Well, I had hoped to finish writing my last post about Valparaiso before I left for another around-the-world journey, but… here I am in Khartoum, on the east bank of the Nile, and one must live—and write—in the present.
I left Boston for the long trip to Khartoum on the afternoon of Tuesday the 31st of January, just a few days after “45” (he-whose-name-shall-not-be-written) issued the now-stayed executive order banning immigration from seven countries, one of which is Sudan; ironically, and barely noted by the media, two decades of economic sanctions imposed by the US on Sudan had been lifted by President Obama a fortnight earlier, apparently with the agreement of incoming-45. My itinerary took me from Boston to New York to Frankfurt to Cairo to Khartoum, where I arrived at 03:30 local time on Thursday, about 32 hours, and four on-time flights (thanks JetBlue, Singapore Air, and EgyptAir!) after I had checked in at Boston. I was met plane-side on the tarmac by my hosts from the University of Khartoum School of Forestry, passed rapidly through Sudan’s passport control (far more rapidly than I expect to get through US CBP—given the two-page Sudanese visa that now graces the middle of my passport—when I return to LAX in mid-March after my sequential trips to Germany and Australia that follow my stay in Sudan), had a nice cup of tea in the VIP lounge, and finally settled in, around 05:00, at the University of Khartoum Guest House. My colleague, host, and former Ph.D. student, Asst. Prof. Ahmed Siddig of the Forestry School at the University of Khartoum, thoughtfully laid in a few snacks to tide me over until breakfast the same day. Although I slept through until 13:30, barely having enough time to scarf down a quick lunch before my first meeting (click on an image to see larger ones).
I’m here in Khartoum for a dozen days, teaching with Ahmed a short-course on collection and analysis of biodiversity data; discussing the establishment of a long-term ecological research (LTER) program here in Sudan; giving a public lecture on tipping points and regime shifts in ecological systems; and perhaps most importantly, simply listening and learning from graduate students, post-docs, junior and senior faculty, and directors and staff of various government-sponsored research agencies who have had limited, if any, intellectual contact with the outside world for more than 20 years. The commitment of scientists here to maintaining thoughtful curricula and productive research in the face of decades of political oppression and economic collapse is continuously astonishing. Seeing what they have accomplished here in keeping the flames of knowledge burning is truly humbling for someone like me who works at one of the wealthiest institutions in the world and takes far too much for granted in my day-to-day work.
I arrived on a Thursday, and after a long nap, a short meeting with the dean and department heads in the Forestry School, and a jet-lagged working night, it was Friday. Which in the Muslim world is the Sabbath, and so not a working (or teaching) day. Rather, it was an opportunity to see some of the sights in and around Khartoum (my standard visa limits my range of travel to within 25 km of the center of this three-part city [Khartoum, North Khartoum, Ondurman] of ≈7 million). But truly, there is a lot to see (click on any of the images below to see larger versions in a slide show).
Khartoum sits at the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, north of which the merger of the two—the Nile River itself—flows on through Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. It is a dry, dusty city, in a region of the country that gets < 250 mm (about 10″) of rainfall a year, all of which falls in less than three months (click on an image to see a larger one).
Yet thanks to the Nile River, there are trees, forests, and forestry here. The first forestry school was established in 1942 (below, left), with four students, and with a focus on growing Acacia sayal (below, right), the source of Gum Arabic and still the dominant tree in this region.
We—Ahmed, my colleague and former student Shah Khalid who teaches at Islamia College in Peshawar, Pakistan, and who has joined us for the statistics course, and I—spent a few hours in the Khartoum State Forest, in the company of thousands of other city residents who relax and enjoy tea, coffee, picnics, and one another’s company in the shade of the acacias. And like many city parks throughout the world, this one is being loved to death. Trash is strewn and piled everywhere, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, and cars are cleaned and serviced whenever and wherever the need arises, and there is not a seedling or sapling to be seen in the well-trod, hard-packed understory.
After enjoying tea ourselves, we walked along the Nile, took the small boat “America” an a short ride up the river to see the confluence,
had a delicious dinner,
and called it an early evening to rest up before the start of the week-long course on Saturday morning.
I save for tomorrow’s post the challenges of teaching—in 5½ days—how to design reliable biodiversity monitoring studies, basic analysis of the resulting data, and the fundamentals of the R programming language in a classroom with more-or-less continuous electrical power, served by a single T-1 line being used simultaneously by 47 participants, most of whom have never seen, much less used, Dropbox or R before in their entire lives. Imagine further a scenario in which it takes 6 hours to download the 70 Mb installation package that is R onto a computer that is running bit-torrented, unregistered copies of Windows (ranging, depending on user, from version 7 to 10), Microsoft Office (again, random versions), etc., hoping the power or the wireless router doesn’t go off in the middle of the download, and then double the download time for each additional user that tries to download the software at the same time. And consider that using a 3G phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot might actually speed things up…if you can afford the data charge.