Khartoum, Sudan Report of what it's like to live there - 05/13/17
Personal Experiences from Khartoum, Sudan
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. I've lived at several other overseas posts.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington, D.C. The trip out here is long. You can get out here with just one stopover, but only a handful of airlines fly here. No European or U.S. carriers.
3. How long have you lived here?
Over two years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The embassy houses people in different compounds throughout the city. I lived at the Presidential Villas compound, by far the largest housing compound. Each American is assigned a large villa with a semi-private back yard. Housing is generous, even ostentatious, but dilapidated, requiring constant repairs. In my experience the embassy has been responsive, but fixes are more of a band-aid than permanent fixes. This has to so with the shoddy original construction and the difficulty of obtaining proper construction materials. Still, this compound offers good recreational opportunities - a tennis court, a proper gym and a large swimming pool. Commute times to the embassy vary but average around 30 minutes.
The other compounds are smaller but more cozy. They consist of large apartments or town homes. Not all have swimming pools, and none of the other compounds have a gym. Transportation to/from these compounds is also more complicated. For those who appreciate privacy and don't want to deal with a fishbowl environment, these smaller compounds are ideal.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Basic groceries are available, but basically only what can be grown here is fresh. Things like tomatoes, onion, and potatoes are available year-round while mushrooms, beans and broccoli appear to be seasonal. Beef is abundant, although most of the cuts here are unrecognizable. Plenty of chicken. Only fish native to the Nile or the Red Sea are available, although I have on occasion found imported salmon. Most household supplies are available, but can be expensive. Pork is not sold, but is available to the embassy through a periodic shipment. Groceries are cheap by U.S. standards...a weekly grocery trip might run you $50.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Ship everything you might want. Detergents, soaps, bathroom products, beauty products, canned and packaged food items. Anything that will keep, ship it out. As mentioned, things that have to be imported here tend to be more expensive. Women, in particular, should plan carefully as many items you may need or want won't be available.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
This is a post where people learn to cook for themselves. There are a couple of Lebanese restaurants and one Italian restaurant that would satisfy a basic palate, but by and large, if you enjoy good food, you're out of luck. Learn to cook, or befriend those that can cook and like to entertain. As mentioned, basic groceries are available and can be supplemented with meat orders from Kenya. People also bring groceries in their luggage, like fresh vegetables and cheeses. Put together, you can come up with an excellent meal, far better than anything available locally.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Get used to ants. The embassy has pest control services but nothing can get rid of the ants. Luckily they're the small black kind that don't bite. They're really just a visual annoyance and you get used to them after a while. Mosquitoes are a problem in the summer months. Some people have found rats in their houses.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I've never used the local postal service. Embassy personnel typically have items mailed to them via diplomatic pouch, but mailing things home is a lot more complicated. Put simply, unless you're returning an item that was shipped to you, sending things home, like a card, is very difficult.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Maids are widely employed and are very affordable.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
As mentioned, the main embassy compound has an excellent gym and is free for American embassy personnel. It is not open to non-embassy personnel. There are a couple of other gyms available at the two main hotels in town, but they are not very big and seem to focus on machines, in my opinion poorly equipped if you expect more than just the basics. In addition, they are expensive.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
