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Africa » Sudan » North » Karima
March 4th 2009
Published: April 11th 2009
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I reach Karima from Dongola on an entirely paved road but then spend half an hour tramping around trying to find a lokonda. My first option is, unbelievably, full but they direct me towards a second. It doesn't look great - the dorm is cramped, I only need to touch the mattress for dust to rise from it, the look and smell of the loos make me want to close my eyes AND nose when using them, and two backpacks indicate the presence of other foreigners - but I'm assuming it's the second best in town so I take it. I later add cockroaches, mice and mosquitos to its list of cons, but a shower cubicle with water of a pleasant sun-warmed temperature is a large pro.

The town has a couple of remarkable features. One is the number of barbers on the main street. On reflection, perhaps this isn't too surprising, with hairstyles so far in Sudan tending towards the shorter end of the spectrum. The second is the number of tea stalls around the place. Exclusively run by women, they consist of tea and coffee-making paraphernalia, a few low stools, and even fewer small tables. A bowl of
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Jebel Barkal
water is used to rinse off used cups and spoons before they are put back into circulation. These stalls are everywhere and form the basis of a low budget version of Mediterranean cafe society.

Near the lokonda is a clothing store whose sole item of sportswear is a football top - not David Beckham or Didier Drogba or Lionel Messi or any of the other stars whose faces can be seen in (no doubt unofficial) advertising, but someone called Metcalfe - presumably Stuart - from Blackburn Rovers. I wonder if this has made its way from the north of England via some charitable donation, or if the store's owner simply underestimated demand for the shirt of a player who last featured for Blackburn in the early '70s.

Karima's attractions are a rock formation - Jebel Barkal - near the south side of town, and some adjacent pyramids. With the state of my lokonda not encouraging a long stay, I decide to visit these on the afternoon after my arrival. It's a bit of a trudge through the outskirts of town but, as usual, I am buoyed by the many smiles and greetings that I receive. It seems as though the tuk tuks here have protruding devices attached to the hubs of their wheels, as seen on chariots in times gone by for maiming/removing the legs of infantry. Whatever it takes to teach kids the Green Cross Code.

The "mountain" Jebel Barkal is pleasant enough, but I don't have the energy to climb it. Instead, I skirt around its eastern and southern edges, passing a ruined temple and eventually encountering the pyramids to the west. They were built by 18th Dynasty Egyptians and are in remarkably good condition, though are much smaller and narrower than the whoppers at Giza - they appear to be covered in graffiti rudely carved by visitors throughout the ages. I stay for sunset, with only a couple of locals there for company.

As I head out of the site and back towards the lokonda I am intercepted by policemen and told I have to pay for a ticket. Though I've been rather unimpressed with what my ticket money has bought me so far in Sudan, I don't in general mind paying - however in this case there are clearly many people who just wander into the site well away from the police
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Jebel Barkal
and exit the same way, so it's a little irritating that I'm being nobbled simply because I didn't put any effort into avoiding paying. I feel further aggrieved when I later learn that, for simply seeing Jebel Barkal and the pyramids, I shouldn't have paid anything anyway. I decide that any further visits to $10-a-pop sites will need to be preceded by rigorous research to ensure that if I inevitably end up paying for entry then it will have been worth it. This immediately discounts the ruins across the river from Karima at Nuri.

Still brooding over this apparent injustice, I allow myself to be overcharged for falafel and a 7-Up on the way home.

Back at the lokonda I meet the owners of the two backpacks - a young guy and girl who have been travelling together for a few months through the Middle East. Not knowing that they are rubbing it in, they say that the police had accosted them at Jebel Barkal but they had gotten away without paying by saying they had bought a ticket the day before. For f*ck's sake, I think. They gain some brownie points by showing me the location of
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El Shamalia lokonda
the registration office, which I have to visit before I can actually spend the night at the lokonda.

Their route in Sudan has been essentially the same as mine, with one enormous difference being that until recently they were the support team for a Danish guy who is running the length of the globe from (near) the North Pole down. Though that in itself isn't something to mention in any detail here, it did mean that they were privy to information coming in from the guy's communications team. In particular, they had been warned of the impending International Criminal Court (ICC) verdict on charges of genocide that had been levelled against Sudan's president, General Omar El-Bashir. I too would no doubt have been aware of this but I haven't used the web since Aswan. With the verdict due in two days' time, and predictions of civil unrest in Khartoum (my intended next destination) if the expected guilty verdict is handed down, it maybe isn't the best time to head to the capital.

Preliminary investigations reveal that I will be stuck in Karima for at least another 24 hours anyway. As luck would have it, President El-Bashir will be
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El Shamalia lokonda
just over the river in Merowe the following day, to open a dam that will cause tremendous ecological harm (in addition to generating some electricity) - all transport out of Karima has been suspended as a result.

The dorm fills up as the evening wears on. A television has been brought in and some of the men (no women, obviously) are enjoying the antics of Tom and Jerry. A couple more are playing cards. We finally have lights-out at about midnight.

