As I’ve said, the Sudanese were the loveliest people on the whole continent, and these next two blogs are dedicated to two of the kindest people we met in Khartoum. I am very sorry that chronic illness has caused me to neglect to acknowledge their vital support until now.
On the evening of Sunday 4th March 2018, it took Big Reg half an hour to travel 4km through rush hour to Farbest Auto Service Centre, a small garage with a big heart. It was a classic old school set up, a scene of organised chaos reminiscent of Papi’s in La Rove or Reg’s in Cornwall; Big Reg squeezed in between rusting old car bodies, gleaming new machines and piles of parts. Boss Mr Abd Alsalam Eltinay is a legend amongst overlanders, as he’s a keen adventurer himself as well as an expert mechanic offering both technical and logistical support. As head of the fearless Sudanese 4×4 association ‘Nile Riders’, whose members have been taking three trips annually all over the Horn of Africa and into Arabia for years, he’s known around here as Mr President.
Abd Alsalam had been recommended to us at the Rotana hotel where we spent the weekend after Lucky’s death. That first day I’d pushed through in a daze on only 2 hours’ sleep. We’d arrived at the South African Embassy only 20 mins before early closing time on a Friday, but First Secretary Colin Pillay greeted us with outstretched arms saying “We’re always open for you – this is your HOME!” Bless him for his effusive welcome – it meant a lot on a day of heavy grief.
In return, we showed the embassy staff round our home and it was cheering to have such enthusiastic visitors, especially the lovely Wadma Abdalla who adored Zola. Our “sad boy” perked up noticeably under her admiring gaze. They checked our visas and assured us they were fine till the end of March and Colin recommended we go ask for waste vegetable oil at the embassy’s favourite hotel, the Al Salam Rotana.
The hotel was wonderful and the staff welcoming, although their oil donation ended up being unusable as it was full of shortening. We spent a grim weekend in their carpark, next to a busy highway and under Khartoum International’s flight path – didn’t help our sleep. While we were feeling mired in grief, Andrew and Dee had already arrived in Ethiopia. It says something about your truck’s snail’s pace around Africa when you’re being lapped by cyclists.
The following day a haboob haze made it cooler at 33˚C but the PEM really hit me. Not only was I sledgehammered after the shock and upset, I was bleeding again – only 2 weeks and 5 days since my last period. The same thing had happened after Monte’s death. I was wondering if it was simply the peri-menopause kicking me while I was down or whether emotional trauma could trigger a hormonal reaction that quickly?
People who have periods have been sorely under-represented in research on chronic illnesses like M.E. Anecdotally, it is well known that hormones have a massive impact on the symptoms of people with dysautonomia. When I finally made the transition from severe to moderate, early in 1996, and was able to be mostly upright again, the week of my period would put me back in bed. When I improved from moderate to mild and was able to work part time again from 1999, I would avoid arranging meetings for the week of my period, as I’d always be knocked for six. Bleeding out a womb-lining consumes copious amounts of energy.
With my afternoon bissap tea I treated myself to the last 3 squares of my favourite Greek citrus-flavoured chocolate that I’d been hoarding in the fridge since October. I figured I had such a massive headache already, the caffeine fallout couldn’t make it any worse. I was missing Lucky so keenly – I kept seeing her shadow in corners and was surprised by sobs at odd times: once when I caught sight of another cat under the truck; once when I found the stash of purple and gold toffee papers I’d saved to make a toy for her.
I was even missing hearing her paws scrabbling in the litter tray. The floor didn’t need sweeping this morning for the first time in forever.
But undeniably my body was getting stronger every day. The coughing was nearly gone. Pain in the mornings was easing, especially in the soles of my feet and joints. I began to bash out the basics of the Montenegro blog in the foyer helped along by grapefruit juice and nuts offered by Rotana engineer Mr Youssef Ali, who was keen to help with our brakes challenges and bumper welding and recommended his friend Mr Abd Alsalam at Farbest Autos.
