Accompanied by Nomie, a Chinese female translator, Owen Grafham describes interacting with Chinese migrant workers in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.
Nomie is of small, slim stature. When we first meet she is wearing a large, wide-brimmed hat (think Indiana Jones), white khakis and a long-sleeved pastel shirt. Born and educated in Xian, Nomie, a 26-year-old translator, she now finds herself in Bahary, Khartoum, working in the middle of a large construction project which will provide an extra source of power for thousands of residents in the neighbourhood.
Nomie’s neighbourhood is a relatively wealthy suburb of industrial northern Khartoum. It is not particularly pretty, but there are not many parts of Khartoum that can be described that way anyway. We meet her at the large mosque, by far the standout feature of the area, and take the dusty five-minute walk to her apartment, skipping over holes in the ground and dodging the small football game going on nearby.
Her house is, on first impressions, wonderful. Large enough to be described as a small mansion, it has a clean, tiled floor and a spacious modern feel. We enter through an archway adorned with Chinese new year slogans and we are greeted by several of Nomie’s colleagues, who, we are told, speak pidgin ‘Sudanese-English’ but are shy to attempt it in front of us. With our basic, faltering Chinese we greet these new friends and are ushered upstairs past several partially clothed Chinese men and into Nomie’s room. It is small and sparse. There is one bed with a (ineffective) mosquito net, one desk and one chair. Surprised by the smallness of the room given the size of the house, we ask how many people live here. Nomie’s reply reveals that the number is somewhere between 60 and 70, shared between two adjacent houses.
After gladly welcoming the offer of Jasmine tea, we go into the room of Nomie’s boss, Mr Wong. Mr Wong, although busy, is kind enough to welcome us enthusiastically and it is in his room that we begin to chat. Mr Wong, who spends two hours every night teaching himself English from CD-ROM packages, seems to be our secondary host. He is noticeably one of the older members of staff here. The power station, it seems, is by and large a young man’s game. Nomie is, in fact, one of three women on the site and Mr Wong is one of only two people we meet who look over 30. The project has no specific time span: 'It will be done when it is done', we hear. They have been here for four months already but things are progressing slower than hoped. Nomie explains that the Chinese and the Sudanese have very different working methods. The Sudanese are insistent on checking details, to the detriment of making progress Nomie says. They lack punctuality and do not appreciate the need of Nomie and her co-workers to organise their routines in advance. Mr Wong’s English, which is basic but admirable, is not particularly suited to an in-depth discussion of feelings, but he is unsurprisingly passionate when drawn on to mention his family. He has left a beautiful wife and a daughter back in the central Chinese province of Hubei. The pictures which he shows us from his laptop reveal a wonderful young family. So why did he leave to come here we ask?
The motivation is, rather unsurprisingly, financial. The workers here work six days a week, 8am–6pm with a two-hour lunch break designed to accommodate food and siesta time. Transport to and from the power plant is in the form of a private driver, provided by the company. Food (breakfast, lunch and dinner) is provided by the on-site chef who cooks 'home-style' Chinese food. Entertainment is almost exclusively ‘in-house’. The workers at this power plant are spending, I estimate, as close to nothing as is almost humanly possible.
Nomie seems to think that she is the only one in the group who is interested in Khartoum’s cultural offerings. The others, she says, are content to spend their weekly day-off sleeping and playing mahjong. Nomie had hoped to learn some Arabic but her attempts to set up language exchange programmes with English–Arabic translators at the power plant have fallen through. She seems to have rather accepted that she, like the others in the company, will fail to learn any Arabic. Nomie is, after four months in Khartoum, looking forward to returning home. She is frustrated by the delays at work and misses her family, friends and her usual routine. The incessant heat and dust of Khartoum is becoming rather difficult to bear and she is allergic to the mosquito bites she is getting.
That night we eat fish, steamed rice and Chinese salad. Rather greedily we eat two helpings, the simple quality of the food makes a welcome break from the Sudanese staple that we have become acquainted to. We then, after much prompting, join in the evening’s round of mahjong, forcing us to hastily brush up on our Chinese number characters. After some initial luck (and some help from an ever-increasing crowd of amused onlookers), we eventually are respectably beaten. Obligatory photos notwithstanding, we exit, promising to meet again in the near future and introduce Nomie to some of the local Sudanese cuisine.
The smells, sights and sounds coming from inside the house resonate in the quiet Sudanese night as we retrace our steps to the roadside. Insulated from everything but the heat and dust, this is a day in the life of Nomie. It is an un-glamourous picture of men, mahjong and money.
N.B.: Some days later we heard that Mr Wong had contracted malaria and was very ill. Nomie eventually accompanied Mr Wong home and replacements were sent in their stead. The project is continuing as planned.
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