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“When is the next bus to Dongola?”
I ask at what I assume to be the bus station, in Wadi Haifa, Sudan, although there is no sign of any buses, only some men having tea on the floor of an office. I have just rolled off a 24-hour trip from Egypt, the only way you can – packed onto the deck of a boat carrying Sudanese families returning from visits to their relatives in Egypt and traders lugging bags and boxes full of produce. I have spent a day swatting flies and sheltering from the relentless sun with torn scraps of cardboard and a night huddled in blankets in the freezing cold.
The men at the bus station tell me it will come this afternoon, inchallah. God willing. I drink tea.
Hours later, I return but there are no buses in the large square of dust that is the terminal. “Is there a bus to Dongola?” I ask.
“No, not today. Tomorrow,” they say. They are still drinking tea.
“Maybe morning, inchallah. Maybe evening, inchallah. If not tomorrow then the day after, inchallah. All things are written in heaven by Allah.”
“Let me get this straight,” I say. “Either the bus will come tomorrow morning, the afternoon or the evening or it won’t come at all?”
“Inchallah,” they all echo and laugh and offer me tea. “Come in the morning at five o’clock,” one advises, “and then wait.”
“But I will probably be waiting all day.”
“Inchallah, yes,” he laughs.
“I might be waiting two days.”
“Inchallah!” he laughs harder and pours more tea.
I go on waiting for the bus until the waiting seems like living and if the bus arrives, it will be entirely incidental to our tea-drinking. In the cafes by the river, carpets are laid out on the ground along the bank for the customers to squat on for a while. A while turns into hours as a group of fishermen, all dressed in identical white robes, come to have breakfast. They sit with their feet crossed over each other, dipping bread into a communal bowl of beans in the centre of the circle and sipping tea. They insist I eat with them and they laugh and laugh.
Another group soon arrives, all in white robes, seated around a bowl of beans and they laugh and laugh and I eat with them as well. An older man tells me that Sudan never had a war, sure it may have had a few problems but so help us Allah, what country hasn’t? This makes them laugh so much that I almost believe it. More groups come and go and eat and laugh and I have beans with all of them and drink tea and by midday I am so full of beans and laughter that I can barely walk back to my hotel.
My hotel is, more precisely, a shed with an iron bed and thin mattress, so worn, it has disappeared altogether in places and there are no sheets, blankets or pillows to cushion me from the wrought-iron bars against my back. The two other iron beds occupied by Sudanese women and five children. The doors are metal barn-doors and the floor is dirt. The women drag their beds outside at night because the shed is unbearably hot. The air clings to my skin, making the Sahara sand stick to it. The barn doors are all open in a row and everyone has dragged their beds outside in clusters. Women laugh and chatter and wash their clothes in water that is black and crawling with large insects. They dare me to wash in the water and when I do, they laugh and make me tea.
Allah has more pressing things to do this week than keep an eye on Sudanese bus timetables and I only have $100 in cash and a foreign bank card that it is useless until I get back to Egypt.
In Africa, you always need a Plan B. And you should probably keep a C, D and E up your sleeve just in case. My plan F is the truck.
The temperature is already soaring above 40 degrees when we clamber aboard the first truck as dawn is swelling over the dusty horizon. It is a lorry lined with wooden seats and I buy the cheapest seat on the very back beside the spare tyre. As we set off, I understand why this is the cheapest seat.
I am thrown up and down on my bench, clinging onto the spare tyre for dear life. I have a scarf wrapped around my face, covering even my eyes, to protect me from the dust being whipped around the truck as it clatters through the desert at full-speed, flying over bumps and potholes. At times, I am certain all four wheels leave the ground. For hours we speed along, me with my eyes shut tight and my arms gripping the tyre. There is a roof on the lorry and if I let go of the tyre for a second then my head bangs against it. I touch the top of my hair and feel a few drops of blood matted underneath.
We reach a village and everyone jumps off for a break. They lie in the shade, napping until the hottest part of the day has passed. They sip tea and play cards. The shops are all closed with mattresses thrown out in front under the shade of an awing for their owners to snooze. The entire town is splayed out on the ground and only the cry of a baby and its mother shush-shushing breaks the silence.
At last, we heap onto a different truck, this one without a roof, and we drive for hours under the sun, the heat hovering around 50 degrees. I tighten the scarf on my head.
As we stop at oases dotted with palm trees and tiny villages that are nothing more than three or four houses clustered together in the dust, I take the black water from the clay urns in the centre of each town and soak myself in it. I brush off insects and my arms are coated in dirt and sweat. My mouth is parched and my lips are cracked. My truck-mates tell me not to drink the water and they laugh when I do.
I am covered in bruises and we are still hours from Dongola. The roof had at least provided a buffer when I was airborne. With this removed, I keep flying bang into the centre of the truck. I pick myself up and crawl back to my seat and hang tighter onto the spare wheel. Everyone laughs. When we stop for dinner, in a café inside a clay building at an oasis, someone buys a huge bowl of lentils and we all dig in with our hands and bread.
By mid-afternoon, the people give in to the heat, close the stores and go home. The villages are still and dark and only a few people move between houses and some men gather in the one café to sit in stools and smoke hookah pipes in front of a TV playing football on low volume.
Night falls and the moon rises in the star-struck sky as the truck rattles along an ill-defined line through the Sahara visible only to the driver. Some time shortly after midnight, it veers suddenly to the left and screeches to a halt. The driver’s door opens and he emerges with a shotgun in one hand, hitching his robes up with the other. The man seated next to me whispers, “And now they kill us,” and laughs.
The driver raises the rifle slowly to his shoulder and switches the headlights up to high-beam. A rabbit freezes in the glare. Crack. It falls to the ground. The driver whoops with delight. “Breakfast!” he shouts back at us.
We are treated to rabbit stew for breakfast before being unloaded from the truck in Dongola some twenty hours after we boarded. In the dusty main street where tomatoes and potatoes and spatulas and frying pans are spilling out from shops in every direction, and men in white robes herd camels homewards by tapping them with sticks. The market stocks fruit and vegetables and Foulah dolls, a Muslim Barbie who is veiled and comes with a range of different-coloured hijabs.
A few drops of rain start to fall.
I look up at the sky in disbelief as it cracks open and lightning rips across it. The heavens roar with thunder and throw water down on us. It falls into the road, swirling the dust into mud and filling up the potholes. It overflows all down the main street and floods into the shops. Suddenly, the street bursts to life.
People are rushing to gather their produce and close the doors against the force of the water. A boy driving a horse and cart urges the animal to hurry home, the wheels slipping in the mud and one arm slapping the reins; the other holds a soggy piece of cardboard over his head.
I crouch under the shelter of a shop front and beside me, an old man is holding a bucket over his head. And laughing. I shout at him over the noise of the thunder, “You have a bucket on your head!”
This makes him laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh more till the tears roll from the corners of his eyes and the men around him are all wiping their eyes and laughing too.
“We haven’t had rain here for years!” he shouts back and laughs still harder. On the street, a boy in bare feet is letting the rain pour down on him. He jumps into the air with one fist pounding the space above his head:
“ALLAHU AKBAR! ALLAHU AKBAR! GOD IS GREAT!”
The old man hands me a bucket. We stand in the rain with buckets on our heads laughing until I have to wipe the tears from my eyes too. They roll down my cheeks and fall to the ground where they are swirled into the mud and washed away.