Could there be a silver lining to the hearse-black world-covering cloud of COVID-19? Could the fact that more than 10% of infected people go on to develop long term complications unlock vital funds that will finally enable groundbreaking research into chronically debilitating post-viral conditions? Might those of us suffering from them for several decades already see some recognition and relief in our lifetimes after all? (Please share George Monbiot’s incisive piece on Long Covid and ME in yesterday’s Guardian.)
These are not the questions I was wrestling with from May to September 2020, when I was mostly bedbound and unable to cook for myself. Those questions were “Oh my God how can the onset of winter cold make me so much more disabled?” “How much more groundless pain, crippling dizziness, brain fug and hourly cortisol-flood-triggering can I stand?” and “How can I bear to continue to be such a burden to my nearest and dearest?”
But it’s a new year. Sampson spent five months renovating our family house so we could rent it out to new tenants and we finally have income again. December’s warm weather energy boost came just in time to enable me to manage 2 hours’ Christmas shopping (thanks to wheelchair, ear defenders and sunglasses) and the packing for our second house move since July. Ruby did the bulk of it last time, but she’s now working in Cabo Verde, as an au pair for a Swiss friend we met in Liberia.
We are in a new place. Back in the truck, back by the sea. Surrounded by intoxicatingly fresh air at the Soetwater Environmental Education Centre (where Sampson is hoping to do a fundraising show when lockdown lifts), I am able to think more clearly, see more clearly several things:
1. This is as good as as good as it it going to get. I may never again be able to walk more than a couple of 100m. Even if I have enough spoons to go further, I can’t manage it physically. Due to longterm collagen depletion or so many months bedridden since 2018, my hips and ankles are unstable. My heart demands I stop and rest on the way back and my ‘aeroplane legs’ need to be raised above my head now even on warm days. A short conversation with someone can consume my energy for the day. Often I must choose between that or teaching Zola a half hour French lesson.
2. This is fine.This is more than fine. It’s so much more than I could have hoped for in midwinter when my level of functioning was so poor the effort to write was like attempting Everest. I’ve seen more of the sea this last week than I have this last year, despite living so near to it, because I wasn’t able to cope with even a 1km car journey. Now I’m doing T’ai Chi daily near the shore line, 20 paces from the truck, drinking in the air flowing in off the Antarctic. It’s so pure, it gives you a hit like champagne. I feel my potential to get stronger here more keenly than anywhere since the Kenyan coast in 2018.
Back then, in my M.E. Too blog, I wrote: Having mild M.E. is like living your life on a tightrope. You advance gingerly through each day, you look ahead constantly, you weigh your every step. One wrong move could take you down. You are forever dodging the curveballs being thrown at you: a virus, a period, a shock. It’s the ultimate balancing act. Having moderate M.E. is living your life floundering in the safety net, trapped by pain, an infinite struggle to get back on your feet. Severe M.E. is lying smashed and broken on the floor, forgotten in the shadows below. The people watching only ever look up and see the tightrope walkers smiling effortlessly under the lights. It doesn’t look dangerous.
After 6 months mostly horizontal, I’m finally back to 40% upright and at times this feels like heaven. I know I have maybe 8 more weeks of warmth where most days I can operate at my most capable, which currently means maximum 3 hours editing per day, at maximum 30% of the mental acuity and efficiency I once had.
3. Except if I get Covid. As the second wave of the pandemic tsunami sweeps across the country, even here, alone in the truck, perched in the middle of an isolated nature reserve on the southern tip of the continent, it is becoming a matter of not if but when I get taken down by COVID-19. There is no safety net now. As an immunocompromised person, I am more likely to experience life-threatening symptoms, but the prospect of death doesn’t scare me. What scares me is that if I fall to the coronavirus, my long awaited high functioning 2 months will be lost and I may not claw my way back to that level of capacity this entire year.
The double whammy may even render me permanently too disabled to finish my story.
4. All I want to do is write my book before I die.
This is crystal clear to me now. My children are at the latter end of their education and I’m confident they can manage the rest on their own. My husband might well be better off without me. My unreliable energy and fluctuating cognitive capacity have made it impossible for me to continue with an activist role in the climate justice organisation I helped to found in 2019, or even with community food security efforts in 2020. My only remaining task is to finish my testimony, in solidarity with those who are too unwell to express theirs.
In the darkest winter months, when I was almost paralysed by cold, PEM and the relentlessly crushing news cycle, I scribbled out James Joyce’s words and pinned them on the wall above my bed: “Write it, damn you, write it! What else are you good for?”
In 2020 I only managed to write up the rest of Egypt and Sudan. If I can stay operational throughout 2021 I’m optimistic I can complete the final quarter of the story, from Ethiopia to South Africa, as well as assemble the highlights for the book.
But when temperatures start to drop below 20˚C and my scant energy reserves are being wasted on keeping warm instead of writing, it will get harder again. The remedy is to avoid winter, either by flying to my parents in Spain or travelling north in the truck to more tropical climes – lockdowns permitting.
The first option may be reliant on obtaining a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine suitable for the immunocompromised, despite South Africa having access to neither; the second on my brain stem coping with the sustained assault of a minimum 1000km journey. The odds aren’t great on either; but I’m feeling lucky.
5. Compassion and companionship are all that matters in the end.
Since lockdown began last March I have been visited by friends on a handful of occasions. The most precious hour was spent with someone with whom I’ve been communicating online, but only met the week before Christmas. Retha Viviers is the founder of the South African ME/CFS Foundation and has been chronically ill since 2008. We have been keeping each other company on our longhaul journeys since 2017.
