You, a Blind Beggar, and Something to Drink
By David L. Lukudu (Sudan)
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David L. Lukudu was trained as a medical doctor in Makerere University (Kampala) in Uganda. Originally from the Sudan, he has lived in both Uganda and Kenya for the last fifteen years; mainly due to the second civil war that raged in his southern part of the country from 1983 to 2005. As far as writing is concerned, he started in his teens and won a third place prize for a short story at a writing competition held at the British Council, Khartoum, in 1993. He has published short fiction with the BBC Focus on Africa magazine in 2001 and has since 2004 been a contributor with the online Cook Communication magazine, AuthorMe. Currently he is based in the semi-autonomous South Sudan, where he practices his profession, and travels often between South Sudan and Kenya.
The heat in Khartoum is unbearable to your skin, having come recently from the relatively cooler South. You stand, briefly wiping sweat from your forehead with a handkerchief, and wondering where you can get a soft drink or water, where there may be a food store or restaurant that by any chance could be open. You cannot imagine why they are that sick in their heads as to cut off the water supply. Why do they force everyone to fast, even if they are not believers of that faith? Why force everything on a common man? ‘What a country!’ you exclaim to yourself, shaking your head from one side to the other. ‘My country!’ you repeat, with mockery in your voice, with a tint of shame, with no pride at all. All of a sudden you wish you were born in and belong to a different country, a totally different world. Perhaps things would have been different – much, much different. It is possible that in South Africa, in those dark days of apartheid, there were blacks or coloureds who wished they were white, you have often reflected. But you do not wish you were them, the northerners; you only wish you belong elsewhere. Once you may have questioned God’s existence and creation of mankind: why the different complexions, why the various races or ethnicities or faiths? Changing your nationality or citizenship is not enough. It is not the same as belonging elsewhere; you are convinced there is always that reminder, that falseness, like someone of African origin from England, by birth or otherwise, claiming to be an Englishman.
If you have not stood there, next to the mosque, if you have not felt thirsty today, you will not have experienced a reverse of mood, though for a short while, for the first time this week. You know that it is Ramadan again in Khartoum; Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and purity; and it is Khartoum of the early 1990s. You are aware that it is a Friday. You are standing right next to the main entrance to the Khartoum Central Mosque, your back to the holy place. Not that you are a Moslem and coming out from prayer sessions; not everyone who stands outside that great mosque is a Moslem. The mosque is not there by mistake in the centre of town next to a busy street. You know that, as has always been the case during the season of Ramadan, all the restaurants, food stores, etc., in downtown Khartoum are closed; by decree, of course. Even the tap water supply is cut off from the control station. Whether you are a believer or not you have to abstain from drinking and eating during the day. It is forceful fasting you are to observe; forceful devotion to a religion not of your choice.
You see hundreds of them, the northerners, flowing this way and that, like a cluster of ants that have discovered scattered crystals of sugar, here and there and everywhere; most in the common white jallabiya, the ankle-length garment, with matching turbans. ‘Look at them,’ you whisper to yourself, scornfully, shaking your head once again. But deep down in you, deep down in you, you know that it cannot be possible that they are all the same, that they are all to blame for everything. But you are reminded of the common saying; ‘one rotten onion in a bag, makes the whole bag rotten.’ Suddenly, you hear a piece of Arabic music by the legendary Mohammed Wardi that seems to be emanating from a passing minibus. The soft and beautiful music interrupts your would-be evil thoughts and calms you down, but only for a moment. Music can be beautiful no matter who sings it, no matter what language it is sung in. What matters is the rhythm and the beauty felt within the heart; that has always been one of your meticulous observations. You can tell that it is roughly noon amongst the believers. You can see some types with a long brushing stick in their mouths. There are also those who keep spitting now and again as they pass along the streets. You feel these types are trying to demonstrate their commitment to fasting, their devotion to Islam; a Pharisaic display of piety. Yet others, more so the women, in shawls or scarves and colourful gowns or touba, are heavily perfumed, and the strong fragrance lingers for long after they have passed. The devil seems to be on your side. Again, you say to yourself: ‘Look at them.’ Yet you cannot find the right word to use. But you conclude in your thoughts: this is Khartoum, the capital city of the Sudan; their city; my capital city. This is how they want you to be, to behave, to dress … forced assimilation! You almost shout as the devil takes complete hold of you. ‘Look at them!’ you continue, jeering. Even so, you have no hatred in your heart for them; you have no hatred in your heart for anybody; you know that and why. You are not against Islam either. You are only experiencing life the way it is treating you, the way it is treating your people in your country. And you are feeling bitter about this. These are just the simple naked facts; nothing more, nothing less. You only wish things are different – much, much different.
