Sometimes its the People, Not the Places

I hadnít slept well despite the airport hotelís comfy bed. My first flight had been delayed, and Iíd arrived at Heathrow late, set the alarms on both cell phones, asked for an alarm call from reception for back up, and tumbled into bed. Still my subconscious worried about missing my flight to North Carolina, and when all the bells went off next morning, it was clear to me that Iíd wasted money on the hotel room. I could have gotten as much sleep on the airport floor.

I made the flight. I had a window seat, and was all set to sleep away the next six hours. I organized my space, and crossed my fingers that my fellow travellers wouldnít turn out to be jumbo-sized chatterboxes, who would disturb me.

ďHiya, Iím Mandy,Ē a beautiful, fragile-looking, young black woman beamed as she slid her bags into the overhead rack, and sank gracefully into the aisle seat. I introduced myself, we made small talk and it was time for take-off.

She turned out to be the perfect travel companion. We joked about airline food, talked about our destination and the weather in London. She didnít intrude when I read. She exuded a kind of tranquil excitement, but she seemed to be a seasoned traveller.

Unable to place her accent more precisely than ďAfricanĒ I asked her at some point where she came from, and she replied, ďSudan.Ē Her answer filled me with both curiosity and an overwhelming need to be tactful. Itís not as if sheíd said, ďAmsterdam,Ē and I would have replied that Iíd been there, and we could exchange experiences.

During the course of the previous year or so Iíd met lots of refugees from Africa, very few of whom had been from Sudan, a country whose atrocities occupied headlines daily, leaving one with a feeling of despair and helplessness. I felt sympathy but didnít know how to express it, sitting there in my western skin.

It was as we began our descent that I probed a little, and she explained, charmingly, that she had had some horrific experiences, but that she preferred not to talk about them. She had, however, written a book, and she jotted down its name, ďSlave,Ē and her name, which turned out to be Mende (and not Mandy, as Iíd thought I heard) Nazer.

As I breezed through immigration I turned back to look, and she seemed to be, as she had predicted, having a hard time.

I didnít see her again, but first thing next day I went to Borders to buy her book, and then I spent most of the next, two days reading it. Mende had had a happy childhood (excepting the trauma of female circumcision), until the day that her village was raided by the Mujahidin. To read a first-hand account of this, as opposed to neutral reportage, is to feel the terror. I felt the dust in my throat, a deep fear in my belly and rising anger as I read.

Itís hard to describe in a few words how she was thereafter sold into slavery in Khartoum; how she survived on scraps from her mastersí tables; how she learned to appear to be subservient in order to spare herself from further violence; how, unbelievably she was presented as a gift to family members in London, and lived in the heart of democracy as a slave; and how, finally, she managed to escape with the help of Damien Lewis, with whom she co-authored her book, and others.

Iíd travelled around 5,000 miles to North Carolina on that visit, but my internal journey had been far greater. It was a learning experience I will never forget. I hadnít been to Sudan, but as a result of travelling Iíd met this extraordinary young woman, and learned about things I didnít know were still possible in this modern world. I was well aware of poverty, corruption and wars, but I didnít know that slavery could exist on the scale it does. Iíve read a lot more about modern slavery since then. I sent Mendeís book to an American friend when I left, and Iíve bought other copies to give away. Her story is terribly important, and if she hadnít sat next to me on a routine flight from London to the US, I would never have known about it.

Travel can broaden the mind in more ways than one. Often itís the people and not the place which define our travel experience.

L Wainwright

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