I hold a Zimbabwean passport, yes, from the land of Robert Mugabe, my everlasting president. Despite the trials and tribulations of my homeland, my passport does offer me some small joy in that I can travel into all the Southern African countries (barring Angola) without the need of a visa beforehand. This might seem like a trivial matter, but there was a time when I was growing up and we lived in Malawi, but learnt in Zimbabwe, and we used to take a bus every school holiday. That meant crossing Mozambique. This required a visa each and every single school holiday (for 4 children and 1 adult). Given that Zimbabwe borders Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia and we shared such good relations, it served a counter intuitive process to require visas for visitors into these countries. Nowadays, that is no more, thanks to good relations between Zimbabwe and its neighbours. This allows me to travel freely from South Africa up to Kenya without spending the funds on acquiring a visa (i.e. losing a passport page for a visa stamp). Ghana is the only country in west Africa that allows Zimbabweans access without a visa and I would like to think that this is due to the strong relations between my dear president and the Ghanaian people, pre-independence days, when he was still a teacher there. In planning my trip into the rest of Africa, I took advantage of this.
One day I was carrying out some ‘spring cleaning’ in my flat and I came across Forbes Africa magazines. It dawned on me as I sat there on my floor, paging through, how much was happening in Africa. I was reading the names of the countries, and realised that I only knew them in name and nothing else. I had a flashback to when I was in the USA as a student and was asked by some Americans what I thought of the Masai Mara, Cape Town, Mt Kilimanjaro, or the Pyramids. All of these beauties on the African continent, and yet I knew little of them and had not seen them. In that moment, a spark was lit. I was determined to see Africa as a young black man before venturing outside of the continent again.
There is a general notion that travel in Africa is dangerous and there are major obstacles to overcome if one is to enjoy the travel. Amongst other comments, a colleague said,“We will not be running ‘Save Alick’ campaigns if you get kidnapped.” Quite an interesting and diverse take on travel in Africa. All these little conversation played a role in my thinking, but I was determined to see and travel the rest of the continent that I call home despite the impressions that my friends and family had of my trip. My close friends held a farewell dinner for me and I was gifted a Swiss army knife. The person who gave me the knife confessed that he was convinced to buy me a machete so that I could protect myself as I went through Africa, (with the notion that I would be in some jungle cutting my way through it). Needless to say, none of these worries came to fruition on my trip as I made my way from Egypt down to Cape Town.
“Why do you want to go to Sudan?” The ambassador asks, seated behind a large brown desk with a small Sudanese flag on the corner nearest to me.
“I am touring,” I replied.
“Who do you know in Khartoum?”
“No one,” I responded.
“Where are you going to stay?”
“At a hostel.”
The Sudanese ambassador has a quizzical look on his face. Clearly, I had not supplied any convincing responses to his questions about my intentions in Sudan. As I stood there, in that well-furnished office in the Sudanese embassy in Cairo, I contemplated the difficulties I was facing in getting a visa to travel to Sudan. I had spent the previous three weeks attaining visas for Egypt, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, none as difficult or requiring an extensive interview of this nature. In those three weeks, I had patiently waited for a response on the Sudan visa, but after multiple phones calls (at least twice a week) and multiple visits to the consulate (with the same response “Your application is being processed in Khartoum”), I had bought a flight ticket and was in Cairo to try my luck closer to the source.
Recorded as amongst the top five most difficult African visas to attain, the Sudan visa experience left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. There has been a lot of bureaucracy when I think about it. I feel as if Sudan does not want people in their country, filling in at least five different forms between the Aswan port and the Wadi Halfa port. The amount of hoops one has to jump through to get a visa and into the country is crazy. I have counted three stamps so far on my passport and I am still on the ferry. A bus ride from the ferry to the immigration offices has me on Sudanese soil and I savour the moment. Passing through immigration, I was ushered to the front of the line as if I was VIP, a perk of the tourist look I guess. I manage to say “Shukran” to the immigration official in his light blue uniform and black beret when we leave and he laughs us off. It seems that every man is wearing a white or light-coloured jalabiya and turban. Dusty and brown, the town is no different from other small towns I have visited except for the heat, of course. I walk past a lady sitting and making tea and I beckon for some water. I don’t care about sanitation, the thirst has got me and I am not waiting.
