Mark Tanner - Adventurer, Writer and Amateur Beatboxer



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About Omdurman

28 March 2004


When you're a foreigner in Sudan, you're called a hawaja. It's not a derogatory term, just an innocuous title given to those funny looking types from far away that dress peculiarly and carry rucksacks. During any idle stroll, long or short, you're guaranteed to have the word directed at your hearing. For those locals who have dabbled with the English lingo, they may even take it to the next level, bellowing: "welcome Sudan", "how are you?", "hey you", "where you go?". Even better still are those with a real hankering for the language who show off their vocabulary with creative combinations of semi-related words such as "wet tear eye" or "tree tall house"? Regardless of the question or statement, it is inevitable that any response given in English will be gratefully received with a look of confusion and incomprehension. 


In the vicinity of my neighbourhood, it is unusual to see a hawaja. A running hawaja is even more of an anomaly, yet I enjoy the odd scamper to start the day. Running keeps my head clear and body fit, is a good way to see a place and helps compensate for the gluttonous feasts from the hospitable locals. 


I usually follow a rough route east from my apartment, past the creepy graveyard and through the labyrinth of charming mudbrick lanes before I reach the clean air along the Nile's banks. Although I've found running in the past somewhat meditational, over here it seems the opposite. The uneven and generously littered dirt terrain ensures you have to keep a close eye on what's going on underfoot. Add that to the undivided attention from entire villages, acknowledging your activity with everything from verbal encouragement to rounds of applause to young kids standing and steering in astonishment and you have my typical leisurely jog. Regardless, of everywhere I've run, it is undisputedly the most interesting, especially through the adobe village where impoverished residents go about their daily routines, the smiling kids being the most interesting, whether playing with footballs, puddles or creatively modified sticks and round things. 


But the interesting material doesn't end when I strip off my running costume, everything here is remarkably fascinating, from my daily stroll through suburban Omdurman to the performance of shopping for produce. 


The evening is my favourite time of the day. Sunset is enchanting as the cluttering of mud and clay buildings glow radiantly and young children scamper through their colourful gates to be home before dark, but there is something even more magical about twilight and the hours that follow. For a start, the scorching heat eases to a comfortable, yet balmy, temperature. Things seem more relaxed, especially in the market, where each stall lights up with a small fluorescent light, casting some luminosity across the contents of the stand, yet still leaving much of the shelves concealed amongst the shadows. For those without electricity, usually small booths or mats covered with supplies, a candle sheltered by a buckled plastic bottle castes it's dancing light. Blaring music is joined by the joyous voices of the gregarious locals filling the dirt plazas and market lanes all contributing to the wonderful atmosphere.


The evening is also a time to feast, something which I have been doing far too much of. Sudanese usually have their breakfast at around 10-11am, followed by lunch at around 3pm, meaning dinner is pushed out to 10pm-ish. It seems every evening I go to bed absolutely bloated from a day of grotesque excess, in this country where many parts have recently been plagued by famine. But again it comes down to the hospitality of the locals, who love their food, and appreciate others who do as well.


Fuul beans complimented with bread dominated my initial diet. As an attempt to balance my nutritional regime, I started consuming bountiful amounts of bananas, which soon evolved to banana milkshakes and then banana icecream. But the lack of variety soon took its toll, and after a couple of bouts of the trots (that I don't believe fuul or bananas were responsible for), I decided it was time to diverge from the staple. It seemed many new and delightful dishes came out of the woodwork. The addition of a new cooker and fridge to my apartment also allowed me to cook the odd meal for myself capitalising on the abundant supplies of cheap produce such as tomatoes and aubergines. Many of the first Arabic words I learnt were different ways of saying "delicious", which always received a warm response from my hostesses.


After eating, teaching seems to be my most important pastime here. I have been teaching at the all-female campus of the Education Faculty of Khartoum University in Omdurman. Some days the lessons would go remarkably well, when you really think that you are teaching the students something worthwhile, then there'd be days when the class goes down like a lead balloon. Things seemed to improve as time went on and I became more practiced and learnt what worked well and what didn't. Topics such as woman in Sudan, tourism and conservation furnished the students with another perspective, but I also found it really interesting as it gave me a good insight into the local views of the topics and the way people think over here. 


Omdurman and around including a Sudanese tea lady, and many other typical scenesTypical scenes around Khartoum, including Arabi and its mosque, the centre of Khartoum

A couple of hours north of Khartoum on the Nile is the legendary 6th Cataract. I was curious to visit the landmark due to its significance in Egyptian Pharaoh history and because of my personal fascination with the River Nile. With a van load of hawajas and a few token locals, we crossed savannas and deserts to the site, only having to push the van out of the sand once. 


The only disappointment was the 6th cataract itself – a small rapid that could be outdone by a team of under-14 water polo players, and the ravenous locals hovering around the spot, the first sign of Egyptian-styled tourist-mongers I had seen in Sudan. That aside, the area was beautiful, with the glistening Nile cutting its way through ruby red 'mountains', alongside fertile banks cultivated with spring onions and aubergines. It was a world away from the dusty and bustling Khartoum. 

The daytrip to the 6th Cataract of the Nile, about 2 hours drive north from Khartoum







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