Sudan cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
When you meet a Sudanese for the first time, the manner in which you greet them is very important. It is important to shake hands when greeting someone, especially for the first time. That is your first chance to make a good impression. Very formal greetings might give the impression that you are not interested in a warm and friendly relationship. You can ask the person questions such as « Where are you from? », « Which region in Sudan and which tribe are you from? » You may ask the Sudanese about their family and relatives. It is not a good idea to go into details when it comes to family and bear in mind that family means not only your wife, husband and kids but also your extended family, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, etc.
If family is not the topic of interest to either the host or the guest, asking the host general questions about his country might help break the ice. Avoid talking about controversial issues such as religious beliefs. Sudanese love to express their political opinions and you might want to reserve that for later friendly debate.
You should know the Sudanese people are very simple, easygoing people and they have good faith in strangers or people they’ve never met before. They like talking about politics and inflation. Usually they blame the government for the low living standards and the problems they are currently facing in the Middle East.
When meeting someone for the first time, be sensitive to the surroundings. If using an interpreter, continually ask the interpreter if your question or comment is acceptable before asking for the translation. Discussion of your own home and culture are likely to be meaningless as there are few points of intersection. Southern Sudanese have rarely seen vehicles, are unfamiliar with paved roads and shopping malls, rarely have currency (bartering is still very common), and cannot imagine the many technological realities of the western world. Talk of family and children are usually safe, although in areas where polygamy is common, monogamy may be viewed as humorous! Be prepared to laugh with the people, especially when you are the subject of the joke.
Sudanese are similar to Canadians when it comes to communication issues. In general, along with a strong handshake and a smile, you should start by saying ‘As-Salam Alaykum’ (most of the Sudanese use this greeting regardless of their religion). A reasonable physical distance is important, especially when talking to a superior or a woman (if you are a man). In other words, keep at least one metre personal space, especially if the other person is different sex/gender. You do not have to keep eye contact all the time when talking to someone. A short and infrequent eye-to-eye contact might be your safe choice and you might want to avoid steady gaze when talking to a woman. Don’t be offended if your host does not keep eye contact while talking to you, it’s just a sign of respect; especially if they are younger than you. Men can touch each other on the shoulder while talking. Remember hand gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice signify a lot when talking to someone. An affectionate greeting - such as a hug or a clasp while clapping somebody’s shoulder - is very common between friends and family members.
The personal space of a Sudanese is usually considerably less than of a Canadian, so one must not be affronted by an individual coming very close to speak. Eye contact in friendly situations is generally acceptable but in a tense situation (frequent in civil war areas) looking down in humility may be life-saving. It is best not to touch someone, but do not recoil if they touch you. One can be firm but it is better to be calm and even-toned. Sudanese often show their emotions (happiness, anger) easily; but the foreigner should not risk displaying negative emotions.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection are acceptable and common. During festivities, such as a wedding or a birth, gift-giving demonstrates love and care for the whole family. In difficult times such as a death, a sickness or an accident, your visit is very important but you shouldn’t bring a gift. When someone experiences a difficult period, it’s important to visit them—especially if you are in the same city. This includes colleagues and the boss as well. A phone call is not enough in difficult times. Sudanese are very social people and it is recommended to have visit exchanges and to accept all invitations.
Public displays of anger may be seen, but you should not do so. Public displays of affection are not common and are not recommended. Be aware that nudity is defined differently in parts of Sudan from what we understand in Canada. In many tribes women will show their breasts and men will not cover their genitalia. Although they may secretly be amused that others behave differently, there is no expectation that foreigners will comply with their dress codes. In these cultures lewdness and leering are just as unacceptable as in Canada.
Dress, punctuality & formality
The Sudanese are the same as Canadians when it comes to dressing for work. Dress code is generally formal conservative for both genders at all times. It is very important to look clean and fresh. The usage of perfume is considered nice and gentle. Sudanese normally prefer to be called by their first names. Using a courtesy title like Uztas for male and Uztaza for female with the first names shows respect. Always use the courtesy title Dr. or Professor for the first time meeting.
