Through unforeseen yet lucky circumstances, I find myself on a motorbike trip up the coast of East Africa. Starting the Cape to Cairo halfway through in Malawi, I’ve been sitting on the back of a motorbike for 5,000+ kilometres, watching the African landscapes change from lush forest to desert.
We got up to Sudan more or less in a breeze, from the deep waters of Lake Malawi, to the castles of Gondar in northern Ethiopia, via the spice market of Zanzibar, and the nightlife of Nairobi.
But Sudan was going to be different from the rest, we knew. Dollars and petrol are hard to come by, the heat is unbearable, there’s no alcohol and we’d be confronted by sand storms more often that not. All this we were ready for - but we definitely didn’t expect a revolution to break just before we were due to get there.
After some hesitation and speaking to people in the country, we convinced ourselves everything would be fine, got our Visas in Addis Ababa, arranged for a motorbike carnet and got to the border on a dusty afternoon under a sun brighter and hotter than I thought possible. It took four hours to cross the border, what with the Ethiopian custom officer losing the stamp we needed to get through; and the Sudanese custom officer walking away with our carnet and passports for 45 minutes to run some mysterious checks.
The last hurdle was showing the stamped carnet and passports to an officer at a roadblock just after the border. He seemed overjoyed at seeing our documents (“Ah very good carnet, yes yes yes!”) and after checking them briefly he gave them back to us with a ceremonious bow and a grin from ear to ear. “Welcome to Sudan!” he shouted after us.
On the disgraceful collection of potholes that is the road between Gallabat and Wad Madani, dry low bush extends to the horizon, in a palette of faded browns and yellows splashed by the occasional green of a solitary tree, surviving the scorching heat by some supernatural will. You know it’s hot, really hot, when even the camels fight to take shelter under the shades of skeletal trees. Meanwhile, people on roadside villages carry on with their lives, completely oblivious to the fact that it was so hot I burnt my knees through my black jeans because of the sun hitting them.
Over the next six hours of riding we lost all sensitivity in our bums and knees, sweated half our body weight out and finally got to Wad Madani on the Blue Nile to stop for the night. The following morning we got up at 4am, soaked our clothes in water and set off to Khartoum. By 7am the sun was a perfectly round, flat disc high in the sky. It felt like noon and we were starting to lose the other half of our body weight in sweat, when suddenly out of nowhere we found ourselves in a traffic jam. We had got to Khartoum.
Naturally, we’d been monitoring the situation on the news, but not much was being said other than “people are sitting on the streets around the Government (i.e. Army) headquarters, the Army is saying they’ll collaborate with the people to transition to a civilian government, but not much has moved since the sit-in began which overthrew ex-President Omar al-Bashir on 6th April”. To simplify matters of course.
We thought we’d spend a couple of nights in Khartoum and then proceed away from trouble. Little did we know that Sudanese hospitality wouldn’t let us do that. Friends of a friend, neighbours, and even people we met on the street wanted to take us out, show us the sights, talk to us about the new Sudan, and most of all stuff us like pigs ready for the slaughter.
Despite our best intentions to stay out of trouble, on our second night in Khartoum we were taken to the protest area. We got a taxi up to a certain point, then walked to the sit-in hotspot - and we found trouble was nowhere to be seen.
Civilians in yellow jackets stopped us a few times to search us, greeting us with the peace sign, women to the right, men to the left, in a rigorous one way system. I was asked if I had a mirror or perfume - both potential weapons I guess. The Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), the organisation that is coordinating the sit-in and the talks with the Army under the umbrella of the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF), does not tolerate any kind of violence, and the few people that have been found carrying weapons or drunk have been chucked out promptly.
Apart from the stones, discarded barbed wire and branches used to blocked the streets around the sit-in, you might think you’ve walked into a street festival rather than a revolution.
There were stages for music and talks, women sold tea, coffee and karkade (hibiscus juice) and everywhere people walked about, sat discussing the future of their country or chanted Thaura! (revolution!) and slogans such as "Sagatat ma sagatat, sabbinna" meaning “Whether it (the Government) falls or not, we're cemented here”.
As we walked around sipping juice and munching on trumus (lupin bean), a guy held a placard saying “Don’t FOLLOW the news, BE the news” while reciting his own poem about the revolution. Soon after, Bob Marley’s No More Trouble faded in from a jam on the music stage. Cries of “Kandaka!” followed me around - I felt flattered to be called the Nubian word that denotes a strong woman, and which has been used to signify the women who have taken part in the protest.
In all this, the soldiers monitoring the situation seemed mostly unconcerned with it, and quite happy to let people do their thing. A couple of them leaned back on their pickups fitted with machine guns, whose barrels and handles were covered off by shoes. Others sat on the pavement washing off their faces of the day’s dust and sweat. Most talked amicably to the protesters while leaning on their batons, and maybe secretly wishing they could take off the uniform and join the songs.
Everywhere stunning art breathed colour and hope to streets that had so far seen repression and injustice: murals celebrating a new Sudan; commemorating those who have lost their lives; and reaffirming Sudan’s African identity alongside the “newer” Arabic one, with the juxtaposition of the old and new flags.
While painting colourful pictures might seem not enough of a defence from armed forces, I wonder if the young people and artists who have come from all corners of Sudan might actually have found the key to world peace.
Can art paint enough of a hopeful and beautiful picture that no one, not even trained soldiers and militias, will be willing to destroy it? Can art muster enough support and enthusiasm from people to unite a whole country in realising one vision of a new Sudan? Can artists continue answering fire with paint and tear gas with brush strokes?
It might be the infectious enthusiasm and positivity I felt everywhere I walked, but I’m inclined to think so…
I'll be writing more about the role art is playing in Sudan's revolution soon... Stay posted!
Also published on Medium.