The Nile Riders were all equally generous with their time and advice. Thanks especially to Mr Ayman Elkabir who donated a set of sand ladders to Big Reg, Muhammad who helped with the hydraulics and the other Mr Abdul Salam who provided Sampson with a whole stack of parts from his shop.
Farbest had two apprentices whom I guessed were aged about 10 and 13. Salah turned out to be 14 and Mustafa 15 – at only 13, Zola was bigger than both of them. He’d probably had more food in his life than the two of them put together. They were thrilled to receive some of his outgrown T shirts, especially the Star Wars one.
We were doing really well with school, plugging away at 4 subjects in the morning before it got too hot. I had to insist we move to the air-conditioned restaurant at the Hotel 45 across road in the afternoon though. Despite the extreme heat causing sweat to run down our legs, Zola would’ve stayed in the truck if not pushed. He’d only just realised that maybe the reason he loved Plan B’s The Recluse so much is that the lyrics might resonate with him!
On March 6th I had an unprecedented amount of sleep, waking only once between 11pm and 7am. I was back on the rungs of normal, feeling like I was building a buffer again at last. While Sampson was out looking for lift pump parts across Khartoum, Zola and I hosted 3 year old Waleed who came in to play at driving and drawing with intense concentration. I wondered at the cuts on his face, but office secretary Jamila and I didn’t share enough language to communicate his story.
Rarely does anything make me feel as blessed as when someone else does the washing I would otherwise have to do by hand, in 40˚C. I took 75 items to Mr Anur in the tiny laundry across the street, who washed and ironed them beautifully for 2SDG per item (R1 each). With freshly scented bed linen, the truck finally felt cleansed of Lucky’s passing. After I’d washed my smalls in the sink, it was the first time everything was properly clean since Xmas in Hurghada. The curtains hadn’t been washed since Spain! It felt like such a gift.
Shout out to more kind people: dentist Dr Yasmin, pictured with her sons Siddiq 6 and Mohamed 3, and her friend Mr Ahmed Hassan Salih who insisted on buying me a mango juice after chatting to them in Hotel 45. And a hallelujah for the return of rocket in the local market!
On the March 7th I woke at 6.30am feeling better than I had done in months. I was able to take a walk through the backstreets with Sampson. It was fascinating to witness the early morning activity. The bed-making carpenters next door had been hard at it since 7am (it was 30˚C already) Women in stalls on street corners all seemed to be beautiful and so happy to be greeted, it was humbling. Boys were playing at bowling, trying to knock down 4 upright bricks with ½L plastic bottle full of sand. Sleepy girls in shaggy plaits stood around watching. Waleed was also wandering about; I was glad to see he looked washed and the blood of yesterday was gone from his cheeks.
While taking tea later with Mr President and his secretary Jamila, it was revealed that Waleed was homeless and his mother “crazy”. I gave a shocked laugh when Abd Alsalam said “You take him”, before I realised he was making a serious suggestion. I think he was presuming we’d picked Zola up somewhere along the way. I handwashed Monte’s jersey to give to Waleed hoping it would give him something to sleep in.
I sat in the café 3 hours that afternoon not really able to write. Painful diarrhoea wasn’t helping my concentration. I was wrestling with decisions about Ruby’s flights for her June holiday and asking for Facebook friends’ input on choosing between RwandAir and Kenya Airways to meet us in Mombasa. But I managed to restore my Twitter feed that had somehow been blocked since we entered the country.
While walking back to the truck from aircon haven of the hotel, I had a lightbulb moment. I was struck by the idea that the whole world has got to learn to live like people with ME – as if your energy is a limited resource you can’t take for granted. We all have to develop careful management strategies for clearly focussed use with no squandering in order to survive. Not to mention Gratitude for the energy we have.
Sampson had been feeling ill for a while.The penny dropped when I realised I’d forgotten to write my diary for 2 days in a row – an unheard of occurrence. The trouble with typhoid confusion is that you’re too bloody confused to realise you’ve got typhoid, even though it’s so obvious when you look back.
