Kadugli

Tarig Hilal
5 min readMay 7, 2022

Memoir

Artwork by Suzanne Hilal http://bit.ly/suzannehilal

Dolman Kabashi is a black man, five foot six, with a smile full of teeth and a cackle for a laugh, heavy and rasping with years of cigarette smoke. He wears big dark glasses, the kind that were common in the 1970s, that age of large square frames and shaded lenses, and is partial to the safari suit, clothing that is practical and business like and in Sudan, the mark of the bureaucrat and government official. He smokes his cigarettes from a long black cigarette holder, giving the momentary impression of an aristocratic dilettante.

A former footballer of some renown, Dolman is a wealthy man, though his wealth does not come from the sport. Here there is no money in football. The best that a man can gain is the fleeting adulation of the crowd, young men, who will grow old and worldly. No, Dolmans money comes from traditional sources; government auditing jobs and real estate. It is in this world that I came to meet him.

Although based in Southern Sudan, the National Democratic Institute, my employer and cause, has decided to move North. The opening shots of our new campaign come, not from Khartoum or its outskirts but in the giant state of Southern Kordofan, the worlds largest exporter of Gum Arabic, home to the Nuba mountains and the point at which the influence of Arab culture begins to merge visibly into Africa, creating a world that is as beautiful and unique as it is untold.

The headquarters of this Northern expansion is Kadugli, capital of Southern Kordofan a place once considered a jewel of the North, home to educational excellence and sporting prowess, now tired and dilapidated, worn down by civil war and the bitterness that it brings and forgotten by the oil that flows from its land to fuel the economic boom in Khartoum and Port Sudan.

In an attempt to make sense of our growing ambition we put together a week long retreat for the new recruits. Men whose livelihoods now depend upon the wages paid by our headquarters, secular missionaries, whose task is to preach an idea, with the promise of enlightenment and prosperity, to convince people of democracy and its benefits.

With ten of us in total and full days of planning sessions and workshops ahead, the challenge became to find a place large enough to accommodate us all. An economy based on primary agricultural exports, an impoverished population and few visitors means that Kadugli is not a place where you can find a hotel. So after an agonising search and much discussion we settled on renting a large house with a dusty courtyard and plenty of rooms, with pink walls and purple doors and a yellow front, an out door toilet, a single tap and space round the back for the kitchen.

Initially, the owner, one Dolman Kabashi, was keen for our business. An American organization, we come with the benefit of large budgets, timely payments and naïveté and are willing and able to pay the insane prices of an economy distorted by war, instability and misinformation. We agreed a price and settled in to our week of activities.

Mid way through Dolman decided that he wanted more money and I was dispatched armed with a calculator, pen and paper for my first Kadugli negotiations. I was a little nervous, Arabic is not a language that I am used to sparring in and he was in my mind an elder, the same age as my father and so a man who is challenged only occasionally and then, respectfully and carefully.

The meeting began well, with exchanges of pleasantries and stories of past youth, the inevitable question on marriage and the quiet disappointment that my answer seems to bring. Then the battle ensued — Dolman wanted more money than he had agreed to, plain and simple, but embarrassed by his change of heart he provided a different explanation. We were apparently using the house more than he had envisaged and this had implications for electricity use and wear a tear..

He proposed a new daily rate tens of pounds more than he had originally requested. I sat and listened and then made an offer — a big sum of money when standing alone, and payment for a period from the 21st to the 28th of February. The issue was not the amount of money though — but the days involved and once the amount was divided across the requested days — it came out at less than his daily rate, less in fact our original offer.

To my surprise he agreed promptly. I stated the offer again, the period it entailed and the amount that it involved and he reiterated his acceptance. I wrote out a contract, and then placed my signature across base, turning the paper around and handing him the pen, expecting at any moment that he would change his mind. He did not and signed the sheet. I shook his hand thanked him for his time and promised to return at the end of the period with money in exchange for a receipt.

By the end of the week it appeared that he had realised his mistake, that he had accepted less money than he had wanted to. He began calling frantically requesting his money and another meeting. We met again on Sunday morning, a full week after our original discussion and to his discredit he opened up the question of the daily rate, claiming in effect that I owed him more money than I planned to give him.

I will admit I was taken aback. I knew that he was unhappy but I did not expect so blatant a breach, he is not a poor man and the amount of money we were offering was substantial, far more than he was likely to make on the house any time soon. We had been good tenants. More importantly though, a deal is a deal.

After some back and forth I settled on a strategy of stubbornness and first principles. That is — I will pay you what we agreed, not a penny more, because that is what we agreed. The truth was on my side and he eventually acquiesced, albeit unhappily. I too was offended, by his pettiness and by the fact that for a short while he had made me feel like I had cheated him, when in truth it was greed and poor mathematics that had caused his mistake, both unnecessary given that he is wealthy and an accountant. I will not be renting from him again and so his loss is greater than he realises.

I walk away with two lessons, age is no guarantee of wisdom or honourable conduct, even in cultures that claim strongly that it is so, and some accountants are bad at math.

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