When a Nation Splits--Sudan’s Story of Recession, Race, Oil and Resilient Women

When a Nation Splits--Sudan’s Story of Recession, Race, Oil and Resilient Women

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Photo by Hana Baba of relatives managing to prepare a hearty lunch at her family home in Khartoum, Sudan'.

SAN FRANCISCO--I visit Sudan about every two or three years. It’s my ancestral home; my parents and extended family are there. My most recent visit last December, however—my first since South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011--was revealing. I could see, hear and feel the difference in the capital Khartoum--both socially and economically.

Just driving down a main street like Nile Avenue, I noticed there are many less southern Sudanese than before walking the streets. Around Christmastime, in the past, they would be dressed in their best, filling the green parks on either side of the thoroughfare; girls in bright red and green dresses playing on swings and boys in ironed black trousers kicking balls around. This past Christmas, though, there were some, but not nearly as many as before.

After the South Seceded

After South Sudan’s secession, southerners packed up and filled buses and trucks that transported them to the south. For many, it was a celebration of return to their homeland. For others, it was heartbreaking to leave the only city they’d known all their lives.

The partition of Sudan into separate nations, a culmination of decades of southern struggle against the ruling north, coupled with the pressures of the global recession, further exposed the deep divisions between the more developed, largely Arabized, lighter skinned north, and the underdeveloped, Nilotic south.

Thousands of southerners had lived in Khartoum’s impoverished outskirts for decades. Some were born there; some had been there for generations. Reports from the move were heartbreaking--with accounts of tear-filled farewell parties for long-time workers, who were sacked and told to “go home”.

The Sudanese people are world-renowned for their hospitality, but many I talked to felt “hurt” by the south’s decision to split by a nearly 99 percent vote

Some in Khartoum were truly perplexed, as if absolutely ignorant to the harsh realities of southerners: living as marginalized citizens of their own country. Other people in the north didn’t seem to care either way. Yet others had the “good riddance” knee-jerk reaction of a hurt spouse in a nasty divorce.

What everyone agrees on is that the racial diversity of Khartoum has diminished strikingly with the loss of South Sudan. But life went on.

Then, last year, after a border dispute over the oil-rich town of Abyei, South Sudan reacted by shutting the oil operation down. It closed up the oil wells, effectively halting all oil production, which Sudan depended on as well.

A Downward Economic Spiral

An almost immediate result was inflation in the north, followed by an increasingly dire economic climate, which is continuing. As Sudan and South Sudan worked out an agreement by which the south frees its oil once more and pumps it through the north’s pipelines, the economic downturn continued to pinch Sudanese pockets.

During my previous visit home in 2009, the U.S. dollar traded for 22 Sudanese pounds. But by my return last December it had shot up to 70 pounds--good news for visitors from abroad like myself, bad news for the country and its economy.

Even earlier, in 2006, Sudanese expats were sending their college-graduated children to Sudan because it was bustling with job opportunities in the new oil sector. Whole families who had left for better opportunities were returning to Sudan from such places as the United States, Canada, and England to fulfill their dreams of raising their children in the place they were raised.

Only seven years ago, Sudan had jobs, and inflation was low. The World Bank reported the country’s gross domestic product grew by 11 percent--a peak not seen there in decades. The country was on an upward trend and there was optimism.

But, the global economic crisis of 2009 hit Sudan hard, and the 2011 split further sent Sudan in a downward economic spiral. By 2011, the GDP growth had dwindled to five percent—with inflation at a hefty 46.5 percent.

You feel the inflation while shopping for groceries around Khartoum.

Whether in the more posh supermarkets like Al Anfal--stocked with imports, from Corn Flakes to ketchup (which many people have cut out of their budgets), or earthier neighborhood shops that mostly sell locally grown vegetables, fruits and dairy products, meat or and baked goods.

Everything is much more expensive. Some commodities have doubled or tripled in cost. Prices rose 83.8 percent for meat and 40.2 percent for vegetables.

In 2009, a bag of sugar cost 2 Sudanese pounds; today it is 6 pounds. Sugar is one of the most important household needs: As my aunt says, “Our cup of sweet tea is our dessert.” In a country that boasts Africa’s largest sugar company, Kenana, [http://www.kenana.com/] many are bewildered about why sugar is so expensive.

Tea and coffee drinking are a predominant part of Sudanese hospitality, and if there is one thing they won’t abandon no matter how high prices get, it is that hospitality.

Sudanese Hospitality Says, ‘Allah Kareem’

As for the economics of Sudanese hospitality in difficult times, if you visit any family at lunchtime, you would still be able to enjoy a home-cooked lunch of freshly made stew, vegetables and meat, however little. When you ask how people can afford it, one phrase pops up--“Allah Kareem”--meaning, “God is all-giving.”

It’s truly a mystery how the Sudanese make ends meet and survive, even hosting guests who are often unannounced. But “Allah Kareem,” they believe, is a big part of it: Being thankful and optimistic may also bring monetary blessings. It doesn’t make mathematical sense, but you tend to stop arguing and leave it at that.

Of course, the “non-divine” factors that play a role can be summed up in the incredible resourcefulness of Sudanese woman, who can whip up a tray of culinary delights from minimal ingredients.

I once witnessed a pound of meat, an onion, some eggplants and potatoes magically turn into a feast of 5 dishes. Women are the CFOs of the household. If the country could balance its budget like a Sudanese woman, it would be in very different circumstances. They pool their money, form neighborhood co-ops, contribute to each other’s special occasions, and, in terms of stretching a buck, as one told me, “I stretch that pound ’til it bleeds.”

Yet, no matter how resourceful they are, these women--like the majority of people I’ve met--seemed to be glued to the television and newspapers in hopes of hearing about an oil agreement between Sudan and South Sudan.

Such an agreement would mean a return of lost oil-sector jobs, a stronger Sudanese pound, peace of mind—and cheaper sugar.

On March 12, the wait was over as Sudan and South Sudan reached a deal whereby South Sudan will resume its oil production, and Sudan will allow use of its pipelines and port for export. The question now is how soon will this translate into jobs, lower inflation, and a stronger Sudanese pound?

Hana Baba is a Sudanese-American reporter and co-host of Crosscurrents, on KALW Public Radio 91.7FM in San Francisco.