Africa in the Way I Dance
When I was five years old my life took an unexpected turn due to the introduction of a foreign Sudanese student into our midst.
It was 1971 and I was living with my divorced mother in a picturesque town in what was then Yugoslavia, nestled among sunflower fields, swamps and gnarled walnut trees.
The student’s name was Hassan; he was there on a government scholarship and was the first black man I had ever met. Everything about him fascinated me. His shining skin, his smile brimming with perfectly white teeth and the carefully arranged afro caused equal parts fear and excitement in my body. I remember how his presence caused a disturbance in my mind; suspicion and anxiety that his arrival meant that nothing would be the same again.
I would stare at him from the safety of my grandmother’s lap those first months when he visited my grandparents’ home, courting my mother. Baka and deda had a simple and tolerant view on life, brought on by the horrors they had encountered while fighting as partisans in WWII. I guess at some point it didn’t seem to matter that Hassan’s skin was black or the fact that he was Muslim, spoke Serbo Croat with a dreadful but charming accent, danced with a passion unlike any they had seen before, and came from a place they couldn’t even find on a map.
My mother married Hassan when I was seven, and by that time, because my mother had asked me to, I was calling him tata, dad in Serbo Croat. My sister Leila was born a few years later. I marveled at this peculiarly strange yet delightful bundle, at her plump cheeks and dark ringlets. She reminded me of the dolls I saw in a big shop in town. My mother’s infatuation with yet another newcomer startled me. She spent a lot of time changing diapers and preparing milk bottles with a perpetual look of exhaustion in her hazel eyes. In spite of mother’s seeming obliviousness about my own torment I loved my sister from the moment she arrived home one November afternoon. However, Hassan remained an enigma to me. From his passion for leather hats and jazz, to his unrestrained delight as he unsuccessfully tried to make me laugh.
When I was eleven, despite my loud protests and at first refusing to go, we moved to the Sudan, leaving behind our small Slavic town. For our journey, astonished relatives forced upon us plastic bags filled with warm country bread and fragrant peppers, smoked salami and ripe tomatoes. I will always remember my grandparents as they stood under the shade of the proud walnut tree in their yard as we left. Baka wore her floral-themed scarf and a white lace blouse on which tears fell liberally. Deda stood erect and unmoving as if the Yugoslavian army had called him to duty again. I will remember Geikie, my hyperactive mutt as he wiggled among our legs begging for a pat and one more goodbye. Hassan drove the red minivan away from the warmth of baka’s kitchen, from the evenings spent listening to deda strum his tamburitsa, from the scent of cherry blossoms in the spring and fried jam donuts in the winter.
Our journey took us overland through the Balkans, across the Mediterranean by a ship called Spyros and a train through the Sahara. As the scenery changed from rolling fields of Slavonia to lush mountains of Serbia and then the vibrantly busy landscape of Egyptian countryside, I wondered about what waited at our destination. Images of jungles and roaming lions, spear holding Africans and ravenous crocodiles swirled in my mind. We arrived in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, dusty and tired.
As the train pulled into the station a scent of mangoes, dust and some unknown pungent odor filled my nostrils. A tingling numbness settled in my limbs. Something heavy had found its way into my chest. What would Sudan be like? I had seen the desert and the hodge-podge of intriguing Sudanese travellers, heard their rapid bursts of Arabic and saw their curious glances throughout the two-day train journey. But as I was about to meet my new family I felt an urge to turn back. My heart filled with an ache and my eyes with tears. Baka and Deda seemed like an unreachable mirage now.
At the train station we were greeted by Hassan’s family, a large group of boisterously gesticulating Sudanese. Repeatedly, they hugged and slapped Hassan’s back in greeting and converged on my mother engulfing her within their sandalwood infused garments. Adding to my rising panic were their dark faces marked with tribal symbols, their tall white turbans, the crush of bodies on the platform, the shouting of the pumpkin seed vendors and the commotion created by the fingerless begging lepers. With my eyes I silently beseeched my mother for help, gripped Leila’s hand and waited. The children stared at me with open curiosity as I was embraced by Hassan’s chattering female relatives and shook hands with the men and boys. They seemed as shocked by me as I was by them.
