Saturday, 29 December 2012

A journey in Sudan

This is an account of a journey I made 25 years ago last month, on November 14 1987. It is from Even the Dead are Coming, first published in 2009 and now available as an eBook. 


WHEN I rose at five, it had been black night; when I left the hotel half an hour later it was light, a very delicate pink from the sun beginning to spread across a pale, luminous blue. It wasn’t cold. It was only mid-November, and the mornings wouldn’t chill you until near Christmas; and then for three or four weeks at most. Still, it was mild, and as I lifted my heavy suitcase down the steps of the small hotel in Abdul Rahman Street, I barely broke into a sweat.

I had no problem hailing a taxi at that hour. People start early in many Third World cities, ready to struggle with overcrowded and irregular buses. The Hillman Arrow that stopped for me dropped me at the main bus station at Souk-el-Shaabi at six-fifteen. It was now quite light, although the buildings and buses were still in shadow. But after another quarter of an hour the sun had risen completely, warming my shoulders through the thin, worn cotton of my shirt. I started to feel better.

I had not been happy earlier. I hadn’t slept much. I knew that there was a tarmac road all the way to the small town near the Ethiopian frontier, making me far luckier than most travellers in Africa. But I was worried about what I would find there; moreover, the sound of the zinc doors of the hotel clanging and scraping had reverberated all night, mingling with the relentless hawking of the Saudi in the room next door. He had either a chest complaint, a revolting habit, or both. My other neighbour was doing something active with a number of steel pails and much fluid, a performance that continued until after three. I suspected he was producing bootleg liquor, prohibition being the law of the land. I don’t think I should have enjoyed drinking with him. He was a sinuous man, rubbery, creepy, hairless, somewhat akin to an eel; I had passed him once or twice in the corridor and felt the tang of evil in his presence, as if he were conjuring up djinns rather than gin or concocting nightmares that, released, would roam the streets of the city, poisoning people’s sleep. After an hour or so I had started to feel uncomfortable, and tossed and turned in bed; I told myself not to be absurd. But then the sounds of shots rang out in Abdel Rahman Street, and continued for half an hour. I was aware of the coup rumours, but felt cheated; surely they might have allowed me a little time to acclimatise? Then I guessed that they were shooting stray dogs, a guess confirmed by a squeal of shock and pain as some unloved animal died in the dust of the pavement, such as it was, outside the hotel. All in all, I closed my eyes for less than an hour.

*** *** ***

SOUK-el-Shaabi bus station lay beyond the busy suburb of Souk Saggana, itself four or five miles from the city centre. Taxi was the only practical way at that time of the morning; I remember that the fare for the ride was S.20, about £2.00, but less than S.40 for the journey by coach that would take me for seven hours down the main artery of the country. And that was itself expensive; I could have done the journey for half the sum although, when I saw some of the buses on the road, I realised that that would have been unwise. There was just one sealed road of any length, and it carried most of the country’s imports. In the north, there was little road; just a railway on which the service was highly irregular. There was just one other strip of sealed road, and that did not go far.

I awaited the bus, surrounded by ragged boys who looked fourteen but, I later realised, were probably four or five years older. They wished to guard my case, see me onto the bus, load my luggage; all of which, I felt, I had best do myself. When at a quarter to seven the bus had not turned up, they became desperate in their search for services they might render me. Exasperated, I gave them cigarettes, which I knew they could trade; raw Cleopatras from Egypt. They fell silent then but stayed close to me, like tick-birds.

Now, the sun was really warm. In two more hours the temperature would pass 100 deg. F in the shade, and there were no clouds in the sky. There would be none until June, seven months hence. I fidgeted. Along with other passengers, I was standing on one of eight or nine pavement-bays near the booking-office; these were where the Western-style coaches stopped to load. But the bus-station was enormous, and already it was crammed with vehicles of every kind. Some, like the blue MAN that would take me, and stood some yards away with no sign of life, were of a type familiar in Europe—albeit a little old. Most of the others were converted pick-up trucks, with rough wooden benches nailed to the back, and covered over with a souk-built framework that reminded me of wrought-iron gates in English suburbia. And then there was the closed, coachbuilt bus on an Austin chassis. Long, high in the back, with multiple rear wheels, it rather resembled the American school buses that were also common here. However, the Austins were immensely powerful, and hunted in packs. I think they must have been powered for the haulage of grain in the desert, then geared up at the differential to allow for their lighter load. Unlike the European coaches, they would cross hundreds of miles of desert in the North, drivers taking their direction from tangled tyre-tracks and occasional, stunted trees.

