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Sudan Party Bus: Teaching culture on wheels

Hana Baba
SANC School moms drum and sing on the bus

This is a field trip.

East Bay school kids going to the California Academy of  Sciences - pretty typical, right? Wrong.

This is the weekend school of the Sudanese Association of Northern California, or SANC, where Sudanese kids come every Sunday to learn their parents’ mother tongue and immerse themselves in Sudanese poetry, folklore, music, and spirituality.  Even this bus ride from San Leandro to San Francisco is a cultural lesson in disguise.

Twenty kids and 15 adults pack a big yellow school bus. The Sudanese moms and dads talk in Arabic. Their American-born kids at the back of the bus are being rowdy, in English. There’s tons of food: Parents haul big foil containers full of fava bean dip, eggplant salad and pita bread onto the bus.

As everyone settles in, two women pick up drums. Another pulls out a tambourine. They start playing.

Now, if the kids were going on a regular district field trip, they’d be singing camp songs; you know, 'Bingo was his name-o.' Not today, yo.

These moms are warming up because today, They'll be doing the singing. And clapping. And drumming, and - the ultimate Sudanese joyful noise - called the zaghroota.

Their kids are American born. Many of them may go to Sudan every other year for a one or two month vacation -- not enough to really attach them to their Sudanese side. So, trips like this are supposed to replicate life back home so that even the kid I’m looking with the earbuds in her ears will eventually, perhaps subconsciously, be learning something today.

The moms start belting out songs from back home --nostalgic tunes of their youth. These are the fun songs girls and ladies sing when they hang out in Sudan. Mostly about guys, love and marriage.

The women also sing wedding songs, One says ‘today, we’re coming- we’re on our way'  On our way where? Not to the museum. To the bride’s house. You see, this party on a bus hearkens back to a Sudanese wedding ritual called the sayra. The groom and his family take a bus to the bride’s house on the wedding day. In old times, this trip was made on foot. Then, as motor vehicles became more common, the extended family would pack a bus and make the trip. They sing and drum until they reach the bride’s house.

Or in this case, until they cross the Bay Bridge and pull up into the parking lot of the Cal Academy of Sciences.

Manahil Elsheikh has three kids in the school, and organized this trip. She describes what the sayra back home was like. She says the whole neighborhood would get on the bus, and have a good time until they got to the bride’s house.

The songs praise the groom. How handsome he is, how educated or generous, wealthy or brave. Other people get shout-outs too, like the mother of groom, his sister, his father. The idea today, Manahil says, is to enjoy an outing, while immersing their kids in a precious tradition. "To ride in one bus and use your imagination that it’s a sayra," she says. "Learning, having fun, and having something cultural that they’ve never experienced before.”

The moms sneak in a lesson in Sudanese music history. They sing a song called ‘Alleemoon Sigaytu Alay.' meaning ‘It’s my job now to water the lemon trees,' because the men have gone to war.  It’s a 1940s classic by one of Sudan’s first woman singers, Asha Alfalateya, who sang supporting Sudanese soldiers fighting with the Allies in World War II.

School principal Asma Khalifa claps along. She’s a veteran educator, and says cultural lessons like this build the social skills these kids may need one day. She says it will help the kids be less of strangers in their own land when they visit home with their families. “That will assure them that  if they go back to Sudan, they will  fit in the community of Sudan,” she explains.

Jihad Abul Yasar teaches the four- and five-year-olds. She thinks even further in the future. "Later when it’s time for them to get married, these kids will remember this day and this trip and ask for their own sayra!” she says.

Ok, let’s see if all this is registering with the kids.

They’re in the back of the bus. Some of them are chatting. Others have earbuds in and are looking out the window. Not nine year old Sara Basheer, whose parents drive 40 miles from Tracy to bring her here every week. She’s clapping along with the moms. She says this school brings her a feeling of belonging more than regular school, because, she says, “you get to see more of your culture people.”

Her ‘culture people’ surround her as she claps along to the singing. She says she likes hearing Sudanese songs because they’re different, and remind her of extended family in Sudan. Eleven-year-old Minnah Awad of Fremont agrees and says, “You’re not really used to seeing someone from the same place as you. And one day of the week you see a ton of people from the same place like you're  from -- from Sudan -- and it's different but it’s really cool!”

Not everybody is as enthusiastic.

Sixth grader Shahd Hamid from Fremont feels a little differently about the whole concept of this bus ride -- the groom's family sayra. “I think they’re showing off to other people because they open the windows trying to make people look at them!" she says. "They’re proud but they’re showing off!  ‘Our son is so and so -- he's getting married!  Look at our son he’s getting married!"

Shahd says she’s still enjoying this bus ride with her Sudanese buddies --  then she looks out the window at the cars passing by on the very American freeway and says it’s a little embarrassing for her. “Everyone in the street watching and they’re like what’re they doing?" she says. "People can’t understand us because of the language and everything!”

Thirty-five minutes into the trip, we’re off the 880 and on the Bay Bridge. It’s raining outside and the ladies are going strong with a love song called Ya Hanoony.

The group reaches the Cal Academy, spends their day there, eats the Sudanese food outside, and gets back on the bus in pouring rain. The moms are tired. They start singing, but it’s on and off. Then, a sound from the back of the bus -- could it be the kids joining in?

It’s the kids all right, but singing the Little Einstein theme song. Not quite a bridal song, but hey, it’s a start. To these moms, any engagement from the kids is a plus. I ask Manahil Elsheikh if she thinks that, in the end, the kids get the point of this trip.

“Yes, I think they get it,” she says. “And if they didn’t get it right now, one day they’re going to remember -- my parents, teachers, they brought all this culture to us. And when they grow up they’re going to appreciate it one day.”

But just to be sure, Manahil starts throwing handfuls of candy towards the kids in the back to the tune of the iconic wedding song, ‘Ya Adeela Ya Bayda,' which says, ‘Oh Angels walk with our groom today.' Well, the little angels on this bus are clamoring, trying to catch the candy mid-air.

Manahil smiles and says, even this chaotic moment reenacts part of a ritual call the jirtig, where the groom throws candy on the wedding guests.

She says the elders believe that will take the devil away from the couple and the weddings guests.

“It’s kind of fun for the kids, and a wish for them to have a happy moment!” 

For this moment, these two generations connect. These kids don’t need to travel thousands of miles to connect to their heritage. They’re doing it right here, on a yellow school bus crossing the San Francisco Bay.

Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.