Here was their youngest son, their favorite, bringing home a European divorcee and her blonde daughter.
We were ushered into a rickety pickup and driven across town to a modest house in a neglected suburb of Mygoma, which would become our first home among many in Sudan. Rundown houses made out of mud bricks dotted narrow, garbage-littered streets on both sides. Some inhabitants made an effort by painting a door in cheerful blue or green. Others planted a few struggling neem trees in front of their homes. None of the attempts concealed the pervading scarcity rising from within. The neighborhood’s trademarks were nonexistent sewer systems, a communal tap in each home for running water and flat roofs covered with metal zinc sheets or straw.
My mother had visited Sudan before, but to me it was worse than anything I had imagined. I yearned for the humble comfort of my grandparents’ bed and the bulbous white duvets I used to cover with. I missed Geikie and his pretense at ferociousness. But, there was nothing I could do. I trudged along, trying my best to cope with the mysterious life of the Sudanese.
My parents, Leila, and I had a small room to share in a household inhabited by the grandparents, two brothers and their families. Six adults and six children shared the three modest rooms and a small dusty yard. Slowly, I came to know my new family. Hassan’s father, geedu, was a dignified man of Egyptian descent who spent his time fishing and raising pigeons. Whenever he saw me, he raised his grey eyebrows quizzically, as if he was not sure how I had come to be there. Hassan’s mother, haboba, was a woman of generous proportions, a bustling attitude and tribal marks etched into her plump cheeks by a sharp angry blade. Her full lips, tattooed in indigo blue contained a fiercely intense smile just like my stepfather’s.
Despite the barrier of language between us, I soon fell into a routine with all the children in the household. They showed me how to sweep the floors with palm leaf brooms and use plastic cans to scoop out the dirty water after our showers, tossing it into the street every evening. We sat on wood and twine stools at mealtimes, hunched over a round and uneven steel tray. Sometimes, for lack of a better seat we used an overturned plastic bucket, a box, or any firm object available. When at first I used my hands and fingers to eat; scooping in vain bits of faseekh, salted fermented fish, or wekka, a broth of dried okra powder, they laughed hysterically. On bad days, we had onion soup soaked with hard days-old bread. Dessert was served only on festive occasions. Jam and sugary sesame paste quieted our craving for sweets.
Often I dreamed of baka’s sour cream crepes, her cabbage rolls and crispy roasted Sunday chicken. As time passed, I gave up trying to conjure the aromas and tastes of baka’s cooking and I started looking forward to the salted fish and the onion soup, and ate eagerly just like the others. Every now and then, we would get a few coins to buy ice-pops from the man who came down the street shouting to sell his wares. My new cousin Sara and I, wearing ankle length caftans, would sit on a brick on the street and suck on that ice, relishing every bite, proudly showing off to passersby.
Sara and I quickly became best friends. She was a year younger, quiet but toughened as only a girl with three brothers would be. Sara had a round face the color of milk coffee, a high forehead crowned by cornrows and an air of wisdom about her. Our common plight of wishing for nice clothes, a TV or another pair of sandals to replace the worn out flip-flops brought us together.
On those afternoons when chores and homework were finished we made cloth dolls and stitched yarn onto their head to create long tresses. We chased the pigeons and rabbits that Geedu kept, perversely delighting in their panicked escape. Sometimes, we drew lines in the sand with a stick and played hopscotch for hours. To fill the hot, listless afternoons Sara’s mother would braid my hair just like Sara’s, but mine became loose easily even after liberal application of sesame oil. They spoke Arabic to me and I repeated the rich sounding words, until very soon they rolled easily from my lips.