No credit cards are used here - due to decades of sanctions, this is an all cash economy.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There is a Catholic church offering a Mass in English.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by with English, but learn a few words of Arabic. It is greatly appreciated and you won't feel as frustrated when trying to communicate with the locals. The embassy has an instructor at the embassy (very good and highly recommended) and also offers evening lessons with a different instructor at the villa compound.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, there are absolutely no accommodations for people with physical disabilities.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Embassy personnel are not allowed to ride public transportation. Taxis, tuk-tuks and little buses known as Amjads are availble, but again, off-limits. There are also buses, but there is no decipherable order or logic to them. Together, these modes of public transportation are the scourge of any orderly traffic system, as they are packed, in poor condition, and the drivers are universally reckless. Some, however, may consider this part of "charm" of the Sudan experience...so I've heard.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Embassy personnel may not import cars, nor acquire them while here. They are required to travel in armored cars run by the embassy's motor pool. Shifts are always short staffed and the demand is always high. Shockingly, it's been said that motor pools at other African posts are worse, but at least you can drive yourself there. Not so in Sudan. You must be driven in a motor pool vehicle. The drivers are great and the dispatchers do their best to accommodate, but you can rule out spontaneous trips. Unemployed EFMs are mostly trapped in their housing compound, ranking behind all mission personnel in priority. The inability to freely travel can have an isolating effect and is often cited as the biggest frustration at post. The motor pool requirement is justified by the supposedly dangerous environment in Khartoum, a debatable assertion.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is available, although I hesitate to call it high-speed. People experience all kinds of trouble and service is inconsistent, with frequent outages or latency problems, no matter how much you pay. It's fast enough to surf, check email, and stream movies though, so most people can get done what needs to be done. Just be prepared for third-world service. And get a VPN, otherwise you'll be barred from most websites, especially your banks. While sanctions have been suspended, banks are still reluctant to deal with Sudan and any contact from a Sudanese ip address may result in your accounts being locked.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Apple products are hard to come by here, most phones sold here are Androids. Use the local plan, exceedingly cheap and generally good coverage.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
No quarantine necessary. There are a few veterinarians, but folks have had mixed experiences. Try to keep your pet healthy.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
The only opportunity for spouses to work is at the embassy, which makes every effort to employ spouses. The current hiring freeze makes that impossible right now. Spouses cannot work on the local economy. Some spouses have been creative in pursuing online job opportunities.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Suits or business casual at work, depending on your function. Some formal occasions if you want to bring a tux, but a good suit is all you need. Be prepared for it to be ruined here though. Same goes for shoes. There is so much dust and dirt here that it's impossible to keep anything clean.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Sudan is suffering from the effects of a decades-old civil war and festering insurgencies, and in addition is surrounded by failed or failing states. Poverty is rampant and everything is corrupt. That said, Sudanese are very friendly people, largely mind their own business and don't get excited about much. The security concerns here are related to terrorism or political violence. There is very little crime here. There are occasional protests, but these are targeted at the government and are quickly put down and dispersed. I've never felt threatened here and that makes the stringent security restrictions put in place by the embassy feel onerous. However, it's undeniable that the embassy had to draw down a few years back due to a protest that breached the embassy perimeter, and an USAID worker was shot in 2008. In other words, this is a place where things can go quickly out of hand. What place isn't like that though?
Compared with other major cities around the world, this one probably rates among the safer ones. This has resulted in a situation where the embassy maintains a very high security posture due to the dangerous environment, but personnel do not rate danger pay because it's not dangerous enough. Another major frustration at post, no matter which side of the fence you come down on.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Food-borne illnesses are a real concern, and if you get an eye infection, insist on medical evacuation. There's a type of infection here that several people have suffered from that will cause permanent damage, even blindness, if not promptly treated. The dust causes a lot of respiratory difficulties. Lots of flies and mosquitoes in the summer months, and the heat is intense. Malaria and cholera outbreaks have been common.
