Death Star

During our stay in Khartoum, it became increasingly apparent that Sudanese people are perhaps the most lovely on the whole continent: the sweetest, kindest, gentlest and most welcoming. It wasn’t just the wood-gathering woman or farmer Aboud, there were luminous generous spirits everywhere. And it wasn’t just us who noticed: check out Buzzfeed’s list of delightful things you probably don’t know about Sudan.

Sudan’s 5 star hotels were so much easier and friendlier than Egypt’s. Of course sending emails ahead over the last month to hotels with English speakers at reception had helped. But Khartoum seemed so much more relaxed than Cairo – not to mention more elegant. (This, of course, was nine months before the beginning of Dec 2018 protests that led to the ousting of President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 after 30 years in power, and 15 months before the horrific events around the Khartoum Massacre of June 2019.)

We couldn’t believe our luck in landing a berth at the Corinthia. Designed to look like a ship under full sail but more Death Star-esque, this opulent oval hotel dominates Khartoum’s skyline. It was paid for by the Libyan government and is known as ‘Gaddaffi’s Egg’.

Duty Manager and Head of Security Mr Mousa Hamza had seen our email and raised his arms in greeting: “The South Africans!” He took us to the restaurant for a karkadeh juice and told us he thought there’d be no problem getting waste vegetable oil donated, although the Corinthia’s was usually given to the Ministry of Health to spray on stagnant water as a malaria prevention strategy! Wow! Sampson was vastly cheered by this. Our life is amazing, when he remembers.

After the weeks we’d just been through, the Corinthia felt like an oasis of calm and lavish luxury. Big Reg was ensconced at the back next to the loading bay, in a shady spot beside the Chinese hotel next door. Lucky was loving exploring and having trees to climb, full of rustling leaves and birds!

As it continued to be meltingly hot, it was wonderful to be able to sleep safely here with the door and the hatch wide open. Zola couldn’t believe I wasn’t sweating. I find heat so much easier to tolerate than cold. 38˚C at bedtime was no problem for me but the boys were struggling. It didn’t help that mossies were horribly vicious, bestowing a poisonous itch.

Lucky crashed out in the metal shower tray trying to keep cool

In the morning, I’d walk gently around the hotel, then do T’ai Chi in the shade. Zola and I would do Maths, English and one other subject before lunch, then when it got too hot in the truck, we’d go inside to finish school in the air-conditioned Nile Café and enjoy their excellent wifi afterwards. It was wonderful to have long catch-up Whatsapp chats with family and friends.

While Sampson was enjoying himself making a video for Colorfieldsalbum launch, I was online looking at electric funk goddess Janelle Monae channelling Prince in the first singles from her new album. (When I was well enough to dance in the truck, it was Make Me Feel and Django Jane from Dirty Computer that we were boogying to for the rest of the year.) Zola was eager to see Black Panther which had recently been released worldwide and in several African countries including Ethiopia, but sadly not Sudan.

After 3 days I thought, “If I could just stay here for 2 weeks I would get well!” I’d upped my morning loop around the hotel from once to twice, and was confident of being able to work up to 3 times by the end of the week. I was also capable of cleaning all the dust of the desert off in preparation for visitors.

Our first was PA to the General Manager, Yosra Makky. Her boss is Swiss so she is an excellent speaker of English. She was born in Saudi but is “not hajji” so prefers Sudan, where, I understood, there is less prejudice if one had not completed the pilgrimage to Mecca. Yosra came to Khartoum to study Business Management, and this was her second job. She told us we were welcome to stay until there was enough waste vegetable oil ready to collect. Hooray!

It wouldn’t take too long as the Corinthia hosted 3 exceptionally elegant restaurants on the 16th, 17th and 18th floors, all with magnificent views over the confluence of the White Nile, and the Blue Nile. The former, which originates in Lake Victoria (between Tanzania and Uganda, from sources in Burundi and Rwanda) is pale because of clay carried in the water; the latter, which originates in Lake Tana in Ethiopia, is dark because of the fertile silt that washes down with it.

Afterwards, as I was busy loading the Croatia blog (the first I’d managed to complete since before Ruby arrived), I suddenly went cold. Half way back to the truck, I felt my legs go and had to sit down and rest. I fell asleep on the bed while Sampson was making cabbage and tuna for supper.

