The Eye of the Beholder

Published in Africa Geographic, July 2005

“I love to see a nicely-scarred woman!” Our companion smiled a little bashfully, knowing that these khawaja were unlikely to share his enthusiasm, though by that time, after about eight hours of shared company, we knew each other pretty well. “You can call me John” he had said when we first introduced ourselves and complimented him on his English. “I worked in London, you know. I was a hospital porter. But I couldn’t stay. And now I have a wife and children. Gedaref is my home.” George and I had reckoned it would take us about four hours to get there from the Ethiopian border – but that was before we saw the road, which was axle-deep in black, treacly mud, and our transport: an antique tractor pulling a wooden platform on wheels. The first hour was spent in man-talk about Massey-Fergusson. George, not normally one to enthuse about motor vehicles, managed to dredge up enough knowledge and questions to keep the conversation going. John acted as interpreter for the farmer sitting on his left. “He uses a camel for ploughing but a tractor like this… he could never own one but he loves to ride on it.” The two men lapsed into a private conversation, every now and then gesturing at the vehicle as its huge wheels dug deep into the mud. We were happy to be silent, striving to keep our balance as the trailer lurched from side to side, and observing the details of the landscape as we passed at walking pace. There was not much detail to be seen, to be honest: acres and acres of arable land growing we knew not what. The sun was now low in the sky, bathing the fields in a golden light. I was jerked out of my dreamy state by what looked like a long green leaf, blowing gently in the wind but attached to a wire fence. “George! A chameleon!” It was always a treat to see our favourite reptile, especially this far north. I associated them with the forested equatorial regions of Africa.

John was amused at our enthusiasm for the chameleon and we resumed our conversation. The encroaching darkness encouraged the men to reveal more personal details. Like men all over the world, they started to discuss women. That was when he told us about the scarring. Actually it was George who asked him, since there was a young woman bearing lines of facial scars down her young cheeks on the trailer. It bothered us seeing her flawless complexion damaged in this way. But we were also fascinated. “How do they do it?” “A razor. No, just an ordinary razor. You make the cut, then you rub in ash. From the fire? No, from a cigarette.” He laughed at our dismay. “It’s sterile, you see. It makes a very nice mark. Yes, I love to see a nicely-scarred woman. It is very beautiful, very attractive. Very…” he smiled at George “…sexy”.

Twelve hours after claiming our space on the tractor we reached Gedaref. It was after midnight and we unfolded our cramped legs and climbed stiffly down to the road. John insisted on accompanying us to a hotel, waking up the owner, fixing an appropriate price, and disappearing into the night, brushing off our thanks in typically Sudanese fashion. Next day, however, he appeared while we were having breakfast. With him was a beautiful young woman with two neat rows of scars running down both cheeks like a row of peas in a pod. “You know”, said George after they’d left. “I do like a nicely-scarred woman!”

© Hilary Bradt

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