Life Lessons from Cycling Across Africa, Part 3
Read Part 1 Here & Part 2 Here
As when I was surprised to see clouds again in Ethiopia after a full month of staring into a solid blue sky, seeing women again caught me off guard when we crossed the border into Sudan. Like, oh right, these exist. As a woman, I shouldn’t have been oblivious to the fact that half of the population was seemingly absent from the Egyptian countryside, but everything was so different. My eyes had been drawn to the lush fields dotting the banks of the Nile and how lush the tended fields were in contrast to the sand dunes just beyond the reach of water. The adobe abodes piled one on top of the other. The donkeys and the ancient ruins. I realized it can be just as hard to notice the absence of something as its prevalence, depending on the sea you’re swimming in.
Sudan, though the landscape was dotted with dead camels, felt alive in a way Egypt was not. The women in Sudan wore vibrant scarves, jewelry, and big smiles. Their addition to the desertous landscape immediately made me feel more at ease. In the same way I didn’t notice their absence in Egypt, I didn’t notice the extra tension I’d been carrying as a result. Like most sex I’ve had, I thought Egypt was great, until I got to Sudan and it dawned on me: Egypt kinda sucked. In hindsight, it felt like a haunted house where around every corner, I might encounter some new, vaguely benign, terror. Sudan on the other hand, felt more like a treasure hunt, full of hidden delights. Truck drivers hung out of their cabs to insist I accept some water. Fruit vendors stuffed oranges into my hands and refused payment. Families begged me to take pictures with them. A teenager approached me in Khartoum to help her with an application to college. Upon returning to her humble two bedroom apartment, I discovered she was applying to Harvard. She changed into jeans and produced the screenplays she had written. I helped her make a Facebook account, and she gifted me a small plastic doll. Word quickly spread around the complex that I was visiting, and soon, neighbours were showing up at their door with sweets and baked goods to offer me.
The Sudan of the newspapers and college classes, the Sudan that included Darfur and the world’s newest country born of civil war, was tumultuous, violent, even downright genocidal, but the one in front of me was joyful and embracing. The unabashed friendliness and generosity of the locals disarmed me. So my guard, steeled and reinforced in Egypt, started to come down. I thought nothing of cycling by myself. I thought nothing of stopping for the men who flagged me down on the side of the road. I thought nothing of how helplessly exhausted my legs were. Until they reached out and grabbed me.
My breasts to be precise. Two young men stood (suddenly) on both sides of me, in the middle of the road, my legs straddled over my bike a bright cloudless sky overhead and big grins on their faces, bodies robed in white while they squeezed my breasts for a couple brief seconds that in my memory still stretch out for hours. There was no one else around for a few miles, in my most optimistic guess. Despite the heat, I felt like I had just been dunked in ice water. My mind was so busy racing with worst case scenarios that I didn’t even think to fight back. It wasn’t instinctual for me to, even after I’d been assaulted a year prior by two drunk teenage girls. An assault which, in theory, I could have halted by simply stretching out my long sober arm. Instead they landed a few punches to my head, one breaking my nose, until I fell to the ground and cowered in a corner, almost in a state of hypothermia. They continued to kick me while I waited for my boyfriend — presently trying to break up an even more physical and frightening fight — to notice and come to my rescue (which he did, as I knew he would).
For better or worse, I let things happen to me.
But the worst case didn’t unfold. They didn’t drag me off the road and further out of sight. They didn’t reach below my sweaty shirt or into my bike shorts. They didn’t try to take my phone, the most expensive item on me. Between the two of them, and my exhaustion, they could have done anything. And they didn’t. It wasn’t great, but it was something?
It all happened so fast that I almost doubt now, nine years later, that it happened at all. Maybe my breasts weren’t as satisfying as they’d hoped. Maybe they simply didn’t know what to do next, as they hadn’t expected me to stop so easily in the first place. Maybe they suddenly were overcome with shame. We’d been taught to yell “Haram!” at the boys and men in Egypt who made us uncomfortable. I don’t think I’d reminded them that they were engaging in forbidden activities, but maybe I did? Either way, they let go of my breasts, lowered their arms, and took a small step back in a way that felt like permission to continue on my journey. There was no fight. My heart still felt frozen from the jolt, but I managed to mechanically put my left foot on the left pedal, push down, then my right foot on the other, and push down again. Just like that, Left-right, left-right, until my heart started to beat again. Left-right, left-right, left-right until it started to race. Left-right, left-right, left-right until feeling finally returned to my body and my legs were able to race too.
Thankfully, my estimations were right, and I reached a village just a few miles down the road, twenty or so minutes later, where I decided to wait until another rider — most likely Holly — passed through. I was soon circled by people from the village. My heart was still racing, but my guard was now steeled. Everyone looked different; I had been wrong about Sudan. I was sure now that women offering me tea were just trying to get me into a house out of sight so their husbands could rape me. And that the men were asking me to add them to Facebook so they could steal my iPhone as soon as I pulled it out of my pocket.
I saw Holly (who else would come to my rescue?), in the distance, and thought ‘ok, I can last one more minute without breaking down into tears.’ I have never trusted that if I scream any sound will come out anyway, so I’ve always reasoned that it’s better to avoid the embarrassment and possible escalation of trying and just keep smiling.
When she arrived, the locals continued to beg us to come to their homes and to give them our contact information. I insisted we needed to leave at once. I noticed the women looked really hurt that I didn’t accept their invitation to tea, and for a second I wondered if maybe I wasn’t wrong about Sudan? Then, just as I was going to push down on my pedal, iPhone still securely hidden in my pocket, a man pulled out his iPhone and handed it to me. “Please, Facebook?”
I regret to this day treating those locals like they would hurt me. I am left feeling like I would rather risk another assault than treat someone like they might assault me.
And the girls who attacked me back in my hometown, in my own boyfriend’s home? A mediation circle was scheduled by the courts for the following year. That whole year, I was afraid to walk around his neighbourhood. ‘Who knows how they’ll retaliate for my boyfriend throwing them off of me,’ I told myself. The cops even cautioned me not to press charges in that neighbourhood, known for gang violence. But I had confidence that given their age and Canada’s forgiving youth criminal justice system that they wouldn’t go to jail — I just wanted them to understand there are consequences to their actions. The girls showed up to the mediation centre with their moms. They didn’t even remember the night. They listened to my story, without once getting defensive. They admitted they would have called the cops too if they were in my shoes. They apologized, sincerely I felt. By the time we left, all of my fear had morphed into pure love.
I don’t know how to reconcile the two Sudans. Darfur with the free oranges. The robed boys on the road and the jeaned girl applying to Harvard. But I think that’s the point. Nothing is black and white. Sudan showed me that in between black and white aren’t fields of grey. In between black and white are the starriest skies you can imagine, and tender moments of connection and hope. In between black and white are rainbows.
Looking back, I have to admit I’m glad I “let” these assaults happen to me. Had I fought back, I might still hold in my mind a belief that these young women and men had more malicious intentions, that they were really out to harm me. I am now convinced they weren’t. I am very grateful these are the only two assaults I have experienced in my life. I know far too many people have been less fortunate, including vulnerable children. I understand why so many people’s instincts would be to keep their guards up, especially if they have experienced such trauma. My heart goes out to them and I believe they have every right to be cautious. I know that some people, sometimes intentionally, hurt others. But I find that living with my guard down makes me happier. It allows me to connect with people on a deeper level. To really feel what I’m on this earth to feel. Not to mention, when I look for the good in others, I have always, without exception, found it.