“Saba Al Kir Habuba!” voices call out to me as I enter the Yida hospital compound.  “Good morning, Grandmother!”


“Saba Al Kir Habuba!” voices call out to me as I enter the Yida hospital compound.  “Good morning, Grandmother!”

“Saba Anur,” I return the greeting with a handshake, silently gritting my teeth at being called Grandmother. How has this happened? How have I turned overnight into a habuba? 

I don’t feel like a habuba. Looking around at the team of MSF ex-patriot staff working in Yida, in my mind’s eye, I am one of them, a keen, relatively young expat off to save the world with MSF, wiser for being on my second mission, but just as enthusiastic. Yet, I was now known throughout the compound as Habuba Sudania – the Sudanese Grandmother. 

Okay, I admit when the youngsters, the expats the same age as my kids, are dancing until dawn, I tend to be in my tent asleep. When they are up until the wee hours playing cards, I tend to be reading. When they are on FaceTime talking to their parents, I am on Skype talking to my three grown children. But Habuba – Grandmother?

I peer into the tiny mirror hanging in my tent. After four months, my hair has grown from a cute cut into a shapeless mess. My skin has dried and burnished into a desiccated apple. I’d lost weight, not from any sickness but too full from guzzling water in the forty-degree heat.

I’d first heard the word habuba when the nursing staff called to an older woman as she cared for her sick grandson, admitted for spinal tuberculosis. Over the two months that they remained with us as he adjusted to the intensive phase of tuberculosis treatment, I came to understand their story. Both of the boy’s parents were killed. One uncle lived in another part of the country, but with no phone and no internet, there is no means of communication. This Habuba was of the Dinka population, the local or host community that survived on subsistence farming and herding cows. She and her grandson have no cows, and it wasn’t clear to me, when they packed their scant belongings into a small cardboard box, just how the two of them were going to survive upon return to their village. Yet she shouldered their small cardboard box proudly, her grey hair beneath a bright wool cap, her flowing scarf tied traditionally over one shoulder. 

The next Habuba came with a neighbor boy from the Nuba mountains. She escaped the bombing with her own three children and this young boy, as there was no one else to look after him. He’d become bed-ridden, crippled from lack of use of his legs and one arm, painfully thin from Kala Azar, a leishmania parasite that focuses on the spleen, liver and bone marrow. The boy’s father had been killed in the war, and the mother had disappeared. He alone survived, and was cared for as another grandson by the kindly neighbor. Hussein* improved with treatment and nutrition, but remained weak with difficulty walking, yet they both insisted on returning home as soon as he was able. Habuba had three of her own children to look after, and she had to be there to receive the United Nations food ration or her children would go hungry.

The different Habubas that tend their respective children seem to have something in common, beyond the differences in tribe, language, dress or country. They have an inner strength that shines undiminished by greying hair, gnarled fingers or a careworn countenance. They reach out with a smile to shake my hand as I make daily rounds to check on the children, asking how I am doing in Dinka or Arabic.  Their faces light up when I wear the local Dinka scarf or the Nuban toup, a long strip of fabric wrapped sari-like around the body.  They comment if this day I am a Sudanese habuba, a Dinka habuba or a Kawadja woman according to the style of dress. When the child in their care has recovered and it is time to return to their local village or refugee camp, we hug goodbye, trusting in the universal language of connection to express what we lack in words to say. We are strengthened and affirmed in our mutual respect and admiration for the caring that we have shared in looking after their grandchildren. 


I wish that I could tell you that I now embrace being called Habuba. Unfortunately I carry too much of my own western baggage to revel in being labeled Grandmother, when I have no grandchildren yet of my own. One day I hope to be a grandmother, but for the time being, I’ve learned to say “Ana ma Habuba. Ana Malka” – “I am not Grandmother. I am called Queen!”