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The Sudan Bonding

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By Alok Joshi
March 4, 2022 happened to be the 58thFoundation Day of ONGC Videsh (OVL), the overseas arm of ONGC. It made me nostalgic about my days in Sudan and conjured up memories that I thought of sharing.

Khartoum, Sudan

By some strange coincidence, destiny has always taken me to turbulent and war-torn regions of the world, whether for study or work, be it Meghalaya/Nagaland (student agitation and counter-insurgency in the ‘80s), Slovenia (war for independence in Yugoslavia, 1991), China (intermittent border skirmishes including Doklam stand-off, 2017) and Sudan (War in Darfur, 2003).
OVL had acquired 25 percent stake from Talisman Energy of Canada and joined the multi-partner oil producing company of Sudan, GNPOC (Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co. Ltd) in 2003 with China, Malaysia and Sudan. As part of smooth transition, Talisman staff was replaced by ONGC executives. Best professionals were hand-picked to deliver results and bring a good name not only to ONGC but to the country at large.

The picture of Sudan was grim. It was ravaged by years of north-south conflict. Millions of people had been killed. Media reports were full of grave security threats to the general public. The country was plagued by diseases like AIDS. It was initially not seen as an attractive posting by many within ONGC.

I was myself a bit hesitant and apprehensive about leaving my position as Head-HR of Mumbai High Asset and going to Sudan on deputation. My boss (Kharak Singh, ED) also did not want me to leave but finally gave in. Some of my colleagues (whom I had relieved and bid farewell) had already joined Khartoum. They motivated me to join the team. Initially, I felt their assurances were like the audience coming out of cinema halls telling the waiting crowd to go in and watch the same trash.

Luckily, my fears were unfounded. When I look back at my long career, my Sudan tenure turns out to be the most enriching, fulfilling and enjoyable of all. That three and half year stint (2003-06) was the last part of my 22 year journey in ONGC. Only one HR position was available to us in GNPOC and I was asked to take over from the outgoing Talisman executive, who happened to be a Britisher.

OVL Sudan team comprised 30 plus officers handpicked from all over the country in various disciplines from Production to Drilling to Exploration. It was a kind of microcosm of mini-India in some ways. We came from diverse backgrounds, different hierarchical levels and many of us were strangers to each other. But we had one goal: to keep the flag of our country and organisation high. There was a miniscule Country office for providing support and coordination. Our dress code was formal (including a tie) whereas other nationalities preferred casual office attire. GNPOC was a cocktail of different cultures. Every partner country had different language, customs, working styles and even a different canteen for lunch in office. Unlike others, we used to go back to our residential complex for lunch.

President APJ Kalam with ONGC Videsh MD and secondees in Khartoum

It is said that one man at the top can make a difference. It goes to the credit of Atul Chandra, MD, OVL, who had worked hard to get this strategically important overseas project. He personally monitored the selection of secondees and used all his resources to help the OVL team perform with excellence. Leaders like him with a vision, team-spirit, decision-making skills and above all a warm heart are difficult to find.

Soon enough, the ONGC team both in Khartoum and Heglig field, proved their worth. ONGC officers were liked and respected for their professionalism, dependability and friendliness, especially by the locals. OVL was India, as far as GNPOC was concerned.

We lived on single-status and worked on 70/20 pattern (70 days work and 20 days odd) while the field staff was on 28 days on/28 days off. There was a continuous arrival/departure of personnel without disrupting the operations. GNPOC was then producing at its peak.

GNPOC A&S Division group photo

Sudan had strange immigration rules. Nobody could enter the country without a “yellow certificate” (yellow fever vaccination proof). There was an exit visa required in addition to entry visa every time. My passport was so full of Sudan visa stamps in Arabic that the immigration authorities often interrogated me on my personal US visits. Every six months we had to take an AIDS test in a disorganised and shabby test centre. We were always afraid our results could come positive because reportedly wrong people had been deported in the past as the test samples/results got mixed-up.

In 2003, there were no proper roads worth the name in the capital city, no shopping malls, no bars and just a couple of deserted restaurants. Khartoum resembled any small Indian village or backward town. We could not move freely within the city. Three officers were assigned one car with an English-speaking driver. The control room monitored each and every movement of secondees on radio sets. A simple “haircut mission” was considered a security threat. The local barbers were used to African hair style and texture. My driver Abdullah had to stand with the barber and give instructions to ensure that my colleagues recognise me on return after the haircut.

Khartoum airport had no X-ray machines then. We had to open our suitcases for inspection. Sometimes it was embarrassing when the lady security officers laid their hands on our precious well-hidden undergarments and displayed them in public view.