Arriving in Dongola, palm trees steady in the non-existent-breeze line the highway as the policemen dressed in starched whites wave us by. I feel at home amongst the dark skinned people, but that soon changes when I step out of the taxi. I walk up to man dressed in military garb. He mutters away on his cell phone as I stand and wait for his assistance.
“Good afternoon, please show me the police station,” I ask, a bit scared.
He looks at me with the most bewildered eyes. His eyes are widening so much I can see the white parts of his iris that are meant to be under the eyelids.
“English?” I ask. He continues to look at me and shakes his head.
Walking out of the bus station which is more of a clearing between houses, I find a group of tuk-tuk operators and ask, “Police, anyone speak English?” and they all look at me as if I was speaking gibberish, “English, English.” One of the tuk-tuk drivers seems to understand some semblance of English, so we take a drive and he takes me to what looks like a police station. I am a bit surprised, but grateful.
“No registrations here, station closed,” the man in charge says to me. I need to register as a tourist with the authorities within three days or else I might get fined and I am wary of falling foul of Sudanese law.
As we are speaking, a lady brings bowls of food and places them on the ground near the benches against the wall. “Please eat with us, we don’t know when you will eat again,” the man says, as I begin to humbly decline despite the hunger pains gnawing away at my stomach. “Eat, eat, please,” he motions towards the containers with chicken, bread, soup and various foods. This is communal eating, as we all dip our hands into the food. The man in charge’s son, a toddler, runs into the room from a courtyard with excitement as he hugs his father’s leg tightly.
After visiting two hotels that resemble hostels and not getting lodging, I eventually get a room at the third attempt. As we go through dark passages being led by the owner of the place, I doubt myself. The sign outside the building said “Hotel,” but it is more like a prison. We walk past a wall made from hard cardboard and the old man says “Seventy pounds.” He unlocks the door to a room made from cardboard. I cannot believe it! The rooms are made from cardboard and there is a padlock on the outside of the door! Why is there a padlock on the outside of a bedroom? I can smell the bathroom from the entrance. He tries to switch on the light, which does not work. That’s it, I am not even going to go in. “No!” I say, and shake my head vigorously as I walk away.
“Come, come,” he motions as he takes me to another room that has four beds, much cleaner and just as dreadful, but cheaper. I don’t have the energy or patience to go look for another ‘hotel.’ The walls look as if someone decided to stop painting them halfway. I can barely see anything when I switch the light on. I am relieved that at least there is a fan that works. I cannot help but feel a bit glum. I know I am backpacking and ‘roughing it.’ However, that cardboard room experience cannot be legal if there were health and safety law-enforcement.
As I left Dongola, I wondered what Khartoum, the capitol of Sudan, was like and what accommodation I would get. Plastic bags and litter being blown across the landscape break the boredom of the golden sands on the horizon; a telling sign that some form of human population is living nearby. Houses of mud bricks, with an occasional flash of yellow or green paint here and there. Palm trees on the horizon, indicate the Nile River spreading life on its way north. I see the contrast; every town has at least one mosque that is brightly coloured and has a megaphone. In South Africa, most small towns have churches at the centre or as the focal building – here it is mosques. No matter how run-down the towns look, the mosques are always beautiful with a half-moon crescent atop the minaret.
I get my first view of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan and Hassan, my taxi driver, begins to speak Arabic. I motion that I don’t speak Arabic.
“English, English,” I go back to my routine.
“But you are like us.” Hassan seems surprised that I cannot speak Arabic.