A few minutes before seven, Souk-el-Shaabi became busier. There were families; middle-aged men in white djellabiyas reaching to the ankles, and sirwals, baggy trousers cut very low in the crotch, beneath. The women, sometimes with tribal scars—horizontal or vertical slashes on their cheeks, looked almost to me as if someone had been at them with cattle-brands; but they wore no chadors. Rather, the city-dwellers wore Fifties-style dresses in bright colours, hidden usually below flowing, transparent toabs—white wraps of finely-spun cotton that reached to the calves, and had hoods that could be lowered onto the shoulders. Their faces were never covered. Older women, and countrywomen, wore similar robes, but of many colours—tie-dyed?—light and thin, but drawn many times around the body. Sometimes, the women seemed very bulky, and moved with excruciating slowness. Later, I realised that the practice of female circumcision sometimes made movement very painful for them.

They made much noise and drank much tea, bought from men who crouched on the ground beside frames of iron that carried charcoal. Always, it seemed, these travellers were laden with possessions. When one goes somewhere, one acquires what cannot be bought at home. So it was here; people have reported passengers staggering aboard the ferry home from Aswan laden with everything from kettles to sofas. Certainly, at Souk-el-Shaabi, they had mattresses, clothes, pots and pans; and I even saw a stereo or two, bound perhaps for some rich merchant’s home in a place where there was power, in more ways than one. Quickly the rooves of the Austins were piled high with booty, from trips to Egypt perhaps? or just to the Libyan Souk across the city.


At first the shouting shook me, piercing the canopy of chatter that arose from the passengers.

“Sennar! Sennar!”

“Rabak! Rabak!"


The name Kosti I knew, given the town in memory of a Greek merchant, who had arrived to trade in goods and chattels in the days of slavery. Richard Dimbleby says that there was a Greek grocer in Khartoum with General Gordon, but I believe they were there before that.

I listened hard for my own destination, but it seemed that we were forgotten. Then, at five to seven, the blue MAN bus decided it was time to go. It yawned; stretched; scratched itself, and ambled over with a whiff of morning diesel. It was time to join the flow down the artery into the belly of the Sudanese beast.

*** *** ***

KHARTOUM’S suburbs were unlovely. The bus passed down Africa Road between lines of concrete blocks of flats, crudely built and often unfinished. It was the custom, as it was elsewhere, to leave steel wands protruding from the top storey, in case one should later wish to build above. Between buildings and potholed tarmac were wide dusty margins of nothing much, dotted here and there with tea-stands; or the odd boy selling cigarettes from behind a blue plywood box, on top of which there was always a jam-jar holding ‘singles’ for those who preferred to buy that way. Often they did; a packet of 10 costs half a day’s wages for most urban Sudanese.

Abuda refugee settlement, February 1989 (pic: M.Robbins)

There were planning laws in Sudan but everyone ignored them, and many a multi-storey block had been thrown up wherever, maybe on land owned by someone who is quite unaware of the building’s existence. To connect water and telephones, such as they were, without the correct warriga (any bit of bureaucratic bumph in Sudan is called a warriga) was illegal, but of course it happened. The city authorities were aware of the problem and it irked them. Nonetheless Khartoum grew and grew, and straggled deep into the Gezira, the cotton-growing belt to its south-east; so that leaving the city could take an hour or more on empty roads.

After Souk-el-Shaabi, this unattractive mess was strewn with petrol-stations. There are hundreds on the outskirts of Khartoum. But there was rarely much petrol. Even taxis were restricted to four gallons a day, and to get this, they queued. The queues outside a petrol-station could certainly be a mile long on a weekday morning and ran into and beside each other, mile after mile of bright yellow taxis, drivers resigned to spending the first two or three hours of their working day (which may begin at five) waiting for their lifeblood.