This time last year, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and given only months to live. I want to pay tribute to her spirit of determined hope, the graceful way she has optimistically undergone two courses of chemo that would be brutal on a body not already weakened by more than a decade of ME. Some of her medical bills are being covered by an international crowdfunding effort spearheaded by those who appreciate how hard she has worked for the ME community over the years.
Since I started writing this blog, Retha’s husband has been admitted to hospital with severe Covid and she is currently withstanding the onslaught of the virus alone at home. Please note that I have avoided using the words ‘fight’ or ‘battle’ to describe Retha’s struggle. We both know better. For those of us with energy-impairment, survival is not about resisting, but enduring. Going with the flow, not against the rip. Trying to float and not drown in the buffeting torrent.
Sterkte, my friend. Just breathe, just be.
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M.E. has made me super sensitive to any drugs – way back in Congo in 2013 when I started taking malaria prophylactic medication, I was unable to even take a ¼ of a doxycycline pill because they made me feel so out of it. Yet Sampson was cheerfully swallowing a whole one daily with zero side effects.
But these typhoid meds were next level. On day 5 Sampson said “It’s like having an E every day for 15 days. Even I never tried to do that!”. I’m 15kg lighter and a helluva lot weedier than him, so you can imagine the effects they were having on me…
Abd Alsalam took us to the restaurant of his good friend Mustafa Makky. Samakna means “our fish” in Arabic, is open seven days a week and serves “the best fish in Khartoum“. I wasn’t expecting the magical atmosphere engendered by the boma-like design, the rich red and turquoise walls, the purple and crimson floor cushions, the twinkly fairy lights and intoxicating fumes of scented bakhoor. I was enchanted by the display of black and white photographs which provided a fascinating glimpse into 1950s/60s Khartoum (post-independence, before an Islamic government was established) including shots of President Abboud visiting the Kennedys and jiving Sudanese youngsters looking fly!
The food was fantastic and the boys fell on it as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks. The delicious platter of grilled and fried Nile fish and warm flatbreads was complemented with tahini sauce, tomato relish and piles of fresh rocket. Best of all was the fresh lemon and mint juice which is what Zola and I will cherish most in our memories of Khartoum (though true to form, sweet-tooth Sampson preferred the choc milkshake).
Sampson attempted to return the hospitality by entertaining the staff with an impromptu magic show – Mustafa was so delighted by how he made his cigarette disappear without burning a hole in his shirt, he insisted he came back the next day to show the next shift!
After Abd Alsalam left, we chilled out in the astro-turfed café area. Samakna also serves the best stories in Khartoum! Mustafa’s great grandfather was the Emir Osman Azrag, a prince who famously resisted Kitchener’s campaign to retake Sudan and fought British and Egyptian forces at the Battle of Ferkeh in 1896, escaping along the Nile. In the 1930s, his grandfather Makky Osman Azrag was president of Khartoum’s most prestigious football club Al-Hilal ‘the Crescent’ – check the photo above.
Mustafa told us his fascinating life story: born in 1964, after studying chemistry he spent 3 years researching cottonseed oil before venturing overseas; 10 years as a taxi driver in New York, 3 years in South Korea importing cars, 3 years as an interpreter at a TV station and a volunteer translator at the Refugee Support Network in Manchester.
He told an horrific tale of his arrival in UK, how he bought a car and had the windows smashed repeatedly by a gang of local kids aged around 9 years old. His second child had just been born and he said at that point, as a brown-skinned man, he didn’t feel safe there. The facts were so appalling, I felt I should apologise. It was such a stark contrast to the effusive welcome we received at the hands of every Sudanese person; such treatment is the total antithesis of their culture and yet THEY are the ones villified internationally?
We slept parked on this main road and felt completely safe. In a Muslim city, no alcohol means no threat of drunken idiots messing about in the middle of the night, banging on the sides of the truck or climbing on the roof as we’ve experienced in other capital cities. It was most reassuring.
Mustafa is an unstoppable optimist. As well as starting a second restaurant in Burri a couple of years before, he’d just launched a travel agency and was about to marry for the third time. Like his forebears, ‘giving up’ didn’t seem to be in his vocabulary!
He took Sampson to do his stunts for his Syber Travel & Tourism staff. Nisreen Edris and Nada Khadifa were delightedly aghast at Sampson’s sorcery. After he’d performed all his tricks, making the red cloth, a pinch of salt and then a cigarette disappear, they were still wanting more. Sampson jokingly suggested “give me blood” and without hesitation, Mustafa offered to donate. That sums up Sudan – just ask, and they will give!
The next day we drove to the second Samakna for more waste vegetable oil and another wonderful meal. Mustafa’s sister-in-law Jamila took us to visit her house. Her superb collection of sofas – no less than 4 super plush suites – and bowls of sweets showed the central importance in Sudanese life of always being prepared to offer hospitality to extended family and friends. Such luxuriousness was a million miles from the truck!
Jamila’s son, Mustafa’s nephew, is the manager at Samakna 2; four of Mustafa’s seven siblings and many cousins are on his team. Greetings to supervisors Samah and Fatima!
As well as donating 180L of WVO, Mustafa spoiled us with 3 meals and dozens of juices. He even pressed carrierbagfuls of crisps and pot noodles on Zola. But the greatest gift of all arrived ten minutes after I had finished telling Mustafa the sad story of Lucky’s demise. We said goodnight, walked outside to the truck and there was a skinny kitten, just sitting waiting for us.
It seems even Sudanese cats are more loving and giving than the average. Never have I had a kitten walk towards me. When I crouched down, she came up and sidled along my thigh; when I nuzzled her head, she purred and lifted her face towards mine. It was like the spirit of Lucky was speaking to me.