On March 8th, our fifth day in the garage, Sampson went for Widal test. The result showed ‘significant load’ so me and Zola followed him to the clinic. Of course all three of us had it, for the third time on this trip. It was a hard hot walk to the pharmacy, so Abd Alsalam himself drove to pick us up for which kindness I am eternally grateful. We started on the Amitrim tablets immediately, two at a time (Trimethoprim 80mg Sulphamethoxadole 400mg) and spent a dire night, unable to get to sleep because we were buzzing, so hot and sweating much more than usual. Sampson was feeling appalling but I couldn’t get over how much better I felt with typhoid than I did at Xmas in Hurghada with my ME status verging on severe.
Let me spell this out: I was currently suffering from typhoid, a potentially fatal bacterial infection, but I had felt significantly worse than this every day from mid-October 2017 to February 2018.
Abd Alsalam had done us the honour of inviting us to attend a family wedding with him that weekend. Sampson was feeling slightly hallucinatory on the meds and wasn’t sure he should drive but got Big Reg to Obdurman in time for the evening reception. We parked a little way away from the venue, had a shower and dug out our party outfits – mine made by Cape Style, a Masiphumelele fashion design house from cotton print I bought in Congo. Zola was excited to put on his Senegalese ‘Bond’ suit and leather pointy shoes.
I had a minor row with my husband when I insisted he go up and get his linen suit out of the roof box as making an effort to dress up was a sign of respect and the bleach-spattered pair of trousers he does yoga in was not going to cut it. Thank God I did. Every other guest was resplendent.
But Zola was in bits. The buzzy typhoid meds were magnifying his social anxiety to unprecedented levels. While Sampson went back to fetch my jacket to combat the icy air con, we stood together outside under fairy-light bedecked tree branches waiting for Mr President. It was a “mid-sized wedding” according to Abd Alsalam – perhaps 500 had been invited and around 400 were there already – and Zola was beginning to hyperventilate at the prospect of entering the huge hall with nearly a thousand eyes upon him. It was bad enough being an introverted teenager and a foreigner; but he was also the only black person with dreadlocks there.
I was slowly beginning to appreciate the true weight of the burden my son had been operating under his whole life. I am very grateful to the friend who shared Susan Cain’s insight with me: “Introverts living under an extrovert ideal are like women living in a man’s world.”
At that moment, Abd Alsalam and his family arrived – we were introduced to his stunningly beautiful wife Toona and delightful daughters Yumna 16, Fargad (known as Kuti) 13, and Joud 8. They were all in gorgeous sparkly outfits with lots of glitter and sequins. Thankfully we entered altogether, and their shine took the heat off us a bit. Zola is incredibly fortunate that, to untutored eyes, he looks mostly completely cool and relaxed despite feeling like a rabbit in the headlights. He doesn’t betray his nerves in the slightest.
It was quite intimidating even for extrovert me; I was out of practice of being in society after so many months mostly stuck in the truck. Plus the music was slightly too loud and the tables slightly too wide to converse easily. We were surrounded on all sides by mostly women. New arrivals would do a tour of the table shaking hands greeting everyone including us. Sampson saved us from awkwardness by going into full children’s party magician-mode, pulling silly faces for Joud and entertaining the young kids with sleight of hand tricks. Abd Alsalam’s second oldest son Saad (Rahman), an IT student, had a quiet chat with Zola; bless him for his sensitivity.
At 9pm the live music started: an excellent bow-tied band featuring accordion, keyboard, bass, flute and a top notch crooner doing traditional classics. At 10pm the bride and groom made a grand entrance from a very flash car. She was in a full Disney princess white wedding dress: a hooped skirt with pearled lace headdress and Bollywood glamour make-up. Her handsome pharmacist husband was doing the Sudanese salute of happiness, fist-punching the air in greeting. The ululating of the crowd surprised me; it was done far more softly than the Xhosa version, as you’d expect from the ever-gentle Sudanese, but was eerily similar.
After the couple paraded down the aisle, the dancing started, with men to the right and women to the left, although the groom moved between groups and other elders occasionally danced with bride. After food had been served and consumed – a takeaway box with falafel, kofta, a chicken drumstick and a sweet pastry – I wondered if our presence was restricting Toona from mingling. So I took a chance and Sampson’s arm down the aisle to join a group of admiring women dancing around the bride.
