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Doctor on the Nile

ISSUE:  Winter 2010

1st October, 1950

My dearest Marion,

No doubt the young gentleman delivering this letter will introduce himself. I met Meccawi Ismail today on a house visit to Mahmoud Abuzeid, who is recovering from an attack of diabetes. I was examining my patient in a room full of guests as is their custom. He kindly asked after you and pointing to Meccawi said that the young man was heading to London tomorrow to start a diploma at the School of Oriental and African Studies. “If you want to send anything to your daughter, Meccawi can take it for you,” he said. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to send you this letter. With the rail strike going on indefinitely, the post is sure to be slow and unreliable.

How are you my dear and how are you finding your first days in University? I know how you hated boarding school and only one day, when you have children of your own, will you understand what a wrench it was for us to send you there. However, I am confident that these difficult early days away from us have prepared you better for University. Imagine reaching the grand age of nineteen without ever experiencing life at home. You would certainly have been too much of a “colonial” and this was something we wanted to safeguard against. I am so proud of your decision to study at SOAS and I am sure Mummy would have been too. She fostered in you that interest in their history and the language. You learned the story of General Gordon and the Mahdi when you were six! Once, we were at a dance at the palace, one of those numerous invitations where children are not included, but we took you along anyway. You stood on the steps and said in quite a loud voice, “Mummy, here right here is where General Gordon was killed with a spear.” You made this pronouncement solemnly with understanding as if you could imagine violence in such a party setting, with the women in evening frocks and jewels, the palace grounds bright with floodlights and the brass band blaring away! You were a precocious child. You loved to hear how Kitchener sent the Mahdi’s skull to Buckingham Palace where it was used as a paperweight. I’ve always doubted this story but it appealed to your imagination and you were fond of repeating it.

We were not the average parents perhaps because of the many years we had lived abroad. Edith was unlike the other wives here, even the ones who were working. She enjoyed mixing with the Sudanese and learning their ways. She took you with her to so many weddings that you became quite the little anthropologist. Edith never liked that peculiar bridal dance you used to mimic, where you stuck your arms out like a dove—but you both enjoyed throwing dates in the air for the guests to catch. One of your primary teachers at the Clergy’s House did reprimand Edith once for what she described as her unorthodox methods of child rearing but she laughed it off.

I am getter better though as time goes by. People here have been most sympathetic. I am constantly invited out so as not to feel lonely but every place and every occasion is dimmer without her. Daily life is that much more difficult too. The clinic is disorganised and the house is a mess. The nurse and receptionist I had to hire still need extensive training and I am unable to give them of my time as much as I should. On bad days, when I am the victim of their stupidity and blunders, I think, sourly, “Here’s Sudananization for you.” Ever since the end of the War, the policy of this government has been Sudan for the Sudanese and eventually it would be out with the British and in with a Sudanese and what would you get? You get a drop in standards.

At home, Adam has in theory assumed all the household responsibilities. He’s a butler now and pleased with his promotion. His cooking is most peculiar so that I am often not sure what it is exactly that I am eating. Usually it is some vegetable or the other swimming in a brownish tomato sauce with a few forlorn pieces of meat. I intend to train him and suggest other dishes but I have yet to gather the enthusiasm. If he could read, I would have given him recipes. He does though wash the vegetables thoroughly and his hygiene is of a generally high standard, a quality I am grateful for.

My mornings at the Ministry have been taken up with long, often frustrating meetings to deal with a new outbreak of cerebrospinal meningitis. The first cases were detected last year in Darfur and it has been spreading across Kordofan, the Blue Nile province, and unfortunately here in Khartoum too. We are using sulphonamides and monitoring the meningitis belt but as one chap said today, the traffic of West African pilgrims crossing on their way to Mecca is going to make any kind of control difficult. It is the rural areas that will suffer the most with hardly any public health and sanitation. If here in the capital we are still using buckets, it will be ages before the whole of country has water sanitation. Remember the camel-drawn carts? You used to call them the midnight parade and you refused to fall asleep unless you were perfectly sure that they had exchanged the buckets. A few times they went off without leaving a clean one and this distressed you a great deal. Do you remember all these details? Or does all this seem so far away now that you are in London? “I love the cold and I adore wearing gloves,” you said in one of your letters from boarding school. Mummy and I were relieved; we did not want you pining too much for this sunshine.

