“You must be careful here, you can’t touch woman in public like they do in America,” says the man sitting next to me at a street side tea shack.
It was my first night in Sudan, and people were curious about me, what I was doing, why I was here, where I was from.
“Welcome! Come, please join us,” was the constant message almost every step of the way as I walked down the nighttime street of Gedaref.
The dimly lighted street was a buzz of activity with small motor-rickshaws, pedestrians, small roadside shops and tea stalls.
It is when the night falls, that activity begins in the hot desert climate of Sudan.
The teacher’s name was Abdel; he taught art to high school kids.
“Please, come sit down,” says Abdel.
He motions to a young man to bring me a cup of tea, as I slowly sit down on the short-legged stool. Soon a crowd of curious people gathers around to eavesdrop on our conversation. A normal practice of almost everywhere I go in Africa.
“Where are you from?”
“You are most welcome here. What is your impression of Sudan?”
“It’s my first night, but so far, I find it interesting.”
Abdel then starts asking me questions.
“Can you criticize your government in public without fear of being imprisoned?”
“Yes, but one time I criticized President Bush and my grandmother was really upset with me. She wanted to send me back to China even though I have never been there,” I say with a laughing tone.
“Are there any blacks in America?”
“Can you walk down the street holding the hand of a woman?”
Slowly I answer each of his questions as we take sips of our hot tea served in small clear glasses. I like that they serve tea in clear glass, it allows me to see the 1 inch of sugar on the bottom and anything else that might be floating around.
We talk a little about the conflict in south Sudan. I ask him what people here think of America.
“Many families sent sons to the south who were killed in the war,” Abdul says. “People here are aware that America has supported the south in the past with the conflict. There may be people you encounter who are angry with this. But, it is nothing you need to fear.”
A brief while later as I walk back to my hotel, I am once again invited to sit down for tea. Similar questions come from the three people listening to my answers. I mentally note how close they are sitting next to each other, and make an assumption they are friends. I asked them how they knew each other?
“We just met. We are just curious about you.”
One man tells me he is a policeman, but that I needn’t be afraid of him.
Good, I think to myself.
Then, out of the blue he asks: “Have you seen any terrorists?”
“No, just ordinary people doing ordinary daily life,” I reply.
“Good, so when you go back to America, would you please let them know that Sudan is not crawling wall to wall with terrorists?”