“Stories from the streets of Khartoum”, a fieldnote by Mai AZZAM

Stories from the streets of Khartoum

By Mai Azzam

Mai Azzam  is a junior anthropologist graduated from the University of Khartoum. Mai holds two master degrees in Anthropology. The first one is from the University of Khartoum 2010 and the latest is an  M.Phil. in anthropology of development from  the University of Bergen. Her research interests are on youth, Islam, and political anthropology. She worked with youth movements in Khartoum, Sudan, to explore more about youth role in public life in Khartoum. Mai worked in Khartoum as a junior researcher at CEDEJ (Centre d'Études et de Documentation Économiques, Juridiques et sociales) for three years. She also worked in different capacities with local NGOs in Khartoum and developed her activist personality.
This is a series of life stories of young motivated people in Khartoum. It is a direct reflection from ethnographic material collected in 2015.  I spent six month for data collection among two charity associations in Khartoum namely Sadagaat and Shari’ Al Hawadith. Each association has started via informal methods and grows to fill a gap left by government privatization policies and investments on war and defense rather than social services.

Through this material I aim to show an ‘experience-near’ (Wikan 1991) ethnography, in which the voices of my interlocutors are dominant.
 “I wanted to do something” is a statement almost all my interlocutors gave when I asked why they join the charity associations. One question that continuously puzzled my writing process was how I could conceptualize the many narratives I got from my interlocutors. In particular, those who told me very rich life stories, as these stories encompassed/embodied so many elements that seemed difficult to capture correctly with a few anthological terms. Such an attempt, it seemed to me, would lead to a devaluation of the rich stories I was told. Thus, I will try to present their narratives pretty much as I got them, in order to understand some of the reasons why my interlocutors decided to join the charity associations.
In her article Wikan (1991) criticized the existing strait jackets of anthropological jargons that dominated the discipline. As Wikan told us, “I suggest, …, that we have to follow people, as they move, bridging scenes and encounters. I stress the aspect of bridging because much social analysis proceeds by compartmentalizing life into distinct domains (for example, a “public” and a “private”), not seeing that a life-line is cut in the process, and with it compelling concerns” (Wikan, 1991:295). To achieve this Wikan calls for a deep, experience-near presentation of fieldwork data.
However, whatever their personal and individual reasons, what brings my interlocutors in this chapter together is the mutual aim for social change, by offering help and staying active, not passive. The “do-something” type of motivation they all point at, aims at changing the lives of those who are being served, and it comes from a feeling of responsibility towards the community. “Feelings” are actually an important pushing factor for my interlocutors to work in charity; either they have wounded feelings caused by a certain indecent that changed their way of seeing themselves, or feelings of a need to bring about or for improving an ethically based community. These feelings transfer from passive into active ones, once they join the charity associations. By passive I mean the feelings that one keeps inside and therefore remains inside the person. Once these feelings are active, this means they are strong enough to allow those people to “do something”.  Thus, to present my interlocutors as they encounter change, it is important to shed light on few anthropological concepts I find relevant to the stories presented.
The act of “doing something” is best seen in the framework of what Bayat (2010) calls “quiet encroachments”. Bayat (2010) argues that people who are in way or another excluded from urban social services systems engage themselves in quiet encroaching. The concept refers to people’s informal methods in bringing social services and accordingly changes their realities.  My interlocutors too are involved in encroachment of the social and political system in Sudan.
Bayat (2010) argued that quiet encroachment is grounded in people’s needs. In a system that cannot provide the services they need, people start to “encroach” the systems in order to get what they need. I would like to add, that quiet encroachment also starts from feelings, and this is one thing that my interlocutors mentioned over and over again.
I use the word “feelings” in the same sense as the concept of “emotions”. In Sudanese Arabic the expression “I feel” points to a state of emotional complexities that one encounters. “I feel” does not only explain a sensed status of being or a bodily experience, it is a combination of body and mind status. For example, if one says, “I was hurt” in Sudanese Arabic, “hurt” may refer to bodily pain, or it could mean that “my feelings were hurt”, thus referring to a mind/heart experience.
Here I relate to Leavitt’s (1996) reminder that feelings in the Western meaning of the word contain a dichotomization that might not always exist in other places in the world.
Emotions in anthropology have often been studied as part of dichotomies, mind versus body, positivist versus interpretivist, culture versus nature, and universal versus relative (Lutz & White, 1986). I understand emotions here as a complex process that is generated by social elements. Emotions in this sense vary between individuals and between social circumstances. Many of my interlocutors talked about the deep emotions they got after certain incidents in their lives, and thus these emotions motivated them to “encroach” and do something. Then emotions are not merely metaphysical stands that we cannot grasp, emotions are rather powerful in changing people’s lives.
Consequently, in the stories I will tell emotions/feelings appear to be an effect of interaction with a fellow human beings suffering; anger with injustice and a basic compassion with those who suffer. As Leavitt (1996) argues, feelings are “subjectively” shaped and attached to meaning, “human-beings” initiate this process in particular “social contexts” (Leavitt, 1996: 531).


