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Before going on any posting abroad with the Canadian Foreign Service, we had to do a medical assessment. It was not thorough but enough for the employer to be reassured that you would not drop dead while on posting. Mind you many did manage to do just that with undiagnosed heart conditions or something worse. Which made you wonder about the Public Health doctors and nurses who were suppose to look after us.

One of the joys of going on posting was to be given needles for just about every tropical and exotic disease near the Equator. The knowledge about those diseases and how to pick up on the symptoms remains to this day rather vague notion for our Canadian Medical establishment but they know a chicken with the flu when they see one. We were also given malaria pills, the size of pills given to horses, the unpleasant side effects were stomach cramps, nausea, fever, headaches, etc… but you were protected up to 60% from catching the disease if a mosquito bit you between 5pm and 9pm. As if mosquitoes go to bed at 9pm, we had to wear long pants and long sleeve shirts with a collar and stay away from cologne or after shave which contain sweet ingredients. Because of the heat we would also stay indoors at night.

There was also briefings on what to eat and not to eat on postings in tropical climes. This advice was followed because it was common sense, in a restaurant never eat cold dishes, no salads or berries of any kind, no melons, no dairy products, ice cream, no sauces or mayonnaise. All that is deadly where sanitary conditions and heat combine. Ice cubes was not necessarily a problem if the water used had been filtered, but you did learn to drink without ice, just keep your gin and vodka or beer in the fridge at all times. I also started using UHT Milk which was safe to drink.

I remember in Cairo a colleague who had just arrived was staying at the Marriott in Zamalek, a very nice hotel built into the old Palace which had been built for Empress Eugénie of France when she came to Cairo for a few days to inaugurate the Suez Canal on behalf of her husband Emperor Napoleon III. This colleague tells us that she had to eat sensibly and lose some weight, she was not obese nor fat really. Anyway that night, she had a big salad, she almost died and spent 8 weeks recuperating loosing some 50 lbs that she did not need to lose and looking like a skeleton afterwards. She had been warned but disregarded the advice because it was a 5 Star Hotel and felt safe.

The medical advice had always been eat only fruits and vegetables you can peel and cook, eat only fried or completely cooked meats, stay away from the rest. I was deathly ill in Mexico but never in any other posts like Cairo, Khartoum, Amman, Beijing.

In my travels in the Sudan conditions were primitive, we had good transport and drivers and would stay when possible in UN compounds where we knew we could get a hot shower, clean sheets and a full meal in good sanitary conditions. When we arrived in Kassala from Suakin, the conditions in that town on the border with Ethiopia were far from sanitary. Again the hotel we stayed at was very primitive, the restaurant was on the roof on the third floor and was also used as a dormitory and lounge. Being high up on the roof meant no snakes or scorpions or other little critters, you still had to give your shoes a very good shake in the morning before putting them on. The food menu was very limited, basically eggs and bread. We had scrambled eggs and bread, which you ate with your right hand scooping up the eggs with a piece of flat bread, there were no knife, spoons or forks. I discovered later that Ethiopians also eat using flat bread to scoop up food.  Never use your left hand in a Muslim country for eating or social intercourse, absolutely never, unless you want to gross out your host or dinner companions and get disapproving looks.


Kassala is on the Ghash River and is home since 1970 to large influx of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees, there are also large number of Africans from South Sudan displaced by war and genocide. It is a commercial hub for traders, it was once a garrison town under the Ottoman Turks, then the Italians and later British Army. Kassala is ringed by large UN refugee camps under the guard of the Sudanese army, which is not a good thing for the refugee who endure much abuse and violence. In 1990 it was estimated that up to one million people lived as refugees in the Sudan mostly in Eastern border towns or in Khartoum. I remember reading a medical report on the health of the refugees compared to the native Sudanese population. The refugees were in far better health than the  Sudanese with much less incidence of disease. According to the medical report this was due to the fact that a refugee knew that to make it out of the camp and be resettled abroad you had to be in good general health.

Nonetheless the trek out of Ethiopia or Eritrea was dangerous on many levels. Women were very often raped repeatedly by soldiers, then they would be shunned by their own kin.  Men were subjected to beatings and some were killed right out. Women alone or with small children had to sell themselves to a man for protection. Culturally a widow was not very valuable and seen as used goods, however if she could cook and keep house then she could be of some use. Small children were often sold into slavery and treated like dogs, chained in the yard. Crossing rivers on foot could be also very dangerous due to crocodiles and snakes, people had to know were to cross and when, the journey was long and difficult. I heard much horrors and could do little since I was just there to report on conditions. I was also being watched by the Sudanese Authorities who did not want negative reports sent about their mistreatment of refugee population on their territory. Young soldiers on duty in such areas were often nervous and unsure of their orders and suspicious of anyone who came from the Capital especially a foreigner. It was best to keep cool, polite and say nothing, let them do the talking. Apologize if need be for disturbing them and be on your way quickly, offering cigarettes like Marlboro a whole pack or a carton was also very helpful to calm a jittery soldier. Back in Khartoum I could report to the UNHCR and the ICRC (Red Cross) what I had seen and come to an understanding on best we could help the refugee population. I am happy to say that I was able to help out several thousand people, many were resettled in Canada.

After Kassala we drove back to Khartoum on a Chinese built road. I was quite glad to be back in a City with a curfew and martial law and in a hotel with hot water and decent food.

Before I returned to Cairo, I crossed the bridge to Omdurman. There is a large market where many merchants sell goods and souvenirs. Carved figurines of African Animals in ebony or mahogany, tribal masks and other artifacts and filigree gold jewellery.


Omdurman is also where the Silver dome Tomb of the Mahdi is located, it is more of a memorial since when Lord Kitchener arrived in town, defeating the Mahdist Army he had the body Muhamad Ahmad Ibn Abdallah Al-Mahdi exhumed and burned in the furnace of his gunboat and the ashes thrown in the Nile. This to avenge the assassination of General Gordon during the siege of Khartoum by the Army of the Mahdi. The body of General Gordon was never found, no one knows in the aftermath of the battle and chaos what happened. Though it is known that his head was brought to the Mahdi who was angry at being disobeyed since he wanted Gordon alive. The Mahdi’s family was also imprisoned by the British and were never freed.

Omdurman unlike Khartoum across the Nile was always gripped by an epidemic of some kind, always contagious. At night the markets were always a pleasant area to go before the curfew. Cairo had great markets also but it was an Arabic style market place, whereas Omdurman was a mix of African and Arab market place rich in both cultures.