Souk-trucks, Khartoum (pic: M. Robbins)
The souk-trucks, too, were preparing for the day. In the hinterland, we passed an enormous dust field with maybe 30 such vehicles, parked with their bonnets up so that the riding-boys could polish the engines. They are beautifully-kept, these souk-trucks, and may rumble on for several decades. They are built mostly on the Bedford TJ chassis; their round, postwar-style cabs are usually a bright royal blue and their bodywork has been painstakingly constructed in the souk, great slabs of steel painted matt-black, studded with a thousand rivets. Sometimes steel hoops protect the cargo, which may be loaded to twice the vehicle’s height. The bodies are extremely heavy, and the lorries are said to be net consumers in the economy, so profligate are they with precious diesoline. But they are impressive, polished to perfection, interiors tastefully upholstered in crushed velvet and hung with tassels; doors cut away and replaced with wooden balustrades as armrests; slogans painted, with care and symmetry, in a million designs that include expressions of religious faith, national flags, eyes; — all overshadowing the drabness of the buses, which offered nothing more than posters of Bob Marley and, more frequently, Michael Jackson in their rear windows. (But whenever we played a tape of Michael Jackson to the Sudanese, they couldn’t stand him.)

Khartoum came to an end eventually. We passed a police checkpoint, where the duty officer glanced inside the coach and saw me; he must have asked the driver where the white face was going and, satisfied, did not ask to see my permit to leave the capital. Later, things would be less relaxed.

We entered the Gezira. The original cotton plantations were irrigated around the time of the first world war, by the British; by the time they left the country in 1955, a million acres were under cultivation. It sounds impressive, but the Sudanese later doubled it. It was indeed impressive now. The price of cotton, however, was not. Still, the earth was rich and brown and amazingly fertile; palms spring, as do acacias; and there was a village every few miles.

It was as we passed these that I regained my sense of place. It was a small thing that did it; it usually is. Every village had its school, and they were not far apart. At eight there was morning assembly, and for some minutes I kept seeing long, neat parallel lines of pupils in bright cotton uniforms, robes and pajama suits of bright blue or orange topped, in the case of the girls, by a white hijab, a cotton headscarf. I regressed 20 years and was with them, my mouth thick with bacon and eggs and the cold breath clouding from me as I stood waiting to do calisthenics in the schoolyard; or my stomach playing up from breakfast as we opened our hymn-books in the oak-beamed hall. Here, they stood in dusty yards under a pale blue sky, but I knew I could have been one of them. But this is how a strange country clicks into place. A mass of curious sounds, beating sun and dust and broken pavements, becomes a man stirring tea with a spoon; or a squad of soldiers running, to barked orders, by the side of a road or a man resignedly reading his paper as he queues for petrol, or simply scratching his arse, like I do.

*** *** ***

AFTER nine, we passed through Hasaheisa. On the night of August 4, 1988, Hasaheisa would be the last dry place I would see on earth. On a bright November morning the previous year, it was the best view I had had so far of the Blue Nile, here nearing the end of its journey from Lake Tana in Ethiopia to the Mogren in Khartoum, where it joins the White Nile from Uganda. Long before that junction it is majestic. A mile wide at Hasaheisa, it was there lined with trees, and a shady wood had grown up above the beach in the town; just opposite was the coach-stop with its restaurants where lumps of lean meat hissed on hot stones heated with charcoal. From Rufa’a, on the opposite bank, came a ferry; its ramp slapped down on the sand, and Toyota pick-ups struggled for the beach, hampered by hordes of white-clad men travelling to the market. Glimpsed; then gone, as was a felucca seen like a snapshot, gliding through the trees. We did not stop at Hasaheisa.

I once read a short story that referred to ‘the stupefying plains of Sudan’. Stupefaction sets in after Hasaheisa. After Wad Medani has slipped past to the right and the bus has climbed the Blue Nile bridge outside that town, there is scarcely a feature in the landscape. It takes about an hour for stupefaction to become complete.

The endless baked-earth plain that accounts for most of Eastern Sudan is not what it appears, but in November the dry season had begun, and it was like a sheet of grey marble broken only by a skein of very fine cracks. Moreover it stretched, uninterrupted, as far as the eye could see, so that one had the impression that the earth had been turned inside-out, and you were crossing what had been the inside and was now the skin. Both earth and sky were infinite, leaving the eye to search for some point of reference—and find none.

Except the mirages. These began at about ten, and seemed always to be on the horizon; at first, I thought that they were lines of trees. They were not simple shimmers such as one sees on an English summer’s day, but great expanses of water floating across the landscape. So realistic were they that reflections of real objects, when there were any, could be seen as they passed. All this somehow added to the heat; by now all the curtains on my side of the bus were closed, so that I could only look out through a small crack by my seat-upright. In fact, the sun did not shine too fiercely into my side of the coach, for Ibrahim had thoughtfully booked me fi’il dol—in the shade; you can save a little money by sitting on the other side of the coach, but you will fry.

