An unexpected arrival: Active Citizens in Sudan

Journalist Helen Clifton joins a group of UK Active Citizens as they arrive in Sudan for a week-long fact-finding visit to see the work of Active Citizens in the east of the country.

The reaction when loved ones were told we were travelling to Khartoum - and the formerly conflict-ridden East - was invariably negative. Images of desperate poverty and war were generally all we had seen of Sudan.

The group meet in Heathrow Airport to begin their 11-hour journey to Sudan, and are full of trepidation. Who wouldn't be?

For many of the group, it is their first time in Africa. But the primary feeling is of excitement as the Active Citizens from social enterprises Third Sector Hebrides, Women Making A Difference, the Shoreditch Trust and UnLtd board the four-hour flight to Cairo.

After a short stop-off, it's another two-hour flight to the Sudanese capital. Suddenly, from the depths of a desert wasteland, appears Khartoum.

From the air it looks vast, with little high rise development, and rows of uniformly squat, sand-coloured dwellings.

But it is surprisingly green, with palm trees dotted everywhere. We step off the plane into the baking 50-degree heat of Khartoum International airport.

First impressions

First impressions are not as expected; there is no chaos and hassle. Instead, a kind of surreal calm reigns throughout the quiet airport. We each pay $100 for our Sudanese entry visas, and wait, for over an hour, while the slow wheels of Sudanese bureaucracy allow us to leave arrivals.

Our bags then need to be searched, although a distinct lack of commitment on behalf of staff suggests it is merely a formality.

The streets are pretty empty; it is around 2pm and the heat keeps most people indoors. But the men we see are dressed in the traditional white turban and jalabiya; the women in very vivid colourful shawls.

The Corinthian hotel looks a little like London's Gherkin, and overlooks the confluence of the silt-filled White Nile with the clearer waters of the Blue Nile. Libyan-owned, the five-star hotel offers unparalleled luxury, which feels a little incongruous compared to the communities we know we are going to visit. The view is of modern buildings, good, traffic free-roads, and landscaped gardens; again, unexpected.

Some of the group venture out for a walk along the Nile, while others takes a short tour of the city with a local taxi driver friend. The streets are filled with people strolling, chatting, and drinking tea and coffee. Safe, convivial, welcoming, and refreshing to see people enjoying the warm evening air with friends and family. So far, so good.