Zola dashed to get the cat nibbles out and she did the same to him. We were all immediately besotted! Our stray kitty ate, drank, stretched out and went straight to sleep – immediately at home! We named herLittle Miss Stripey Pyjamas or PJ for short. She was a bit sick at first, sneezing for 24 hours, but seemed resilient and definitely more tolerant to the heat than Lucky. No open-mouthed panting for this tiger.
At the time I wrote: There is no doubt PJ is an African cat. French mademoiselle Lucky would turn her nose up if there was a speck of dust on the surface of her water bowl. PJ’s like “Is it wet?” and dives in. She also makes a lot more noise. A LOT. She reminds me of Ruby at 6 months, who couldn’t speak but had 15 different demanding tones depending on what she wanted: food, toy, poo.
We were due to do an interview at Vision FM to thank our sponsors and Nile Riders, but it proved difficult to find the radio station because there was no signage. Once we identified the building, the staff explained this was in case of a coup, to make it harder for rebel forces to take over. (A reminder, this was a policy of longstanding dictator Omar al-Bashir in March 2018; his overthrow a year later proves he was far from paranoid.)
Sampson had a 2 hour interview with dynamic and freakishly talented DJ Rawan Alzain (see pic!). She and her Sudanese/Mauritian colleague Sarah Hamid were beside themselves in the face of his disappearing cigarette trick; Rawan was determined to know the secret and wouldn’t be put off. Her bolshy persistence marked her as a soul sister – as did her adoration of Zola (the feeling was mutual). Off air, she shared that as a 3rd year medical student, she got kicked out of her first university for peeing in the back of the arrogant principal’s car!
I loved Rawan and Sarah’s questing minds – they told us about Afro-explorer Mario Rigby who had just walked across the continent, and the fascinating story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American mother of five who died in 1951 from cervical cancer aged only 31. Tissue samples taken without her consent led to the discovery of her immortal cell line ‘HeLa’ whose mass production – 50 million metric tonnes since the 1950s – enabled the development of the polio vaccine, research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation, IVF, cloning (and even Covid-19).
There is a book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and a movie, starring Oprah Winfrey as her daughter Deborah, revealing how her case was a turning point in the field of bioethics. While starting to write this up, I heard a BBC World Service Forum programme on her, as it was 100 years since her birth on 1st Aug 1920.
I don’t know how Sampson was managing to drive, and I don’t know how we did any school this week. I was so out of it that, until a calendar reminder popped up on my laptop, I even forgot that it was my birthday the following day.
Monte had turned up few days before Sampson’s birthday; PJ appeared a few days before mine and was the best present I could have hoped for. I was shocked to receive other gifts – a Sudanese cotton wrap from Hub, a birthday card in French from Zola apologising for some early morning stroppiness. Awwwww.
That Friday 16th March 2018, we’d been invited by Rawan to share a meal with her friends, but were delayed after some of the WVO we were picking up from the Burri branch of Samakna spilled on the roof. It was the 8th day of our meds and Sampson and Zola were feeling too nauseous to eat – an unheard of occurrence. It was ridiculously hot and I was feeling so uncomfortable already, never mind feeling awkward about being late. I was sweaty, almost hallucinating and embarrassed I couldn’t focus – I’d like to apologise to Rawan’s friends for being unable to remember anybody’s name.
I felt completely unequal to the task of social interaction but Sampson coped by immediately dubbing three highly educated and glamourous sisters sitting next to him, two of whom lived overseas, ‘The Sudanese Kardashians’.
Haitham Balla Saeed, lawyer husband to the eldest sister, told me a wonderful story of Sudanese “aggressive hospitality”. His car broke down in a rural area and ended up with two flat tyres. So a guy with a donkey cart gave him his wheel “because you need it”. Haitham returned two days later with a new tyre for him and was forced to stay for breakfast and dinner. He said such was the Sudanese way – that’s it’s completely usual for people to block the road during Ramadan, to stop and insist that you eat with them.
There was another conversation that stuck with me. One of the ‘Khartoum Kardashians’ who was olive skinned, described herself as ‘yellow’. In the face of our consternation, she went on to explain that Sampson’s complexion would be described in Arabic as ‘red’, Zola’s hue ‘green’ and Haitham’s (the darkest-skinned person at the table) ‘blue’. This seemed a bizarrely complex apartheid-era definition to me, and later I sought to understand why ‘green’ seemed to be the new black.
While documenting the pernicious influence of skin bleaching creams in South Sudan, this 2018 Al Jazeera article explains the historical basis of prejudice against darker, Christian southerners by lighter-skinned northerners of the Muslim ruling class since the time of slavery and colonialism.
This devastatingly illuminating paper Green is the Colour of the Masters by the venerable diplomat and scholar Francis Mading Deng confirms this internalised preference of ‘Arabic’ lightness over ‘African’ darkness. Deng quotes Al-Baqir al-Afifi Mukhtar, who provides an even more nuanced perspective on the complexities of Sudanese colour consciousness and stratification in The Crisis of Identity in the Northern Sudan:
“The first color in rank is asfar. This literally means “yellow”, but is used interchangeably with ahmar to denote “whiteness”. The second in rank is asmar. This literally means reddish, but it is used interchangeably to describe a range of color shades from light to dark brown. This range usually includes subdivisions such as dahabi (golden), gamhi (the color of ripe wheat), and khamri (the color of red wine). The third in ranking is akhdar. This literally means green, but it is used as a polite alternative to the word “black” in describing the color of a dark Northerner. Last and least is azrag. This literally means “blue”, but it is used interchangeably with aswad to mean “black”, which is the color of the abid (slave).
In order to avoid describing self as aswad (black), the collective Northern consciousness renamed them akhdar (green)… Whereas a very dark Northerner is only akhdar, an equally dark Southerner is bluntly aswad (black).”
