16 Apr, 2020

… and then …

Following on from yesterday:  I’d been a lucky young man, the danger caused by James had passed, the great East Africa trip followed, then another year in the Sudan, a year in London University, three years in Libya, 11 years in Saudi Arabia, an MBA, various senior exec posts in global UK companies, more voluntary work and plenty of other things.  All done.

Some of the volunteers in the Sudan in 1969-71 proved to be lifelong friends.  After five decades we still get together at least once a year, and in fact we’re having our first Zoom reunion later this week, determined that ‘we’ll meet again’ despite these bizarre times.

The Sudan experience had been vivid for everyone. One result was that around 2009 three of us began to think we’d like to go back, 40 years on.  So we did.

In 2010 Ann, Sue and I flew to Khartoum again.  It had taken a lot of effort: the Sudan doesn’t exactly hum with tourists or a tourist industry; the political situation was tense as ever; the separation into two different countries was producing refugees and creating more social unrest; and there were other risks, not least of which would be the unusual spectacle of a western man with two western women!

Friends in UK including a professor in Oxford helped with contacts. In London our visas were eased through the Sudan Embassy; in the Sudan we were hosted at the British consulate, we had tea with the Ambassador, an article appeared in the press, a Sudanese journalist gave valuable advice and introductions, a local businessman entertained us, we were interviewed on the Mahdi’s ramparts, and we were filmed in Omdurman souk. Travelling with an excellent driver into the northern deserts and then south of Khartoum up and down the two Niles provided unforgettable adventures. We were also interviewed for TV in the verdant grounds of the British ambassador’s Residence.

A number of British and Sudanese had gathered on the ambassador’s lawn, well remembered from our visits there all those years ago.  We three were newcomers so we presumed that the other expats were resident and working there. Some, like us, were to be interviewed on camera.  One of the Brits wandered over, asked my name, asked which of Sue and Ann was my wife – a natural question in that country! – and then introduced himself.  It was James.

This was scarcely believable.  The man who had been prepared to sacrifice my freedom and risk my imprisonment in an African jail forty years earlier was standing in front of me, at ease and enjoying his fruit juice!  I’m pretty resilient but this, out of the blue, was a jolt, bringing back strong thoughts and emotions.

He hadn’t remembered my name. We spoke briefly and moved on.  Sue, Ann and I were called over to be interviewed.  I decided that before leaving the Residence something more was needed so I managed to go back and have a minute with James.  Mention of our time in the London hospital and of our meeting in Gatwick produced a frown, then dawning fear as his memory returned.  My next words, simply, “You gave me the letters”.  That was enough.  With a nod of the head, looking down at the grass, he mumbled something like “Good to see you again,” and shuffled off.  And that was it.

The story of the letters: the only person I’d ever told was Malcolm (college, Kosti on the White Nile, fellow traveller and lifelong best chum).  Now I told Sue, who had been based on the Blue Nile between my township and Khartoum, and Ann whose posting had been in Darfur in the far west.  It was a relief to talk about it.

A final note: for a long time now governments and the media have been highlighting the dangers of carrying items from country to country at the request of others. A few decades ago the term ‘mule’ was coined for the carrier, but that was after 1970.  At the time it was quite normal to do such favours for friends, and I considered James a friend. In fact, even now would we refuse such a request – ‘just letters’ – from someone we know and trust?

Was my trust mis-placed?  In one sense of course it was.  And certainly I had been very lucky.  But so was James on that day 10 years ago: the Peace fist had clenched a few times.

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