In general, punctuality and time is very flexible. The employee may come late and leave early as long as the work is done. Even if the work is not done, you may give the boss a reasonable reason and the boss should understand. People in Sudan work for a monthly salary and usually there is no overtime and it is unusual to claim for extra hours worked. Deadlines are usually set without expectation that they will be met; there is always flexibility on deadlines. This also applies to appointments (eg: you have an appointment for 10:00 am and you can show up at 11:00 am). Please note in Sudan you do not need to make an appointment to visit someone in their office and this includes both private and public sectors.
If working in Sudan, one will almost invariably be working with an UN agency, a Non-Governmantal Organization (NGO), or possibly with a religious organization. Thus the employing agency will be a foreign one, with standards dictated elsewhere. A professional approach will be indicated by that agency. Dress standards for foreigners in Sudan are usually casual. Sudanese rarely understand the nuances of meaning that Westerners attach to first and last names, so one should not be surprised to be addressed by either. Although the Sudanese do not approach the concept of time like westerners, the employer will expect punctuality. However, one should not expect it from the local culture.
Preferred managerial qualities
Highly regarded qualities for supervisors/team leaders are experience, education, hard work and equal treatment. The Sudanese are fast learners and they are willing to learn from their superiors. Overall they expect to be treated with respect and they pay attention to their boss’ attitude. In other words, the boss has to be polite and calm at all times. If the staff does not like the boss’ attitude they will talk to him or her directly and they do not pull their punches much. Also, an open-minded manager motivates the staff and encourages them to perform better.
Viewed highly but not necessarily appreciated for its paper value.
Viewed highly if that experience shows itself in terms of appreciation for Sudanese/African values.
Openness to new ideas
Admirable if a foreigner is open to Sudanese values.
Sudanese may be viewed sometimes as lazy when they do not carry out Westerners wishes. However they are incredibly hard working when they are addressing their own concerns. They will walk for days/weeks to reach a destination. Women in particular will work impossible hours keeping house and growing crops.
If the manager is an expatriate he will have success if he demonstrates openness, a listening attitude and concern for fairness. Of course these are universals, but these qualities have particular value in an African setting where the perception is that management is autocratic and foreigners are insensitive.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In the workplace decisions are taken by the manager. The ideas can start from the staff, go to the immediate supervisor and then to management for discussions. It is acceptable to go to the immediate supervisors for answers and feedback. Please note that staff does not expect to have an appointment to see the boss and they appreciate an open door policy.
In Sudan, the workplace is frequently a foreign organization (non-Sudanese) and decision-making is consistent with that organization in any country. In Sudanese families and tribes, decisions are taken by the elders, and respect for the governance of the elder (or warlord) is standard; deviance can be met with punishments that Westerners might find harsh in the extreme.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
It is worth noting that Sudanese culture is not a homogeneous society where the common dominator of culture such as language, religion, history and ethnicity is expressed in typical patterns of behaviour, attitudes, or values. Furthermore, politics and economy for the last years have played significant roles in changing attitudes towards women in almost every urban community in Sudan. With the emergence of the Islamic movement, gender relationships have dramatically changed. Women in the Islamic movement in Sudan are becoming more independent and effective activists on behalf of other women.
Sudanese bear deep and genuine respect and reverence to Christianity and Judaism. The naming of newborns, for example, after a Jew or a Christian prophet are common practices (i.e. Musa for Moses and Issa for Jesus). However, there is also a common belief that Christians, and to less extent Jews, are departing away or entirely deserting the teachings of their religions.
The main religion in Sudan is Islam and the holiday is Friday, so most of the staff will expect to have Fridays off. Also there are five prayers a day and two of them during the working hours. The staff might wish to attend the prayer in the nearest mosque to the workplace or they may choose to pray at work as a group. Also, there is the holy month of Ramadan and Muslims fast for 30 days, from sunrise to sunset, during this period. Sudanese expect everyone to respect the month of Ramadan regardless of their faith, and so you should not eat or smoke in public. On the other hand, there are Christian-Sudanese and they expect a day off on Sunday and on the New Year’s Eve as well.