In his book War of Visions, Deng explains that “Sudanese passports never describe the holder as “black.” The description used for the overwhelming majority of the holders would be “green,” the standard color of the nation in official Northern eyes. Indeed, green is seen as the ideal Sudanese color of skin because it reflects a brown that is not too dark, giving associations with black Africa and possibly slavery, and is not too light, hinting at gypsy (halabi) or European Christian forbears, the infidel Khawajas.”
Phew. Akhdar brings a whole new layer of meaning to greenwashing. I found it unutterably sad that historically the Sudanese have been made to feel as painfully at the mercy of status through skin colour as South Africans. Moreover, stories like Simon Deng‘s show that the effects of slavery and prejudice are far from in the past.
Back at the table, we were being treated to a birthday feast by our generous hosts.
Rawan’s friend Rawan el Gurashi (married to the Kardashians’ brother Ahmed) was an amazing artist, who drew the design of the Sudanese queen on her T Shirt. If you want to order one, contact rawang at hotmail.co.uk!
Before we left, Sampson bonded with Cockney-accented boss Big Mo a.k.a. Mohamed Elin. His story sounded like a movie script waiting to happen: his Dad was a sugar merchant, so Mo was born in UK but grew up in Khartoum. His teenage shenanigans were causing his parents to pull their hair out, so after attending a wedding in London, they dumped him there aged 16 with nothing but his passport. He was homeless for 3 months, didn’t speak English, didn’t understand about signing on. He finally got a cash job with an Egyptian working in a storeroom. Within 6 weeks he was given the keys to the shop and became manager. By the late 80s, he was working as a City and Guilds painter and decorator and became a Sudanese Loadsamoney: bish bosh, “living it large” with more than £2000 a week spending money. After spending 23 yrs in UK, he came back to Khartoum to fulfil his dream of opening his own restaurant: Alasyad.
That evening, I ate plain popcorn for supper because I couldn’t face food. Sampson was up 6 times in the night with violent diarrhoea, and looked very pale and clammy. All of us had passed black stools the last couple of days. His Google search induced mild panic – was it internal bleeding? Did we have drug-resistant typhoid? Or worse, already perforated spleens? (Looking back, it was more likely Sampson was paying for the dodgy chocolate icecream I caught him bolting in a shop on the afternoon of my birthday!)
We arrived at the Soba Medical Hospital on a public holiday so all the doctors were away. It was 50˚C outside so we decided not to charge round trying to find an alternative but just wait in the relative breeze of the open carpark. Mustafa and Abd Alsalam came riding to the rescue like a cavalry of Sudanese Supermen in a 4×4: the delivery of another meal and Samakna’s fresh limonana juice was an absolute lifesaver.
Mustafa had offered to change some money for us, but when he gave me 1000SDG, was reluctant to receive his due. I had to force $30 on him, saying “Please, take it – you’ve done so much for us already! And England owes you!”
Sampson was in the clinic at 8am, then took Zola back in for a double check – the lad turned out to have the highest typhoid load. I spent the rest of the day fixing his dreads – it gave Zola an excuse to crumple on my bed and doze off like when he was little and I’d work on his hair in front of a BBC ‘Women and Hats’ TV drama.
The prolonged assault of the antibiotics meant my organs were no longer coping, including my skin – I had a raised heat rash across my stomach. The boys were topless inside the truck but it was too risky for me to do the same, so we headed back to Vision Radio as Rawan had offered access to their aircon and pool table anytime.
While I sat under the huge fans in the pool room, posting the Albanian blog, Sampson spent hours in icy 16˚C aircon chatting to producer Waleed Wadidi, a supertalented multi-instrumentalist born in Saudi. Waleed has since provided both the music and production on this brilliant hit video ‘Tamees‘ (which means ‘bread’) by Sudanese rapper and comedian Flippter. After the Khartoum massacre, Flippter performed a moving tribute in English and Sudanese Arabic to those killed called Blue.
Vision Radio staffers Sarah, Moaied, Moneer DJ Moe and DJ Aboshama shared their brunch plates of eggs, beans and salad with the boys. I had to go to the truck to cook the last packet of gluten-free pasta from Italy – and within minutes I was dripping. It was proving impossible to keep my heat rash dry and aired.
On 21st March, after an insanely hot night, it was 40˚C at 6.30am. I walked up and down the alley in the shade, deliberately avoiding catching sight of those sleeping on mattresses in the basements of half-finished buildings. I didn’t want to be witness to their private wakings.
The Big Green Truck parked opposite the radio studios next to a tiny shack belonging to a family with five children: Mona aged 18, Awaan 14, Ali 12, Abdullai 10 and Mohammed 8. Each morning, they and their friends Iman 13 and Sito 4 would come and watch us do our exercises. Eventually they started joining in with me and playing games with Sampson. On our final day there, Mona had to go to school early to write an exam so she left us a letter in English and a gift of 2 biros in a sparkly case. I found this utterly humbling.
I dug out the jewellry I’d brought with me from SA to give as gifts and chose earrings and bracelets for Mona, beaded brooches and keyrings for the little brothers. After giving out the presents I asked for a group photo to remember them by, when a man drew up in a big car and shouted at Iman and Sito to go home. I tried to explain that we’d been hanging out together for days but he blanked me and drove off – fair enough, I looked like an exploitative white tourist taking a snap of cute brown children. Was I not?
At what point does a photograph become a tribute to a precious moment, culture or memory? Is it the amount of time or care taken to build a relationship with the subject that prevents a picture from taking liberties? Or is it intention alone that makes it respectful? I’m not sure I can articulate the difference, but you can feel it when you see it.
