Traveller's tales

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Greenery and friendliness in a furnace - Sudan

There is a saying, ‘Sudan huwa Sudan’ (Sudan is Sudan) and in this land of extremes the meaning becomes clearer every day. It is difficult, in a country that is ten times the size of Britain, with the same mileage of metalled as the county of Kent, to see how it could ever change.

Electricity is here; running water is here. I write from the middle of Gezira Province, the most developed, most cultivated, most populous region outside Khartoum and Omdurman, those neighbours astride the Nile.

But in a country that spans the distance from Aberdeen to Gibraltar conditions here can have little or no impact on those who live in Darfur in the north east, or Jonglei in the south. Combined with the spatial element to inhibit change are the climate, tradition and Islam.

In a land which houses upwards of 500 different tribes – ranging from the Dinka, giants up to 7ft 6inches in height, and charcoal black in colour, in the south, to the Donagla whose skin colour is as light as a holidayed Lancastrian, in the north, the forces of tradition and Islam are probably the only unifying elements.

Contact between many people is virtually non-existent, and when you realize that a person in Edinburgh may be exposed to the same information as someone in Liverpool or Lyme Regis, it is difficult to imagine the remoteness of Sudanese life.

Of course, there is both radio and television, but successful contact depends on the presence of receivers which need a power source, and as such conditions are unreliable at best any influence of the Khartoum centred media can only be limited.

The forces of tradition and religion – Islam in the north, Christianity in the south – constitute the status quo. In the provinces (things are difficult in the capital) the dominant form of correct behaviour and decorum is that which is hospitable, neighbourly, modest and honest. This stems in part from Islam and the teachings of the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and in part from the way in which the Sudanese live from day to day.

A meal in the Sudan is something to be shared with others. Family and friends eat from the same bowl using the fingers of the right hand only. Pieces of bread aid the removal of food from the communal bowl.

In the hot, sultry evenings, groups of men sit and talk, chew tobacco, and perhaps drink glasses of chi (tea), strong and very sweet. The evenings afford only a slight respite from the heat of the day, and indeed, on my arrival in Khartoum I found the evenings more oppressive than the blazing afternoon sun.

Then there is the haboob (strong diurnal wind) which can blow up at a very short notice from a pleasant zephyr to a full blown gale that can render the opposition’s goal posts invisible at a local football match. Such an event is sure to be the forerunner to a Sudanese rainstorm. Thunder and lightning, the like of which I had never seen, herald a torrential downpour which can end almost as abruptly as it arrives.

Pools of water engulf villages and make lengthy detours a necessity. Similarly, roads between the major towns become impassable for days.. These storms occur only in autumn, and in a land where the on reliable water supply is that provided by the mighty Nile, rain is gratefully received.

In Gezira Province, an area renowned for its fine cotton, the waters of the Nile, both Blue and White, are put to good use. The countryside is crisscrossed with irrigation ditches and canals, and the cotton, sorghum and gamh (wheat) flourish.

An interesting by-product of the irrigation canals is the enjoyment that they provide for the students of El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys when they finish their lessons at 2.0pm. On hot days, the school bus takes them laughing and shouting to the canal where they swim until the early evening. They politely invited me to go with them and were amused when I expressed fears for my health.

I was assured that there were no crocodiles or snakes to eat me up and they only laughed the more when I explained that I would probably catch dysentery or bilharzia, a disease which infects the urinary passages and is caught from a type of worm that lives in these brackish, brown waters, and which is so pervasive in the Gezira.

Frogs - thousands of them - are the only other noticeable feature of the irrigation scheme – for me at any rate. In the warm evenings, conversation is all but drowned by their croaking. Like the constant roar of traffic in a big city, I soon learn to ignore the noise and raise my voice in compensation. Similarly, I have learned to live with the lizards and bats which share my house – which I now regard as my main allies against the only bane of my life here, the insect kingdom.

Since the average Sudanese has skin like leather, while mine is like the proverbial baby’s bottom in comparison, I have become a fly’s version of unwrapped food; my mosquito net is worth a king’s ransom. There are compensations: little or no traffic where in Live (the odd donkey is ridden past my door in the morning, the total absence of anything remotely resembling a hurry and the warmth and hospitality of the Sudanese people. Gezira is indeed a green and pleasant land.