“I am from Zimbabwe and we speak English in Zimbabwe.” He shakes his head in what I assume is disbelief. I am a bit disappointed that I am expected to know Arabic because I am black. Stopping near a parking lot, Hassan calls a character, who runs to the car. In my days in Zimbabwe, I have sat in cars while a dealer counts stacks of money. You try to get foreign currency and get rid of the Zimbabwean dollar. I give Hassan fifty dollars and he gives me five hundred and fifty Sudanese pounds, much more than I anticipated and better than the bank rate. I am surprised that Hassan did not take me to the bank. Either way, I am not complaining about the black market rate. I am toying with the thought of sleeping in a fancy hotel after last night’s cardboard room.
“I will show you a hotel in city centre,” Hassan says, as he maneuvers through the lunchtime traffic that we find ourselves in. Moving from tarred roads to more potholes and trying to evade people and other dented cars, Hassan turns down a dust road. Bustling with life, people are cooking some delicacies at the corners while men are drinking tea, seated outside their shops. Every other office is either a travel agency, a flight centre or tourist centre as the car comes to a stop at a multi-story building. This is more like it, I say to myself when we walk into a reception area with couches and people watching television. There is a restaurant as well. I could have lunch and supper here; I haven’t eaten a proper meal since the supper at the police station. As Hassan talks to the man at the reception, I am relieved that I have a place to stay and have some funds in my pocket now.
“Please show me the room first.” I was not about to repeat yesterday’s incident.
I am shown a double bed, shower, bathroom, couches and a bar fridge. A semblance of comfort. When I enter the room and place my bags on the bed, I notice how grungy the place looks on second observation. I walk to the bar fridge next to the television to put my water in and I am startled by the family of cockroaches that scuttles out. I switch on the television and realise that it does not work. I am getting annoyed, with that sinking feeling in your stomach when you realise you have been duped. I head to the bathroom where there are no shower curtains, no toilet paper, and the water in the toilet is putrid black. Settling on the couch to calm myself, more cockroaches scurry from the couch and my disgust knows no bounds. I open the curtains and my room has no view as the window faces another wall. The heat does not make the mood any better. I have been sold a lemon! After a cold shower, I take a walk around the area to find better accommodation. Locating a nicer looking hotel, I book a room for the next day.
The two ladies at the front desk are friendly – dressed in black seems customary here. Needing to buy a bus ticket to Gedaref, one of the last towns on the way out of Sudan to Ethiopia, they organise a taxi to come and pick me up later in the day. The ladies are quite striking; one is light-skinned and fuller-figured while the other is darker-skinned and slimmer. Inquiring about the registration that I need to do with the Sudan authorities, the ladies tell me that the hotel does this for their guests and I worriedly leave my passport with the ladies while I sign the papers. Leaving my passport with five hundred and fifty Sudanese pounds for them to perform the security registration for me, I am hesitant and wary of my passport not being on my body at all times. A Zimbabwean passport is not cheap to procure and it would be a nightmare if it went missing. I don’t believe my embassy would be kind enough to help me.
The heat is taking its toll. This heat regimen demands multiple showers for those who have not adapted to the environment. I stare at the buildings next to the hotel; an odd site. There are multiple beds on the roofs of the buildings. Men are sleeping outside, on the roofs, with no covering at all such is the heat in this place.
Before I know it, I am in a deep slumber wrapped in a towel on my bed. The heat has overcome me. I receive a phone call from the front desk to come and fetch my passport as it has been returned from the registration office. Another stamp has been added to my passport. At least I am compliant with Sudanese regulations and can breathe easily now. I note how my mood oscillates quickly based on the situation I am in. I take another walk around the inner city in the late afternoon, as the men lay carpets on the streets and take off their shoes while they line up and begin to pray. I was mistaken; this place is beautiful.