There is one hospital here that is used by the embassy and has most diagnostic technology available, including CAT scan and MRI. Medical staff are poorly trained however, so it's not recommended to have any significant medical procedures done here. The embassy maintains a clinic which will take care of most of your non-emergency medical needs.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
It's the worst I've ever had to experience. Dust is constantly in the air, and local dust storms, known as "haboobs," only make matters worse. Compounding the problem is that the only way to dispose of trash in Sudan is by burning it. There is actually a trash burning season. There's nothing like coming out your front door in the morning and take in that first deep breath of burning trash. Add to this the heat, and you'll find that you'll spend most of your time indoors.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Food allergies are not a recognized problem, so if you have an allergy, be sure to ask about ingredients if you're out at a restaurant. Be very vigilant. Bring as many meds as you can in case you have a reaction. As mentioned, there is a med unit at the embassy that can treat allergic reactions, but if you get seriously ill, you're in trouble.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Sudan can be tough. While Sudanese are very open and friendly, most do not speak English. Most of the social activities fall on the weekend (and even these become repetitive), so there is not much to do during the week. Boredom is an issue. The security posture isolates you from the wider expat and local community. It's difficult and tiresome to leave your compound for even routine tasks, and your friends will quickly tire of dealing with the strict security measures. In order to travel anywhere within Sudan you need to acquire a travel permit, which requires advance planning. People look forward to any reason to leave and are generally depressed upon return to post. I will say that there's a new security team in charge now that seems to be willing to minimize the impact of security on people's personal lives.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Oppressively hot in the summer season, which is quite long. The heat starts in late March and lasts through October. There is a short rainy season in the summer, typically starting around July and lasts about a month. The rest of the year is dry so people used to the heat in Arizona or Texas will feel at home. The winter months are comfortable, and this is prime time for camping trips into the desert or diving in Port Sudan.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Embassy personnel cannot bring children to post, so this is not an issue.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Ever since the separation of South Sudan from Sudan, a large part of the expatriate community left. Still, there's a small NGO community and the standard diplomatic circuit, so you'll make friends from around the world. People try to enjoy themselves and make the most out of a difficult situation. The problem is that the scene never changes and gets old after a while. Same people, same settings, same activities.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
The primary social event here is the weekend party. Someone will have one. The embassy has a very active and creative employee association that does a great job sponsoring social activities. So there's a weekly happy hour, a mid-week social, and several "big" events, such as the St. Patty's Day or Cinco de Mayo parties. Of course there are Independence Day and Marine Corps formals. There is a CLO who arranges periodic trips, both in Sudan and abroad.
During the winter, people plan their own camping trips to various locations, most of them historical heritage sites. There aren't too many of them, but they're unique and it's pretty cool to spend the night in the shadows of an ancient temple or pyramid. If you're a diver, head to Port Sudan. It's undeveloped, but pristine, and how many of your friends can say they've dived Jacques Cousteau's under water station? There are no formal clubs, but there are groups that hold pick-up sporting events. For instance, there is a regular group for pick-up basketball and rugby games. Plan on a large travel budget. Sudan is a great jumping-off point for trips throughout Africa and to Middle Eastern destinations.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Lots of singles + general boredom = make your own fun. Couples will be happy if the trailing spouse can find employment, or is very creative and can stay occupied. Otherwise, increase that travel budget.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not if you're an expat.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The work was certainly fulfilling. In addition, I really enjoyed getting to know a place that most of the world has only heard of in the context of the Darfur conflict, and I also really enjoyed my dive trips. This was a hardship post, but in my case it fostered close relationships with a good group of people.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Go see the pyramids in Meroe and Karima, and if you have the time, see Old Dongola. Definitely go to Port Sudan to enjoy the Red Sea. There really isn't a whole lot to do, so take advantage of whatever is on offer.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Unfortunately, no. Most stuff is made in China.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's a good place to save money, if you don't travel a whole lot. There's nothing to spend it on.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
You really need a VPN and you need to set it up outside of Sudan.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, it was a professionally rewarding assignment, and despite the difficulty of living here, I enjoy experiencing countries others will never see. Sudan is nothing like what's being portrayed by the advocacy groups and "experts" in America. The issues here are much more complex. Sudan is a diverse country with an interesting history and an uncertain (probably bleak) future.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Expectation to move or travel freely within the country, expectation for clean air, and the hope of getting anything done properly or on time.
4. But don't forget your:
Sense of humor and patience. With the right mind-set, you can learn to truly marvel at how many creative ways the Sudanese can mess things up. And be kind! You can defuse almost any tricky situation with a smile.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
"Emma's War" is probably the best, most readable history of Sudan. "The Modern History of Sudan" by Collins is a good, comprehensive overview, but rather academic and a boring read.
6. Do you have any other comments?
This is a post that presents a lot of challenges, but your memory has a way of filtering out all the difficulties that you had to deal with here. It's the kind of place you'll remember fondly in the distant future.