Everything you ever need to know about this intriguing city with a history even hotter than the climate, by expert expat and GSGI editor Erica Meadows.
The first thing most expats have to get used to in Sudan is the heat. Of course if you are used to surviving in 118 degree F temps on a day to day basis, then you’ll be all set, but just be forewarned that it is beastly hot here. This fact of life will color a lot about your existence- since when it is so hot outdoors; many people spend a lot of time inside in the air conditioning or in swimming pools. More about that (and where to find the pools) further down the page.
Sudan has been in the news quite a bit lately due to the political instability. Ongoing events have meant a significant drop in the number of expat children in the country. Recently, both the United Nations agencies and American Embassy have opted to send home dependents, and this has had a knock-on effect on the international schools. In addition a number of large international NGOs (non-government organizations) were expelled in March 2009, which meant that another group of children left with their parents.
Despite all of those issues, life does go on fairly normally in Khartoum, with a good expat network available and remarkable things to do in one’s spare time.
An active mother/baby/toddler playgroup has been around for the last few years, providing a relaxed and low key way for mums or nannies to get together in the mornings with their children. Ask around when you arrive and you will find them. A website that is particularly helpful is found on www.kidsinkhartoum.wikispaces.com
This mum & baby network is also very helpful in identifying babysitters and nannies, the majority of whom seem to be from Ethiopia, Eritrea or the Philippines. With the “revolving door” of the expats here, there are always well recommended nannies and household help available. Most people tend to have a housekeeper/cleaner mainly due to the constant dust and sand that blows through the windows- they are also particularly helpful in going to the greengrocers for you and getting the “local price” as opposed to the foreigners’ price. Landlords usually make repairs, and it is up to you to call them when things break down. Be prepared, however for waiting a day or two for repairs.
It does seem fairly difficult to get to know local children, as the Sudanese are very family orientated and most international schools and playgroups seem to cater to the expats and do not as a rule, include local kids. Boys may have it easier in Sudan in meeting local friends - try the time-tested technique of wandering around the neighborhood with a football and you’ll soon find a group of boys to play a pick-up game with. This would not be culturally acceptable for local girls since most girls remain in their family compounds during the heat of the day and do not have the same freedom to play outdoors on the dusty roads.
The expat community is large and seems to center either on workmates, within the NGO community or embassies or near popular schools. While there are no “gated communities” to speak of, there are definitely enclaves of foreigners. All expats live around each other mainly in the neighborhoods of Amarat, Riyadh, Khartoum 2 and Soba.
Grocery shopping is not difficult; there are quite a few supermarkets that sell Western goods, but be prepared to pay for the airfare to fly that box of Weetabix all the way here. You can get McVitties, HP sauce, Heinz baked beans and Branston pickle, but it will cost you.
The greengrocers on the street corners are the best place to stock up on healthy veggies and fruits, which are reasonably priced. Keep in mind that the fruits that are imported will be expensive-apples and pears come all the way from South Africa, and strawberries from Egypt, but you can get local mangoes, bananas, melons and limes. A quick survey of a grocery cart shows that food is roughly twice the price of usual costs in UK or USA.
The stores will take cash only, no credit cards; don’t bother with checks because it is difficult to set up a local bank account. The Bank of Khartoum is the only local bank where you can easily set up an account. Most expats are paid their salaries in dollars or Euros which they send home, and then receive a per diem which they convert to Sudanese Pounds to pay for such things as rent, food and household help.
Phones and Internet
Cell phones are plentiful and every Sudanese taxi driver, street vendor or donkey cart driver can be seen chatting on his phone all day. You can sign up for a monthly account or do what most Sudanese do and buy the cards for 10 SDG available on every street corner. Small boys also sell the top-up cards in traffic going from car to car.
Setting up an internet account is not too difficult, there are only one or two local internet service providers (Canarevdo and Zain are the main two) , and you can go to one of their shops, get a card to insert in your computer and get set up in a couple of hours. Rates are very reasonable, but with the increase in popularity, the servers tend to be overloaded especially on weekends!
