23 February 2018

Pee in the Sahara

I stood there, peeing on the eastern edge of the Sahara desert, looking off into the distance. The reason I was looking off into the distance was to intentionally avoid looking at the various men and women in the same general area, squatting or kneeling and doing their own business. Welcome to a bus stop restroom in Sudan.

I had come to Sudan to work on an archaeological dig. Our excavation was excellent in large part because the Sudanese people are so warm, friendly and hard-working. We uncovered a lot of history, made some good friends and learned how to eat without using utensils. At the end of the dig, I took a bus back to the capital.

The way back to Khartoum ran five hour on the desert highway. Halfway in the middle, we stopped at a rest area where passengers could buy Ful, packaged snacks, or a bottle of water. I asked a guy where I could find a bathroom and he pointed around the corner of the cluster of stalls. Off I went and saw little figures out in the desert, kneeling, squatting or just casually staring off into the distance.

The thing about the “bathroom” of the bus stop was that it didn’t conform to the high level of hygiene and privacy that I had experienced elsewhere among the Sudanese. Everyone I met was fastidious about cleanliness and Sudan is the only developing nation where I didn’t get sick on my first visit. But thinking it through, the bus stop bathroom makes sense.

First, it would have been insane to pipe or truck water to an outpost in the middle of the Sahara, just to have it flushed down a hole. Second, with all that sand blowing around, digging holes would be an unproductive, Sisyphean task.

Furthermore, consider the climate: it is so dry that there were no puddles of urine. All liquid seeped into the dry sand or just evaporated, instantly. Five minutes after I peed, I could not tell you where I had left my mark.

As for number two, well, it’s really dry there. So dry that garbage does not stink. So dry that dead animals don’t attract flies — they just desiccate. I saw more than one animal carcass that was reduced to bone and skin — mummified in the North African heat. Why did ancient Egyptians and Nubians mummify their dead? Mummification is the natural way a body would decompose in that area.

But, back to the crap at hand. Did I see human feces in that “bathroom” area of the bus stop? Yes, I’m afraid to report I did. However, I can also report that it looked like shriveled little cat turds that had been left in a litter box for a week.

In just a few minutes, my sense of that rest stop went from total revulsion, to acceptance, to a kind of appreciation. The human species somehow always adapts to live all over this planet, no matter the conditions.

Jack Cheng, PhD has been working as an archaeologist in Sudan since 2013. He wrote about the Sudanese Hug 

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