Your major problems in your country seem to be so much laced to them, the northerners, the so-called Arabs, you have acknowledged now and again. Are not the problems generally North verses South? Do not those in the central power that far in the North make the decisions for the South and indeed the whole giant nation? Is not that what marginalization is all about?
You must admit to yourself that you have not had a good week as you remain standing there in front of the mosque, shaking your head and sighing now and again. You have an errand to accomplish for your uncle – your guardian. It has not been easy for you and for the big family. After just about three months in the house at Omdurman (Khartoum’s twin city on the western bank of the White Nile), the northern landlord has given your uncle one month to vacate his house because he has reserved it for one of his brothers, who is coming back home to settle, after so many years in Saudi Arabia. Alternatively, your uncle can continue staying as long as he can abide by a new rent that is almost double the first. That is too expensive for your uncle. So that it has been up and down movement for you for the whole week, from one suburb of Khartoum to another in search of an affordable accommodation; the newspapers are not helpful at all these days. Your efforts have been fruitless at the Khartoum suburb of Arkowit, where there are a handful of southerners residing; and you are on your way back to Omdurman, looking really upset and defeated.
You have reminded yourself now and again that these are the so-called Arabs who have always advocated for unity for the Sudan, yet they do not accept you, the southerner. You have often asked yourself: do not they want unity because of the resources in the South, in your part of the country? Do not they value oil more than human life? Fair enough you are quite familiar with your history; your uncle is your source of knowledge. You are aware that the southerners started a war of liberation even before Sudan got independence. You know that the first civil strife was to liberate the South from the North; and that was long before the cursed thing, oil, was discovered in the South. How, incredibly, you wish there was not such a thing as oil in your part of the country, because it really brings a bad omen with it. Your uncle has said now and again that the relationship between the North and the South is like cooking oil and water. You accept, nodding your head: the two cannot blend. That is how you learn: by listening and acknowledging from the experienced.
Your father was an Anglican priest in the South and he taught you to forgive, but you find it hard in your small heart to do so. Still you know you do not hate anybody; you do not hate the northerners. Really, you just cannot stand being treated as a second class, or a third class citizen in your own country; being forced to fast even when you are not a Moslem, etc … etc. Often you have asked God to forgive you for finding it hard in your heart to forgive, and to give you room in your heart to do so. Yet you have lived for several months knowing pretty well what has happened to your father. Yes, he was one of those more than 100 southern intellectuals – civil servants, police and prisons officers, businessmen – and others who were rounded up by agents of the notorious Sudan Security and massacred in Juba in 1992; that was shortly after the SPLA (Sudan Peoples Liberation Army) attempted but failed to take the major southern town. He was taken because he was seen with somebody, who was believed to have been spotted with someone, who was suspected to be a collaborator of the SPLA. But God, you do not hate anyone. You have asked God again and again for you to find it in your heart to forgive. You have asked Him that you should not hate, because hatred is too strong a word for a human being to exhibit towards another. True, your father was a priest and he had taught you Christian ways. Yet sometimes you wonder if your father, in whatever mass grave, wherever in the South, has really forgiven those who picked him wrongly, unjustly.