I didn’t fry, but the heat touched me and I welcomed the iced water brought round by the driver’s mate. There wasn’t much of it on board, however. Or perhaps it became tepid. I found out later that if something—water, Pepsi—is supposed to be served cold, then the Sudanese will only serve it cold; pride will not permit it to be given any other way, even if you are dying of thirst. So I dried out slowly and watched the empty world slip by outside, only the odd discarded tyre or fanbelt by the side of the road betraying the motion of the coach.

“The world is flat,” I wrote to a friend a week or two later. “I know, because I’ve just fallen off the edge of it.” I might have added that I had discovered a secret of the Creation; that God had baked the earth in a kiln. I knew too that he had forgotten to attend to parts of it afterwards, for I had crossed one such place, and discovered His omission.

*** *** *** 

JEBEL is the Arabic word for either a hill or a mountain; to a European, a jebel is a low hill and that was what these were, barely a hundred and fifty feet. There were a number of them, clustered around that part of the road that twisted through Fau.

This was once the site of one of the biggest refugee camps of them all. A camp, Fau V, still existed, but Fau I and II had vanished in the dust, just three years on from the year of hunger in the Horn of Africa which saw the Tigrayans lead 400,000 of their people across the mountains to Sudan. Later, when they could, they led them back. I did not know this then. But I certainly noticed Fau, for the jebels were hauntingly weird; some round, and some jagged like snaggle-teeth of witches; small ravines full of stones ran down their flanks. One of them, two or three miles from the road, was so distinctive in shape that I dubbed it Cathedral Rock, and in months to come it was a landmark on many journeys that I made along this road.

In the shadow of the jebels, man and beast took shelter from the furnace of the day. This was where I saw my first camels; first just two or three, hobbled, one leg tied in an angle at the knee so that it wouldn’t wander far. Then there were more and more, and there were goats too, and stupid brown sheep with their long, silly tails and ears. Always these animals seemed to be in the care of a single boy, who looked about 10 to me but was probably 14; he was armed with nothing more than a stick, and dressed in a simple white djellabiya. He would squat below a solitary, windswept acacia, if he could find one, and would be alone but for the herd, which might be a hundred strong. I have no idea how he controlled them. Probably he did not know himself, and would have been surprised that anyone should remark upon the matter. Sometimes, he would be at a hafir, an artificial lake or pond 50 or 60 feet across, constructed of banked earth on the surface of the plain. They collected water in the rains, and held them a few weeks—no more; already, after three weeks of drought, they were reduced to a few murky puddles in a bowl of churned earth.

Near Fau we stopped for Pepsi. We had been on the road for four hours and I should have liked to relieve myself, but felt shy about doing so when there was no shelter; and in any case the passengers were fanning out from the tea-shack to pray. I watched them prostrate themselves for a moment before I realised that they were actually squatting to urinate. I decided that the sight of a man standing to do so would provoke curiosity, and decided to wait.

Pepsi was less of a problem. I was befriended by a tall Sudanese, dressed not in djellabiya but in slacks and sandals and Western-style shirt, which is what Sudanese office-workers wear during the day. (The shirts always have collars. No Arabic-speaking Sudanese wears a tee-shirt. Only Southerners of African origin do that.) The man fetched me a Pepsi, and we smoked cigarettes together. As always in that country, I was not allowed to pay.

There were many tumbledown shacks lining the road just south of Fau, and we would see more further east, near Gedaref. They are teahouses and restaurants, with a few shops selling cigarettes and groceries; others sell petrol or jazz (diesel) from 44-gallon drums from which the fuel is pumped by hand. Other shacks were brothels. The Sudanese attitude to prostitution is curious; this is a Moslem society in which premarital sex is unimaginable for a woman (although the rules are broken more frequently than Westerners think). Thus a man obtains sex elsewhere, and does so until he is 30, as marriage is expensive and therefore late. So prostitution is not rare, and is a service industry in which Ethiopian refugees play a serious role.

The truck-stop was, in fact, a good place for a brothel. A lorry-driver’s life in Sudan is a lonely one, and never more so than on the long tarmac road which stretches 1,000 kilometres from Khartoum to Port Sudan. The journey can be completed by coach in 19 hours, often with a single driver, who will go hard to make time. The truckers do likewise. There is an incentive; in 1988 a good truck-driver could earn S.250 for a haul from capital to coast and back. That was then about £75.00 at the official exchange rate. In real terms, given the cost of living, it is worth £250-£300. I heard of one man who regularly did three trips back and forth in a week, so that he must have spent about 120 hours at the wheel. He would, if he kept it up, have netted about S.3,000 a month. The average wage for a teacher or a junior civil servant, both of whom might have had a much-prized degree, was about S.400. There was only one way for many of the drivers to survive such a punishing schedule—dope, or bango; a rolled leaf full of the stuff (which was strong) could be had for about S.35. I was told that many of the lorry-drivers were more or less constantly stoned out of their brains.

