been in power for fifteen years and despite the peace treaty signed with the South, the growing oil industry and the general relaxation of sanctions, funds have filtered down to very few (that is, not government affiliated) private individuals.
Khartoum is a city of extremeties. Palatial properties exist alongside shanty towns, the inhabitants of which often provide domestic staff for said properties. The pyramid of affluence starts with governments ministers/officials, runs down through to private businesses they are affiliated with and ends with what are ostensibly the most independent positions in multinational companies- who of course have signed contracts with the government and exist symbiotically with it. If the paraphernalia of the massive wealth being accumulated has surfaced in the shape of coffee shops, restaurants and flavoured condoms, then this is hardly something for khartoum inhabitants to celebrate as the market for these venues consists of those that exist in aforementioned pyramid of influence- bringing to a perfect close the loop of nepotism and corrupt excluisivity. The unbelievable 'amount of construction' going on is not infrastructural. While roads, hospitals and public amenities generally continue to go the dogs, hotels, private properties and government ministries are being erected, towering above the dilapidated streets of squalour, child employment and poverty.
The government that is allegedly engineering the monstrosities in Darfur is the same one that is annexing the capital city into its very own playground. Those who consider the changing face of the city as a positive thing need to cease separating the obvious victims of the government and the more subtle ones. Forgive me if I do not buy this image of a vibrant city of Viennese style black forest cakes and happy weddings (the marriage market has now exploded in Khartoum, as extreme poverty and lack of social space drives girls to wed a provider and youth of both sexes to indulge in all things nuptial as those are the only celebrations allowed by the government). I would expect informed activists in Sudan who see Darfur as something more complicated than a pamphlet implies, to see Khartoum as something more than a postcard advertises.
Posted by Meph at December 5, 2005 05:42 PM
Filed Under: Op-Ed
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reminds me of those who are judging beirut by the new, spiffy "centre-ville", cairo by the rich suburbs, etc.pp.
funny that a relief worker would fall into that trap. on the other hand - relief workers might be more technically educated than socially/culturally, and thus not exactly in a position to really understand the place where they're posted.
nice, orderly refugee camps, though...
Posted by: raf* at December 6, 2005 12:41 PM
E-mail comment from Sleepless in Sudan reads..
I wouldn't object to any of the comments you've made, my appreciation of Khartoum
is indeed rather shallow and limited to the "sanitised NGO/diplo/rich kids
version" of life there. It's one of the most "expat" cities I've ever lived in -
and I've always found it quite hard to really fit into the local scene, I don't
really know many western aid workers who've managed (or, for that matter, tried to
do this with much enthusiasm). It's quite different from other places I've where
I've worked in that sense, though I couldn't really tell you why. Will keep
reading your postings, maybe they'll give me some ideas..
Posted by: Meph at December 7, 2005 10:46 AM