The only saving grace was our residential complex, which came to us courtesy the erstwhile Canadian company. It had well-furnished rooms, gym, canteen, swimming pool and tennis court. Some jokingly called it the “royal prison”. We figured out that the only way to maintain sanity without our families was to keep busy and tire ourselves to sleep. Some of us sweated out playing tennis every single day after work. We watched Bollywood movies on VCDs and even went to office on Fridays (being a holiday) to kill time. There were internet firewalls imposed by the state. The moment letter “s” was innocently typed, our computers would shut down as if we were teens trying to watch porn. Well, we did have geniuses who knew how to defeat such firewalls.

Often, we were invited to Sudanese feasts and weddings. In order to pep up our much-awaited outings and create the mood to dance on Sudanese tunes, some of us used to secretly gulp the miniature vodka/whisky bottles that were hidden inside our socks.

We literally counted 70 days before being allowed to return home on vacation. Even after completing our work days, return was not guaranteed. We had to pray to Mother Nature for kindness. Most of us had experienced waiting at the airport for our flight back home but the plane above us could not land because of sudden onset of “haboob” (sandstorm).

Once, on one of his official trips to Khartoum, MD Atul Chandra came to our residential complex at around 7 p.m. No one had any prior information about his visit. He entered the gym where I was the only one exercising. He asked me, “Where is everyone? The whole place is very quiet.” I told him that most people must be in their rooms cooking dinner. We avoided eating in the cafeteria because it was quite expensive. “What about you?” he asked. I told him that I along with two others had been given accommodation a few kilometres away because the main complex was already full.

He kept quiet and went away.
The very next day he called for a meeting of all secondees. He made two announcements to everyone’s surprise, including the Country Manager. One, henceforth nobody would cook in their rooms (because he said we were not sent to Sudan for cooking). Instead, we should be provided all three meals in the cafeteria at a subsidised rate of 100 USD per month to be deducted from our salary whether we eat or not. Secondly, for giving accommodation in the Complex, seniority rule shall be followed instead of “first come, first serve”. I and another dear friend, who later became Director (Offshore) of ONGC, were the beneficiaries as we moved inside the Complex and some juniors had to make way.

The first decision totally changed the group dynamics towards healthy bonding. We all started meeting in the cafeteria three times a day and gradually came closer. It was a great relaxing time as we communicated a lot. The Country office was kind enough to arrange Indian meals.The local cooks were trained in Indian food by a Gujarati lady from Omdurman (which was an adjoining area where 800 families from Gujarat had settled permanently; they spoke fluent Arabic but had maintained their roots over time). Our most popular dinner dish after intense tennis rounds was “eggs and paratha”. Besides the tennis partners, car pool bonding, we made dinner buddies and post-dinner walking buddies.

In the absence of any entertainment, we started Friday evening club with about 18-20 members. Each Friday evening, two officers by rotation had to bring two alcohol bottles of any brand, from anywhere (alcohol was not available anywhere in Khartoum being a dry state and had to be arranged in “black” or otherwise from different sources). Everyone anxiously waited for those two hours of Friday entertainment despite miserly liquor supply. No office-related thing was allowed to be discussed. It was pure fun evenings with stories and jokes, the dirtier the better. I’m sure all my secondee friends still miss those laughter-filled moments that made us eat an extra “paratha”.

The Sudan project has since been wound up. ONGC exited Sudan after being frustrated with non-payment of about $560 million which the African nation owed us.

But what remains until today is the strong bonding of the group of officers who ever worked in Sudan. We have a vibrant WhatsApp group and, in some ways, we are still connected. Barring a few, most of us have retired/resigned and settled in different parts of the country/world, but the group survives. Not surprisingly, Atul Chandra is also part of the group and continues to inspire and motivate us with never-heard-of interesting stories about ONGC.

I left Sudan as well as ONGC but Sudan did not leave me. While working in China, in my role as in-charge of international business development, I was involved in finding business for my company in Sudan. We did a big project for upgradation of financial and tax structure of Sudan in 2015 which gave me yet another chance to meet our Sudanese counterparts. By then there were two Sudans (Sudan and South Sudan as two different countries). I often interacted with the Ambassadors of the two countries. They gave me a special treatment because I knew the Sudanese culture so well. I often met the Sudanese delegation coming from Sudan. One of my local ex-colleagues from GNPOC whom I met in Beijing had become the Minister of Energy and Petroleum of Sudan and another one the President of Sudapet.

There is a saying that whoever drinks the water of the Nile once always goes back again. I am still waiting to return to Sudan and meet my warm-hearted and kind Sudanese friends. Hope it happens, someday!

(Alok Joshi is an HR Advisor, freelance writer and author of “12 Sweet and Sour Years in China”)