This caused an immediate stir, not least because Abd Alsalam leapt up to fetch his phone to film me and Joud boogying together. It got a bit much when other women got interested, cleared a space around us and started asking me to dance with each of them individually. I obliged at first but, when I saw the bride wondering where the crowd had gone, deliberately reduced my focus back to Joud and purposefully dwindled.
However, this attempt was somewhat undermined by the huge screen with a multi-camera live video feed spotlighting our interactions. I dread to think what stories they’ve had to come up with to explain to subsequent wedding video-watchers asking “Who’s that sweaty woman with the muppet face and grey curls poking out of her doek, like a granny on ectasy?”
The bride and groom changed into traditional finery in cloth trimmed with red and gold for the last part of the proceedings: the jirtig ceremony – the first time the families of the newlyweds are gathered together as one in celebration. There were so many happy relations gathering round, we could scarcely see what was happening, but my research has garnered the following fascinating facts:
The jirtig ritual involves joyous songs and sharing of gifts. Older female relations of both families deck the bride and groom with a blackwood and red coral rosary and gilded decorations – a head covering for the bride, a crescent moon for the groom. A swag of silk is wrapped around the bride’s arm and fine perfume is daubed upon her. The couple share milk, and exchange dates and sweets seven times before the groom distributes them to the delighted crowd. The symbolic ritual is meant to shield against evil and bestow blessings on the newlyweds, and may date from the Nubian Kerma civilisation around 2500BCE. Check out these lovely pictures and video of the rite being performed at a range of ceremonies.
I could see all the aunties gleefully pressing bracelets on the bride as the groom showed his genuine joy throwing his arm in the air and clicking his fingers in the traditional way. Their generous happiness in the midst of their loving clans was infectious.
By 11.30 the party was winding down. I got whisked off by a little girl to greet her mum and chat to her 15 year old sister Malaz. She introduced me to a dignified old aunt who said “It is your wedding” in a magnanimous tone. Immediately I felt uneasy – was it a pointed jibe, meaning “You took over, stole the poor bride’s thunder” or a typically Sudanese effusive “It’s your home, feel welcome” gesture? I felt increasingly uncomfortable as I was unable to adequately express my thanks and apologies to the very gracious couple Elshaikh and Rayan Eltiybe as they left.
Abd Alsalam’s gentle brother Khalid and his son, a political science student, took us back to sleep next to their place as it was nearer. I woke the next morning feeling very unhappy about my role in the previous night’s proceedings: pangs of guilt, regret and deep discomfort. Sampson said the typhoid drugs were making me as paranoid as Zola, but he’s hardly the most sensitive intercultural observer. However there were moments last night when I had felt like I was coming up on drugs, and undoubtedly today the after effects were settling in – I had a raging thirst as well as the crippling self-doubt!
But for all that, I couldn’t get over the profound change in my level of health. When you fall down the rabbit hole of an ME relapse, it’s so difficult to pull yourself out. But it was like something happened 2 weeks ago that pressed my reset button. And just like that, I was sleeping through the night again. And if I’m sleeping through the night I have strength and energy enough to walk. And if I can walk I can get properly physically tired, which helps me sleep better. And so my recovery leaps exponentially and 2 weeks later I attend a wedding, chat for hours, dance, stay up till 1 o’clock in the morning and am more or less fine the next day? Wowowowowowowowow!
I started to wonder: is it possible that getting typhoid triggered my immune system and so helped me finally get over my relapse to severe ME brought on by winter in Europe? My marked improvement dated from exactly when we must have ingested the typhus bacteria (probably through eating vegetables grown with contaminated water). It immediately gave Sampson explosive diarrhoea, but seemed to kickstart my immune response and ironically made me feel so much better. Not just granting me a greater quantity of sleep, but a better quality of sleep – sleep that helps my muscles recover and my body recharge like sleep is meant to do. What was this critical thing happening inside my cells?