I saw Sand in my Eyes in Mustafa’s office and was mesmerised: at once a book, an exhibition and an exquisite artistic, poetic and historical record of Sudan before the 2011 separation of North and South, it took Eniko Nagy 5 years to complete. It is a beautiful love letter to the country and its people and I salute her extraordinary effort.
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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?
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.
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 Colorfields‘ album 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.
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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On Sunday 18th Feb, despite Sampson’s concern about dodgy brakes, Big Reg set off across the bleak desert to Karima. Thanks to the straight new tar, I only had to lie down for the second half of the journey.
Before we left, we’d finally tapped into a strong enough internet connection to check the news (I read on the BBC website that Lady Gaga had cancelled tour dates because of the pain of her Fibromyalgia). It was time to call Ruby and tell her about Monte’s death. I’d warned hostel we had to share some bad news and asked to have someone there to support her, but nevertheless she had such a bad panic attack, she fell down the stairs. I spent most of the day worrying about her.
Just outside the town, we saw a cluster of baby pyramids and immediately pulled over. Wow – even Zola was visibly excited! As we walked up to them at sunset, a carful of local tourists arrived to take selfies. I was exhausted but so thrilled to have managed to cross the soft sand. Our first encounter with Nubian pyramids was nothing short of magical.
There are more than 35 pyramids across five sites in Sudan, more than double the number extant in Egypt. These Nubian pyramids were built around 2000 years later than those at Giza, during the second and third Kushite kingdoms, to serve as private tombs for royalty and the wealthy elite.
After a better sleep, as we drove up to take pictures in the morning light, I asked Sampson if he was quite sure it was going to be safe to take the truck into the sand next to the pyramids. He brushed my concerns aside, but as usual went a bit too far; when he reversed back, disaster struck.
The first pic was taken just before Big Reg got stuck.
I lifted one stone then thought better of it. It was unbelievably hot. I had no choice but to retreat to the shade and pray. The silver lining to this moment of panic was that, after digging us out, Sampson was reminded how physical exertion shifts his depression.
There are three pyramid sites around Karima: the royal cemetery of el-Kurru, the larger site of Nuri (with more than 20 pyramids remaining of original 80) and the smallest containing just 9 here next to the World Heritage site of Jebel Barkal. In the flat desert of Sudan, Jebel Barkal counts as a mountain but, at only 98m tall, it’s more like a mound. From the back, it looks a bit like Table Mountain got shrunk in Wonderland!
For thousands of years, Jebel Barkal was a key landmark on trade routes between Africa, Arabia and Egypt, marking the easiest place for camel caravans to cross the Nile. Known in ancient times as ‘Pure Mountain’, in 1450BCE it marked the southernmost boundary of the Egyptian empire. Its pinnacle was perceived as a colossal rearing uraeus wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, protecting ‘Amun-Re, Lord of Karnak’, who sat enthroned inside (see fascinating pictorial evidence here). As the dwelling place of supreme god Amun and his goddess Mut, it was considered sacred. Kushite kings were buried here from around 300BCE and even today it is revered as the tomb of a Muslim sheikh is nearby.
Site manager Ahmed puffed up very disconcerted. He pointed to a tiny sign in Arabic that apparently said it was illegal to park here. We apologised profusely, explaining we’d followed the other car tracks. I can’t believe we’d got away with taking this shot:
I could also hardly believe it was a World Heritage site – there was so little fanfare. I suppose most tourists come from Khartoum, the other direction. Coming in the back way as we did, approaching the pyramids before Jebel Barkal, there was zero warning. With no signage and no marked off areas, presumably we saw it just as it would have appeared to camel trains thousands of years ago.
Egypt’s tourist infrastructure may not have done justice to the scale and magnitude of importance of the ancient treasures on display, but Sudan’s seemed almost non-existent. As a black African culture, Nubia has been sidelined in academic studies and marginalised in the history of the region, despite the significance of the Kingdom of Kush. This almost criminal neglect is set to be rectified by a joint project of Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) funded by Qatar: five international teams from America, Italy, Spain and Germany have been working since 2013 on various archeological explorations across the vast Jebel Barkal site.
We drove around to the visitors’ entrance at the front of Jebel Barkal, but during the heat of the day, we did school. I was very proud of what Zola and I managed to get through today: exponents in Maths, analysis in English, the conditional tense in French and the Luddites. In the first 4 weeks of term his confidence had rocketed and he also read 6 books. (He was so reluctant to get to the end of the Cherub series Ruby had brought out for him at Xmas, he started “trying to slow down”!) My head was so muzzy, I struggled to stand and cook. Post-dig, Sampson was lying down editing extra dive footage. I hadn’t written for days.
When it got cooler, about 4pm, we went to walk across the site of the ancient city of Napata at the foot of the mountain. Situated just below the Fourth Cataract of the Nile, it was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush from around 750BCE and during the glorious 25th Dynasty when its sovereigns ruled all the way to the Mediterranean.
I was still coughing and feeling grim; my energy ran out very quickly. I had to sit down to rest while the boys climbed half way up to look out over the temple ruins towards the dense green bordering the Nile. The Temple of Amun, originally built in 13th century BCE by Thutmose III and Ramses II, was lavishly expanded by the first Kushite Pharoah Piye; he added a hall with 50 columns to rival Amun’s temple at Thebes. Each king was confirmed here at his coronation by divine oracle.
(If you look carefully you can see me perched in the bottom left hand corner of the ruins.)
While trying to find out what the hieroglyphs on the slab of granite above might mean, I was interested to learn that Kemet, the sign for ancient Egypt, literally translated means Black Land, which reflects how vital to the power of the Egyptian empire was the fertile black soil in the Nile valley after inundation. (Sons of Kemet are also worth investigating!)