It is still quite hot but the evenings are pleasant. If I do not have a social engagement after the clinic, I go to the Club. I swim three times a week and play tennis whenever I can find a partner. Then invariably I run across someone or the other and we have drinks on the terrace before dinner, which is always a welcome escape from Adam’s cooking. I’ve always said that the Sudan is not made for anyone who prefers his own company. An active social life and the genuine friendly feeling of the place are what make the squalor and heat tolerable. I can imagine you protesting against the word squalor. You used to watch the sunset over the Blue Nile and the boats crossing to Tutti Island and you would declare it beautiful. That was before you visited the Highlands and the Lake District or had seen the paintings in the Louvre. I am curious to see your reaction in your next visit. Perhaps you will disdain Khartoum now, my sophisticated well-traveled daughter! I am so much looking forward to our Christmas together. Regarding your journey: you should travel all the way by airplane Camberley—Nice—Malta—Benina—Khartoum. I am not too keen on you taking the train alone from Cairo. However, I will ask around to see if there is anyone traveling on those days and you could join them. It is safe and of course pleasant this time of year to visit Luxor and Abu Simbal, but definitely not on your own.

Your loving father,

3rd November, 1950

My dearest Marion,

I am pleased that you have settled well and that you are enjoying your studies. My last experience of London was during the War when it was rather dreary and I gratefully fled it and never went back. It’s good to know that it has changed for the better for I would not like to think of you anywhere that is not cheerful and prosperous. Of course I am terribly disappointed by your decision to spend Christmas in Edinburgh rather than here. I had been counting the weeks and telling everyone that you were coming. There never was much love lost between me and your grandparents and I cannot help but grudge them the pleasure of your company. However, it is apt that you experience a proper Scottish Christmas in its natural setting as well as Hogmanay, though how festive it would be in your grandparents’ company, is something I seriously doubt. I wish you the best at any rate and look forward to Easter.

It amused me to read that you and Meccawi Ismail have become friends after he carried my last letter to you. This is a good thing for him I am sure and will save him from being befriended by the wrong kind of people. The other day at the Club I came across a chap from the Advisory Council who, after a drink too many, told me an interesting story. He had been especially sent to London for a meeting with British Intelligence at the Foreign Office in order to discuss Communism. Apparently, British Communists are thought to be behind all the labour troubles the Sudan has been having lately. They do this by befriending Sudanese students who apparently encounter much racism from others and find that only the Communists are willing to befriend them! As a result, a new policy has been introduced so that British Communists visiting the Sudan are to be carefully watched and so are Sudanese students in Britain. I do urge you Marion and your new friend, to keep away from such problematic associations. What strange times are we living in? Certainly when even schoolboys go on strike, it is clear that the Communist influence is strong. Many of these strikes have been excellently organized pointing the finger at foreign agents, for the Sudanese are hardly sophisticated enough for this. Really, there is no decent guidance for these young educated Sudanese and I am not saying either that trade unions could work in a country where procedures of negotiations and conciliation have yet to be adopted. Education is key and yet too much of it seems to be not good either.