Fortunately for me, Hassan is parked outside wearing his drab brown pants and dirty cream shirt. We drive around Khartoum, evading a pothole the size of a queen-size bed, full of dirty water right in the city centre. Motioning that I want to see the Nile, Hassan seems to understand. The Corinthia Hotel comes into view, reminiscent of the R2-D2 robot from the Star Wars movies with its white and blue colours. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that it overlooks the merging of the White Nile and Blue Nile and it has the same colours. The Corinthian stands out like an overgrown egg amidst the sprawling expensive buildings in the area. Also known as Gaddafi’s egg, I have been fascinated by this hotel since reading that it was named after the controversial former Libyan leader. If my wallet were deeper, the Corinthian would have been an option for lodging, with an unprecedented view of the Nile. Opened in 2008, the hotel was funded by the Libyan government. It is a sight to behold, majestic, despite its source of funds. There is something seductive about the Corinthian. It seems ill-fitting to the reputation that Sudan has as a war-torn country. Typing the word Sudan into Google yields results of a war-torn South Sudan and half the images are of war. But what I am seeing here, and have seen so far, is not war-torn.
Hassan motions me to share his lunch of pumpkin seeds with him. My brief time in Sudan has showed me that kindness and common courtesy goes beyond language at times. Hassan is dozing off and I decide it’s time to head back to the hotel. The heat is tiring and even the view of the merger of the Niles is not strong enough to keep me out. There are more fancy and developed tall structures: government buildings, ministries, multinational offices for oil companies, the campus for the University of Khartoum, as well as the Parliamentary buildings.
The sunsets on another Khartoum day, the daily ritual of tea making and prayer begins. When I walk past shops with men seated, drinking tea, I yearn to go and sit with them and converse about Sudan. But I know chances are high that we wouldn’t be able to understand each other.
I am lost in serenity as the boat glides across the lake. Silence punctuated by the motor, as the boat makes its way past islands. It’s so serene, wattled cranes on the banks of an island, a king fisher displaying his agility darting across the lake before a missile motion into the still water and then back up to hover so silently.
Spontaneity is an adrenaline shot into life at times and I am feeling it. I am on Lake Bunyonyi and am only here because two German ladies, Chlara and Chantal, encouraged me to adopt a more relaxed approach to travelling given the daily planning that I had been doing. We are dropped off at one of many islands on the lake at an eco-resort. The dorms rooms are simple, bunk beds and mosquito nets, with the bathrooms being located a walk away. There is no hot water and in this heat there is no need for it.
The night is terrifyingly silent on the lake, the lack of electricity makes me slightly uncomfortable but it is a welcome change, being in nature. Seated outside the dorm room, we sit under a gazebo watching the dance of the lightning over the mountains across the lake. As I take out my phone Chantal says, “Some moments are better captured by the eyes.” I put my camera down as we all sit in the darkness and continue to watch the dance of the sky.
This place in Bunyonyi is serene. I am awoken by the sound of birds and not a single vehicle, fridge, or television can be heard. Light streams through the roof, and I hear a buzzing sound. A choir of bees is hard at work on the blossoming umuko tree flowers outside. Birds are aflutter, as the sun strokes the soft cold skin of the lake, waking it from its nightly slumber.
I can hear the screams and conversation of an American family paddling around the island in the canoes that are available from the embankment by the dorms. I spent my days siting by the lake and indulging in sunbathing, something that as a dark skinned black man, I never do. However, it was relaxing to be in the middle of nowhere and enjoy nature. It felt weird to be doing something that was not in my plan. I am a stickler for details but here I was sunbathing out of plan.
“Don’t let plans stop you from being spontaneous, don’t be so rigid,” and so I had got into a taxi with a driver who spoke only Kinyarwanda with those two German ladies I had just met and found myself on one of the only bilharzia free lakes in Uganda, purported to have 29 islands. A small piece of paradise that I had not read of. As my first major trip by myself, I was learning about myself and how to travel. Had it not been for a moment of spontaneity, I would not be here on Lake Bunyonyi.