We paid 100SDG each (about R70 at the time, less than R30 now) to go into the temples at the foot of the mountain with a Russian couple, the only other tourists around. Their brilliant Sudanese guide was so smiley and enthusiastic. He explained everything in fluent Russian for them, then they kindly translated into English for us!
The second temple is dedicated to the goddess Mut, wife of Amun, and was built by Kush sovereign Taharqa (the only Pharoah mentioned by name in the Old Testament) in the 680s BCE, at a time when he ruled Upper and Lower Egypt. Only 2 of the gigantic sistrum-headed Hathor columns survive of the outer Temple of Mut, but five underground chambers carved into the rock are in good condition. Restoration was underway and we squeezed around scaffolding inside.
The chambers are painted with scenes featuring Mut, Amun, Hathor, Horus, Anubis and Taharqa – many wearing the double crown representing the twin kingdoms of Egypt and Nubia united. The figures are painted in ochre and white kaolin on a background painted in Egyptian blue. Used from around 3000BCE, it was the world’s first synthetic pigment and, through its Roman translation, gave rise to the word ‘cerulean’.
In the dark of the chamber my camera couldn’t do justice to the colours, but mother goddess Mut’s vulture wings above the door reminded me of the decorative touches on Sudanese houses we’d driven past. Unlike the blues, reds, oranges and yellows of Egyptian temples and tractors, in Nubia preferred colours seemed to be muted turquoise and berry shades of crimson, pink and purple. The painted gates and patterns on houses might be more subtle than those of the Ndebele, but appealingly whimsical, designed to stand out against the sand-toned walls of compounds. Bedsteads too. I was falling in love with Sudan.
It was too late to leave so we stayed the night – Zola loved the loneliness of this place. As I pasted a pile of Egyptian temple tickets into the scrap book, we discussed school options for his senior studies: Fish Hoek vs Wynberg vs Durban vs Dakar. After bissap tea time I walked 100m to find enough signal to check Ruby was OK and post our best Instagram pic ever:
After a day’s rest we drove across the Nile and headed north to Nuri. We found a place to park overnight that seemed perfect but a gang of kids playing football came along and surrounded the truck, climbing up, breaking two indicator lights. Some cheery police who arrived in a van were delighted to discover Zola was adopted, but advised us to move on: “people not good here”.
Little fieldwork has been done in Sudan since the early 20th century, but in recent years, Professor Pearce Paul Creasman has been undertaking key archeological work at Nuri – often underwater using scuba diving equipment! See this fascinating article in the National Geographic, or listen to this podcast, which shows that, far from being merely a footnote to Ancient Egyptian history, the Kingdom of Kush played a vital role in revitalising the gods and belief systems of the Egyptian empire when they were falling into decline.
Big Reg spent another hot day trundling across the desert. There was a surprising amount of vegetation: strange succulent bushes that seed themselves with puffy fruit that explodes with white sap; groundcover for goats to snack on. During the heat of the day, Zola was thrilled to be released from lessons to play his keyboard with headphones on. I was zapped.
We were back on the ‘Desert Champagne’: between 3-5pm, when it’s so hot, your mouth is as parched as Aboud’s dates and it feels like your brain is melting, I defy anyone on earth to enjoy the most expensive Cristal as much as we savour chilled water that’s been in glass jars in the fridge since breakfast.
I changed my routine and did my best to cook in the mornings, then leave a pot of supper in the Wonderbag. The last thing you wanted to do in the deathly motionless hour of 5-6pm, when it was still 38˚C , was to stand sweating over a stove.
Sudan had similar cheap prices of fresh produce to Egypt, just a lot less choice. There were grapefruit and bananas, oranges galore and tomatoes forever. But not many greens beyond almost inedibly stringy beans. And no more white cheese. We were having to get creative. In the middle of the desert, on this stretch between the White Nile and the Blue Nile, Zola invented Vegan Grated Carrot Bolognaise and I surpassed myself with Pumpkin, Carrot and Lentil Soup with Boiled Eggs. Sudan also saw the return of my signature dish Aubergine Surprise – the surprise is that they’re so well cooked, you can hardly tell there’s aubergine in the mix at all, despite being the main ingredient. It was invented back in DRC when the kids were so sick of aubergine, they refused to eat it ever again.
It was very meditative cruising across the baking desert, resting your eyes on the occasional bonsai thorn trees, appreciating the subtle beauty of the shape of wind patterns across sand dunes. We sustained ourselves with toffees and oranges and kindness. After school I started sewing Zola’s torn sleeping bag back together. We were waved down by people hoping for bidons; Sampson gave three containers to two women and their kids. They were shy for the photo but beaming with joy to see the pic of themselves afterwards.
When we stopped at 5pm in emptiness just before Atbara, the boys had an outdoor shower. Inside, I took mine without turning the hot water on for the first time! Longhaired Eurocat Lucky was struggling to cope with these temperatures and got splashed to calm her panting.
Two donkeys came from nowhere to drink the greywater so Sampson gave them 3 more bowlfuls of fresh. I found it so sad that they didn’t recognise carrot when I offered them one. I phoned Ruby after supper and it was great to hear her enthusing about Ghanaian history notes and whether to do both school plays.
