Inter Press Service (Johannesburg)
By Noel King
The sprawling nation of Sudan is known for many things, but delectable food is not one of them. The unofficial national dish, "foul" (pronounced "fuul") is a mixture of beans, watery cheese, tomatoes, and limp arugula.
So it isn't surprising that the restaurant business would experience a boom after the end of a lengthy conflict in the East African country opened the way for more foreign investment. In January 2005 a peace agreement concluded more than 20 years of civil war between the Islamic government in the north, and Christian and animist rebels in the south.
The fact that a separate conflict is taking place between two other rebel groups and authorities in the western region of Darfur has not deterred restaurateurs, who have set up a slew of fast-food establishments and international food chains in the capital, Khartoum. Treats once unheard of in Sudan, like panini and lattes, are now on offer.
On the face of it, the burgeoning food industry would seem a boon for millions of south Sudanese displaced by war, and northerners who languish in poverty. It holds out the prospect of employment for people are without jobs, or who eke out a living selling tea in the streets, and cleaning the homes of the wealthy.
But although Sudanese are being hired, it is typically as cleaners or for similar positions -- not the more visible posts of waiters and cashiers. Some ascribe this to an apparent clash between the fast-paced service culture of investors and the slower rhythms of Sudanese life -- others to the fact that many Sudanese lack the education needed to work in the hospitality industry.
"You (call for) an eight o'clock meeting, and they don't show up until ten," Gary Sanderson, co-manager of the trendy Ozone café, told IPS.
Sanderson, who is from South Africa, brings in waitresses from the Philippines even though he has to pay for their visas, plane tickets and housing.
Others voice similar sentiments.
"We tried to make a training for Sudanese people, but we need people like us (Egyptians) because Sudanese people don't like to work like us. We start early and they don't like that," says Yousif Afify, who manages Mo'men, a popular Egypt-based fast food chain. He says he is willing to hire Eritreans and Ethiopians, who are seen as hard working -- but the bulk of his staff are Egyptians.
Adds Shihab El Tay, the Sudanese owner of Steers restaurant, a South African fast food chain, "I can't say Sudanese are perfect for these jobs. They are not familiar with the fast food service. They are missing the attitude of 'the customer is always right'."
Abdurahman Belgat, employed by French hotel giant Accor, has challenged this trend to an extent.
He managed a compound of luxury villas installed in Khartoum to house heads of state during the African Union summit in January. Faced with a choice between importing workers and hiring Sudanese, he compromised.
"I decided...to mix: to bring Accor people from our management, and to take the majority of the people from Khartoum," he told IPS.
"These people (from the capital) never in their lives worked one day in the hotel industry. We want to give them the chance to have the opportunity to work in good conditions."
Belgat says he is now in negotiations with government to open a hospitality training center in Khartoum.
According to Abendego Akok, a southerner who heads the Juba University Centre for Peace and Justice Studies in Khartoum, "There are other factors (apart from cultural tendencies) that make it difficult to get jobs." Many southerners do not have the training to work in restaurants, he says.
But, what of the more troublesome claims that Sudanese don't look the part?
In a country that has long been divided between northern Arabs and southerners of African descent, a question that begs asking is whether the reluctance to hire black Sudanese women has racist undertones. Skin-lightening cream is sold by the pint in Khartoum, located in northern Sudan, and women slather their hair with oil to smooth any curl -- all in the determination to achieve a type of beauty that excludes dark-skinned southern women.
"People who go to a restaurant are looking at the way they are going to be treated, at the food they are eating, at many things other than who how the person serving them looks," says Sidiqa Washi, who heads the Family Sciences Department at Al Afhad University in Khartoum.
Nonetheless, she admits there are particular notions in northern Sudan about what constitutes beauty.
"You find people with darker skin using creams to make their faces very light. They look for lighter skin because they think that people like lighter skin more than darker skin," Washi says. "This idea of beauty as light-skinned came recently to Sudan. It wasn't like that before."
She blames the influence of television and magazines for this change in perceptions: "The media displays women with lighter skin as those who are the beauty queens. Women are under pressure from the media."
But, culture may -- once again -- also be playing a role, this time in the form of Islamic expectations of women. "A waiter's job is not a women's job here in Sudan. Part of it is tradition. It is not suitable for women to serve people in public," notes Washi.
Still, there are women desperate enough for work to go against the grain, including southern Sudanese women, many of whom are not Muslim. A telling example of this is the hundreds of southern women arrested and imprisoned each month in Khartoum for brewing alcohol, which is banned under Islamic law, shari'a.
Mohamed Mahmoud, manager of the Solitaire restaurant, freely admits that he only takes on pretty women, seen as integral to the restaurant's upmarket image -- adding that he has begged beautiful Sudanese women to work for him.
But, "They tell me no way, no way, no way," he said in an interview with IPS.
At present, Solitaire -- an Egyptian franchise -- is staffed by Filipina waitresses.