While walking through Winnipeg’s Central Park with my camera a tall soft spoken man called out in my direction. At first I wasn’t sure he was talking to me, there were plenty of people around, and I thought it was much more likely that he was calling to a friend. But he pointed straight at me and motioned for me to come talk to him, to which I obliged.
As I approached him he stuck out his hand.
“Hello, what is your name?”
I shook his hand and introduced myself.
“Are you a journalist?” A question I’ve started hearing more frequently, even when I’m carrying a relatively spartan camera kit. I told him I was a photographer, not a journalist, the distinction didn’t seem to matter much to him.
“You’ll be interested in our volleyball team.” He motioned towards the turf on the far side of the park where some men were drawing a rectangle on the ground with tape and erecting a volleyball net. “In a few days we will be ready. We will be out in our uniforms and ready to play?”
He explained that in his home country he was well known for his achievements in competitive volleyball.
“Where is home?” I asked
He took a moment to reflect before replying to my query. “I am from the largest country in Africa. Do you know where that is?”
“The Democratic Republic of Congo?” I answered hesitantly while trying to visualize a map of Africa.
“No, No, No. I am from Sudan.”
I felt somewhat ashamed that I hadn’t guess correctly, though a later google search would vindicate my answer as prior to June 2011, Sudan was the largest country in Africa, however the separation of South Sudan has left it behind Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo as the largest country by landmass. But all that is really besides the point.
He proceeded to explain Sudan’s independence from the United Kingdom, and listed the dates of independence of many of the other countries in the surrounding region. He asked several questions about Canadian history, such as the date that each province joined the Dominion, but quickly answered his own question before I could even open my mouth.
I asked what brought him to Winnipeg. He paused.
“That is a very good question.” He then explained how in 2003 he was forced to leave Sudan due to the war in Darfur. He, and 400 other Sudanese came to Winnipeg as refugees. He had no real choice as to where he landed. The Federal government set him and his peers up in an apartment building on Carlton Street that borders Central Park. They quickly outgrew the building, a second apartment building on Qu’appelle, was used as well. Now that many of original 400 received permanent resident status and have moved west to Vancouver or east to Toronto, but that the buildings bordering Central Park are still mostly populated by Sudanese.
“Do you know who owns the majority of the oil in Sudan?”
Although I try to stay current and well read on world affairs, I had to admit my knowledge of the Sudanese oil industry is lacking.
“I imagine it is probably the United States, or the UK.”
“No! It is Canada.”
I felt ashamed, knowing that Canada is heavily involved in the exploitation of resources across Africa.
“I don’t imagine many Sudanese see much of that money.” I replied.
“No, you are correct, not many of us profit from it.”
At that moment a friend of his sat down on the bench next to where we were standing. I was introduced with a handshake.
“Greg is here to watch us play volleyball.” He urged his friend to join the others on the far end of the field who were just starting to toss the ball around.
I commented on how every time I wander through Central Park I see people like himself out having fun, interacting with their neighbours, and playing with their kids.
“Yes, when there is no war we just want to be in peace. You live your life and I live mine. We don’t like when people start violence here. When you are here with your kids or walking with your wife you don’t want trouble, we respect the rule of law. This place was not always like this though. When I came here in 2003 it was rough.”
“But then they built this.” He pointed down at the sidewalk, referring more to the overhaul of the entire park, not just the concrete below our feet.
“OK Greg. Go. Talk to my friend down there. You will come back when we have our uniforms and take our pictures.”
“I will. Would it be OK to take your picture now as well?”
“No, not today. I want to look nice. You can see I am not dressed very nice right now.” He looked down at his brown hoodie, frayed grey track pants, and torn shoes. “Come back when I am wearing my uniform and nice shoes.”
I respected his desire not to be photographed. I shook his hand and thanked him for the truly interesting conversation. I then walked over to the volleyball court, nodded to his friends who seemed to approve of my presence, and started taking their pictures. I hung out in the park, watching them practice volleyball for an hour or so. Running to get the ball whenever it was knocked out of play, and smiling along with them when something amusing occurred.
I never got a chance to talk to the team captain who had been pointed out to me, it was starting to rain and I had to make it home, but I hope to return again to watch them play volleyball and hopefully talk to my Sudanese friend, and take his picture.