Reminder - Your cultural interpreter's experience is primarily in the southern region of Sudan.
The male is usually regarded as superior. Gender roles are generally very set, e.g. women grow crops, and men look after cattle. It is rare to see people crossing over gender lines with respect to behaviour and employment.
It is very important. If the community is animist, most aspects of daily life are tied in to religious observance one way or another. If the community is Christian, there will usually be a church structure of some sort and the people will observe the traditions and services of that denomination. (There are few Muslims in south Sudan, although occasionally a mosque will be seen, built during the times when the north ruled the area.) Most foreigners do not obviously display or practice a religious life (with the exception of missionaries or employees of faith-based NGOs). This is probably somewhat bewildering to local people who associate all foreigners with Christianity.
Class is rarely an issue in south Sudan although some tribes (e.g. the Didinga) have “levels” within the tribe, and the possibility of ascending or descending a level on the basis of behaviour. But this is not something readily observable by an outsider.
Ethnic background or tribal identity is extremely important. This is not always easy to understand because sometimes one finds, for example, Dinka-Nuer alliances but Dinka-Dinka conflict! Thus geography and economics (cattle, grazing rights etc.) may influence behaviour just as much as ethnicity.
Again, because a foreigner is unlikely to be working anywhere but with a foreign organization, the above will not have an immediate bearing in the workplace.
It is not important to establish personal relationships before doing business. Sudanese respect business relationships, especially if the two parties share the same interests. You might start with casual conversation about the country and Sudanese food. Sudanese are very proud of their home and culture and you will receive an invitation to the person’s place to meet his/her immediate family for supper. You should reciprocate the invitation, because it is an important step for relationship and to develop trust.
Personal relationships are extremely important. In the current climate, there is not likely to be a great deal of business dealings, but if the peace process is successful, these will become necessary. It will be necessary to build relationships bearing in mind the great lack of trust that war engenders.
Privileges and favouritism
Yes the colleague and the employee expect special privileges. Hiring of his/her friends or family are the most common expected privileges. I recommend you grant privileges when possible and appropriate because it is essential in the Sudanese culture and not respecting this custom might damage the business relationship. For example, if the boss doesn’t accept to hire a friend or relative of yours, the boss has to give you reasonable explanation with an apology.
Special consideration is always expected based on relationships. This is not seen as morally reprehensible. I recommend that courteous, gracious and patient explanations are always given to Sudanese to explain that international organizations generally work on the principle of hiring for merit, pay for merit and that discrimination for any other cause is forbidden or frowned upon.
Conflicts in the workplace
If you need to confide anything, it is important to choose a good time and the right place. Taking someone aside from others to confide anything might be considered disrespectful. If it is very important to divulge any news or information immediately to someone, then do not hesitate to do so.
Private, courteous confrontation is preferable. Avoid any action or statement that paints the colleague into a corner. If possible, find a face-saving solution.
Motivating local colleagues
Loyalty and good working conditions motivate your local colleagues to perform well on the job.
My local colleagues are likely to perform well because of commitment, loyalty, good and equitable working conditions, clear and agreed objectives and money.
Recommended books, films & foods
- Salih, Altayeeb
- Khalid, Dr. Mansour
- Mahjoub, Jamal
- Al-tayeeb, Dr. Abdallah
- SHORBA - Puree of Lamb Khartoum
- MASCHI- Tomatoes Stuffed with Chopped Beef
- SALATA MA JIBNA- Salad with Oriental Cheese
- SALATET ZABADY BIL AJUR- Cucumber/Yogurt Salad
- SHORBET ADS- Lentil Soup
- FOOL MEDEMMAS- Fava Beans
- TAMAYYA (FALAFIL)- Green hamburgers
- MULLAAH BAMYAH- Okra/ Ladies Fingers Stew
- MOLOKHIYA- Green Leaf Vegetable
- KOFTAH- Ground Meat Balls
- SHATA- Hot Spice
- FISH PYRAMID WITH GREEN SAUCE
- CREME CARAMELA- Sudanese Custard
- CINNAMON TEA
Places to visit
This contains antiquities and artefacts from several periods of Sudanese history and pre-history, including glassware, pottery, statuary and figurines from the ancient kingdom of Cush. Ancient Nubia's Christian period is well represented, with frescoes and murals from ruined churches, dating from the 8th to the 15th century.
