This week in our expat-profile series, we meet a teacher who explains to us just how different life in the Sudan is compared to Toronto.
Discouraged by how few teaching jobs were available in Toronto—“as a newly certified teacher the only real hope I had of finding work was in some of the farther suburbs, like Milton or Halton”—Graeme Schnarr left the city in 2007 to teach in Bangkok. “I was hooked on overseas teaching,” he says, and, after a year there and three at a British school in Shanghai, Schnarr moved in August 2011 to Sudan, where he is a geography teacher and the head of humanities at the Khartoum International Community School. “It was a great opportunity for a mix of adventure and career advancement,” he says.
Are you happy you moved to Sudan?
Yes, I am. The adjustment was certainly more difficult than I expected, [although] in hindsight I have no idea what I expected. I was looking for a new, challenging environment, and I certainly got it. It has also allowed me fantastic travel opportunities around the region that I would never otherwise have had.
Does anything about it remind you of Toronto?
No, nothing at all. The weather, the environment, and the culture of the city are all wildly different.
What do you tell your friends in Toronto about it?
That it’s actually completely safe, even to the point of being boring sometimes. I think a lot of people in the West only know of Sudan from the civil war with the South and the conflict in Darfur and, because of that, equate Khartoum [the capital of Sudan] with a city like Mogadishu [the capital of Somalia]. The reality is wildly different. Darfur itself is bigger than California, and it makes up less than one-quarter of Sudan’s total area. So I’m a long way away. Yes, there are lots of active conflicts within Sudan, especially along some of the border areas, but in Khartoum I am separated from those by [hundreds of kilometres of] very harsh desert landscape.
People are also surprised to hear about how friendly and hospitable the Sudanese are. For the most part, they’re happy to have foreigners here, and they feel proud that non-Sudanese are happy to live and work in their country. For example, I went to the local bakery to buy bread last Friday afternoon just before they closed for prayers. The baker and I had the standard “How are you doing?” exchange [in Arabic], which is about all the Arabic I know, and he ended with a very heartfelt thanks to God for my health and well-being. I’ve certainly never gotten that in Toronto.
What has surprised you about moving there from Toronto?
There are lots of little things I had never expected: sharing the road with donkey carts and insane auto-rickshaw drivers; people herding their goats through the outer edges of the city. Another great thing about the city that I had heard about, but wasn’t able to fully appreciate until I got here, is the variety of expatriates living in Khartoum. With such a heavy NGO and UNO presence, you meet a lot of people from a lot of interesting places doing a lot of different types of work in health, food and governance. As a huge politics geek, I love chatting with people at parties about what they do, where else they’ve worked. For the most part they’re willing to talk, or at least to humour me.
What is an average day like?
I wake up early because we have to be at school by 7:30 a.m. I teach my classes to a diverse group of students from all over the world, and then go home at 3:30 p.m. like any teacher in Toronto would. The differences are all the small things: for lunch, I’ll eat a bean sandwich instead of cheese. A staple of the Sudanese diet is a mashed bean dish called “foul,” pronounced like “fool,” which is pretty bland on its own, but if you throw in some hot sauce it tastes like Mexican beans. If I don’t want to cook one night, I get takeaway Syrian—falafel, humus, fattoush salad—instead of takeaway sushi. But there are pizza places all over, too. I think it’s less my life that’s very different in Khartoum, but the things that happen around me—donkey carts, goat herds, beggar children at the stop lights, tea stalls on the side of the road—that make life so interesting day to day.
One thing that’s very different is the social life. Because of security measures, most larger parties are invite-only and you have to get on a guest list several days in advance. For big events held at embassies, you have to present your passport to get in. So, for living in Khartoum, it’s really important to work hard to make a variety of friends when you first arrive, so that you can get on those guest lists and make more connections. That being said, once you’re in there are lots of events, including big formal occasions. There are also lots of opportunities to see things in the city on weekends. The local markets are always full of life and interesting to just walk through and observe, even if you’re not buying anything. On the weekend, lots of people will drive out of the city and have picnics on the banks of the Nile and things like that.
What do you miss most about Toronto?
There’s so much to do in Toronto, and you can really take it for granted living there. In Khartoum, there is no public green space, few parks for people to congregate in, no theatre, no live music, and no art galleries, although there is a surprisingly active group of artists in the city that exhibit at cafés and a few restaurants. I miss the variety of restaurants and coffee shops in Toronto, and being able to wander around neighborhoods like the Annex or Kensington Market for ages and ages. It’s hard to walk anywhere in Khartoum, between the dust, the heat, the insane drivers, and the fact that a 6’3″ Caucasian man doesn’t blend in very well. That’s another thing I miss: the anonymity you can find in a huge and diverse city like Toronto.
What don’t you miss at all about Toronto?
Normally, I would say the snow, but after a month of 45-50º heat and sandstorms, a Toronto winter doesn’t sound so bad after all. I have to admit that even riding the subway and Viva bus up to York Region doesn’t seem so bad anymore.
Would you ever go back?
Yes, actually. The plan at this point is to come back to Toronto to go to graduate school, once my contract in Khartoum ends in June 2013. I’d like to spend a few years closer to family and friends. After six years abroad, I’m ready to come back home and take it easy, at least for a little while.
Are you a former Torontonian doing something cool somewhere else? Email Kate@TheGridTO.com.