In Sudan, on the verge of civil unrest, a holiday and a sacred sacrifice

In Sudan, on the verge of civil unrest, a holiday and a sacred sacrifice

‘Here in the United States, as we celebrate Thanksgiving and ready ourselves for a variety of December holidays, I am still thinking of these boys, their daily hunger, and their gratitude for each meal they receive’

BRATTLEBORO — My friend and colleague Afsana came to me one day while we were working at Nile Valley School in Khartoum, Sudan.

“On Saturday, we're going to buy a goat,” she said.

Afsana was originally from Pakistan. Her family had moved to London when she was a teenager. In this tiny, private school in Khartoum, she was teaching third grade, and I was teaching first grade.

We were living in the fanciest part of town, but the streets were made of dirt, there were shortages of food, and it wasn't always safe to walk the streets alone. There were regular electricity and internet outages. And living in the ever-present heat could be difficult without air conditioning.

Afsana and I had become fast friends when the school year began in July, sharing rides in tuk-tuks (tiny scooter-type taxis), shopping for food, and adventures together.

We did so not only for our respective good company but also for our mutual safety. Women in Sudan were most often accompanied by a man, and we were two women, traveling about the city alone.

Muslim by faith, Afsana did not cover her head - a bold move in a conservative, economically developing Muslim country, marking her as slightly radical in the eyes of the locals. In London, no one would have cared.

Afsana is an activist. Wherever she sees a need, she quickly finds solutions.

At our school, which had a wealthier clientele, she had only recently held a fund drive for food, clothing, and necessities like soap and toothbrushes. Afsana had been told about a nearby broken-down hospital, where very poor people were receiving mediocre medical care. We'd found a friend with a van and had delivered the goods to the hospital the previous weekend. It was an eye-opening sight to see firsthand the level of poverty being experienced by the people here.

* * *

I was delighted when Afsana asked me to join her on a visit to an animal market outside of town with whatever plan she was hatching with the goat.

“It will soon be Eid-al-Adha [pronounced eeduhl-ahd -hah], a Muslim holiday, which means 'feast of sacrifice,'” she said with a big smile. “A key part of celebrating is the act of Qurbani, or sacrifice, in the Muslim faith. It is a ritual of the sacrificing of an animal, and therefore I will purchase a goat to give away.”

“In London, my family participates, but it being a city, we usually bring food to the poor that we purchased in a grocery store, but here in Sudan, I will be able to enjoy the tradition as it was meant to be practiced,” she continued.

“I've already found another staff member with a truck, and another with a van,” Afsana said. “You and I will pay for the gas, and I'll pay for the goat. It will take about an hour to get out to the market, and then, we'll bring the goat to a boys' orphanage run by Mohamad,” she said, almost breathless with the excitement of it all.

I was amazed that Afsana could make things happen so quickly. We'd only been in Sudan for a month, and she was a whiz at practical magic.

Mohamad was our high school Arabic teacher, and I was surprised that he had this second job. He oversaw the care and keeping of approximately 100 parentless boys between the ages of 8 and 18.

The older boys slept outside on blankets; the younger ones had mattresses in a building nearby. There were privies. Fresh water ran through a pipe from a small, nearby tributary of the Nile, ending up in big barrels along with rainwater when there was any to be had.

Mohamad's job included making sure the boys were fed, a close-to-impossible task in this poor country.

Usually, they ate cornmeal cakes, sometimes fried, sometimes not, depending on whether any oil or butter had been donated.

* * *

We brought head scarves to wear as we were traveling to the more rural area outside the city, where all women would be covered. We loaded up the van with three other teachers who wanted to come with us for the celebratory trip.

When we got to the market, there were pens of animals - mostly goats but a few camels, too - and a few flocks of chickens.

Some of the families of the farmers were flabbergasted to see me at the market. In rural areas, many people had never seen a white person, especially one with red hair, freckles, and light skin.

During my 10 years of living on four continents, I never minded having my picture taken by the locals. Americans do not always have the best reputation around the world, and I wanted to be the friendly one who was kind and respectful of the local culture.

While I busied myself getting photographed with local families, Afsana picked out her large, lively, white-haired goat, which sold for around $95, a sum much too high for most Sudanese people.

The teachers joining us were fortunate to have jobs, but they weren't paid enough to afford this luxury themselves. They watched in curiosity as Afsana peeled off the bills to pay the farmer. They thanked her profusely for her kindness to their people, even though they would never taste this meat.

The goat safely inside the pickup truck, we then made our way to the orphanage.

* * *

Qurbani is the ritual of sacrificing the animal and sharing the meat into three portions, per the Muslim faith. The first third is supposed to go to the person purchasing the meat, the second third to a friend or family member, and the final portion is given to those who cannot afford to feed themselves.

Afsana was donating the entire animal to the orphanage. The colleagues who traveled with us were in awe of her generosity.