I have always enjoyed the few hours a week I teach at the Kitchener’s School. The students are polite and hard working. Recently though I have noticed quite a few too quick witted for their own good. They are objecting to the name of the school as well as to that of the Gordon Memorial College. I am rather fond of these names, perhaps because they are Scottish. Would renaming an institution make much difference? Of course there have been changes with the post of Minister of Health given to Dr. Ali Bedri. Perhaps I am being fanciful but I increasingly sense in the faces I lecture to, that they are biding their time, waiting for me to go so that they can pounce and take my place. It will be some time yet before this happens for British lecturers are still being appointed. I have a new head of Department, Professor Stevenson formerly from Edinburgh University. I have been busy these past weeks showing him and his wife Shauna around. They are staying at the Grand until their house is ready. It is tremendously enjoyable to meet up with someone from home and to catch up with the news. It is interesting too, to hear all their comments and first impressions of the Sudan. Often I am reminded poignantly of Edith’s and my own first days though much has changed and been built since then.

Roger and Shauna Stevenson are, as expected, full of admiration for the architecture of Khartoum and the beautifully kept lawns. It is odd for them, as it was years ago for us, that Sunday is a working day and that there is no weekend. I took them to the Club where we had a lively discussion on why so many of us here are Scottish. The Caledonian Society is the biggest and their dinner on St Andrew’s night is the highlight of the social calendar. I also took them to your favourite place in Khartoum, the zoo. It brought back to me so many happy family memories. Your favourite animals, the gazelles, fascinated my visitors and they said they would certainly come again when it is cooler. They are appalled by the weather, rather ironic given his specialty in Tropical Medicine; I would have thought him to be more prepared! Although it is exceptionally warm for this time of year, midday is tolerable and the evenings are very pleasant. Wait till they experience June and the dust storms!

Yesterday, Shauna Stevenson decided she needed new cotton frocks and it occurred to me to direct her to Mummy’s dressmaker. I also drove her there, which turned out to be a mistake. Do you remember Madame Khristo? She lives in Mogran, which is apparently now being called the poor white quarter. It’s been some time since I had met her, she had not heard about Mummy and was shocked, lamenting in Greek and broken English and making quite a fuss. It was very unpleasant and completely unnecessary. Luckily after this incident, we drove straight to the Blue Nile Cinema. It was the Stevenson’s first experience of an outdoor cinema and they were pleasantly surprised that we had a box to ourselves and that the weather was good. They watched the film while I brooded over that meeting with Madame Khristo. How could she not have heard the way news travels here and so many of her clients are either colleagues of Edith or acquaintances from the English-speaking Ladies Association? Eventually, the charm of being under the night sky with the clouds visible and the occasional airplane passing by calmed me. I remembered the times we brought you here as a child. You used to look up at the stars instead of watching the film! You were always special my dear.

Your loving father,
Andrew McCulloch

29th December, 1950

My dearest Marion,

I am writing to you from the terrace of the Grand Hotel. It is so early on a Friday morning that I have the whole place to myself and no doubt I shall have to wait considerably until they cook my breakfast! Today I woke up at dawn and had difficulty going back to sleep so I decided to treat myself to this outing. The weather is perfect, cool and breezy, almost cold and perhaps I shall have to move into the dining room soon. The view of the river and the calm sunshine makes me glad that I am here. Even though this past week had been difficult, leaving Sudan is not going to be one of my New Year resolutions. Besides, I have my pension to consider!

I hope my card reached you on time and that you are pleased with your gifts. Thank you very much for the books. I found The Heart of the Matter difficult to concentrate on giving my state of mind these days but last night I started Nineteen Eighty-Four and you are so right to admire it. It took me away from myself and made me forget my surroundings. As for the Earl Grey tea, I am thoroughly enjoying a pot of it as I write. I carried the box with me and asked the perplexed waiter to brew some for me. Why it is unavailable here, I don’t know.

