Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Journal Entry for September 27, 2003

I have now spent several weeks being driven from place to place through Khartoum.  I’m beginning to see things a bit better.  One of the reasons for this is the ample time one has for studying street life while stuck in Khartoum’s awful traffic.  Khartoum has somewhere around 5-7 million people in the extended urban area around the confluence on the two Niles.  I’d say at least a million of them are driving cars, riding in or on buses, trucks, scooters and motorcycles, plodding along on donkeys or walking at any one time.  Because only certain roads are paved and still fewer cut from one section of the city to another, all the traffic gravitates to the same half dozen routes.  During business hours – from around nine till six everyday except Friday – the streets are clogged.  Because many of the “paved” roads have obstacles of various sorts – holes, ripples, rough spots, train tracks – traffic often slows down even more and gyrates through a complex set of avoidance maneuvers, adding to the leisurely pace.  Through it all, the Sudanese patiently make their way by moving sharply to claim any open space and through liberal use of hand gestures.

I’ve observed that hand gestures, though in some sense equivalent to “signaling,” are quite different in effect.  As traffic moves along, people wishing to turn into the road will at the first opening edge out and claim right of way.  Someone in the car, driver or passenger, will wave the vehicle cut off to stop or slow down.  When the turn is completed, the two drivers will then exchange waves of “thanks” and “your welcome.”  Because all of this occurs in slow motion, it has a certain friendly quality, as if two villagers meeting in the town square.  This cuts the edge off what would drive motorists in other countries crazy.  Imagine moving down a road with paved area for two lanes.  Three lanes of traffic are moving down it, two in one direction and the third in another.  The two lanes in your direction are moving slow or approaching an intersection, the opposite “lane” is open for a couple of car lengths.  Off you go into that lane, against the flow of traffic to reach your turn or just to move ahead.  That third lane of traffic, now made a fourth, jerks over into the dirt until things sort out.  Now the time it takes for that fourth lane to reestablish itself creates just enough space for someone else – such as a bus driver – to edge into traffic from a side street.  Everybody is gesturing as circumstances demand.  Meanwhile an old women with a child will launch into the river of vehicles fending off the various currents with her own waving.  Remarkably no one seems to get angry – it is too hot – and there are few accidents. 

A brief word about women.  Almost all of the women in the street wear head covering.  My guess is that the non-Moslem women from the south are the ones wearing the brightly colored wrappings.  A good number wear what must be the more traditional black.  (The Arab males get to wear white robes and headdress.)  Only a few wear the complete chador.  But I can only imagine that under the black bulk are some truly sweaty and uncomfortable people.

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