Reunited and it feels so good

On the evening of Monday 26th Feb we met up with Andrew and Dee again. It was so lovely to see them, although Dee was shockingly thin after a nasty bout of stomach lergie and Andrew looked lankier than ever after their longhaul ride from Egypt. I felt the spirit of my mother come over me as I insisted on taking them to the Corinthia’s groundfloor restaurant The Grill for a slap-up meal. I felt weak and dizzy myself and the superb chicken, chips and spiced roasted veg did us all a world of good.

Most nourishing of all was the delightful conversation. They told us how they’d been saved from dehydration by the regular positioning of giant clay pots of water by the side of the road which are free to all and regaled us with hilarious tales of being scooped up and plonked in the back of a bakkie with their bikes by police who would not allow them to cycle in the desert. Dee was also enthusing about meeting with the Sudanese Women’s Cyclist Club – many of whose members have to cycle in secret to avoid risking the disapproval of their families.

I admired how secure Andy was with his feminine side as he told the story of how the Sudanese police told him to “take his little watch off and give to his wife”. He absorbed Sampson’s jibe about his ukelele playing being “just annoying” with the merest moue, adding “I never even got started on talking about my tapestry!” Bless ‘im!

On the last day in Feb, I pushed myself to finally post the Turning the Corner blog. My overtired blur and awareness of impending PEM was leavened with a huge sense of achievement when an old friend messaged me to say she was so glad I’d started writing about M.E. because it made her “realise I’m not being pathetic when whoozy waking up in the morning, that it’s not in my head. Your words…. made me feel a bit ‘sane’ with all of it”. Her validation gifted me mine.

I thought I would finally sleep soundly that night and turn to focusing on just getting stronger. Sampson did some extra stretching at dusk and left Lucky outside – she loved exploring at this coolest time of day. She’d been so happy this morning – we’d both remarked on it during our exercises – as she went up and down the wall mewing for attention and a nose push. She even batted me with a soft paw on her way past.

But it was so sticky, I didn’t get to sleep till midnight, then was woken less than an hour later when Lucky landed clumsily on the end of my bed. I put my hand out to touch her and found she was wet – what was going on? Blearily I sat up and heard her panting but couldn’t work out why when it was no longer that hot. As Lucky tried drunkenly to get in the net with me, she fell on the floor and lay there scrabbling. I called out to Sampson “There’s something wrong”.

He got up and said “Has she been hit by a car?” At the same moment I realised there was a smear of faeces on my net, he said “Oh no, it’s poison, look” as Lucky began having a fit.

It was like a nightmare in slow motion: Monte all over again, just three weeks later.

I grabbed the cherry red towel we’d used to comfort her as a kitten after a traumatic wash, when Sampson would snuggle her and breathe on her head, when I would rock and sing to her. I swaddled her in it, fought the convulsions, ignored the diarrhoea and vomit and sweat coming off her and just cradled her like a baby.

Zola was out of bed now, in stony shock. I refused to let Sampson take her to give me a break but walked her up and down, up and down the truck crooning soothing words. I didn’t want to relinquish her even when my arm muscles started burning. Merciless mossies attacked my legs until my feet and ankles were throbbing, but I didn’t care. I was moaning with pain, hers, mine, with the words “unjust unjust” keeping me company like a funereal drumbeat. It took her half an hour to let go.

Like the bruise on my wrist after Monte’s death, the clutch of my arms around Lucky took days to dissipate.

At 2am, Sampson got out and started to dig a grave in the flower bed next to the truck. It was deep and did him good to sweat. Bereft Zola took himself to bed; an hour later I heard him sobbing. I felt hollowed out. The next day Sampson planted a palm pip over Lucky – by now we hope there’s a little tree marking the spot.

What we didn’t know: wild dogs were a widespread problem in Egypt, but in Sudan it’s feral cats. It was the restaurant in the Chinese hotel next door that had put poisoned chicken bones down to keep them away from their bins. Poor Lucky, who never did anyone any harm, named after being rescued from by the side of the road by a French lorry driver and given to us, turned out not to be.

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