I have been meaning to write about my trip to Northeastern Sudan for some time now but as usual many excuses can be inserted in this *________* space. I have been neglecting this blog for some time now but I’m hoping to be more active. Part of the delay with writing this post is also my apprehension that I find myself writing about my country in a sensationalized manner. In which, fellow countrymen are represented as anthropological case studies to be examined. So in writing this I’ve tried to be cautious of that and record my observations to the best of my abilities, without portraying the people/communities that I have encountered as an exhibit.
Every time I venture into a new part of Sudan, I am taken aback by the vastness and diversity of this country. It is also sobering to see life outside of the bubble that is Khartoum. This time curiosity took me towards Atbara River. Starting through the very familiar road from Khartoum to the town of Atbara, the sight of blown up tires littered the sides of the narrow road- a reminder that how this desert environment can be so harsh and unforgiving.
After reaching Atbara, we left the familiar tarmac road and ventured off on dirt tracks. Passing droves of ghost towns- towns built to compensate Manasir people for their displacement from Merowe. These houses and dry irrigation canals stood as a haunting reminder of the government’s blatant failure to provide any sort of adequate consultation or come up with some sort of acceptable solution that could have been far less costly than this current wasteland…Such a shame.
We drove in parallel with the Atbara River, which extends through River Nile and Kassala states and beyond the border over to Ethiopia/Eriteria. Across the border it’s referred to as the Tekeze River. The road or lack there off consisted of tracks laid by the occasional lorry or pickup truck before us. Driving across endless dunes, batched up with the occasional protrusion of Acacia trees, I realized that the horizon is much closer that I had initially thought. It seemed as our car could potentially fall off the face of the earth beyond the coming sand dune. Despite the serenity of the landscape, I found myself thinking how anyone could survive in such callous environment.
Most citizens in this area are nomadic peoples, tending to their livestock along historic predestinated routes. For centuries they have managed to forge a living through lucrative camel trading in relative peace. To take advantage of the cooler weather, our trips usually started at 5-6 am before sun break. In the early mornings we had the pleasure of witnessing impromptu camel races. Young boys, probably no older than 10 years old, mounted on the backs of sturdy camels, galloping across the flat landscape with ferocious clouds of smoke trailing behind them. These boys are training these camels for their debuts in races that take place in Kassala State. From there the best of the best are sold at rates of US$10k and upwards for pure breeds. These camels are taken to the Arabian Peninsula, mostly UAE for bigger races and camel breeders. Not long ago, many of these young boys would also be sold with the camels as their small body frames make for excellent Jockeys. Their blight came to light when several sources began highlighting their abuses; mostly undocumented in these Gulf States are they abused and then discarded like objects once they have outgrown their desired size/weight.
These days this solitude has been abruptly disturbed by the discovery of large deposits of gold in these deserts. As a result there has been a modern day gold rush to these desolate dunes. At the occasional haphazard rest stop/fueling station (usually consisting of several large jerry cans of petrol), I was surprised to find young boys/men not exceeding the age of 30 from all across Sudan. These men have left their respective corners of the country and made their way to this desert with the prospects of finding small nuggets of gold through arduous process of breaking up sandy/rock formations and sifting through under the intensely painful sun. In talking with some of them, it was interesting to see the mix of tribes, and socio-economic backgrounds represented. It ranged from those who have lost most of their livestock, to those whose families could not support the high cost of subsistence agriculture to university educated men, who have lost hope on the prospects of finding employment. In all, their stories were tied with the same somber tone of desperation. It was eye-opening to see the extents that these young men will go in order to earn an income.
After several days of spending time in these regions of the country, it is evident that these communities have been completely forgotten by the central government and they in turn have little faith in such an institution for providing them any semblance of basic services. They definitely feel the impacts of climate change/climate variability. Clans that once boasted herds in the 10s of thousands are now lucky to retain a handful for basic subsistence. The irony of the situation was palpable. Sudan as a nation is one of the largest exporter of livestock on the continent, yet those who labor in rearing these herds reap little benefits.
We marked the end of our several day trip, exhausted and covered in a healthy layer of dust/sand. As we approached the outskirts of Khartoum, the distinct flames of the Al Gaili Oil Refinery blew in the distance- with it came lights and more densely populated communities. Entering the city of Khartoum, I was left in a daze trying to reconcile the environment that had been introduced to over the course of the previous days and the car-infested streets of Khartoum. With drivers, lacking patience went about trying to burrow themselves into tiny holes within the traffic gridlock. Recounting the pleasant conversations had over freshly brewed jabana (coffee) and contrasting it with the impatient horns of Khartoumites was difficult to grasp that these communities existed on the same continent.
Appreciative of the diversity that makes up this country. I wish it was a bit more celebrated rather than being used as divisive tool to serve political agendas.
You should submit some of your entries to NPR’s “All Things Considered”! Seriously.