Thursday 22nd Feb 2018 was the first day since October 2017 that I didn’t wake feeling ill. It felt astounding. To be luxuriating in 27˚C warm at 8am certainly helped. As did a fortnight of solid sleeping instead of being woken by Monte several times a night and every dawn. I was pulling back. Although still grieving heavily, Sampson had to admit he was recovering a lot of strength too, sleeping longer and less worried about me. Meanwhile Zola had waited till we were in the middle of the hottest desert in the world to start going for a run every morning…
We were loving the camaraderie with passing truck drivers, who would give us a hoot to check if we were happy campers then salute us with a rootle tootle 4 note tune! But when we turned onto main highway past Atbara, suddenly the road was much more crowded. This was the main artery from Port Sudan to the capital, full of lorries and the odd pothole. Like bullnoses in Nigeria, classic Bedfords were omnipresent in Sudan, usually painted blue and sporting an ostrich feather flourish on the front. There was also a terrifying number of buses with Ben Hur-style hub spikes hurtling past.
The highway was narrower and a lot more stressful to drive even before the three roadblocks. At the second, a puffed-out chest in a purple uniform simply barked the figure “65” to see if we’d go for it. On the driver’s side, I didn’t cave, but stuck to my “Sorry I don’t understand and we’re on our way to the Embassy” story. The next one was less than 200m later, and no one was wearing a uniform, so Sampson chose to ignore an equivocal hand wave, chance it and carry on through. Big Reg ended up being chased down by a plain clothes cop on a motorbike incandescent with rage. We were fulsomely apologetic and he ended up delighted at having a quick truck tour.
On Friday, we arrived at Sudan’s most famous tourist site, the pyramids at al-Bajwariya (Begrawiya) better known as the ancient capital of Meroë. When we stepped out of the truck at 10am it was 36˚C, and I walked past the boys selling trinkets and marvelled how they could sit out the front all day, as exposed as their wares in the full sun.
Kush King Aspelta moved the capital south to Meroë, possibly around 591 BCE, after the sack of Napata by Egyptian Pharaoh Psamtik II. Situated between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts on the trade routes, Meroë was on the fringe of the summer rainfall belt, in an area rich in iron ore and hardwood for metalworking – it has even been described as “the Birmingham of Africa”! More than 40 royal burials took place here from around 300BCE to 350CE.
The tiny museum room had comprehensive displays with details of excavations since 1817 by European grave robbers, an exposition of the heroic archival work of Friedrich W. Hinkel, description of hieroglyphic and Meroitic decorations of the chapels on the eastern side of the pyramids and attempts by the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums to protect the sandstone monuments from erosion and environmental degradation – alongside prominent warnings about penalties for climbing the pyramids or inflicting graffiti on them.
From the Wikipedia page on Nubian pyramids: “In the 1830s Giuseppe Ferlini came to Meroe seeking treasure and raided and demolished a number of pyramids which had been found “in good conditions” by Frédéric Cailliaud just a few years earlier. At Wad ban Naqa, he leveled the pyramid of the kandakeAmanishakheto starting from the top, and finally found her treasure composed of dozens of gold and silver jewellery pieces. Overall, he is considered responsible for the destruction of over 40 pyramids.
Having found the treasure he was looking for, in 1836 Ferlini returned home. A year later he wrote a report of his expedition containing a catalogue of his findings, which was translated in French and republished in 1838. He tried to sell the treasure, but at this time nobody believed that such high quality jewellery could be made in Black Africa. His finds were finally sold in Germany: part of these were purchased by king Ludwig I of Bavaria and are now in the State Museum of Egyptian Art of Munich, while the remaining… was bought by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, where it still is.”
Sampson supported me to walk up a baking orange sand dune and around the corner of the first pyramid to find a gaggle of giggling American girls clambering about on it for photos. When Sampson pointed out it was against the rules to climb on the monuments and they could be fined, they acted like a group of high schoolers, depsite being in their early 20s. One of them was Black, one of Indian descent, but the loudest was a cackling Caucasian in a headscarf scoffing about being “told off”. I wondered if they’d got stoned to cope with the 2 hour journey from Khartoum in the back of a bakkie; that could be their only excuse.
They dominated our experience with their invasive bodyspray smells lurking in the small tombs ahead of us plus loud explosions of laughter, so inappropriate in a sacred burial setting, not to mention rolling down sand dunes as if it was a play area. The Carole in me was longing to ‘have a word’ along the lines of “Do you have to perpetrate stereotypes of insensitive Americans? And you’re not helping the cause of young women travellers struggling to be treated with respect here”. Fortunately for them, they went back another way, via camel.
The gauge was showing 40˚C inside in the shade when we came back. It was insanely hot (possibly the most extreme day of our entire Africa Clockwise trek). But it was great to be back online in time to get Ruby’s ecstatic Whatsapp: “OMG I got top marks in the grade for history test: 90%!!” I read out her entire essay on pan-Africanism to the boys over lunch. She also came second with 92% in English after doing an oral about homeschooling. I was so proud she’d thrown herself into studying and proved to herself that she could cope with Grade 11.
That evening we accidentally parked too near a power station, and our Friday Night Treats and movie were interrupted by both police and military checks. On Saturday morning, (30˚C at 7.45am) they came again, a tall guy in fatigues checking to see that Sampson was in fact working to fix the batteries (the inverter was playing up and the fridge kept cutting out in the early hours).
Another plain clothes guy came by as we were finishing clearing up after breakfast and hung about while we washed up and locked down. The second time his fingers lingered too long as he unnecessarily brushed past me, I called Sampson from the cab to join us for the requested selfie. There was no way I could challenge a security policeman directly, but also no way was I going to stand next to him and allow his hand to wander across my arse again. It was very depressing that neither my husband or my son had a clue this was happening to me until I told them afterwards.
If the unparalleled scale of fires in California, the Amazon and on Kilimanjaro this year can’t convince you of the escalating threat resulting from climate change, perhaps the unprecedented floods in September 2020 in Sudan can. As Khartoum battled with the highest flood levels recorded in over a century, the BBC reported that more than 100 people had been killed, 100 000 homes destroyed, a third of all farmland was under water and the government had declared a 3 month state of emergency.
