Gypsy Stepdaughter of Sudanese Spirit
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My mother met my Sudanese stepfather in our small town in ex-Yugoslavia when I was around four. Everything about him fascinated me. From his booming laugh, his handsome dark face and dazzlingly white teeth, his flamboyant manner and leather hats to the funny way he spoke Serbo Croat.
A few years later they married, and when I was eleven we moved to his hometown of Khartoum, leaving behind my bewildered and tearful grandparents and relatives. Once in Khartoum we moved in with my stepfather’s family in a neglected part of town called Mygoma. Rundown houses made out of mud bricks dotted narrow, dirty streets on both sides.
Regardless of the neighborhood’s prevailing scarcity and the painful nonexistence of comforts, the people of Mygoma showed a spirit like no other I had experienced. Gold-skinned ladies gathered for afternoon tea, applied henna to their hands and feet. In the evenings, old men sat under Neem trees playing dominoes and retelling tales of good old days when things were easier, and they were stronger. My senses were electrified by this new corporeal world; the multitude of scents arising from sandalwood incense and fried dumplings, the sounds of rapid Arabic and the taste of sweet sesame paste on my tongue.
Our household contained my newly attained noisy and kind family: my stepfather’s brother, his wife, four children and my grandparents. Geedu, a dignified and stern looking man of Egyptian peasant descent wielded his cane to the beat of a tabla on festive occasions. And Haboba, a woman of generous proportions, bustling attitude and tribal marks etched into her plump cheeks forever by a sharp angry blade. Her full tattooed lips the shade of indigo blue contained a fiercely intense smile, just like my stepfather’s.
The three boys ran around barefoot most of the day kicking a soccer ball or prodding, with never-ending glee, a large car tire down the unpaved street. They would come in for a cool drink of water from the zeer, a clay pot that held cold earth-tasting water.
NOTE: In Africa’s Saharan region, many people live without electricity. Zeers offer them refrigeration. Watch this incredible video about the man who brought zeers to the people of Northern Nigeria and other neighboring countries.
My cousin Bona was a quiet, self-reserved girl and we quickly became best friends. Our common plight of wishing for nicer clothes, another pair of sandals or a TV brought us together. To fill long hours of boredom we made cloth dolls and stitched yarn into their “head”, creating long tresses which we could then comb and braid. We chased the pigeons and rabbits that Haboba raised in the small dust covered hosh, delighting in their panicked flight. When the sun neared its rest, we would sprinkle water onto the sandy floors and then sweep them vigorously with date-leaf brooms.
Sometimes, we drew lines in the sand and played hopscotch for hours. When the man came down the street calling us out for ice pops, we ran after him jingling coins in our sweaty palms. We chose our flavor carefully: blue, green and red plastic tubes all beckoned our hungry bellies. Sweets, especially chocolate, were rare and only found on special occasions like the Eid holidays. We made our way home slurping the melting syrupy ice and feeling like a million dollars. Maybe even like Steve Austin, the bionic man whose show I watched religiously. I envied Steve his powers, his speed and his ability to help and rescue people.
I loved that neighborhood in spite of the poverty and my obvious mismatch to the environment. My long strawberry-blonde hair, my white skin and my Christian faith stood out on every occasion. Sometimes, I was rudely reminded of my alien presence when little children with snot running down their faces run after me calling out Halabiya or Khawagiya. A gypsy. A foreigner.
But these moments of distress passed as I learned to love the mellifluous announcement of the call to prayer, the capricious barefooted step-cousins and the sounds of woeful Sudanese songs escaping from Haboba’s miniature battery-operated transistor.
Some evenings, Haboba would gather her grandchildren around her for an evening of folk tales about Jeha, a fumbling but kindhearted fool. She would sit on a bambar, a low twine plaited stool, while shelling peanuts and stirring a bubbling pot of milky tea. Her arms jiggled uncontrollably as she rattled the coals, fanning the flames into orange jewels. Our faces flushed in the light of the African moon as we squealed and laughed at Jeha’s antics while enjoying the syrupy brew and devouring crunchy peanuts.
Fridays were a holiday and there were always celebrations to attend. A wedding, an engagement party, circumcisions, births and deaths interspersed the existence and social lives of the Sudanese.
Haboba, my step-aunt and other women would get ready by adorning their necks and hands with gold necklaces and bangles, cherished remnants of their wedding dowries, wrapping themselves into a colorful silky tobe and painting their hands and feet with intricate henna designs. Even funerals required a fresh application albeit a more solemn design. I admired these preparations, joining Bona and her mother in application of sesame oil to skin and hair. Sometimes, her mother would braid my hair into greasy cornrows, but they always grew disheveled due to the nature of my annoying straight hair.
On rainy school mornings I rose to a darkened sky and walked through silent streets to catch the school bus. It took me away to a Catholic girls’ school by the Nile, settled among tall Labakh trees among whose lush branches monkeys played and screeched at us.
My years in Sudan have left me with appreciation for all races, faiths and cultures. They left me with sometimes painful but nevertheless wonderful memories. An extensive Sudanese family I can call my own and an immersion into a world that I wouldn’t have had if not for my mother’s brave step into a different life and culture, however frightening it must have been at first.
I still remember Haboba fondly. I remember her fishing in the Nile, a wooden rod in one hand and a can of glistening fat worms in another. She has slung her flower patterned tobe over her shoulder with some irritation and has the look of a woman who is serious about what she is doing. I remember her calling out to the kids, startling us at first, because we feared her like no one else – Kids, come look what I caught!
She raised the bloated electric fish upwards for us to see. The boys stepped slowly, sniggering to hide their nervousness. Bona approached too, delicately peeking at the catch. Haboba raised her eyes, narrowing her brows.
She detested shows of affection, feigning anger when in fact there was none, or yelling at the boys just to scare them into obedience. Her loudness and spitfire manner didn’t fool me. She stared into my eyes as if trying to tell me secrets buried in her very soul, as if she couldn’t find the right words and was reduced to soundless veiled messages. Holding her curly lashed gaze with my own, I smiled.
Then a shadow, like a flutter of a pigeon’s wings flicked across that proud face and her eyes sparkled with what I knew was love.
NOTE: This article is a condensed excerpt from Zvezdana Rashkovich’s upcoming book Yellow Frangipani.