Five Days in Arashkol

Yasmin Osman
AHFAD UNIVERSITY FOR WOMEN, OMDURMAN, SUDAN

At Ahfad University for Women we have an annual trip to a rural area, where a portion of the students go and spread awareness on various things related to the year’s motto. This year the motto was ‘Together for the health of the rural woman’, and it was my turn to go on the trip.

To say that I was apprehensive would be a large understatement. I didn’t know who I was going with. Will my team be a cohesive unit? Will we get along? Or will we end up poking each other’s eyes out by the end of the week? I didn’t know where I was going either.  When the Dean told me I was going to Arashkol, I heard something along the lines of ‘adas’ (which is “lentils” in Arabic), so when I tried to ask my father about the area or look it up in the atlas or online, naturally I came up with nothing. That left me in a state of near panic, thinking “Oh my God!!! Not only are we going to a rural area, we are going so far off the beaten track that even my Dad hasn’t heard of this place before!!!”

It wasn’t until the actual day of the trip that I figured out what the proper name of the place was. Apart from the police stops every so often, the ride was uneventful. I spent quite a bit of the five and a half hours in a state of stupor, hovering somewhere between sleep and consciousness. It turns out Arashkol was as far off the beaten track as I thought it was.

We were a rather large group of 17 girls and our supervisor and we were housed by the Sheikh in his mother’s house. At first different members of the group did not know each other, so they kept to themselves, forming little cliques within the group, but as our work forced us to come together, we started to get to know each other. As with any large group, there were a few who stood out. There was the unofficial leader, the group joker, the mother hen of the group, the quiet one, the lazy one, the crazy one, the trouble maker, etc. I have never lived with so many girls before in my life, and while it was an experience, it is not one I would want repeat any time in the near future. A girl needs to have her recovery time.

The people of Arashkol were simple but hospitable; there wasn’t a door that was closed to us. The Sheikh in particular was a warm and gracious host. He exuded a calm, soothing aura that put people at ease, something I have learnt to associate with deeply religious people. As we met various groups of citizens, we got to know a very different way of life, a life that could have been ours if we were born to other families. I’m not going to get into the tedious details of life in Arashkol—suffice to say that the village fit the stereotypical Sudanese village. To be honest, where we were staying, while life wasn’t hard, the people we met made us realise how wonderful we have everything back home.

The people were not completely ignorant on the subjects we were going to deliver, but a startlingly large number knew of the dangers of some of their practices and still continued to perform them. For example, female genital mutilation was a widespread practice and by far the most common problem they had, and although they practically recited the dangers of that particular practice back to us, the people still continue to do it.

Though I have only just come back from Arashkol, I must say that my memory is a hazy blur of images. (I confess that is at least partially due to what I think are the early stages of Alzheimer’s.) But there are parts that stand out clear, like once when I looked around one of the halls before our presentation and saw all of the girls interacting with the village women, or when I was lying under the stars, despite the cold that was making my toes numb, discussing the purpose of life with my best friend, or just sitting in silence next to a friend on the banks of the White Nile absorbing the beauty of our Nile.

I could go into detail about exactly what we talked about there, and what we found out about the place, but to be honest what I believe I benefited most from this trip was the importance of group work, and how working in a cohesive unit was imperative. I learnt that everybody is a capable individual in her own right, and that in order to be able to coordinate plans successfully, one must utilize everybody’s strengths and play to them. People, if given a chance, will step up to the plate magnificently. I also learnt that even the best laid plans can go awry, and while a control freak like me might find that hard to deal with, it is best to have plans B and C prepared as well as being ready to improvise.

Arashkol, a land whose name comes from the ancient Nubian words meaning “land of the king’s throne”, was a place where I renewed the pledge to strive for change in my country, and reaffirmed my faith in the soul of the Sudanese people. It is places like that which remind me why I entered Rural Extension, Education and Development in the first place, places which are tied so intrinsically to their roots but still striving to develop, without losing their identity or that which makes them unique. I made friendships that I am certain will last, and renewed bonds that were beginning to fade. I believe I benefitted as much from this trip as we hope the people benefitted from us.