My mother met my Sudanese stepfather in our small town in ex-Yugoslavia when I was five. Everything about him fascinated me. From his booming laugh, his handsome dark face and dazzlingly white teeth, his flamboyant manner and leather hats to the funny way he spoke Serbo-Croat.
A few years later they married, and when I was twelve, we moved to his hometown of Khartoum, leaving behind bewildered and tearful relatives. Once in Khartoum, we moved in with my stepfather’s family in a neglected part of town called Maygoma. Rundown houses made out of mud bricks dotted narrow, dirty streets on both sides.
Regardless of the neighborhood’s prevailing scarcity and the painful nonexistence of comforts, the people of Maygoma showed a spirit like no other. A sense of liveliness and vigor prevailed from the multitude of scents arising from incense and fried dumplings, the sounds of rapid Arabic to the delectable taste of roasted pumpkin seeds and sweet sesame paste. Graceful, golden skinned ladies gathered for afternoon tea and applied henna to their hands and feet, and old men sat outside in the evenings playing dominoes.
Our household contained my newly acquired, noisy and warm family: my stepfather’s brother, his wife, four children and my grandparents—Geedu and Haboba. Geedu, a dignified and stern looking man of Egyptian descent wielded his cane to the beat of a tabla (drum) on festive occasions. And Haboba, with tribal marks etched into her plump cheeks forever by a sharp angry blade, was a woman of generous proportions and bustling attitude. Her full, tattooed lips the shade of indigo blue contained a fiercely intense smile, just like my stepfather’s.
Haboba detested shows of affection, feigning anger when in fact there was none, or yelling at the boys just to scare them into obedience. Her loudness and spitfire manner didn’t fool me. I was certain I was right when she stared into my eyes, unblinking as if trying to tell me secrets buried in her very soul, like she couldn’t find the right words and was reduced to soundless veiled messages.
My three boy cousins run around barefoot, playing soccer or rolling a large tattered car tire up and down the dusty neighborhood with unceasing zest. They would come in for a cool drink of water from the zeer, a clay pot that held deliciously cool earth tasting water. My cousin Geehan was a quiet, self-reserved girl and we immediately became best friends. Our common plight of wishing for nicer clothes, another pair of sandals or a TV brought us together. To fill long hours of boredom, we made cloth dolls and stitched yarn into their head for long tresses which we could then comb and braid. We chased the pigeons and rabbits that Haboba raised in the small, dust-covered hosh, delighting in their panicked flight. When the sun neared its rest we would sprinkle water onto the sandy floors and then sweep them vigorously with date leaf brooms.
Sometimes, we drew lines in the sand and played hopscotch for hours. When the ice cream man came down the street carrying ice pops we would run after him and then slurp the sweet cherry juice self-importantly. Sweets were rare and only offered on special occasions, like the Muslim festival of Eid.
I loved that neighborhood in spite of the poverty and my obvious mismatch to the environment. My long strawberry blonde hair, my white skin and my Christian faith stood out on every occasion. Sometimes, I was rudely reminded of my alien presence when little children with snot running down their faces ran after me calling out halabiya or khawagiya (a gypsy or foreigner). Other times it was the covert looks of visitors as they whispered among themselves, speculating about my heritage, my father, my legitimacy. Startled by these slights, I would return to the protection and comfort of my mother, to the familiarity of our Croatian language and the aroma of her cooking.
But these moments of distress passed as I learned to love the mellifluous announcement of the call to prayer, the capricious, barefooted step-cousins and the sounds of woeful Sudanese songs escaping from Haboba’s miniature battery operated transistor.
Some evenings, Haboba would gather us kids around her for folktales about Jeha, a fumbling but kind-hearted fool, or clever Hassan, whose stories relayed morality lessons to lesser behaved children. She sat on a bambar, a low twine-plaited stool, while shelling peanuts and stirring a bubbling pot of milky tea. Rattling the coals with a patient smile, she fanned the flames into orange jewels while we watched breathlessly, our faces flushed and radiant in the light of the African moon. We would squeal and laugh at Jeha’s antics and nod knowingly at Hassan’s wisdom, while enjoying the syrupy sweet brew and devouring the freshly roasted peanuts.
On Fridays, a holiday, there were always celebrations to attend. A wedding, an engagement party, circumcisions, births and deaths interspersed the existence and social lives of the Sudanese. Haboba, my step-aunt and other women would get ready by adorning their necks and hands with gold necklaces and bangles (cherished remnants of their wedding dowries), choosing a colorful tobe and painting their hands and feet with intricate henna designs. Even funerals required henna, albeit a more conservative, solemn design. I admired these preparations, joining Geehan and her mother in applying sesame oil to skin and hair. Sometimes, her mother would braid my hair into greasy cornrows, but they always grew disheveled due to the nature of my vexing un-African hair.
On rainy school mornings, I rose to a darkened sky and walked through silent streets to catch the school bus. It took me away to a Catholic girls’ school by the Nile, settled among tall labakh trees in whose lush branches monkeys played and screeched at us.
A world away from Maygoma, I took on my alternate persona, the cool European girl with no worries. In the morning before first bell, we would line up, trembling at the sight of Mother Superior while the nuns and students sang the Sudanese national anthem and a chosen few hoisted the flag. The school was an amalgamation of all the Sudanese minorities as well as a generation of mixed race and expatriate girls. School hallways and balconies bridled with the cacophony of Arabic, English, Dinka, Italian, Eritrean, Armenian, Polish, Tigrigna, Amharic and Greek among others. Most of my closest friends were a product of mixed marriages. For a very long time, many assumed my father was Sudanese as well. My Arabic was fluent, my expressions and mannerisms mimicked Haboba’s clucking of the tongue, the expressions ayee (yes) and agee (really) flowed from my lips effortlessly.
I didn’t belong to any existing group since I was the only Yugoslavian with a Sudanese stepfather in the entire country. That left me free to flit from one group to another while being accepted by all. My years in Africa have infused me with infinite appreciation for all races, faiths and cultures. They have blessed me with an extensive African family I can call my own and an immersion into a magical world that I wouldn’t have had if not for my mother’s brave step into a different life and culture, however frightening it must have been at first.
I still remember Haboba fondly. I remember her fishing in the Nile, a wooden rod in one hand and a can of glistening fat worms in another. She slung her flower-patterned tobe over her shoulder with some irritation and had the look of a woman who is serious about her task. I remember her calling out to the kids, startling us at first, because we feared her like no one else, “Kids, come look what I caught!”
She raised the bloated electric fish upwards for us to see. The boys stepped slowly, sniggering to hide their nervousness. Geehan approached too, delicately peeking at the catch. Haboba raised her eyes, narrowing her brows in my direction. Holding her curly-lashed gaze with my own, I smiled.
Then a shadow, like a flutter of a pigeon’s wings, flicked across that proud face and her eyes sparkled with what I knew was love.
© 2012 – 2013, Zvezdana Rashkovich. All rights reserved.