What To Wear
Norms of dress should be mentioned as well: Western men and women should not wear shorts in public as this is not culturally acceptable. While Western women do not usually cover their hair in the city, they may want to consider doing so if traveling out of Khartoum to smaller villages. Of course, as in any Middle East or conservative culture, low cut blouses and short skirts are frowned upon.
Transportation is pretty easy around town, with plenty of yellow taxis. Only KICS School provides a bus service-others rely on simple carpools and parents to do the daily school run. Driving can be scary for someone who has never run the obstacle course between pedestrians, tap-taps, and donkeys. If you’re a newcomer, take care. Sudanese make up their own driving rules which you probably have never seen before, so be aware that it is
Khartoum is pretty well-equipped medically, but if you’re arriving with children, the best advice is to bring some extra bottles of your favorite remedies (Calpol, children’s Tylenol). There are at least three main hospitals where you would go in an emergency; best to check with your Embassy to see which one they recommend and where the embassy doctor has privileges. For normal illnesses, there are good English-speaking pediatricians. Again ask your Embassy or talk with some other parents to ask who they like.
Do note that many of the docs in private practice also work in the hospitals, so when you call, they may ask you to come to the private clinic (or their home) as late as 8:30 pm- this can cause a bit of frustration if your child wakes up sick in the morning! Common childhood illnesses are just that, and many kids get upper respiratory (coughs) from the dust and dry air.
There is also a yearly meningitis outbreak, and most schools will offer meningitis shots through the school nurse when and if there is an outbreak. Mumps and polio are also reported in the city, so be sure to get your immunizations before you arrive. One of the requirements for getting an entry visa is yellow fever vaccine.
Did We Mention the Heat?
Luckily, there are a few places to go swimming, namely the Rotana Hotel which is quite posh and pricey, and the German Sudan club which is quite cheap and shabby, and the Greek Club which falls somewhere in between. These pools offer daily or seasonal prices for entry. There are very few parks or outdoor spaces for kids to run around in, which is a pity, so it is best to use your initiative to strike up conversations with other parents and make plans to get together with the kids on weekends.
And for your Entertainment…
Well known to Brits but less familiar to American readers, there’s a branch of Hash House Harriers* who are brave (some say crazy) enough to try to run in the heat and meet weekly or monthly depending on the season. Details for this group can be found through the embassies or online (www.gthhh.com ).
Exercise classes are available on occasion, but tend to come and go, so you will have to ask around or look on the bulletin boards at the main markets. Also gyms are gaining popularity- the best recommended one is at the Rotana Hotel, where tennis lessons are also on offer. Horseback riding is also available and you can go for trail rides along the Nile.
For those of you who are less athletically inclined, do bring lots and lots (and lots) of books. To date there is no English-language book shop here, so it’s worth bringing a lot of good reading material to while away the hours. Same goes for DVDs.
Remember this is where the Blue and White Niles come together so boat trips are a must- you can rent a boat with a skipper for an afternoon outing or picnic. If it seems too hot, a good alternative to the boat ride is to go up in the brand new and funky “Egg Hotel” (owned by none other than Mohammar Qaddafi) and have a cold drink on the top floor where you can see the confluence of the Two Niles—without any biting flies to annoy you.
A good many expats go camping as a away to see the ancient pyramids – some two hundred kilometers to the north of Khartoum at Meroe pre-date the much larger ones in Egypt, so you can make it a long day trip or go out and spend the night. A well-established Italian tour company offers drivers and a permanent tent camp there in the “cool” seasons (www.italtoursudan.com).
Safaris are not an option since the Dinder National Park is too close to the southern conflict zone and the animal population has disappeared, leaving just a few intimidating baboons.
One last local destination is Port Sudan on the Red Sea, but it is only accessible by a very long hot drive, or a slightly scary internal flight on a local air carrier--not known for their safety records. If you are willing to drive it, the scuba diving and snorkeling are said to be excellent.
That said, many expats also take advantage of daily flights to other far flung destinations and go to Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar, Uganda, Ethiopia or Dubai for their short breaks.
*Hash House Harriers- world wide informal running groups that meet up in various towns around the world to run and end up at a pub (or skip the run entirely!). Some cities have details online; for general info about hashers go to www.gthhh.com. Of course, there are no pubs in Khartoum, so a post-run lemonade is the tradition.