  1. Sandal is Hurt

Sandal’s story shows a case of personal transformation from an employee in the hospital to a charity activist. The transformation is taking place as a result of feelings of wound, sadness and injustice. Against the backdrop of state failure in providing health service, Sandal is becoming aware about the injustice embedded in social and political system.  Thus it is a combination of feeling responsible for changing the system, helping others and emphasizing her agency.

In her own words:

It was shocking for me that day. I was working my normal shift in the hospital in which I had a job as a nurse. One day a woman left her newborn baby at the hospital and disappeared. I could not understand what was going on until the other nurses told me that we should tell the police and that they would take the baby to the shelter house. It was my first introduction to charity, when I visited the shelter house. I started to help the children there through my own financial means. I asked my friends and my family members to donate money, and then I started to go to pharmacists and ask them to give me free samples of medicine, and to give me discounts. When they started to know me, they even gave medicine with delayed payments.

While I was in the shelter house, I saw some other youth as well trying to help. Later I met them again at the hospital, and I knew they had an initiative to support sick children, so I joined them. The incident that really changed my life, and I started to be heavily involved in charity, was the death of a child. The little girl came to the public hospital where I work and needed an incubator with oxygen, which was not available. Her parents took her to the nearby private hospital where the hospital asked them to pay 5000 SGD (about 500 USD) and the parents did not have that much money. On their way back to our hospital, the baby died, and I was deeply hurt. Why would a child die because her parents do not have money and we do not have adequate health services?

As I started working with the guys, in what later became “Shari’ Al Hawadith[1]”, we started to support those kids who had cancer. When the medicine was not available in the pharmacies, we brought it from Egypt and gave it to the kids. The hospital and the Minister of health got crazy. The Minister came and talked to us, he said to me you could volunteer for sure, but do this for a child who has better chances of survival. They immediately stopped us from working in that hospital and they asked security agents to keep us outside the hospital. I could not stop supporting the kids though, and thus, I was working quietly on individual cases. Something I did until 2012 when “Shari’ Al Hawadith” was launched and we started working in “Ja’far Ibn Auof” hospital. The first thing we did was to buy incubators for the hospital. When we bought them, the company gave us one free because they knew it was for charity purposes. Things started to come to us just very randomly. I remember I was sitting in the hospital and one person came and gave me a box. When I opened it, it was an Electrocardiography device. Bringing these devices brought the media attention to us. At an evening TV show, the host called the Minister of Health and asked why the Ministry could not provide medical devices while a bunch of kids can. The same day at 9 p.m., we were kicked out of “Ja’far Ibn Auof” hospital. We started sitting in the street in front of the hospital and function from there.

The situation in “Ja’far Ibn Auof” was good when Prof. Ja’fara was there. Then when the ministry took over the hospital, everything collapsed. While prof. Ja’far was running the hospital he received donations from an English association, everything was available free for children. Then the Minister of Health decided to privatize the hospital. Prof. Ja’far refused this decision and accordingly the Ministry took over the hospital, even though the land is owned privately by Prof. Ja’far.

As one can understand from Sandal’s talk about herself, her deep feelings of wound were her first step in a long process of quiet encroachment. It is an encroachment to a system where babies can die out of poverty and neoliberal policies of privatization. Her struggle with the system is clear. She resists a regime of public exclusion from social services by offering these services by any means possible. The emotional experiences for Sandal come from her life experience. As she comes from a certain social “class” she has never lived this kind of pain before this incident. For her, it is unfair that a child dies because the government cannot provide health services for poor people. To make it clearer, in her Ph.D. work Ahmed (2013) discusses how women deal with the death of their children in a Khartoum hospital. She explains that they rely on religious beliefs and understand these deaths as part of fate that they cannot do anything about it. They express sadness in the form of spiritual beliefs that come from their life experiences, because as poor marginalized mothers they do not have the power to change the situation that led to the death of their children. While for Sandal, it is different. She comes from a relatively better economic situation/background, she has university education and during her life, she has not lost someone because of poverty. She therefore has the resources needed to act. But the resources are activated by emotions. In her case such emotions were activated within a context of rational thinking about the reasons of death. Hence, she expresses to me: “We are deeply hurt, this government is the worst, and this country is bad”.