Your uncle, your guardian, was once a minister in the South. Yes, he used to be driven in a Mercedes Benz. He used to live in one of those mansions of government houses in Juba. But that was in the not-so-bad old days of the mid and late 1970s; after the South had emerged from the Anyanya struggle of liberation and started enjoying some kind of autonomy, though that was not to last. Now your late father’s brother, who has gone back to his old profession of teaching, has been reduced to the ordinary in Khartoum; scrambling for seats in buses with traders and street urchins and pickpockets. Nonetheless you do not blame the government or the northerners exclusively for his troubles, just like you cannot blame the colonialists for all of Africa’s problems. You blame your uncle, quietly in your heart, for being so much immersed in alcohol and women in those days, when you were still a child, of course. You heard that he had claimed indignantly that the bigger the family, the better. So now there is this large family of three wives, though only two are in Khartoum at the moment, with hundreds of problems. But you do not wish to think about your uncle and his troubles. Which southern family in the North does not have troubles? Exactly why he cannot make it to the bush to join the revolution: how will he be described if he runs to the bush to struggle for a whole people or nation when he cannot do exactly that with his relatively smaller, large family? However you know from his words now and again on which side he is. You have knowledge of that like the scars on one of your legs, a reminder of how close the civil war touched your life. Of course, you have observed and noted that not everyone in the struggle joined willingly; there are those who joined because they have committed acts that are considered criminal according to the law, and the only way to escape authority, or whoever, is by joining the rebellion. Nevertheless you are aware that generally being a southerner automatically qualifies one’s side of the divide; same with being a northerner. You have witnessed the misery and sagging hope on the faces of the southerners in the North, when breaking news from the war fronts back home reveals the fall of towns from rebel grip, and the northerners jubilating upon hearing the good news, blaring horns and some shouting; ‘Allah Hu Akbar! Allah Hu Akbar!’ God is Great! God is Great! Sure, you know on which side your uncle falls, even if he is to keep silent.
Just behind you, to your right, you spot a beggar in rags sitting at the mosque entrance, quietly. Next to this beggar, to his right, standing on the other side of the entrance, is another beggar, dressed in a white jallabiya and a skull cap of matching colour – typical northern Moslem attire. You notice and feel how loud this second beggar is:
Give alms people
God will bless you if you help a poor man
Give alms people
God will bless you if you help a blind man
You see someone throwing some coins into this beggar’s tin container. You hear him complaining as if what is dropped is barely enough. You wonder: since when did beggars start having a choice?
You turn your head to have a look, a good one, because there is something about this second beggar that seems to catch your attention. This beggar sounds so interesting to you. A beggar with a choice! And the Arabic is not that classical; it is like the one spoken in Juba, down south; in other words, ‘Juba-Arabic.’ His voice sounds so familiar to you but you cannot recall where you have come across him. You have a good memory for faces, all right. Within minutes you are able to decipher something related to him. Wait a minute, you scratch your head. He reminds you of a beggar called Matayo in Juba. With the bombardment of the town by rebels and so many southerners migrating northwards, you wonder what has become of this Matayo; has he survived the on and off shelling and is still alive somewhere in Juba? Is he in Khartoum or Jebel Aulia displaced camp with most of his people from the South? Or is he already a refugee in a neighbouring country?
You know quite well about some of your people migrating further south to become refugees in neighbouring Uganda and Kenya. But they do so at their own risk, because it is assumed that anyone crossing into unsafe zones is automatically joining the other side, the wrong side. Leaving the Sudan, your people have to first come here to Khartoum in the North; that is considered the right and safest way. Hard life for those in the displaced camps like Jebel Aulia in northern Sudan. Hard life for those in the slums on the outskirts of the capital city. Constant police harassment for those who make a living by brewing the illicit but lucrative local spirit, in a place where the Islamic shari’a is practised. These are experiences that are not new to you. The rebels down south have been bombarding your city but you cannot blame them because their cause is your cause, and it is a genuine and just one. You come to Khartoum, the supposed capital city of your country, and you feel unwelcome; it is like a foreign country! Your people cannot get out easily: there is always that suspicion, that frustration. When you yourself a few weeks earlier intended to leave for greener pasture abroad, your efforts were blocked at the Internal Affairs. You’re leaving the country? Well, you ought to have had the compulsory military training. You have had one? Papers! All right, very good. Where do you wish to go and what for? If medical, we have good – Oh, studies? Scholarship? Good. Well, we have lots and lots of excellent universities here; we are blessed with the University of Al- Quran Al-Karim (the Holy Quran); there is the Islamic University of Omdurman, and lots and lots of others. They are all free, moreover, you see? We won’t allow our fellow country men to go out and suffer outside our state boundaries. REJECTED, the stamp on your passport, your exit visa, says. Hypocrites! You seem to love that word, though you do not often say it out loud. You were almost bursting with anger. And you cursed them. You cursed the day you were born as a Sudanese. You resisted words from coming out of your mouth with anger choking your throat. You felt like crying, but you could not: you are a man. You could not punch anyone either to discard the anger. You just bit your lower lip hard enough, until you tasted your blood, and wished you had crossed into the unsafe zones further south, and joined the other side, the wrong side, that you had not made it this far.