When we arrived at the orphanage, a sprawling couple of acres of land with a mosque on site, we walked the goat to a small field. Tethered beside a big tree, he happily ate grass while the capable butcher sharpened his two knives.

I was not looking forward to the death of our goat, but there was something different about the entire process for me, from when I'd seen animals butchered when living in the U.S.A.

This goat was going to feed more than 100 boys for quite possibly a couple of days. It would be a real indulgence for these orphans to have meat, since they ate mostly cornmeal and water and very few fruits or vegetables unless they were donated, which didn't happen often.

The governmental situation in Sudan was tenuous at best. By spring, there would be a political uprising, which would bring huge demonstrations that would kill many of the protestors. The food and fuel shortages would become far worse than they were that day, seven months before the civil unrest, but already the Sudanese pound was losing value every week.

I felt a slight breeze under the spread of a few tall, magnificent trees, a welcome relief from the 102-degree heat. I sat down beside the butcher on a rock beneath the tree.

I asked him how he learned to be a butcher, and he told me he had apprenticed with a man beginning when he was 8 years old. He was now in his 40s and just the way he sharpened his knives let me know the solid skills he learned over these years.

He laughed when I asked him how many animals he had butchered. “Too many to count,” he replied.

After a while, the goat was happily enjoying the green grass before him. The butcher stopped by to scratch the goat's head, gently pat it, and speak quietly and respectfully to it. I believe he was saying a prayer of thanks for the animal's life.

Then this tall, gentle man quietly reached around to the animal's neck and with one deft motion, sliced its throat. He held it gently as he helped lower the goat to the ground. It died in seconds in a peaceful, humane manner.

He said another prayer over the body of the goat, which he then carried in his arms and hoisted up into the tree. Large plastic buckets were placed underneath it.

Every single part of the goat, from its blood and meat to its skin and horns - everything - would be used.

I had been apprehensive about watching the process, but it was done in such a respectful, almost beautiful, way that it felt right to sacrifice the goat to feed these poor, parentless boys.

* * *

Everyone wanted to thank Afsana as she made her way around the large lawn where the boys sat, smiling cordially as she spoke with as many as she could. They were so very polite and attentive, and filled with gratitude for her donation and the coming meal.

I walked over and spoke with Mohamed, who had a wide grin on his soft, caring face, as he watched Afsana circulate among the boys. He cared for them like a father and was charmed with how they were receiving their guests.

I asked him how he managed to feed so many people daily. He gently explained to me that they only ate once a day, but that with the food shortages, it was getting harder to provide even that single meal every day. Some days the boys went without any food at all.

I excused myself for a moment and walked out into the field to text my daughter, who had just given birth to her second child. I told her about where I was at that moment and what I was doing.

She said that she had been looking for a charity to benefit from a donation of gratitude for a safe, successful birth and in honor of her new daughter.

We agreed to give the orphanage $150.

I walked over and told Mohamed. His eyes filled with tears. Relief was visible on his face. He worried constantly about these children's welfare and had an almost-impossible job feeding them every single day.

He said that amount of money would assure that he could feed the boys for two weeks and asked me if I could give him the money in U.S. dollars so that he could purchase the food on the black market, which would give a greater return that in Sudanese pounds.

Afsana and I sat on a homemade chair, and some of the boys surrounded us. They sang traditional Sudanese songs of Thanksgiving as a gift to us for our donations.

Their voices were clear, rhythmical, and thankful. They smiled broadly and kept rhythm by clapping their hands on their legs.

The strength of their voices and the beauty of their song brought tears to my eyes.

* * *

Afsana is now teaching in Malaysia, but she keeps in touch with Mohamed to get news of the boys. I can see them in my mind's eye just as clearly today, and I think of them often.

Here in the United States, as we celebrate Thanksgiving and ready ourselves for a variety of December holidays, I am still thinking of these boys, their daily hunger, and their gratitude for each meal they receive.

At this time of year, it is easy to fill our minds with the details of what I like to call “First World problems.” Is the turkey big enough? Do I need a new string of Christmas lights? What will I buy my partner as a holiday gift?

These thoughts are so far away from the daily lives of so many people who live upon our Earth as do my friends in Sudan, where life is a daily struggle.

These types of questions would never enter their minds as they scrape together their lives every day of the year. People who live with poverty are always with us - here in our country as well.

They will likely not have a need to tangle with the question of the size of their turkey. They probably won't have the money to purchase one.

Even during a pandemic when life is more difficult for so many, can you find it in your heart and wallet to ease the suffering of others locally with a donation to a food bank?

Could you invite a lonely or hungry neighbor to your table for a meal?

Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The unthankful heart discovers no mercies; but the thankful heart will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings.” I can guarantee that your own small sacrifice will make your own holidays much brighter.

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