Robert L. Fielding, a teacher from Oldham, is now on the staff of a school in Sudan. Here are his first impressions of the Sudanese way of life.
Oldham Evening Chronicle
September 3rd 1987

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Drake's Drum

Sir Francis Darke is best remembered for playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe as the Spanish Armada sailed into England’s western approaches. His drum, less well known, is traditionallybeaten whenever England is threatened by her enemies.

The Drum was heard to beat at Dunkirk as the armada of little ships brought our soldiers home. Much earlier, it was heard when Fairfax and Cromwell came to thank the people of Plymouth for the defense of the town during the long siege of the Civil War.

In November 1918, when the German Navy surrendered, men on board the British Admiral’s flagship heard the long roll of a drum. Afterwards, when neither drum nor drummer could be found, it was by consent said to be “Drake’s Drum!”

Sir Henry Newbolt wrote the poem, ‘Drake’s Drum’, and Peter Dawson, the Australian baritone, the most popular one of the 1920s and 30s, sang the song and recorded it on wax cylinders, which, according to Dawson, needed ‘lungs of leather’ because they recorded only the loudest sounds.

Drake's Drum by Sir Henry Newbolt

DRAKE he's in his hammock an' a thousand mile away,

(Capten, art tha sleepin' there below?)

Slung atween the round shot in Nombre Dios Bay,

An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe.

Yarnder lumes the island, yarnder lie the ships,

Wi' sailor lads a-dancin' heel-an'-toe,

An' the shore-lights flashin', an' the night-tide dashin'

He sees et arl so plainly as he saw et long ago.

Drake he was a Devon man, an' ruled the Devon seas,

(Capten, art tha sleepin' there below?),

Rovin' tho' his death fell, he went wi' heart at ease,

An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe,

"Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,

Strike et when your powder's runnin' low;

If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o' Heaven,

An' drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago."

Drake he's in his hammock till the great Armadas come,

(Capten, art tha sleepin' there below?),

Slung atween the round shot, listenin' for the drum,

An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe.

Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound,

Call him when ye sail to meet the foe;

Where the old trade's plyin' an' the old flag flyin',

They shall find him, ware an' wakin', as they found him long ago.
My father, a former matelot in the Royal Navy, often used to sing it while gardening, which is how I come to know it.
Robert L. Fielding

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Your very own sunbeam – sunset over water

Standing on the edge of a stretch of water as the sun is setting, you see the reflection of the sun in a line coming right towards you. A person standing beside you sees a similar line coming towards them.

It is not the same line – that one is theirs and the one aimed at you is yours and yours alone. You are uniquely placed on the planet – no one can see what you see.

If you doubt the truth of this – that your glimpse of sunlight across a stretch of water is uniquely yours, think about this; imagine a dolphin surfacing in the reflection of the sun on the sea – you see the dolphin emerge in the line of brilliant sunlight, while a person standing a few feet way would see the dolphin come up out of the water, but not bathed in the reflection – that treat would be yours and yours alone.

Think about it next time you are standing on a distant shore watching the sun set – it calls out that line from Desiderata –
‘You are a child of the universe,
‘You have a right to be here’

That is what we are – part of the cosmos – the general scheme of things, and sunlight across the bay makes me feel that it is absolutely true.
Robert L. Fielding

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Audience surrogates - "Simple, dear Hastings !"

Many detective novels – from the Sherlock Holmes to the Inspector Morse and the Hercule Poirot series of tales, Conan Doyle, Dexter and Agatha Christie, use what is known as an audience surrogate – a character who ‘learns things’ from the wiser, more insightful solver of crimes leaning against the fireplace in his Baker Street home, propping a bar up in Oxford, or adjusting his immaculate clothing.

This minor character – Dr. Watson, Sergeant Lewis or Captain Hastings, frequently asks the man how he accomplished something germane to the solving of the crime.

In Shakespeare’s day, the thoughts of protagonists were the subject of long, personally delivered soliloquies. Of course, the genres bore no resemblance to crime novels, but nevertheless, the audience surrogate was needed to explain motivations that might otherwise go to the grave with Hamlet or Macbeth for example, and were voiced in ‘To be or not to be’, ‘Is this a dagger..’, among others, so that the audience were privy to what was going on.

Next time you watch a whodunit, look out for your surrogate asking his pointed questions, which inevitably get perfectly formed and intelligible replies.
Robert L. Fielding

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