Even if this were untrue, fatigue and heat together would have wrought havoc on this road. Every mile or two there seemed to be a burnt-out coach, overturned souk-truck or flattened car. Months later, I travelled to the capital with a colleague from the finance department of our office; he told me of his education—he had been trained as a glass technologist in Bulgaria but for some reason was now a wages clerk. Later we amused ourselves by counting off the wrecks at the side of the road, each crushed pick-up or bleached and mangled mechanical skeleton being greeted with ironic cheers. By the time we passed Wad Medani we had reached 17; at that point, we gave up and discussed Bulgarian glass-blowing techniques instead.

The evidence of carnage did not discourage people from travelling at 150kph and more. At night, you were lucky if a lorry had more than one headlight. That would be pointing in the wrong direction, anyway. Tail-lights were often neglected; a problem, as the big Fiat trailer-trucks often rumbled through the night at 35-40kph or less. Any faster, and the one dim headlight would have been inadequate. But the truckers’ most disconcerting habit was seen when they were standing still. In the event of a breakdown, a cairn would be erected some way behind the disabled vehicle, to warn oncoming drivers. The matter resolved, the truck would pull away, the cairn being left where it was—normally under your sump.

*** *** ***

THE JEBELS passed and there was again nothing to either side of us. There wasn’t even much traffic; it was one, and many drivers had chosen to break their journeys. We had ourselves been travelling for six hours. With the noon came an uncomfortable dryness and a caking of dust upon the face, so that the eyelids felt as stiff as card. The passengers were quiet. Earlier, there had been a cheerful group at the back of the bus. One had cried out: “Sudan niish—aragi!” Sudan finished—aragi! The latter was the local firewater, distilled from dates and, like all alcohol, illegal. Perhaps the cry was for my benefit. But now those passengers, too, were dozing. The sky was pale blue and empty, although I believe that once on that journey I did see a tiny white cloud; I can’t be sure. An empty pan beneath a dome. Such emptiness can panic some people; to others it brings peace.

Occasionally, however, the featurelessness was broken. Every half an hour, we would drift past a small corral of rush fencing, often broken or sagging. Within would be a group of perhaps four or five round straw huts, with conical thatch rooves tied at their peak. The walls of the huts, too, were often thin or damaged. These were called tukls, or goateas, depending on the region. Nothing stirred within the compounds; and there was just nothing there, save for an occasional abrique, a yellow moulded plastic jug with a handle and a long spout. This was used to keep water handy for washing, and was found in every house.

Two things puzzled me about these compounds. The first was the absence of movement or objects; the second, the distance of the compounds from any form of life. The mysteries would be solved. No-one stirs in the midday heat unless they really must, for it is dangerous to expose yourself to it (although labourers do, perforce, during the harvest). As to how anyone could live on a slab of baked earth 80 kilometres from the nearest means of making a living, I would find this out during the rains. Yet the strangeness of such a life never ceased to impress me.

The city of Gedaref came towards us at two. It is a place of 300,000 people, but there are few high buildings; only a massive grain-store that can be seen half an hour away. Gedaref is the granary of Sudan.

We entered the city. My memory is of mile after mile of straggling suburbs consisting of compounds of tukls, the perimeter walls becoming steadily more elaborate as we neared the centre. Simple holes for people to pass through were replaced with slabs of corrugated iron set in crude frames of wood, protruding above hedges of mesquite. These gave way to walls of biriish, matting woven from dura stalks. There were still few people to be seen. Work had finished for the day at half-past one or two, and it was time for lunch, followed by sleep until after four. Then the shops would reopen for several hours. For now, the city of Gedaref was ghostly, but one other thing struck me at once. The taxis: almost without exception, they were royal blue Mark Three Consuls and Zephyrs with sweeping, finned rear wings. Why? I never found out.