As months passed, I got used to my new home, even though every day I thought of baka and deda, of my cousins and mostly about my father. Frequently, I worried if I would see them again, whether they thought of me. And then a letter would appear, carried by a stern faced Hassan after a hard day’s work. Fluttering in his hand was a limp, finger stained blue and white air-mail envelope. I would take the envelope, smelling it, imagining that it carried something special from home within its mustiness. Father would write about honor and family, urging me not to forget my roots, where I came from. The mountains of Montenegro were his home and he had many stories to tell about my valiant and (according to him) royal ancestors.
For days I would re-read those sporadic letters until the thin paper tore. Sometimes, deda would write too. But Baka never did, she didn’t know how. Deda wrote with great precision. The little ticks above the Serbo-Croat letters defined, the tone terse, unsentimental, as he sent baka’s love, talked about my cousins latest misbehaviors, asked when I would come back.
By then, our life had settled into a predictable routine. Often, I was sent to the corner store like the other children, usually dragging Leila behind me, sent off by the tongue clucking permanently bossy Haboba demanding white cheese, a single can of tomato paste or for the precious rations of sugar and black tea doled into tiny bags.
Since we did not possess a refrigerator or an air conditioner to stave away the heat of Sudanese summers (except for a lone clattering fan that hung from the flimsy ceiling, and which I always feared might detach and kill us all) we bought melting ice blocks to cool our water.
In Mygoma, barefoot thin children with snot running down their faces and hair sticking out every which way pushed a scruffy car tire up and down the street. Toddlers roamed freely in stained underwear. Frail old men, chewing a lump of tobacco, whittled their days away from strategically placed chairs in front of their humble abodes.
My step-cousins taught me how to play games of kombelet, a kind of piggy in the middle. There was no real ball so the kids fashioned their own, using old socks stuffed into each other. Mother was sick a lot and she sent Leila out into the street to play with the rest of the children. Once, our team got into a heated argument with a bunch of rowdy boys and I threw a stone at them. It hit a target.
The entire street came out to see the damage the foreign girl had done to the boy’s head. My mother and stepfather had a loud fight over my escapade, their shouting heard throughout the neighborhood. She defended me while he insisted that I embarrassed him. Privately however, mother was furious that I had been out in the first place, running around with the street kids and creating a problem within the family.
On Friday, there were always social obligations to attend. Weddings, engagement parties, circumsions, births and deaths interspersed the existence and social lives of the Sudanese.
The women of the neighborhood would get ready for these visits by applying intricate patterns of black henna on their hands and feet, until they encircled them in a magnificent display of squiggles and dots, flowers and squares. They wrapped silky tobes in vibrant colors around their golden skinned bodies and adorned their hands with gold bangles and necklaces, the cherished remnants of modest wedding dowries. When the occasion called for it, the women would enter a festive house with ululating, piercing sounds of joy or wailing loudly and slapping their cheeks while entering a house of a departed.
They tried to coerce my mother into following their ways, desperately positioning the tobe over her smooth hair as she pushed them away.
I grew to love that neighborhood. Even though I wanted to hear the familiar cling of bells from the imposing Cathedral in my hometown, I also loved the melodious sunset call to prayer as the red tinged sky broke into song, dispersing its goodwill over the city. I loved the ritual of teatime at 5:00 p.m. and the sound of drums waking the faithful for the sunrise meal during Ramadan. I loved it in spite of the poverty and my obvious mismatch to the environment. My light colored hair, my white skin and my Christian faith stood out on every occasion.
I became aware of people staring at me as I walked to the shop or to school. My enthusiasm and efforts at blending in seemed to irritate some people. They oscillated between pointing this fact out while also demanding that I fit in and conform as I was now Sudanese, daughter of a Sudanese. Sometimes, I was rudely reminded of my alien presence when little children ran after me shouting khawagiya. Foreigner.
