Growing Up by the Nile: Memories of Life in Sudan

Growing Up by the Nile: Memories of Life in Sudan

Image: Flickr / Sidelife

Memories of Life in Sudan

by Zvezdana Rashkovich

I grew up in the Sudan, on a farm by the legendary Nile. My stepfather was an agricultural engineer and he set out to transform a sterile fifteen hectares of land into a lush oasis of lime, mango, guava and orange trees, corn fields and a poultry raising industry.

My thirteen year old mind reeled at the first sight of this barren land, not knowing that I was going to fall in love with its scent of jasmine and frangipani, the morning aroma of the sour little limes and the tenderly blushing mangoes that I plucked off the trees. I couldn’t have predicted how attached I would become to the morning mist rising from the surface of the Nile or its joyful ripples as it traveled to the sea.

I didn’t know then how devoted I would be to the farm donkey, who became my pet and my only mode of transport. I proudly rode him bareback to the neighboring farms in search of adventure or just out of boredom. Envisioning myself as some sort of a lonely but brave warrior, my long hair tousled from the warm breeze I would guide him amidst thorn bushes and up and down the river bank. Occasionally, though grudgingly he would embark on a quick trot that left me exhilarated and terrified all at once. He had a mind of his own and no amount of rope pulling could convince him otherwise.

Daily, I walked by the river, scrutinizing its murky waters; imagining what it would be like if a crocodile pounced at me out of its depths. Other times I would take a cautious swim, regardless of my dramatic visions of being eaten by one. I also feared being electrocuted by the electric catfish, stepping on the poisonous spines of a puffer fish or worse yet, coming into contact with the sly Nile monitors that existed in the shadowy waters. Scorpions, warty lizards and snakes abounded. Danger was everywhere and mostly in my mind. Even so, I loved the farm. Mama had worked hard on that farm, hand washing our clothes in a huge steel pot and making do without basic amenities like a fridge or proper stove.

In my mind I can see still see her hanging billowing sheets out on the laundry line stretched in front of our humble abode. The sun would be bright, reflecting of her auburn hair and bringing out the green flecks in her eyes. A flush would creep onto her face as she labored, tucking her long gelabiya around her waist, plastic slippers on her feet and always a faraway look in those eyes. How she must have missed her family back in Slavonia.

There wasn’t much to do on the farm in those days. We had no electricity or running water. There was no TV so my holidays were spent listening to cassettes of Yugoslavian music and singing out of tune along with my little sister, reading worn copies of Mills and Boon, mama’s old collection of Balkan literature and playing with the half dozen stray dogs that made our farm their home. Trips to the city of Khartoum were rare except for the days when I attended the all-girl Catholic school set among labakh trees and next to an imposing cathedral.

My morning ritual before going to school was to scoop icy river water out of a giant barrel and splash it over my face, don my blue and white uniform and quickly make my way to catch a rickety bus some half a mile away.

Always, on those mornings I would marvel at the rising amber sun, the burst of the Sudan Golden sparrows into song and the contorted baobab tree that greeted me on my walk.

On Fridays my stepfather’s family visited. His parents, Haboba and Gidu, his sister with her husband and three children and often a half a dozen other relatives. Uncles, step cousins, a distantly related nephew and numerous other names and faces. They were a big clan and everyone was family however flimsy the blood connection in fact was.

On those Fridays, I would go fishing in the Nile with Haboba and Gidu. They brought their makeshift wooden poles, their steel buckets for the catch and their glistening earthworms to entice it. Haboba sprinkled soaked bread dough over the water to further entice the teeming and hungry fish. We would sit there, patiently waiting for hours while mama and the other women prepared dinner.

I enjoyed Haboba and Gidu’s company. He was a quiet Egyptian man with an abundant moustache and a turban that sat askew on his grey hair. He grunted and said little of my pathetic beginnings at fishing. Haboba on the other hand, a woman of ample proportions, tribal marks etched deeply into her dark cheeks, laughed in her booming way showing teeth as dazzling as pearls.

Later, we would inspect our bounty and carry full buckets to the house where dinner was almost ready. The house would be teeming with excitable folks and their chatter. People sprawled nonchalantly on low twine beds drinking endless glasses of clove laced tea, others playing cards and arguing with gusto at some imagined slight. Women in colorful tobes moved around the kitchen crowding mama and taking over, while prattling in staccato Arabic. They clucked their tongues in that specific Sudanese habit of agreement. Briskly, they readjusted their slipping traditional garments, infusing the house with the smell of sandalwood perfume and ground incense rubbed into their body for this festive occasion.