Sandal takes a moral stand on the side of those who are poor and decide to help them. Thus, emotions, argues Lutz & White (1986) “are a primary idiom for defining and negotiating social relations of the self in a moral order” (Lutz & White, 1986: 417).

As Sandal goes on in our conversation, she describes her work in “Shari’ Al Hawadith” as follows:

In “Al Shari’”, we are all equal. Your ideas are for you, but once you come to the street, it is about humanity and nothing else. The patients’ interest is important no matter their color, religion tribe, etc. On the street, we are all friends. We know details of each other, we know who needs what. Each person who comes to the street automatically becomes your friend, and you feel affiliated with that person. If I sit alone, for example, everyone would come and ask me what is wrong, are you OK, etc. They support you no matter what.

I got married to one of the volunteers in “Shari’ Al Hawadith”, a person who was detained for 45 days during the September protests. His mother and aunts were also volunteering in “Shari’ Al Hawadith”. We developed a relationship very quickly and within three months, we had the Aqeed[2]. After 8 months the volunteers in “Shari’ Al Hawadith” held a meeting and decided we were supposed to have the wedding. They called me and said, you do not come to the street for a while, your wedding is in 10 days. I said; What? Who said so? When they replied: We did.

In 10 days, we had the wedding. The volunteers booked the wedding hall, they shared the expenses and brought me the wedding dress, they paid for my makeup, my henna, photography, and everything. Even those who did not know me in person paid for the wedding expenses. Those people are more than a family for me.

The same day of my wedding, I had a shift in “Shari’ Al Hawadith”. We [Sandal and her groom] were passing by on our way to the wedding hall and I saw that the street was empty, all of the volunteers were preparing the wedding hall. Therefore, we asked the driver to stop and we worked that shift. I went to the shift in my wedding dress. Then Om Gisma[3]  was telling me to go immediately to the hall. When I raised my head from the papers, I saw people and journalists gathered around, looking at me with cameras.

The volunteers did something you cannot find anywhere else. Normally people would only congratulate you, but they will not do such a thing. Voluntary work is not only for the street, it is also for families.

What Sandal has said might be familiar in some places in the world, but in Sudan, this is unusual. It is unusual because the general norm of weddings is that it is a family thing to decide and to organize. The family decides when, where and who will be involved in their children’s weddings. Friends will just assist; they will not decide dates or book wedding halls. It is worth mentioning that Sandal friends have supported her and paid for the expenses just for the sake of the friendship relation. Her husband, as she told me, is a well off man and he has the money to pay all the expenses. The bond of friendship is very strong in the context of the charity association. The mutual aim they share has made them “a family”. As Sandal  mentioned earlier, they feel affiliated to each other. There is no one definition for being a friend or affiliated, except being part of the charity association. This qualifies a person to be a friend, regardless of their age, gender or social background. Consequently, the pattern of friendship and the bond itself are fluid, embedded in social and cultural forces (Adams & Plaut, 2003). To support my argument in this part, I use another statement from Salma’s interview, as she told me:

I do not have a good relation with my cousins. The way they think does not go smoothly with my way of thinking, and they always want to force me to wear hijab and to behave in a certain manner. I find myself more at ease with my friends in “Shari’ Al Hawadith”, no one tries to impose their opinions on me, they do not care if I wear hijab or not. It is easier for me to have my life more attached to them, than to my cousins.

In the context of charity associations in Khartoum, friendship appears to be one of the most important tools in building the social capital of the group. Friendship relations came to play an important role among the young generations, especially for those who live in urban settlements. Friendships relations become even stronger and solid in the context of charity associations. For instance, Ali is another interlocutor who clarified to me:

I found out that Saeed is a close relative of mine that I did not know. I only met him in the charity work. The everyday collaboration between us created strong relations and friendships. This has even changed what it means to be a friend. Earlier, I used to join my friends in fun activities and we would meet on and off. Now we have a common aim for our friendship. The change in friendship relations is that now it is based on a clean background, it is based on charity. This is good, but the problem is that we lack privacy. The one thing that you used to share with one special person now you share it with two, then three, then ten. We share to an extreme extent. We share our emails and Facebook passwords. Now, I share it with six other people! Even further, sometimes you can text a person on Facebook and get a reply from another person. When some of us are having exams or busy times at work, I can hold their Facebook accounts, emails, and they can automatically divert their phone calls to my number. I reply to their emails and text messages on Facebook. We do this because we run our charity work through these means, and it is important to have active accounts so the work does not stop even if we are busy.