This is a small museum, which contains an interesting collection of items relating to Sudanese village life. These include musical instruments, clothing, cooking and hunting implements.
This is the largest in the Sudan, and has an interesting variety of goods on display. Ivory and ebony candlesticks are carved by market craftsmen, goldsmiths and silversmiths fashion all kinds of jewellery in their shop-fronts, and the atmosphere is lively and bustling. The best time to visit is on Friday mornings.
Tomb of the Mahdi
On the death of the Mahdi in 1885, his body was entombed in a silver-domed mosque in Omdurman. This was completely destroyed by Kitchener in 1898, when the Mahdi's body was burned and his ashes thrown into the river. In 1947 the Mahdi's son had the mosque and tomb rebuilt. Not surprisingly, it is closed to foreigners, but can be viewed from the outside.
This is situated opposite the Mahdi's tomb. Once the home of the Mahdi’s successor, the house was built of mud and brick in 1887, and is now a museum. It contains relics from Mahdiyya battles, including guns and war. An interesting collection of photographs depicts the city of Khartoum at the time of the Mahdi’s revolt and its subsequent occupation by the British.
There is almost no media present in south Sudan (no TV, radio, newspapers, shows etc). Therefore the best way to learn about the culture is through published ethnographic materials/books and by finding a “cultural informant” in the area where one lives or works. The UN and some agencies occasionally have orientation seminars (and security seminars, which are extremely important in a conflict area) which can serve as a helpful introduction.
The leaders of the independence movement(s) are heroes to us (i.e. Dr John Garang, Dr Riek Machar.)
The leaders of the independence movement(s) in south Sudan are their heroes. This means particularly Dr John Garang (for most of the South, but particularly the Dinka) and Dr Riek Machar (for the Nuer peoples). These two individuals have variously collaborated and fought against each other, so one must be cautious about expressing an opinion regarding them.
Shared historical events with Canada
Not that I am aware, no.
There are few, if any, shared historical events between Sudan and Canada. The only instance where Canada’s name has come to be mentioned in south Sudan in recent years is in connection with the Canadian oil company Talisman. The departure of Talisman from the “oil war” is helpful in this regard.
As Sudanese, we do not have any stereotypes on Canadians, except Canadians are friendly, helpful and it is cold in Canada.
Few Canadians know anything about Sudan and thus have few stereotypes about Sudanese. However, there are stereotypes about Africans in general. These stereotypes might actually be correct in some aspects in Sudan. For instance, there are Sudanese who go about naked or half naked. In some instances this is by cultural choice, in many other instances it is because of extreme poverty. The stereotype, or even the truth, will be harmful if it is perceived judgementally, and the local people are viewed negatively as a result. If foreigners start with an understanding that Sudanese might be different but are equal, and an ethnocentric perspective is avoided, then positive relationships can be built.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Khartoum (the capital city), the fourth child of 7 children. He was raised in this town until the age of 17 and is from the Fur tribe. He moved to Turkey in 1996 to continue his studies. He graduated in Engineering from the University of Salcuk. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada in 2004. He is currently living in Winnipeg; he’s single and has no children.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Edmonton, Alberta, the oldest of four children. His parents’ work sent him abroad for the first time in 1959. He studied religion and management at Newbold College (UK) and Andrews University (USA). He has lived and worked in Canada, Australia, India, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Sudan. He is currently living in Canada and has three children. N.B. Your cultural interpreter's experience is primarily in the southern region of Sudan.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.