Finally they would emerge with round aluminum trays laden with plates of dried okra stew with corn porridge, deep-fried aubergine and garlic salad, crunchy fried specimens of the caught fish, fiery peanut and lemon sauce and perhaps grilled meat. Always, there would be much shoving and crowding around the trays, people reaching over and across scooping food with pieces of bread as utensils. Amidst much smacking of the lips and much laughter we would eat.

After the sunset prayer, the little children would lay in their mothers’ laps sucking on their thumbs, getting sleepy. Mosquitoes would reign at this time, crickets would spring into their own concerto and the donkey would erupt into a lengthy spell of braying.

Soon, the day would be coming to an end; a silence would befall the farm, the Nile and the animals. We would all sit outside savoring the delicious dinner, drinking syrupy milk tea and marveling at the endless twinkling sky.


Zvezdana Rashkovich author Dubai WivesZvezdana Rashkovich is the author of ‘Dubai Wives‘. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Expat Focus and InCulture Parent.  Zvezdana was born in ex-Yugoslavia and grew up in Africa with her Sudanese Muslim stepfather and Croatian mother.  She has lived in, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, USA, Qatar and Dubai.  A mother of four, she lives in Dubai where she is writing a novel ‘Africa in the way I Dance’.

Learn more about Zvezdana at



  1. Leila Aboulela says

    A beautiful evocative piece , tenderly drawn.

    Many thanks for sharing.

    Leila Aboulela

    • says

      Shukran dear Leila, as always am honored that you have taken the time to read, comment and shower me as always with your generous words of encouragement. We have so much to discuss about this article…:)

  2. says

    Such a great read with my morning coffee and I'm so happy to see your writing appear in more and more places! Your writing is so lyrical and descriptive, I am easily transported to the banks of the Nile in Sudan! I loved many lines but especially this one: "everyone was family however flimsy the blood connection in fact was."

    Can't wait to read that book when you finish!

    • says

      Thank you swetheart. Really happy to hear you say this. Means a ton to me:) Sudan, even though portrayed so negatively lately, is lovely, the Nile even lovelier. Did you experience family ties in the same way in your husband's Moroccan family? In Sudan everyone is related to everyone else. I stop listening halfway during the explanation! They are beautiful generous and hospitable people. The Sudanese are much loved here in the Gulf for their loyalty , education and dignified presence.

  3. says

    This is such a great story and I just love the way you write Zvezdana! It really transports you to the time and place. Sudan sounds like such a beautiful place. I was doing some research after reading this article and was looking up regional foods and life in Sudan. Very beautiful culture. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. :)

    • says

      Chantilly thank YOU for having me here! A wonderful thing you are doing, bridging cultures, bringing people together in this forum. It was a pleasure and am delighted that you enjoyed browsing about Sudanese culture, food etc. I forgot to mention the fermented fish dish, cooked with tomatoes, eaten with fresh onions yumm…I adore it!

  4. Maye Ostowani says

    What a great piece of writing! I enjoyed reading this piece as I have enjoyed reading all your writing to date Zvezdana, you have talent my dear. Love the descriptions, the emotions they provoke, and your incredible ability to bring a story to life. Wonderful :)

    • says

      You are wonderful! Thanks a million for reading and your generous comment. Truly happy you liked it, as someone who loves the Nile too am sure you have some stories of your own about this enigmatic force of life.After all aren't Sudanese and Egyptians 'brothers' due to the Nile binding them forever?

  5. Linda MacConnell says

    Your writing is so wonderful that you transported me to your childhood along the Nile. I could smell the dusty air, the freshly caught fish, the ripening mangoes and the pungent incense worn by the ladies in your family, whom I pictured laughing and talking in their colorful tobes as they cooked and tended to their children. How exquisite. I really hope that you are developing this into a novel! I'll be among the first to buy it.

    Congratulations, Svevdana. What a fascinating life you have led.

    • says

      Hi Linda,

      I truly appreciate your wonderful and gracious words. Love that I was able to share a bit of Sudan with you.

      Yes, am writing the novel but feel held back by other painful memories. As is the case everywhere and in every story, there is a darker more sinister side to address. Hence, my conflict. Your words give me the push I need. Many thanks for reading and commenting:)

  6. says

    Thank you so much for so graciously and eloquently sharing your bit of life in Sudan. As an American who is enjoying living in a foreign country for the first time I marvel at those of you who have had so many cross cultural experiences. Please keep sharing these episodes.

    • says

      Thank you so very much Katie for this words of encouragement. You are doing quite well exploring your first time and am amazed by your enthusiasm:)