Ali has introduce another dimension of friendships that I can explore, namely the question of privacy. There should be strong reasons for anyone to give up their privacy and willingly allow other people to invade it. The strong reason, in this case, is charity activities. For the sake of keeping the work active, this group of friends has let go of privacy. For them, transparency is a valuable principle, not only in their work but also on a personal level. Generally, as Derrida (1997) tells us, naming someone as friend signals a social status where this person is allowed to invade the private space of his or her peer. The title “my friend” makes an embedded distinction between commons and close persons. Nonetheless, the question of levels is still valid, and one can ask the question about to what extent is this person private? Moreover, what makes the friendship strong “enough”, to the extent of sharing very personal information, such as passwords? In my case study, the answer is clear; the context of charity activities creates such a basis.

In a changing world of meanings, such as ours, I rather conclude that friendship in charity associations appears as a notion of sharing of broad aim and ethics. It is a notion that we cannot define apart from the context within which it takes place.

2. Mariam shapes her personhood outside the “cattle life”

Another story of a volunteer who encroaches the system, yet this time the process is slightly different than Sandal.  Mariam is a 24 years old girl who studied arts and now works as a graphic designer. Mariam is a volunteer in both “Shari’ Al Hawadith” and “Sadagaat”. She started her own journey in quiet encroachment in a different way than the others. Her feelings were focused more on herself as a person. As she told me her story, she said:

Once, I was chatting with a friend of mine on Facebook, when he said: listen, it looks like you have an empty life and a lot of free time, what do you do in your life? It looks like you <are doing nothing, you are a pointless person and I am a busy person, and my life is full of details. This statement from my friend broke my heart. I felt very bad about myself. I then started to question myself and realized that my friend is right. My life is empty. I go to university and back to home, my life had no meaning. Some days later, I saw on Facebook an event for blind people, so I contacted the event organizers and asked if I can document the event with photos. I went to take photos but I was just crying the whole time. I saw a different world, where people are helping others. It was something I have never been through. I started to follow the events on Facebook. It was around Valentine’s Day when I saw that an association created an event called “a hand of love”, where they would collect things for needy people. I went to the event, and since then, volunteering has become my life. Hence, the way I volunteer is different, I only volunteer by designing logos. I volunteer through my work, as a youth and what distinguish us is our ideas, our simple skills. My skill is designing, for which I get a lot of money, and I volunteer through this. When I design something for charity associations I get two things, first, my work develops, and second, I show them something beautiful. This is also practical for me since my year is divided between Sudan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The only way for me to be a volunteer all through the year is working from a distance, which I can do when designing. My work has developed a lot since 2012, as the associations grow bigger, I grow bigger as well. At that time, I was an employee and did not have my own business, but my name started to grow because of my designs for charity.

I have even started my own business out of volunteering. We build our networks via people we meet, so imagine how many people I meet in the voluntary field – they are countless. When I started my business, I worked for free. The most expensive logos I have done was for free. This has two returns. One, in life because it markets my name, and the other, afterlife from God.

I wish my brothers would come to volunteer. They do not come, because they are weak and will not make the decision to give their time to something that belongs to other people.

One of the best things I have learned in the voluntary work, is that it is a way of life. It does not require a time or a place. See what you are good at and do it for free. I believe that our generation is making a foundation for charity work in Khartoum. As we are the first to start this, in 50 years or so, we will be models for those who come after us. Then people might say that Khartoum has become full of volunteers. This sounds strange for me, because it is a good thing, the more we are the better.

Voluntary work has changed my life. It produced another Mariam. The people around me think it is a mature Mariam. To have the courage and deal with different people in this field, old, young, managers, institutions, and so on, it makes a stronger person with self-confidence. For example, I used to be very scared of policemen, and when I saw them on the street I would change my way, even though I knew I had done nothing wrong. Now, even if they stopped me for any reason, I can argue with them.

Volunteering made me very conscious about what I want in life, and my aim is to do something right. I have literally learned how to live life from other volunteers, especially those who are older than I am.

My father is the person who deeply influences me. However, he is a simple Sudanese person who lives in what I call, with respect to him, the “cattle life”. Which is study, work, marry, get kids, and die. While I believe that if I do not add to life, I become a burden to life. My father is a simple person; I cannot easily convince him that he brought up a child who can change the world. It is here I come to disagree with him. He says things like “why do you want to change people”, “care about yourself”, and “it is better if you sleep than work free”. He does not trust that I can change the world, that I can do something that no one has done before. I try to convince him that I am constructing a model for the next generations. In fact, it is good that he could not be convinced, because it is the reaction of this community that has made us like this. I want to tell them that I can do something. The broad community thinks we are not like other girls because we have an aim. Moreover, when my family does not support me, this is the real trouble. It hurts me when they treat me like a bad girl and do not believe in me.

