A World of Black and White

Published in Africa Geographic, June 2005

I remember the colours of that day. Metemma, the scruffy border town, was brown: sandy-brown streets, mud-brown huts, and beige rags partly covering chocolate-coloured people. Even the fleas were brown, and we scratched ourselves in our brown hotel room as we prepared ourselves for the border crossing. This was 1976 and we’d had enough of Ethiopia. It had been an extraordinary visit with the highest highs (Lalibela, the Simien Mountains, Gondar…) and the lowest lows (arrest, stone-throwing kids, constant and aggressive demands for money) but now we were keen to move on. We dressed carefully in our smartest clothes – not easy after 10 months of living out of a backpack – and I trimmed George’s beard and hair. Then we checked our passports, trying to imagine if there was anything that the border officials would take exception to.

“Faranji!” yelled a group of children as we stepped out of our hotel, conspicuously foreign in our backpacks. A skeletal bitch towed two hungry puppies from her swollen teats as she scavenged in the garbage at the side of the road. Through the doorway of the immigration office we could see a brown man wearing brown uniform sitting behind a brown desk. He jerked his head to indicate that we should leave our packs at the door, then flicked through our passports. All in order. Thump went the stamp and he motioned us to a footbridge across a small stream, into Sudan.

Gallabat was like Metemma in size and architecture, but that was all. The sandy streets were swept clean, and there was an air of ordered calm. Where Ethiopia was brown, our first impression of Sudan was of black and white. The glaring white sun put the huts in their own puddles of black shade; the men who strolled the streets wore robes of dazzling white and their faces were black as coal. “Salaam alaykum!” smiled the immigration person as we entered his office. Formalities accomplished, we stepped back into the sunlight and stood wandering what to do next. “Can I be of assistance?” The tall man unfolded himself from the stool where he was chatting to his friends in the shade of a house and walked over. “No, we’re all right, thank you.” Our response was automatic. We had no local currency so couldn’t give the expected tip. “Then may I invite you to partake of a drink?” He led us to a hut with a couple of tables – a café of sorts. Two tall glasses of fresh lemonade appeared in front of us. Our new friend introduced himself and asked about our plans. “You know there has been much rain and the road to Gallabat is very bad. There are no buses. Please wait here.” We sipped our lemonade and anxiously discussed what payment he would be expecting for his help; we needed to change our dollars.

Two tall black-and-white figures approached: our helper and another man. “My friend will change money for you – the man bowed slightly – and he will take you to your transport. Goodbye, and welcome to Sudan!” Now we had Sudanese pounds we could pay for our lemonade. “How much?” we asked. “Nothing”, the money-changer gestured, and pointed to the retreating back of his friend. He led us to a clearing at the edge of the village where a 1950s Massey-Fergusson tractor was parked, hitched to a flat wooden platform on wheels. White teeth lit up black faces as the women moved over to make room for us. It was going to be a slow, hard – and wonderful – ride.

© Hilary Bradt

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