‘You are from Oxfam, right?’
Yes, I’m staying in room 1021.’
‘No worries, I am not asking for your room number for your breakfast. Where’s your Italian colleague now?’ – Hardly awake I blinked at the waiter in front of me in front of the breakfast buffet.
‘I think he’s moved to our guesthouse’ – I could not stay at Oxfam’s guesthouse as it was already full.
The young man in front of me is about my size and has that typical Nubian mix of Arab traits in his face, but deep brown skin to accompany his otherwise African appearance. He continues, while I’m trying to get my bearings on where this conversation is going. ‘I’ve got business with him. I’m planning to go to Europe, through Libya, and he is going to help me with information on organisations that can help refugees. I wrote him an email, but he didn’t respond.’ Overwhelmed by his frankness and the content of why he needs to get in touch with my colleague, whom I only met once the day before as well, my only response is, ‘I’ll tell him to get in touch with you,’ and walk towards a table with my bowl of cornflakes.
I consume my breakfast, but my mind is telling me I should have responded differently. My eyes wander over the view in front of me. The city of Khartoum sprawling beneath me, I see mostly 4 or 5 story concrete buildings covered with the yellowish Sahara dust and green patches next to them. Standing in the Oxfam garden the day before, I remarked to a participant, ‘I would love to have a patch of garden like this.’ ‘We irrigate everything’ he said, ‘and it’s easy with the two rivers here,’ referring to both the White Nile and the Blue Nile, both brown in colour. Another participant remarked, ‘But your country is so much greener, I was there to study. We have so much land here, but we don’t plan what to do with it, you can take any of it if you want, but in your country you have so little, and everything is planned so you can’t get anything.’ The irony of it escaped neither of us.
A little later I asked my participants what they thought about change. What do they believe about the nature of human beings? Are they able to change? Are they opportunistic or are they simply bound by their context? Do they have an optimistic outlook on life or feel pessimistic about the chances of their country? Their answers were honest and engaging, ‘Working in Darfur, we have to be optimistic, shared my Oxfam colleague. Another, ‘Hope is the driver of change, but people are reluctant to change.’ One lady gave the best example, ‘You asked us this morning to sit today in another place, many of us were reluctant to change, but most of us did eventually.’
Looking up from my breakfast table, presenters of BBC world are discussing China’s wish to create some kind of economic union in the Asia Pacific and how the Americans will respond to this. My eyes cross with the waiter’s, he pokes up the volume for me, although my gaze turns to the window again. How far removed this place seems from all of that, although it is actually a player in the middle of it. In the global economy, a key driver of perhaps irreversible and devastating changes remains oil, which the Chinese gladly took over after the Americans instated a trade embargo on Sudan years ago. And on the wealth of these oil drums the current Sudanese regime stays in place, with or without American support.
The waiter has left the breakfast room and I walk down the stairs to my room, but he catches up with me in the corridor a floor below. I don’t want to say this, but I do. I naively blurt out, ‘Please, Sir I know you need hope, but don’t go. There’s a big chance you will die.’ He does not even blink, but responds ‘Yes, I need hope and people die. Some do, some don’t. I lived in a house with friends, they went, one now lives in Scotland, the other lives in Switzerland, I will skip Italy and maybe go to Germany. I have a wife you know and a baby, but she lives in Doha. She works there, earning 500-600 dollars a month. I only earn a 100 dollars a month. Maybe next month I will quit my job, take out my social insurance money and leave.’ He looks away after this, we both know my words won’t change anything, he’s not reluctant to change, he really wants a chance to change his life. ‘Bless you,’ is all I can respond and he lets me walk out of our awkward conversation.
PS When I meet my Italian colleague the next day, he confirms that he was just as shocked as I was by the waiter’s request and said ‘I told him not to go, that it really is not easy to earn money in Europe without papers. To see things from the other side of the Mediterranean, people in Europe think these people are just economic migrants, but when you hear this, you know they are desperate refugees.’