The feeling I get when I designed the logo for the Ei’maar[4]  campaign, for example, was beyond any feeling. When I saw my logo, with my name, on the tents where students are having classes, I was beyond happiness. Because those students one day will become educated, and they will get more opportunities in life. When I designed the logo for the baby incubators campaign for “Shari’ Al Hawadith”, I was not in Khartoum. When I came back, Abu Jood[5]  took me to a room in the hospital and there was the incubator with a kid inside. Abu Jood said to me, this is the incubator we got with your logo. You cannot imagine how happy I was or how many happy tears I cried.

We are making another world. The community in Khartoum is divided into two groups. A group who just surrender to the bad situation, and do nothing. The other group complains about it, demand social change, but also do nothing. We represent a third group, who create the change. I will not demand change, I will make it. I will change everything that I do not like. Do not tell me the Minster of Health – for example – is doing nothing, yes we know that. However, do we watch those who are dying now without helping them?

Mariam has constituted her personhood through charity associations, as we can clearly see from her narration. The exchange of knowledge and experiences with other volunteers helped her to live the life that she wanted. This trend suggests that a quiet encroachment for Mariam is a make-up of personhood.

As Mariam told me she felt very bad about herself, thus she needed to change her lifestyle to feel better. Again, emotions and feelings are an integral part of Mariam’s story. Hereafter the research on emotions as culturally situated explains that cultures shape emotions through shaping the self (Haidt & Keltner 1999). Yet, I would argue that the self is also formed via emotions, what Mariam has felt about herself as empty, pointless, etc changed the way she sees herself and activated her pursuit for another self. The self is thus something fluid that a person keeps developing and changing over time and place.

I also find useful to point out that this idea of the self as embedded in social relations has been discussed in Ikäheimo & Laitinen (2007). Their discussion entails that we can only understand personhoods as situated in relations that people have to each other and to themselves. Following their explanation, we can then understand that Mariam’s relation to her father made her more aware of the life that she does not want. It built a certain understanding of herself as rejecting the way most of the Sudanese live. It is particularly important to note that women in Khartoum are expected to live “the cattle life” and if they try to resist it or encroach it they face levels of rejection. As Mariam narrated, people started to look at her as different since she started working in voluntary associations because she has an aim in life. They also try to bring her back to fulfill their expectations by seeing her as if she is “bad” or not good enough.

Mariam and many other women who work in charity associations have changed their views on themselves as women and as persons. They started to look at themselves as valuable people with a clear aim in life. As opposed to their old personhoods when they saw their lives as empty, because they did nothing but pursuing the gendered roles. As Tagriid, another interlocutor told me:

I was doing nothing in my life. It was empty and all my concerns were on girls’ issue. Dressing, going out and the like. However, when I went to the shelter houses I felt that I could do something and no longer be in that empty shallow life. When I started going to Maygoma[6], I saw mothers that come to give their babies away. I started to think about it, I felt I could be that girl who comes to leave her child in the shelter house. However, I am not. Does it make me better than her? No, because I can still be in that position. Therefore, we started to become friends with those women who come to give away their babies.

From a person who was just staying home, gradually I joined an association. However, people around me they do not accept what I am doing. My mother says you are no longer looking like a girl, and my friends say I am pointless. Why do you work free? But then gradually things started to change. I felt that I started to change the people around me. My father is a difficult person and for him sunset is the end of the day. My father, who was very difficult and strict, always asking why I came home late, now asks me why I come early.

It may be relevant to note that women in Khartoum just like in many other places in the world are socialized to be mothers[7]. To be good mothers women are supposed to be “good women”. Being a good woman means that one should be at home early enough in the evenings, and always take care of their looks. In this sense Tagriid’s mother meant to point out that her daughter does not pay attention to her looks, she is not like other girls in her age. This for Tagriid was not an important issue in her life, as her life meant more than to look nice.

For my interlocutors, joining charity associations helped them to build alternative personhoods where they can even change people within their circles. As mentioned by Tagriid she was able to change her father by challenging his patriarchal power.

Notwithstanding, those girls still want to be mothers and get families, even if it is harder for them now. Mariam tells me how difficult it will be for her now to get a husband:

The girls face two ways of harm. First, the volunteers think they will not get married to a volunteer girl. They remain Sudanese men and think we stay too long outside, and that we are too busy to be mothers. Second, the community thinks we are not like other girls because we have an aim, and the volunteer’s community thinks we are not good enough because we are open.

