Tea with sugar and politics in Sudan

Despite all the problems that the Sudanese now face in their troubled country, people still gather over afternoon tea in the street to discuss politics

Samuel Godolphin
16 October 2014
Sudanese woman serving tea

Sudanese woman serving tea in front of UNAMID Arc Compound. Flickr/UNAMID. Some rights reserved

As is the case with much of the Arab world, the Sudanese like nothing better than to relax with a cup of hot, sweet chai tea and exchange conversation. This pastime is enjoyed to such an extent that various variants of tea have become associated with various times of the day. Many Sudanese will start the morning with a cup of milky tea accompanied by a plate of zalabia (a sugary, dough-based snack), followed by regular cups of plain sugary red tea throughout the working day, before taking a glass or two of mint, cinnamon or cardamom-based tea in the evening. Cultural outsiders can immediately be recognised by their failure to adhere to these customs, and one can expect to crack a smile out of any Sudanese sitashai, or tea-lady, if one orders a drink at the wrong time of day.

Tea-drinking, when it does not happen in the comfort of one’s home, occurs primarily on street corners and under trees, where the sitashai have set up their stalls: a rudimentary stove, a metal cabinet containing cooking equipment, and a large pot of water. Customers sit around on simple metal stools bound with coloured string. The sitashai will quite often remain in the same place for hours each day, taking the occasional break to cross to the nearest shop to purchase more tea or mint leaves.

Students, taxi drivers and police officers will congregate together, exchanging pleasantries and jokes, as they enjoy their drinks in a peaceful, languid fashion. None of the men (and they are, except on the rarest of occasions, all men) are rushing to finish. Many Sudanese friends have told me that, in the heat of the mid-day sun, there is nothing more cooling than a glass of hot, sweet tea. Inconceivable though this seems, it is a recipe that appears to work well for the Sudanese. 

This insatiable demand for sitashai appears to be interwoven with generations of Sudanese culture, but their existence is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. In the near past, tea and other hot drinks were usually served by men in traditional tea-houses, commonplace today throughout much of the Middle East. However, as livelihoods began to be stretched as sanctions made their impact felt in the early 1990’s, more women were forced by necessity to seek employment. What is more, it became clear that they were able to undercut the traditional tea houses, providing a cheaper alternative to the traditional tea-drinking experience. Tightening living standards meant that when faced with a choice between luxury and affordability, the Sudanese voted with their feet to leave the tea house establishments for the street corners.

The women who capitalised on this new trend came primarily from the lowest rungs of society – the immigrants and the displaced. Many had grown up in the vast western region of Darfur – home of the cattle farmers and the birthplace of the man who dominated the politics of Sudan’s fourteen-year flirtation with self-governance following the Mahdi’s revolution, Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, or Khalifa.

In recent years, however, the vast region has been characterised by proxy wars, conflict between farming communities and militia groups struggling for power, all of which have resulted in a civilian exodus to the poor, sprawling suburbs of Khartoum. Others have migrated from what is derogatively referred to as the habiish lands – Eritrea and Ethiopia. Keen to capitalise on the relative value of the Sudanese guinea, these women ply their trade on the streets of Khartoum alongside their Sudanese counterparts.

Despite their ever-growing presence, the sitashai have not been spared social judgement for their work. Many in this highly conservative society consider this to be shameful work for a woman to undertake. Furthermore, rumours – perhaps fuelled by a general naivety of other cultures among some sections of the Sudanese population – tend to circulate about the extent to which these women supplement their tea-making income by offering prostitution services to clients.   

When drinking tea with friends, one must engage in conversation; and what subject better to engage opinions than politics? In this author’s experiences, Sudanese men have a real passion for discussing their take on any political situation. Indeed, there is a saying that every Sudanese citizen has an inner politician. The tragic beauty of such a topic is that in a country as troubled as Sudan is by mismanagement and elite malpractice, there is inevitably much to discuss at any given time. Conversations involve frank and sometimes heated exchanges of views, with little attempt to save face or restrain criticism of another’s viewpoint.

This author was party to one such exchange during the Eid celebrations late last year. At a time of heightened tensions and widespread riots over fuel prices, three friends discussed the question of the removal of the seemingly evergreen Islamist regime of Omar Al-Bashir. The first, an impassioned middle-aged businessman, spoke openly of his desire to see the current regime fall as quickly as possible. The second, his cousin, welcomed the resolve of the first, but emphasised caution. He cited the inconclusive outcomes of the Arab Spring in Sudan’s neighbours, Egypt and Libya, and stated that he harboured fears that a post-Bashir Sudan could collapse into either Libyan-style disorder or Egyptian-style infighting between elites. The first man did not appreciate the measured nature of this view. He had spent decades living under Al-Bashir whilst living standards had gradually worsened, and as far as he was concerned, any outcome of a successful uprising would be better than the status quo. The third, a teacher, had been a member of the Communist party in his youth. He made an impassioned argument for a secular society, free from the Islamic moralising that have characterised the statements and actions of the government, not least over the arrest of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim. This was dismissed by the other two in an offhand manner. 

As idealism and pragmatism clashed, one had to bear in mind that this discussion over the future of the country was taking place in a dusty side-street. Two decades previously, we may have been in a lavishly-decorated traditional teahouse. The key lesson, however, is that despite this apparent regression, the Sudanese have not lost the will and passion to engage openly in political discussions. Ultimately, if genuine political change in Sudan is brought about in the near future, it may well originate from discussions between friends sitting on metal stools around glasses of sugary tea. 

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