17 Jan 2010

Inside Sudan

'Ah, you are British.' said the uniformed official as he looked me up and down with suspicion. 'You are the colonisers!'
I didn't know what to say.
Then with a big flourish he imitated a large handlebar moustache and afforded himself a chuckle.
'Welcome to Sudan!' he beamed.
I can assure you that the Republic of Sudan is not at all what you might think it to be. In fact, it could be so far away from cliched and negative perceptions that it is a mystery why we understand so little of it. Africa's largest country - 8 per cent of its the continent's total land mass even - and still one of the most closed off and well hidden.
Next door Egypt receives something like 12 million tourists every year. I would be surprised if Sudan receives more than 1,200. I've only witnessed a handful of other Westerners so far as I follow the River Nile south through the desert.
The landscapes are extraordinary. The people are luminous and warm spirited. The roads are generally good (thanks to the Chinese - more on that another time). The biggest challenge seems to be the bureaucracy. There's so much of it. Everywhere I go I have to register. Imagine that. I need permission to move from one place the next. Yet so much of the form filling and box ticking is utterly pointless and irrelevant. Often I write it out myself. I could write anything on some of the forms and the policemen would not raise an eyelid. Such is the structure of Sudan.

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