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“I miss my mother’s bread”

Zeinab M. Salih
5,100km | After years of studying English, The Niles correspondent Zeinab Mohamed Saleh finally got a scholarship at Cardiff University – but a tough transition followed.
3.03.2016  |  Cardiff, United Kingdom
The Niles correspondent Zeinab Mohamed Saleh during her studies at Cardiff University. (photo: The Niles | Zeinab Mohamed Saleh)
The Niles correspondent Zeinab Mohamed Saleh during her studies at Cardiff University. (photo: The Niles | Zeinab Mohamed Saleh)

> Departure: Khartoum, Sudan
> Arrival: Cardiff, Wales, UK
> Distance: 5,100km

During the first month of my stay in Britain I forgot how to smile as I never met anyone – not on the street or in the university, with whom I can share a laugh. People here sneer rather than smile and when you inquire about something, they respond briefly, as if imitating the way people dress, act, and walk fast in American movies.

The weather here is cold and rainy. The food is tasteless. Everything is mild except for people’s tongues. I missed the hot and dry weather of Sudan as well as my mother’s bread.

I thought to myself “is this the Britain to which I dedicated over two years of my life to learn its language? Was it worth leaving my fledgling career as a journalist? Was it worth staying up for many nights to pass the silliest exam I have ever submitted?”

I come from a poor area in Sudan that does not enjoy good education but going back to school after more than seven years is no easy matter, especially with younger classmates from very different cultures.

Most of them have never faced serious difficulties in their life unlike me, a poor woman coming from a land torn by civil war. I have faced challenges as a journalist, including the government shutting down my newspaper on the eve of South Sudan’s independence and people who tried to prevent me from working at other newspapers.

There are racist and political reasons for this as Sudan’s media is entirely controlled by the government and its allies. I was targeted for opposing this government, and because I am a woman from a minority in Sudan. All this worked against me.

Colleagues here could not imagine the horrors experienced by my people in Sudan, where women are raped almost daily and female students are arrested and tortured for demanding a better education or college camps. They could not believe that a woman can be arrested for not wearing a veil over her head.

I have come across people who have never heard of Darfur or the Nuba Mountains or the Blue Nile, where people are shelled and slaughtered. But this should not be surprising as there are also people in Sudan who have not felt the suffering of their fellow citizens.

Many of my colleagues do not know where Sudan lies and whether it is located in western or eastern Africa. They are more interested in Harry Potter and celebrities I have never heard of. They are shocked that I have never seen Harry Potter, or heard of this or that famous artist, or ever celebrated my birthday. I grew up in a neglected area in Sudan without TV, water or basic services.

“Have I missed much?” I ask, to which they reply in a shocked tone, “Oh yes, you really come from a very different culture.” Sudan is not mentioned during lectures, even though the course deals with the international press: Here international means America, Britain, and China.

The university is the only warm place in Cardiff. Here professors of journalism share their expertise and experience acquired at international media houses such as the BBC and Reuters. Some of them have covered the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Initially I felt that the lectures were very general with little benefit for me. But I realise now that I jumped to conclusions. Over time I found that I was absorbing new information and obtaining new tools to analyse global events. The gap between me and my new surroundings shrunk when our department went on a scientific trip to the Welsh countryside. It was a place of great beauty, tranquillity and peace. We spent three days there, exchanged proposals for our research, and got better acquainted.

I began to feel in harmony with the people I live with, people from Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Britain. It was an opportunity to learn about other cultures and I have gained respect for their politeness and calm. Also, coming from a country which does not respect the value of time, which is obvious in our telecom adverts encouraging subscribers to talk more on the phone, I gained respect for people’s careful use of time.

In Sudan I dreamt of being able to study in Britain and getting to know a different culture. I dreamt of learning the English language proficiently and becoming independent and self reliant, of reading books I was not able to read, working in a hectic press, visiting museums, theatres, or cinemas. Finally, after two unsuccessful attempts, I won the Chevening Scholarship from the British government.

Here I have discovered a different way of thinking and I still have plenty of discoveries and experiences ahead of me.

(Note: This article was written in early 2015. Zeinab Mohamed Saleh completed her studies in the UK and returned to Sudan in early 2016.)

This article is part of:
On The Move: Experience is a solid walking stick
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