Thursday, January 17, 2008

Darfur - Day 9

Please note that any opinions expressed in this blog are those of Chip Duncan and do not represent any other organizations or individuals. Darfur is a place of constant change and any statistical references are approximate and may change rapidly. If you are reading this after January, 2008, please verify any information with up-to-date and verifiable resources.

Day 9 – January 9th, 2008 – Both Bob and I have flights in the middle of the night (that is, very early a.m. on the 10th). So we both try to maximize any sleep we can get. Alas, for me sleep never seems to work when it’s daylight so I’m up early.

It’s a holiday in Sudan so most people are off work and many are celebrating. One of our hosts from the R.I. office takes Bob and me for another sightseeing trip around Khartoum that includes a stop along the Nile to watch a “peace parade.” It’s a beautiful day and the parade includes small groups of dancers and performers from various tribes around the country. People are genuinely enjoying the spectacle of events – and we do too.

After walking and watching for about an hour, we head to the National Museum for a quick tour. Quick is the optimum word here because only the first floor is open. I’m not a big one for old museum artifacts but clearly, one thing stands out – the Sudanese and Egyptians shared a culture long ago. There are a number of huge monuments mimicking the sphinx and the museum has several examples of the sarcophagus along with jewelry and some textiles. I’m not an expert on antiquities and not likely to become one, so most of what we see and hear from our guide goes in one ear and out the other.

What is apparent in the museum is the lack of artifacts and exhibits featuring the cultures of southern and western Sudan. Sudan is a country at a crossroads of sorts – the north seems to have much in common with Arab cultures to the north and east while the south and southwest share significant ties to east and central Africa. Still, never having been in Egypt, it’s good to get a taste for the long history of northern Sudan.

We stop by our host’s house for mango juice and a sweet pudding dessert – which is always a pleasure. Being in someone’s home and meeting their family can be so informative about the culture of another country. As has been the case everywhere we’ve been in Khartoum, we’re greeted warmly and with great hospitality.

Both Bob and I have packing to do to prepare for our flights. I’m headed back to Nairobi (which continues to have challenges of its own) and Bob is headed back to Chicago.

At the airport, Customs proves to be quite similar to that of the USA or elsewhere. Bureaucracies are not fun for the average person – and it doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m standing in line for a driver’s license back home or trying to get the bond money returned that we put on my cameras a week earlier. After several back and forth visits, everything is fine and the funds are returned. What seems most apparent in the exchange is simply how challenging it is for everyone to communicate and understand each other. That’s not only true with Customs in Sudan, it’s true everywhere I travel (let’s face it, Americans are not exactly leading the world in learning second languages). If I’m left with any impression from the camera/bond exchange, it’s simply that the officers were charged with a task and they were trying to do it correctly. And in the end, it seemed to work to everyone’s satisfaction.

My flight on Kenya Airways originated in Cairo. As I board the plane, it’s 3:00 a.m. and the holdover passengers are trying their best to sleep through our interruption. Since tourism in Kenya has come to a standstill following the election riots, most of the passengers on my flight are using the Nairobi airport simply for transit to other parts of the continent. It’s 2.5 hour flight and we arrive in Nairobi as the sun is coming up over a cover of giant cumulous clouds. Though it lasts only seconds, our descent through the clouds is spectacular – as if we’re slowly sinking into a vat of pale pink and yellow.

On arrival, only about 10 people from the full flight have Nairobi as their final destination. With a couple of exceptions (including me), those who disembark here are returning home. Unlike my earlier arrival here on December 31st, the baggage terminal is almost void of activity. Bureaucracy takes hold again when the Kenyan customs officials decide that they can’t put a visa stamp in my passport because I’ve run out of pages. They’re right, I have. I convince them I’ll get it re-filled when I get home and ask them to kindly place their stamp on the back page. They do it, but they’re not happy about it. Of course, I’ll now have to deal with officials in the USA, but they’re already unhappy with my passport simply because of previous visas pasted inside for earlier humanitarian trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Seeing a Sudan visa as well will open up a host of new questions. Ultimately, though, I’ve had generally good experiences with US officials once they realize the purpose of the trips abroad.

With all that’s going on in Darfur, it’s also clear that my Kenya trip is now oddly intermingled with the challenges facing Darfur. For a nation that thrives on tourism, a nearly empty airport can’t be good for Kenya.

The hotel driver fills me in on what’s happened in Nairobi since my departure on January 2nd. It’s been relatively quiet, he says, but the opposition is getting ready for a big week of protesting ahead. It will take a while for my head to shift back here – but I can see that traffic in Nairobi has returned to normal. And it’s good to see green again – especially since I’m not much of a desert guy. It’s been raining in Nairobi off and on and the trees are flowering. It’s even possible to smell the blossoms amid the diesel fumes – which seems somehow hopeful.

As I close this journey to Darfur and back, I realize it’s too early for me to have any significant insights about how to help there beyond the basic, simple notion of providing financial support to Relief International ( or similar groups working in the region. It’s not a place one can simply fly into as a volunteer and it’s certainly not tourist-friendly. In fact, it’s difficult to get to and from Darfur and I don’t see that getting easier any time soon. R.I. is there and they’re doing great work. They can use your help.

Many in the world are challenged with conflict, war, hunger and disease. Population pressure, climate change and environmental degradation contribute to suffering everywhere. At the same time, most people I encounter wherever I go are warm, welcoming and charitable. This was true for me in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it was true in Sudan as well. So often, those who have nothing to give still find a way to welcome the visitor with their warmth and their smiles. And just as many in Darfur were suffering, most of those providing help and assistance were Sudanese. There are long term, sustainable solutions and it will take time. But it should be noted that the commitment to help create a better life for many of those who have been displaced by conflict is not simply a western notion. As I write this, Dr. Wali, Dr. Mohammed and their colleagues are still in Darfur, still working, and still doing it with grace and a positive spirit. If there is hope, that is where I find it.


A bit of an epilogue filed on 1/17/08. When I booked my trip to Darfur, I had no way of knowing what would be happening in Kenya. All I knew was that I’d be flying in a day after the presidential election. I arrived to significant unrest and rioting, especially in the Rift Valley area around Eldoret and Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city As many as 300 people had been killed in the days before I headed to Sudan. It should be noted that since my return from Sudan, the opposition forces led by Raila Odinga continue their protests over what many consider a flawed election and the country remains very unsettled. At the time of this writing, tourism has dropped dramatically and as a result, more than 20,000 workers have lost their jobs. The death toll is climbing again and fast approaching 700. With the support of my friends at Nairobi-based Camerapix, I’ve been fortunate to spend time in the field both watching and documenting various events unfold around Nairobi. Though I do not intend to blog about what’s unfolding here, I do urge readers to follow the situation on their own. Kenya is a jewel in Africa and it deserves your attention. What I can say is that even in the midst of the rioting and turbulence, Kenya remains a great country with a great future.


Thank you for following along on The Road To Darfur. If you’d like more information on the humanitarian work performed by Relief International throughout Sudan or elsewhere, please visit Your help will make a difference to the people of Darfur and elsewhere!