On Christmas Day I went to church for the Morning Service. I went out of habit and then realised that it was Mummy who had always insisted that we go. I have always been ambivalent about church. The first doctors in Sudan were missionaries or allied to churches and there is still an ethos of this in the medical profession which makes me sometimes feel a bit of an impostor. I admire the Catholic nuns and the excellent maternity hospital they established, where you were born. Then there are all the doctors who work in the South in dangerous, primitive locations but such far-flung adventurers in dark jungles never appealed to me. The Bishop, a simple soul, is driven by a great sense of duty and the completely unrealistic ambition of converting the whole of the Sudan to Christianity. I treated him once when he was in the delirium of fever and he raged bitterly against the government for putting economic and political interests ahead of spiritual ones. Apparently, after the invasion Cromer refused to give permission to any missionary work and later only agreed to it in the South. There was even a proposal to change the national holiday from Friday to Sunday but Lord Cromer refused. All this explains the sermon the Bishop preached this Christmas. I can only describe it as militant and unnecessarily so for this day and age. According to the Bishop it is unworthy of our race and history to lose heart. Yet I am often discouraged. Compared to others, I am less optimistic about the future of this country. I remember a saying of George Orwell’s that progress is inevitable but disappointing—or something similar. He hasn’t seen the Sudan but it certainly fits this description.

Two incidents at work this week were truly distressing. The first was sadly not altogether uncommon but rather extreme this time. It involved a six-year-old girl after a circumcision procedure that had gone completely wrong. She was brought into hospital badly mutilated and septic, unable to micturate and traumatised with fear. We nearly lost her and might well do. I am not even sure that she would be of much use again. Apparently her father was educated enough to oppose circumcision but the mother took advantage of his absence and did it secretly behind his back. He was weeping and frantic when he carried this little girl into hospital. It is something that I will not easily forget. This country can be so frustrating. All the major political parties and the religious leaders have spoken against circumcision and what happens? A new small party, The Republicans, perversely support it on the grounds that the British have no right to interfere in the people’s intimate traditions! Where is the logic in this? Edith used to say that only the development of education will end this barbarity. But even if, as in this case, the father is educated, he is up against the ignorance of his wife and the elder female members of the family.

The other case brought into hospital was extremely strange. A young boy of three severely handicapped from birth, his spine malformed and his faculties retarded. His family had rejected him and thrown him outdoors where he was chained by the ankle and kept in a pen not far from the dog’s. I know you are thinking immediately of Mowgli and Tarzan but the reality is not romantic. It is horrific and sad. The poor child was discovered quite by chance by one of the pesticide crew, who brought him into hospital. He is remarkably healthy but completely wild and hostile, wailing and biting in a revolting manner. How cruel can people be to treat their own flesh and blood in such a way? They do not understand the nature of his disability and have other fit children to look after but where is the instinct to protect and nurture! They should be prosecuted. We don’t know what to do with him now and cannot keep him in hospital forever. The nuns will have the necessary compassion and fortitude to deal with him. I shall have to arrange this matter this week.

I am sorry, my dear, that I am sounding so glum. It is, of course, the party season in Khartoum and I should be telling you all about that. I didn’t take part in the Repertory Co.’s play this year but I did go and watch and it was good—A Christmas Carol. The Houghton’s had their usual Christmas party and this year everyone was to dress as a character from a book. At first this stipulation put me off and I nearly didn’t go. Then at the last minute I reached out for the easy option—my white coat and stethoscope and I became Dr Jekyll! It was certainly preferable to sulking all alone at home. It turned out to be a good party, with lots of games and even though I was not in a party mood I found it pleasant to sit back and watch. At one time when I declined taking part in charades Bruce said, “All right then, we shouldn’t expect too much of him on his first Christmas without Edith.” Tact is not one of his strong points but he has always been a good friend and I can’t imagine Khartoum without him.

Speaking of friends, you must have made many by now. Do write to me about them. You mention Meccawi Ismail often in your letters but no one else? You have never found it difficult to make friends so I am not particularly worried. I shall think of you on New Year’s Eve enjoying Hogmanay in Edinburgh.

Your loving father,
Andrew McCulloch

15th January, 1951

Dear Marion,

I’ve just finished reading your letter and I can’t believe it. Have you lost your mind? Of course “bring a friend” did not mean a man and certainly not a Sudanese one! Don’t you know your grandparents? They objected to me! They thought even I wasn’t good enough for their daughter . . .


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