When we visited in 2018, these pyramids were 500m from the Nile. It seems incredible that, due to deforestation and increased rainfall, desert sites like Meroe and Nuri are now at risk of rising water damage.
It wasn’t until the colours of Sudan hit me that I realised how oppressively drab the standard wear of Egypt was: men in brown or dark grey and women mostly in sober tones, often black. In Sudan the men wear white and the women exploded back into my eyes and heart! Oh the joy of such flowers again, red and hot pink and vivid green. Women appeared more elegant – taller, slighter – or maybe just less well fed. They seemed to glide around more gracefully, floating headscarves tied less tightly yet still never slipping down. I don’t know how they manage this; I was never able to pull off such a feat myself.
Later I realised that the Sudanese have evolved to be more graceful because of the heat. All the overanxious, impulsive or rushed ones couldn’t survive – you glide or you die!
* * *
The day after burying Monte, we dragged ourselves up after four hours’ sleep. Sampson was pale as death and beside himself with misery. Abu Simbel would’ve been stunning to see again in the early morning light, but we just wanted to be out of that place.
The ferry across Lake Nasser
We drove straight down to the ferry port and did our exercises in the queue at 8am. The lorry driver behind us showed some surprise at reversed gender stereotypes as Sampson sobbed periodically while I did some slow motion Bruce Lee. It was Wednesday 7th February, the last but one day of our Egyptian visas – we’d been there 3 months – so we had 24 hours to cross the border.
Big Reg tucked in next to the lorries as we pulled away from Abu Simbel
With the zoom, I could identify Monte’s last resting place in the bushes to the left of the temple mounds.
Zola looking back wistfully. Sampson looking grim trying to put it behind us.
We went back down to the truck to have brunch during the hour and a half crossing. It was weird to look out over the open water and smell the scent of river rather than sea.
Looking out across the man-made lake
with occasional bumps of passing former hilltops
the ferry snaking between them
Zola and I did 3 subjects while I refamiliarised myself with the contents of the purple documents folder, all ready to put on my Mandela skirt show at the border.
The other side
Heading for the border post
It was much less arduous exiting Egypt than entering, although the process still involved pointless piles of paperwork, superfluous flurries of stamps and an unnecessary amount of walking in circles in the heat. On the Egyptian side, we were held up by an intimidating security police chief in aviator shades and a leather jacket who seemed to be modelling himself a a heavy in a spy movie. You couldn’t deny he was impressively thorough – when we mentioned Wael the taxi driver finding us our apartment in Alexandria, he said he knew him and called to check out our story.
It took so long to win him over, we ended up sleeping in no man’s land.
We’ve often spent a night half way through a border crossing. It’s usually a safer and more peaceful option to park off in the waste land between secure posts rather than in the rowdy towns either side of them. Somehow the days following Monte’s death were like we spent a week suspended in that limbo.
Lucky – just hanging out
It was the first night I was warm enough without a sleeping bag. The Sudan side immediately felt much hotter. I spent another tiresome day criss-crossing scorching tarmac, topped by sitting patiently in freezing aircon for two hours holding out for the extra document needed to confirm the truck had not been sold in Egypt to guarantee we would get our cash deposit back from the AA. It involved a lot of massaging of male egos and I can’t be bothered to tell the whole story.
Thanks to Mr Mazar (right of Sampson) for graciously accommodating our needs. Eventually.
Across West Africa, somehow the bribery is more honest; underpaid officials outright asking for money is corruption I can handle, even if we never acquiesced. The interaction offers leeway for humanity and even humour. I have less respect for the fake charges and chicanery of the semi-state-sanctioned fleecing of North Africa, too often magnified by macho powerplay.
After pushing through two days of gruelling border bullshit on top of the shock of Monte’s death and the strain of his burial, I was utterly exhausted; every muscle in my body was aching and every cell buzzing like an angry wasp. PEM was about to catch up and klap me.
Driving into Sudan
When Big Reg stopped in the red black desert, I was lying down. Zola jumped out to let off steam and even Lucky seemed keen to go for a walk with Sampson. “You should get out and see this” he said. Didn’t he realise I would if I could? Still, the silence was balm.
Everyone except me got out to stretch their legs before dark
Lucky really did go for a walk with him – it’s like she knew he was missing Monte
Because I couldn’t go and look, they brought back slate to show me
and interesting bits of amber-like lumps
and egg like rock…
We ate our simplest meal: tuna, cabbage and rice, and fell into our mossie nets. I was woken by the wind buffeting the truck. The next day, my arms felt like lead, fall out from carrying the heavy documents folder around the last couple of days.
On the drive into the town of Wadi Halfa, Sampson said “If Monte’s death brings us closer together, it will not have been in vain.” “I haven’t been very good at you being ill, have I.” It was a statement, not a question.
After completing our alien registrations with a man napping on a bed inside the municipal office at 39˚C on Saturday morning, I stayed with Sampson in the cab because I didn’t want him to be alone. He drove and talked and cried and I managed 3 hours on that good straight road until l had to lay down.
Driving towards Dongola
through harsh desert scenery
On this day, 10th Feb, long awaited rain in Cape Town made the BBC news – pushing Day Zero back from April to May.
At 3am, I woke feeling so ill, I was unable to get back to sleep. I was so disturbed by the intense level of pain at the nape of my neck, I nearly woke Sampson but didn’t because I knew how much he needed his rest. But if I was so much weaker after just a couple of hours’ minor brainshake, how was I going to cope on really bad roads?
I got up to walk but the flies that had descended at dusk seemed to be erupting in the heat wave.