By Mike Chambers
The jail door closed, striking the familiar note of so many cowboy and detective movies. In fact, the police station, or the part that we could see from behind the bars, looked just like the set of Barney Miller or Gunsmoke. A sprinkling of desks, stacks of papers, a map on the wall, even one of those racks for weapons. But the familiarity was only a mirage because I was a Canadian, born and bred, and I had just been arrested and jailed in Khartoum, Sudan in 1984.
That morning I had had a fantastic experience. I had been riding on the roof of a train through the Sahara desert. Mile after mile of sand and rocky scrub. But somehow it wasn’t the bleakness of the open space that hit home. It was the hugeness. Perhaps it’s like seeing the sea for the first time and knowing it extends to another continent. We trundled along with the steam engine’s smoke hanging in the still air as we passed.
The roof was crowded with passengers who preferred the breeze produced by our modest rooftop speed to being cooped up in the cars below. Every now and then someone would maneuver through us to climb down the ladder, presumably, take a pee in the bathroom (toilet was a hole through to the tracks). The rest of us sat cross-legged on the roof looking out into the distance.
I was asked a number of times, "Where are you from?" which I answered and responded to with polite talk. "Where are you going?" "What work do you do?" People were traveling for family or work reasons. One thing I picked up on was that most were either going to Khartoum or crossing the river to Omdurman to head out to places more distant. It was interesting to me as that was my plan: to go west from the Capital toward Nyala and then the Central African Republic, usually referred to as CAR. These kinds of conversations are important when you travel because the real story isn’t necessarily explained on train time tables and map descriptions. 1984 was a drought year and news of the status could be helpful.
There was one other foreigner, a German, who joined in the talk. We chatted and a number of people smoked. Someone passed around a pipe with hashish and tobacco mixed and the atmosphere became relaxed and pleasurable. It did go on and on but eventually, we arrived in Khartoum. We climbed down into the car and then out onto the platform and I ended up walking with the German, Max, who was also heading for the travelers' hostel. Outside the station, we got a cab and gave the address, though it turned out not to be far.
The Hostel was as orderly and tidy as a barracks and only half full. We were assigned beds by the assistant manager, the helper, and spent our time, as travelers do, quizzing the other travelers about where they had been or where they were going. These conversations happened in the big sleeping hall and in Max's room which, for some reason, only had a few beds and fewer occupants. Max pulled out his own pipe, charged it up, and it went around. I partook as much as anyone. That hostel was like a lot of others I had visited: the doors were kept open and people could come and go, which they did.
Suddenly, however, the helper came aggressively through the door, pointed to us, and began talking volubly to his companion. At the time he entered, it was just me and Max sitting on the side of two beds. The companion came over and said, “Do you have hashish? Do you have illegal goods?”
We looked confused but he simply picked up the bag and started going through it. When Max complained the helper told us he was the police. Needless to say, he found the hashish without delay and we were marched up to the hostel office where the helper explained to the manager and we were out the door. We walked for a while until our captor knocked on the window of a nondescript, unmarked car. We loaded up and we were taken into the station, where a Sargent was in uniform at the desk. He jumped up, speaking hurriedly to the plainclothes guy, who showed him the chunk of hashish. The sergeant broke out some forms and started asking us questions: "What is your name?", "What is your nationality?" When he got to the bottom of the form he took our wallets with a satisfied expression.
“Okay, come over here,” he said, pointing at the cells.
Five minutes after the door clanged shut we heard a car pull up outside and a straight-backed, uniformed figure walked into the station. The Sargent stood up and saluted, looking worried. There was a conversation in Arabic during which the newcomer's tone was becoming icier and icier. Behind the bars, we were following closely. We had no Arabic but somehow the gist was getting through. "You can do what you want on most days but not today." "I told you not today." The sergeant was fawning, and the officer who seemed to be in charge, the Commandant, was more and more aggressive.
The Commandant swung around on his heel and barked. We imagined him saying “Fix this!” as he walked out.
“You! You!” said the Sargent, pointing at us angrily and yelling at us in English. “Come here. Now!” We waited while a constable got the keys from the drawer and came over to open the jail door. We followed him back to the desk where the Sargent was emptying the drawer of our wallets and passport. “Sign, Sign, ” he continued, shoving a form in front of us. There was an English translation but we only skimmed it, getting the idea we had received our property and there was nothing missing.
“Now listen, you go straight back to the Hostel, do you understand?” We nodded. “Go straight back and go to sleep. Get up in the morning and go to Omdurman. Do you understand?” He was waving his finger at us. Yes, we nodded again. “And don’t come back. Do you understand?” Yes, we understood and kept nodding. And he opened the door and out we stepped. The hostel wasn’t far and we made it back after a few wrong turns and detours.
Next morning I left for Omdurman. And I can clearly date my traveler's attitude to that day. I would be interested to know rather than guess what news or instruction had set the Commandant off. I imagined a more senior officer was coming to visit who didn’t agree with the lure and entrap system that targeted travelers and the Commandant didn’t want any examples in the pipeline. Max was elated. “Forget their stupid system; it was only a joint!” I saw it differently though. Right, wrong or completely messed up, this was The Sudan and they made the rules. We had come very close to falling into the baited trap and spending the next two or three years in a Sudanese prison. I hear that’s distinctly unpleasant.
Luck and a clear-thinking officer had redeemed me. If I had gone to prison I would have left Africa as soon as possible after my release and retreated home. Instead, with the lesson I learned, I stayed for thirty years and lived a fuller life than any I could ever have imagined.
Mike Chambers recently returned to Canada after 30 years in East and Central Africa. He is now writing full time and fundraising for the Elephant Survival Organization UAV anti poaching surveillance service in Tanzanian parks and reserves. To learn more, visit http://michaelmargravechambers.blogspot.com/