In their pursuit for social change, my interlocutors encroach the systems that do not suit their moral beliefs. Mariam and Tagriid believe in their role to help others and be productive in aid provision. Others like Ahmed has a different story with charity associations. He also aims at social change, but he is pursuing a community where there will be no economic corruption. In the following, I will dive into Ahmed’s story which is about another level of encroachment.

3. Ahmed is looking for hope

Ahmed was born in Khartoum but brought up in the UK until 5 years old. Ahmed studied in Khartoum all his schooling levels then took university education in London. When he came back to Sudan, he wanted to start his own business but he could not run it. Ahmed came with an education in the UK, with a lot of expectations and visions to start a business in Khartoum. Unfortunately, he learned that it would be difficult to apply his ideals and theories in a Sudanese context. What seemingly is important in the West was less important in Sudan. Such things like showing up on time when one has an appointment, follow the exact rules when doing working papers, and most importantly, always be honest and direct in your everyday life, did not matter much. Ahmed had learned these sort of values, not only in the UK but also during his primary and secondary schooling in a private school following a British education system. These values might be theoretically very clear and good, but in Sudan, one has to learn how to maneuver such ideals that are not applicable in everyday life. One has to be clever, or in other words, subtle, in order to make his or her own way in the business world. Simply because most of the people would not follow these ideals, not because they are rejected, rather because they may lead to failure, which, is exactly what has happened to Ahmed.

The question of knowledge seems very relevant to pose here. The ideals that my interlocutor has learned as the “correct” way to live and to work do not fit the ideals of doing business in Khartoum. The validity of knowledge as one learns it from books represents only a theoretical approach. What Ahmed needed to learn was the knowledge imbued in local contexts. Something like the “metis”, that Scott (1998) discussed in Seeing like a state. Hence it was hard to learn these skills because they touched upon Ahmed’s ethical and moral principles. So then, the question of knowledge is not only about “knowing” but also about the place of this knowledge in one’s morality. Ahmed told me that the main problem he could not manage to work with was paying bribes. Ahmed had to pay bribes to get his business kicking off. Such bribing would stands against his moral beliefs, which he learned throughout his life and in education institutions in the UK. No doubt, also the local education system teaches moral standards, but when it comes to application people know that it is not applicable.

Ahmed’s moral stands have led him to quit the business and take a job in a construction company. And he told me his experience with the construction company:

I took a job with a company that works in roads construction in 2006; I worked in different positions in that company until in 2013 I was tired of the corruption. I faced this problem throughout my work all the time. It is rooted in the governmental bodies, to make the company work, one has to pay. We had to pay the consolation committee in the Ministry and the authorized personnel. For three years, since I took the position of in the company, that was very conflicting for me. For example, during the last project I was supervising I had to construct a part of the road three times. The first time they said there is a problem and we have to rebuild the road, so we did. 5 hours later, I have been asked again to demolish and rebuild the same part again. Here I thought there is something wrong because even the sample that we have sent to be tested in the lab[8]  did not reach us yet. I refused to demolish the part and said that unless I get an official letter I will not do it. When the lab results came in it was negative, meaning there was something wrong. We had to rebuild the block again. The third time, I had to check this, when I discovered that the lab engineer had been instructed to give bad results. I had a big confrontation with the people from the Ministry of Roads and Bridges. Honestly, I insulted the guy and called him a corrupt man. Then my general manager in the company held a meeting with me and asked me to keep things smooth. Out of respect to my manager, I let it go.

The second problem I had was after two months. Someone from the ministry called my general manager and talked to him. Therefore, the manager talked to me and he was very clear, saying to me: you have to pay (meaning bribe) to the people in the ministry so we can work. You are not paying from your pocket anyway.

If the ministry and the locality reject the work, the company has to redo the work, at the company’s own expense. In order to avoid this, we have to pay the employees. Initially, they were four people that we had to pay. Three of these people are the same in every location since they are at the ministry level, and the fourth person at the locality level changes in each location.

This was conflicting to me because if I pay money to get the job done that means I am getting it at the expenses of other people who applied for the same job and maybe my work is not proper but has been accepted because I paid. This idea of paying to get a contract I cannot digest, no matter how this has become justified in Sudan. I just cannot get it. I am confident on the quality of my work, then why would I pay bribes. That was the end for me, I left the job.

The corruption of many companies working in roads and bridges construction is a highlighted issue in many Sudanese electronic newspapers. The government has always implanted an image to the public’s as being the government of roads and bridges. Particularly after the decision of the international criminal court against the president. The regime created a famous cliché against the criminal court that says, “Our answer is: bridges and a dam[9]”. The aim was to show that the government is investing in development through constructing roads, bridges, and the Merowe water dam. Nevertheless, I was surprised by the honesty of my interlocutor in talking about corruption, and he gave me another angle with which to look at corruption. Ahmed showed me how the individuals working in these companies can face a state of internal conflicts and how they sometimes react according to their social experiences.