The night is on the cold side, not helped by me being near a door which won't close properly. There are only about four blankets for the entire lokonda and I apparently don't qualify for one. The mossies are also relentless - I manage to get the pillow cover section of my sleep sheet over my head but my exposed hands are given a good nibble. Some people are up at the crack of dawn and, as I've noticed throughout Africa so far, they behave as though no-one in their right mind could possibly still want to sleep - doors are banged, conversations carried out at full volume, etc.

It's not just transport that is affected
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Jebel Barkal
by El-Bashir's visit to Merowe. Many other businesses have closed down for the day, including the cheap Internet cafe in which I'd been hoping to attack my Inbox. A week without Hotmail does give a certain sense of freedom but it can also mask the irretrievable passing of numerous offers of discounted Vi@gra.

It turns out that there is extensive live TV coverage of the dam's opening, with speeches by a German (surprisingly), a Chinese (inevitably), and finally a stick-waving incendiary offering from Basher himself.

I take a break from the opening ceremony to head to the Nile and locate some abandoned riverboats. They are perched on the bank, relics from days when they would ply the route to and from Dongola. I have been reading "Blood River" by Tim Butcher in which he encounters a similar scene on the Congo river, a sign of how the march of progress in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is actually a retreat. Here in Sudan, it is the sprouting of a pervasive road network that has beached these craft.

Back at the lokonda, I put my thermometer out in the sun in the courtyard and it hits 50C
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Jebel Barkal
within a minute. It's obviously cooler in the shade but this is a relentless sun - the wide streets and low buildings make it difficult to find shelter when out and about. My body does not seem to understand the concept of dry heat, as my hands are white and scaly yet I'm still sweating my bollocks off. As always in hot climates, my liquid intake is driven massively up and my food intake massively down. I'm blitzing through my chlorine tablets in short order, trying to make enough clean water to satisfy my desiccated body. Dinner comes in the form of a blessed Bounty bar which, after days of chocolate deprivation, at that moment resembles nothing less than the Holy Grail.

During my evening wanderings, I spy a teenage boy on a brightly painted bike, a Manchester United flag flying from the basket. I salaam him and he brakes to a halt. He is only fifteen but his English is excellent, to the point where I can teach him some new expressions by describing them in other terms. He tells me of his liking for the music of Akon and Santana. His dream (his word) is to study
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Jebel Barkal
English at university, in Egypt or Italy. I tell him that he should always have a dream, that when life becomes mere survival then it is not worth living. Sadly, he then states confidently that Indians are bad people because they follow a strange religion. I disagree and point out that your actions determine whether or not you are a bad person, not your religion. His logic says that Muslims by definition are good people. I find this disquieting, both in terms of its content and the fact that at age fifteen it already appears to be internalised.

Back at the lokonda, just before I close my eyes for the night, a man gives me a yellow baseball cap emblazoned with the letters MTN, a local mobile phone company. It takes me embarrassingly too long to recognise him as one of the minions from the shop in Dongola where I had talked to his boss.

The following day, the ICC delivers its verdict. I hit the Internet cafe for an update. A warrant has been issued for the arrest of El-Bashir on charges of human rights abuses, though genocide is not one of the crimes on the charge
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Jebel Barkal
sheet. Expected reactions to the warrant range from anti-Western demonstrations (the ICC, not to mention the UN, are viewed as Western tools by many here) to nothing (as this verdict has been expected for months).

After giving a dam to his people the day before, El-Bashir professes to not give a damn about the warrant, though it certainly limits his holiday options for the time being. One of the rebel groups in Sudan states that this can be viewed as a green light to "extract" the president, though that may be hollow talk given the backing he has both within the country and from powerful allies such as China. With no reports of immediate anti-foreigner actions, I decide I will head for Khartoum the next day.

In the cafe I meet a couple of aid workers who have come overland from Ethiopia via Khartoum and are heading to Egypt. The man states that hotel prices in Khartoum are high but I should be able to get an OK room for about $80. Come again? Yes, that's $80. The dreams I've been having of a room with hot shower and maybe even a TV for $20 or so begin
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Jebel Barkal
to shimmer until they are a cruel mirage. There is absolutely nothing in the costs of materials and labour in Sudan to justify a $80 per room charge, and for that reason I will not pay it. Of course, the price of that refusal will be yet more lokonda living ...

Dull but possibly useful info
i. I don't know when the minibus I caught from Dongola to Karima was supposed to leave, but it left at 11:40AM. I've no idea how many departures there are per day. It cost SP15 and took just over 2 hours.
ii. I stayed at the El-Shamalia lokonda and paid SP5 for a bed in a dorm. Supposedly the El-Nasser lokonda is the best in town but they were full.
iii. Jebel Barkal and its pyramids are well worth visiting. Supposedly you only have to pay the entry fee if you visit the temple there, but the police will try to enforce the entry fee if they find you anywhere in the site. The police building is to the north of Jebel Barkal, so there are plenty of other directions from which you can approach the site if you would prefer not to
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Jebel Barkal
pay (and, given that you get no ticket or receipt anyway, I'm not entirely sure that the ticket money will go to the upkeep of the site rather than some policeman's pocket).


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Jebel Barkal
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The ICC won't let me be

President El-Bashir


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