We paused for Pepsi and passengers in the shadow of the huge television aerial, surrounded by compounds that had not, essentially, changed in appearance since the time of Elizabeth I. My companion and I drank Pepsi together and chatted as best we could with the 10 or 20 words of Arabic and English we had in common. The language difficulty did not bother us. Together we watched the passengers leaving the coach, hauling luggage slowly through the narrow door, the older, fatter women clumsy as before in their movements. My friend explained that the coach would go to Kassala, but would pass the town of Showak en route, in about 30 or 40 minutes. There I would leave it, if the driver remembered to stop.

The word Showak, a colleague was to tell me, meant yearning. But others said that it meant fork, and indeed it was on a bend in the river Atbara. Showak, yearning or a fork.

The road wound out of Gedaref up a shallow slope, but after five minutes the unrelieved flatness of the land returned. It was not so empty, though. Within 10 minutes a village appeared, and then another; large and prosperous, with squat one-storey brick houses, many large compounds, tractors, and the tall square water tanks with their chequerboard pattern that were a common sight all over the region.

And then there was a wood. This puzzled me. It looked large, but in fact spread only a quarter of a mile on either side of the road, a remnant of the forests and savannahs that had characterised the area until the 1960s. In the woods, herdsmen, for some reason older now, had hobbled their camels for the midday heat, and let their flocks graze in the shade. Often these were goats, whose constant nibbling was destroying what was left of the trees. Some of the men looked villainous, and I was later to learn that this stretch of road was not advised at night—although by then I had already made several journeys down it in the hours of darkness. There was a haze within the woods, and a hint of green; for a moment I couldn’t place it, although I noticed the mixture of red and silver tree-barks, both of which gave gum arabic, and the vegetation on the forest floor. I was curious; it was November 14 and we were 1,000 miles north of the equator. Only later did I realise that the khareej, or rainy season, had just ended, and that the trees were not in bud; rather, the leaves had died and were shrivelling, parched, on the branches. Nothing is ever quite what it appears in Sudan.

*** *** ***

I RECOGNISED the town from the cylindrical water-tanks that towered above the United Nations compound like Wellsian tripods. There was nothing else; I could see few buildings apart from the odd shack. By the time I had realised where we were, the bus was three kilometres up the road, passing the bus-station—itself a series of broken-down shacks in the plain.

“Showak!” I gurgled.

“Showak!” yelled my friend.

“Showak!” cried my neighbour, a clerkly figure in razor-crease slacks and shirt, waking suddenly from the deep sleep in which he had been for the previous four hours.

“Showak! Showak!” yelled everybody, snapping their fingers and stamping their feet to attract the attention of the driver, who, they realised, had forgotten to stop for me. Now he did so, with reluctance, a kilometre or so beyond the bus-station. The riding boy helped me to take my suitcase from the locker in the vehicle’s side. I did not tip him—you do not, in Sudan—but thanked him; he grunted and climbed aboard again, and the blue MAN pulled away, and out of my life forever.

I looked around me. There was no traffic whatsoever. Nothing stirred. The landscape was not so flat as it had been before Gedaref, but it was still plain, and for the most part featureless. I could see the bus-station in the distance, and wondered if I could walk to it with my luggage in the sun that beat down on the parched earth. There was no sound. It was peaceful, as it must be for a chicken when it is finally in the oven.

Far away, a white shape detached itself from the bus-station. It came slowly towards me as I watched, standing in the dust beside the empty road. It did not speed up but approached in third gear, the whining of the transmission coming clearly to me through the emptiness. It was a pick-up truck. I wondered if I had arrived, by mistake, in a small Texan town; and whether the driver wore a stetson.

He wore no stetson, but looked thoroughly evil. He was a driver for the Commissioner for Refugees workshop in the town. He was also, it was said, a part-time secret policeman and was rumoured to carry a gun in his glovebox. I never confirmed this, but he was certainly strangely wealthy, with a penchant for European three-piece suits which he wore on cold winter mornings—the only time when they did not boil him to death. But he was always kind to me.

I digress. I knew nothing, then, of this; nothing indeed about anything much. It was three in the afternoon of Saturday, November 14, 1987. It was 110 deg F in the shade. There was no shade. There was nothing much of anything. I could see no town.

“Oh, my God,” I muttered. “Am I spending two years here?”

Even the Dead are Coming is is now also available as an eBook for Kindle ($2.99 US, £1.84 UK), and in all other eBook formats. There's also an extract from the book in
The Nine Horizons, a collection of Mike Robbins' travel pieces, published in April 2014.

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Fetching water, Karkora refugee settlement, December 1987 (pic: M. Robbins)

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