Other times it was the covert looks of visitors as they whispered among themselves, speculating about my heritage, my father, my legitimacy. Upset by these slights, I would return to the safety of my mother’s presence, to her quivering voice and moist eyes as she comforted me.
“It will be all right,” she said over and over.
But these moments of distress became less frequent as I became fluent in the language, the intricate traditions and complex set of rules embedded in every aspect of Sudanese life. I cherish the memory of those special evenings when Haboba would gather her grandchildren for an evening of folk tales about Jeha, a fumbling but kind hearted fool and his hilarious escapades. Haboba would sit on a bambar, a low twine plaited stool, while shelling peanuts and stirring a bubbling pot of milky tea. She would rattle the coals, fanning the flames into orange jewels. We watched, our faces flushed and radiant in the light of an African moon while sipping the warm brew and crunching the freshly roasted peanuts.
Many times we visited haboba’s farm by the banks of the Nile for a day of excited cavorting in its muddy waves, disregarding the perils in the form of water snakes and electric fish.
The farm looked like a sea of dust and whistling thorn bushes yet a stubborn orchard flourished in spite of it. We plucked the still unripe guava, mango and tamarind fruit off their branches, gorging until our stomachs hurt. Sometimes when it rained, we would huddle under a haphazardly thatched plastic awning, greedily inhaling the heady scent of wet earth, damp sugar cane, and that same pungent aroma that met me when I arrived on the train. I knew now that it was the unique scent of the Nile.
Haboba liked to warn me, always with a hint of mischief in her eyes, “If you drink from the Nile once, you always come back.”
On school days, while mama and Leila slept, I rose to a darkened sky, put on my navy blue and white uniform, tied the requisite sash around my waist and made my way through silent streets to catch the school bus. Street dogs chased me barking and yelping, sending me dashing. The bus took me across town to Nile Avenue, where a girls’ Catholic school appeared from under the shadows of labakh trees. Screeching monkeys mocked me from their tall branches.
Behind the school’s high walls and sturdy gates, along its sweeping balconies and in the shade of its verandas my life in Mygoma felt surreal. At recess time one could hear a rising din of chattering teenagers in a dozen languages. Multiple religions coexisted side by side. Shades of hair and skin blended together swaying and fluttering every morning as we sang the Sudanese anthem and the flag unruffled lazily in the wind.
Sudan was my home for thirteen years. Even though my mother and stepfather divorced and she left Sudan forever, those years have remained with me. They remained in the way I speak Sudanese Arabic, clicking my tongue as a local would, and tied me to itself further through my Sudanese husband who sometimes jokes that I am more Sudanese than he is.
Life took me on other journeys, crossing continents and decades in the USA and later in the Middle East.
But always, Baka and Deda, Haboba and Geedu, long gone, blend with all the faces of my past and present. I see them all clearly. I can hear the little children teasing me and the joyful ululating of women. I can smell haboba’s sandalwood perfume, see Sara and her brothers huddled over an amber fire on a cold night.
My body has equal memory of my grandfather’s tamburitsa stirring a tender Slavonian folk song and of my stepfather moving to a rhythmic beat.
As I look at my four half-Sudanese half-Yugoslavian children, as diverse as the paths that have brought them to me, I see the shadow of my father, a glimpse of my grandmother. I see the swish of the walnut tree; I feel the warm savannah wind brush my face. I see Africa in their mannerisms and hear it in the echo of their young voices and laughter.
In spite of the hardships I love the life I have been blessed with. Sudan is in my heart, regardless of the color of my skin or my tortuous Slavic name.
I will continue to eat faseekh and paint dark henna flowers on my hands. I will continue to wrap myself in the silky folds of a Sudanese tobe whenever opportunity permits and will delight in the clink of gold bangles on my wrists.
I will cherish those childhood days filled with wonder and adventure in Mygoma, the extraordinary people of Sudan and will forever remain haunted by the scent of the Nile.