Matayo – his real name – is a beggar, all right, you know that. He was known to you then as teens in your neighbourhood in the South as Bagi Kichara. He got the name because he always asked for leftovers of kisra – a form of bread – as he moved from one household to the next. ‘Bagi kichara fi?’ (Are there kisra leftovers?) He would inquire after knocking on a gate and someone approached to open. Sometimes he was lucky and was given whatever food was there. But some days he would be chased away by those who could not afford to make kisra, complaining that he was too expensive for a beggar.
You have heard that Matayo has three grown-up sons with families. One son had been an officer in the Sudanese army, initially, but later defected to the SPLA; another, an engineer formerly in Port Sudan in the north east, also went into exile to join the southern struggle, and the third, a civil servant with the government, was based in Juba. But he is so used to begging that he cannot accept their support. Begging is like a profession to him. In fact after some unclear disagreement with his sons, he vowed to eat from his sweat – something untypical of your African culture for a man of his age and blessed with such offspring.
Now you notice a white goatee and a scar on the left side of his face and immediately recognize him. You move towards him and drop a coin, just to be sure.
‘Yaba Matayo … Bagi Kichara … I’m surprised you’re now a Moslem and have become blind?’ You throw the words at him, with a broad smile on your face, your first smile this week. You are not aware that you sound impolite.
He turns his face towards the skies as if struggling to have a clear look at you with his blind eyes. You notice he is trying to open his eyes in a slit, blinking continuously, to have a good scan of you, that he is not really blind.
‘Go away, young man! You boys from the South, you don’t have respect for the disabled. Allah will punish you for insulting blind people. Go away! Satan has sent you to the mosque to disturb people of God. Go away!’ His words come at you in torrents of anger.
‘How did you know that I’m from the South when you’re blind? How did you come to Khartoum anyway?’ You ask, still in sort of a mocking tone.
‘You’re good, very good. I see. But go away! I’ve got work to do. Go away…’ He goes on.
‘All right, I’m sorry if I’m being impolite,’ you say. ‘I’m James, and I’ll leave here if you tell me where I can get anything to drink, be it water or soft drink. I’m extremely thirsty. I’ve been moving in almost half the city centre for the last half an hour or so –‘
‘Young man,’ the beggar interrupts you, ‘I don’t care who you are; please don’t disturb my peace. There is water in the mosque. Go away –‘
Chok, chok, you hear his tin of a few coins as he shakes it, ignoring you and starting his beautiful song again:
Give alms people
Give alms …
‘Thank you, thank you,’ you say, as he continues singing, remembering all of a sudden exactly what he means. How you can’t think of that, you wonder to yourself. You pass him and find yourself scurrying into the holy place together with a good number of believers, almost all in dazzling white jallabiya and sandals.
Of course, it is common knowledge that before Moslems start communicating to Allah, they cleanse parts of their bodies from a common area. It is exactly there that your feet decide to lead you; the washing area with rows and rows of water taps on one side of the compound.
You note several believers busy with the ritual. You squirm through two dozens awaiting their turn. With a brief smile and without hesitating or worrying about the safety of the water for consumption, you push your face towards a running tap, next to someone who is squatting and has his foot to another.
With your left hand to the tap stem and your right for support, you drink and drink like a goat that has stumbled on an oasis after wandering in the desert for hours. You do not even stop or care when you hear several voices uttering in bewilderment and discontentment: ‘Istagfir Allah al-Azeem!’ Voices chanting on to the Almighty God to forgive you!