I hadn’t slept well despite the airport hotel’s comfy bed. My first flight had been delayed, and I’d 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 I’d 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 wouldn’t turn out to be jumbo-sized chatterboxes, who would disturb me.
“Hiya, I’m Mandy,” 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 didn’t 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 “African” I asked her at some point where she came from, and she replied, “Sudan.” Her answer filled me with both curiosity and an overwhelming need to be tactful. It’s not as if she’d said, “Amsterdam,” and I would have replied that I’d been there, and we could exchange experiences.
During the course of the previous year or so I’d 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 didn’t 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, “Slave,” and her name, which turned out to be Mende (and not Mandy, as I’d 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 didn’t 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.
It’s hard to describe in a few words how she was thereafter sold into slavery in Khartoum; how she survived on scraps from her masters’ 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.
I’d 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 hadn’t been to Sudan, but as a result of travelling I’d met this extraordinary young woman, and learned about things I didn’t know were still possible in this modern world. I was well aware of poverty, corruption and wars, but I didn’t know that slavery could exist on the scale it does. I’ve read a lot more about modern slavery since then. I sent Mende’s book to an American friend when I left, and I’ve bought other copies to give away. Her story is terribly important, and if she hadn’t 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 it’s the people and not the place which define our travel experience.