Ahmed is clearly facing a conflicting situation between what he think is right and what his job requires. The way he was brought up, accompanied with his education and his ideals, produced a person that is “perfectionist”, at least according to his own brothers. Ahmed told me:

My brothers think that I am a perfectionist but I do not think so. When I got this job, I was supposed to work in management and coordination between the Ministry of Roads and Bridges and engineers in my company. After some month, I realized that I am lost because I do not know anything about engineering and I got to know that there are 27 volumes that explain the important terms and codes that are used in Sudan. I got the volumes and read them. Although I did not become an expert, I just understood the terms and that made my work easier.

When Ahmed left his job, he was in a desperate situation. He left his family house and cut all communication with them and took a job as a typist in a small shop and lived with a person that he met there. After a month, his family found him and convinced him to go home or at least to live with his sister. So he moved to his sister’s house with her husband and he was pushed to leave his small job. Ahmed then started his own journey of encroachment by quitting a job that does not fit his beliefs. One might think that this conflicting situation appeared because Ahmed is a Muslim man, and the Islamic tradition forbids bribes and corruption. This was not the case thou, as he explained to me when I asked him about it:

My father is a religious person. Although he has been living all his life abroad he is committed to his religion. He never interferes on how I practice religion. He can just speak to me about the importance of the Islamic practices and why it was demanded from us. But he never tells me what I should do. Religiously I am on and off; on, when I have the mood when I feel calm and secure[10].  I have been educated in a way that I have to question everything; I do not take things for granted.

Islam has five pillars – to confess-that there is only one God and Mohamed is his prophet, to pray, fast, pay zakat and to go to haj if you can. The first pillar there is no question about it, although I have gone to the other side and back. Still, I have a big problem with prayers. I know that I pray for God not for any person, so if I cannot feel the prayer and I cannot be present during my prayers, I do not want to do it. I believe that my prayers will not reach God if am not present in it. I fast Ramadan fully, not because I am very committed but because Ramadan for me is certitude. I have many bad habits, one of which is that I am a chain smoker. So I challenge myself by fasting. After Ramadan, I never fast again at all. I have another problem also. I stick to the written words, so for me what counts is Quran as a book that came from God but Sunna[11] this is also something I question. This is also because of my education and tendency to question everything, particularly with my knowledge of the history of Christianity and Judaism. Then, for me the idea of rejecting bribes is not because I am a religious man, it is because I do my work in the best way, and paying bribes is not fair.

Ahmed talked about the way he practices Islam according to his own understanding of Islam. As he mentioned himself, the way he was educated shaped his personal standpoints in practicing religion. Here it was very conflicting for him to make his knowledge more applicable for his everyday religious life, an area that he should be able to control. There is no one forcing him to follow any religious ideals, so in a local context like Sudan where the government is adopting Islam and insist on practices such as praying five times a day, some people like Ahmed are able to produce their own personalized version of being a Muslim. This suggests that Islamic identities are always shaped and reshaped by people. I refer to Asad’s (2009) argument on Islam as a discursive tradition; Ahmed rejected a certain part of this tradition. As he mentioned, he only believes in Quran and questions the Sunna. Both discourses are Islamic traditions, yet, one of these discourses gets more validity than the other one. The validity of the discourse itself comes from a belief in the Quranic text as holy and untouchable. As oppose to the Sunna, which in the recent years has been a questionable discourse for some people. In fact, Ahmed is not the only interlocutor who takes this standpoint. Ali has also told me during one of our informal conversations that he started to question Sunna and that he doubts its validity. The main assumption that those people take is that Sunna as a discourse has been changed throughout the years since the prophet’s time. It is not as holy or untouchable like Quran[12], thus, it becomes doubted. The knowledge that is portrayed as holy in Sudan, such as the Sunna, is becoming contested in practice. Ahmed, for instance, challenges this type of knowledge and prefers to adopt practical understandings that fit his life. The knowledge Ahmed chooses to adopt is based on his moralities and his personality as someone who question facts rather than take them for granted. Ahmed, as he told me, left his job and went through a difficult time in his life until he found a job in Sadagaat that he is more comfortable with it. His story is still rich with details, as he told me:

After I left my job, I was very mad at Sudan and thought there is no hope for Sudanese people to change. I hated them. Until my sister who was involved as a volunteer in Sadagaat contacted me and mentioned a job opening there. As I was very frustrated about Sudan, I said no, there is no pure charity in Sudan. My sister asked me to think about it. I checked the website and I was attracted by one of the proposed projects that aimed at offering ear sets for deaf people. I liked the idea and thought to try it. Therefore, I sent my CV to Sadagaat manager, who called me and set an interview time. To be honest this interview was a turning point for me. When the manager gave me a background about Sadagaat and how it works, I was amazed. The idea that Sadagaat gets all the funds only by donations, and the transparent economic method they apply made me change my mind. The manager gave me hope in Sudan again. When I saw that there are people who work for others and everything is based on charity I finally believed that there is something good in Sudan. They do not even get funds from an international agency; they do not have any stable resources outside the donations. When the manager started to talk about the salary, I was not even thinking about it, for me, it was not the main thing after I have found hope. I was fascinated by this, as I said when I left my job, I was convinced that this country and its people are nothing.

Ahmed’s feelings of desperation guided him –like Sandal- to negotiate his attitude to the moral order (Lutz & White, 1986). His experiences with corruption generated his frustrated emotions. Which in the end led him to take a moral stand and leave his job. In this example, emotions are generated through social experiences and lead to a different social experience.

Ahmed’s pursuit for a moral economy that is based on transparency and honesty is finally met when he found work in Sadagaat. However, before that, he encroached a corrupt economy when he left his job and aimed at a moral economy by taking a simple job as a typist. For someone like Ahmed, coming from an upper-middle-class family and being a well-educated person, working as a typist was not acceptable for his family. I say upper middle class not only as an economic status, but also to characterize his ethnic background and education. His extended family is a big one; they live in one of Khartoum’s oldest areas, in different houses next to each other. In fact, they live in one of the places that were a village even before Khartoum came to be a city. With the urban expansion of Khartoum, many surrounding villages became part of the city. Like the people of Omdurman[13], the residents of these villages are very proud of themselves and their history. Since this job as a typist was a small one, Ahmed had to leave it, but he left it with feelings of frustration and desperation on behalf of Sudan.

Through his feelings of desperation, Ahmed started his encroachment. For him, finding hope again was the most important thing. Hence, Ahmed is an employee at Sadagaat, and he has never been a volunteer. I asked him once, if he were not an employee, would he still work as a volunteer? He said to me:

I am an introvert person, one day the manager asked me to give a speech about Sadagaat in front of hundreds of people, and I almost quit the job. The only reason I pushed myself through this, was Sadagaat. I realized how much Sadagaat means to me while I was giving that speech, shaking and sweating.

Ahmed just rejected a job offer in an international organization based in Addis Ababa to continue working in Sadagaat. For him, it is about getting self-satisfaction by helping others. It was this feeling of helping someone else that kept him in Sadagaat.



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[1] A youth led charity association in which I conducted my fieldwork with its members. Shari’ Al Hawadith stands for emergency street and it provides medical assistant for patients and hospitals particularly children.

[2] The official marriage contract in Sudan.

[3] Om Gisma is an important woman for “Shari’ Al Hawadith” initiative; she is a tea seller came to Khartoum from Kordofan state for her daughter medical treatment. Om Gisma offered the association all means of support possible and gradually she became an icon for the association. I discus her story in another part of my thesis.

[4] It was one of Sadagaat events to offer classes for students in a periphery areas.

[5] One of my key interlocutors

[6] Al Maygoma is a shelter house for children born outside marriage.

[7] There is a wide literature on women in Sudan, among it: Nageeb 2004, Abusharaf 2009, Hale 1993, Boddy 1988.

[8] Worth mentioning that as part of the process of constructing a road, from an engineering perspective, they should run a laboratory test to ensure the quality of the road.

[9] الرد الرد كباري و سد In Arabic

[10] Ahmed has used an Arabic word, motma”n which does not exactly mean safe and calm, but it is a combination of spiritual position that includes feeling safe, calm, present with God, devoted and aware of your prayers.

[11] Sunna refers to the Prophet’s sayings and deeds.

[12] There is an Islamic sect known as Quranism, who reject the Sunna as invalid and doubtable, so they rely on Quran as a holy text.

[13]  Omdurman is a historical city in Khartoum that constitutes one of three urban components of Khartoum state. Many people in Omdurman are very proud of their area because of its historical role. For better understanding of Omdurman and its people see El Hassan 2015


Citer ce billet
cedejsudan (2016, 9 octobre). “Stories from the streets of Khartoum”, a fieldnote by Mai AZZAM. Researching Sudan - A perspective on contemporary Sudans. Consulté le 22 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/mhfe

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