Later in my stay, I meet Paula, a thirty-two-year-old Spanish engineer who had spent six months volunteering at a women’s shelter in Nairobi. She oozed confidence when she spoke and I was soon engaged in a conversation with her while the sun set and warm darkness enveloped the lake. She shared her frustration at being detained briefly at the border and having to take three boda bodas (motorbikes) to find an ATM that would dispense the cash in the early hours of the morning to pay police officials. I find myself envious as the conversation goes on about how much travel experience she has, having travelled nearly twice as many countries as I had seen.
I find myself back on the road some days later taking the overnight bus from Kampala, Uganda to Nairobi, Kenya. I settled into my seat and soon fell asleep with little drama or action till the bus arrived at the border post. The Uganda immigration official was more than happy to stamp my passport. The chaos began on the Kenyan side, first with a check for yellow fever. The health official informed me that a yellow fever outbreak had occurred in the DRC and so they were being diligent. Luckily I had my yellow fever card, however only after twenty questions about my homeland, Zimbabwe, politics and Robert Mugabe was I allowed to proceed to the immigration check.
“The man from Robert Mugabe’s country”, he says with enthusiasm in his voice.
“Yes.” I respond, still waking up.
“How is Morgan?” he says referring to Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition party MDC. “Fine?” I don’t feel like entertaining this conversation, it is midnight. I am cranky and tired and I just want to get back on the bus to try get some sleep.
“You are not killing him?” the official continues.
“No.” He finally proceeds to peruse other pages of my passport
“Where are you going?” He asks.
“How long are you staying?”
“Three to four days,” none of the questions seem out of the ordinary.
“What are you doing?”
“Visiting friends.” By now, I am beginning to worry, as this is as much conversation as I have had with an official since I came to East Africa. I don’t trust this official.
“Where is your visa?” he says.
“I don’t have one.” I am surprised that he is asking me for a visa. I was in Kenya three weeks prior and I attained a stamp on arrival, as Zimbabwe residents can enter Kenya without a visa.
“Because I am Zimbabwean and I don’t need one,” I say with confidence and some annoyance at this official who seems set on attaining a bribe.
“Who said?” he says with an angry flush on his face.
“The embassy,” I retort.
“Ha, get your visa by the embassy. Today you are going to pay for the visa,” he says with a smirk and a laugh. At this moment I have flashes of my conversation with Paula when she had to find a hundred dollars to pay for an East African visa, after she was accused of not having one. I am not impressed and he does not seem to be joking.
Eventually after five minutes of fiddling, he hands my passport over to a colleague in the next booth. I am processed without having to pay or answer one hundred questions. Despite this encounter, I take comfort in choma nyama, (chicken on a stick) roasted on an open flame in a metal container by the side of the road, as I wait for the other passengers.
Lessons From Africa
Travelling alone, language barriers, and feeling out of my skin weighed on my mind. I kept wondering if I would feel different if I was American or English. Would I be treated differently? Bloggers make it seem as if travelling would be exciting and you would be on a constant adrenaline wave of excitement. Countless hours are spent waiting for public transport, watching women sweep the streets, little children running around, and men chatting away while one waits. Feelings of loneliness as I count how many times I could have spoken to someone or had an engaging conversation. Maybe I should have walked around more, engaged more, tried to learn Arabic more?
I feel very embarrassed at the preconceived notion that I had about Sudan, just like ignorant westerners who come to Africa believing that we have lions in our backyards, or that we live in huts. I held such stereotypes of Sudan, so I am ashamed of myself. I was no different from the westerners that we often laugh at.
In the end, I had a fantastic time. Previously, I had been so preoccupied with planning and ensuring that I was in budget, on time, all details ticked. However, it was at the cost of enjoying myself, leaving myself open to being spontaneous, and enjoying the moment.
It is said that one can only truly experience a country by using its public transport, and going through Africa by bus has been an eye opener. I will cross over into Ethiopia, knowing that I will come back one day and I will not be so lonely or fearful when I return.
This blog posts is a collection of excerpts from a book written by Alick Chingapi before it was published. You can now read the rest of his journey in his published literature Through A Black Iris.