Traveller's tales

Monday, January 15, 2007

El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys: # 11


The people of the Sudan are largely Muslim with people in the south of the country being Christian. In the Gezira, the only non-Muslims are the howajad. My colleague, Mohammed Ahmed, the teacher of Islam at the school, throws up his hands in amazement when I declare that I have no immediate wish to become a Muslim.

This is not bigotry or intolerance but a concern for my welfare in the hereafter. He concedes that I worship the one God, stating categorically that there is no God but God. It is in his next utterance that we differ. His insistence that Mohammed (PBUH) is His prophet separates us, but it is not significant enough to separate us in any other way than this difference in our beliefs.

Muslims acknowledge the existence of my prophet, but adhere to the teachings of Mohammed (PBUH) who came later to this mortal life. Perhaps the main difference between us is in our devotion; his is absolute whereas mine is rather tenuous, if consistently so. Mohammed Ahmed is not alone in his complete devotion to his religion, and prayer, one of the five pillars of Islam, is undertaken five times daily with the visit to the Mosque taking place on Fridays.

The twin influences of Islam and tradition inform the people of the most appropriate behaviour towards their fellow man; this is based on honesty, modesty, good neighbourliness and a genuine feeling of welfare for a fellow human being, Muslim or not.

You might say that Islam gives the people compassion, taking care of the poor being another of the pillars of Islam, whilst tradition puts this compassion into practice in the form of hospitality. Traditions and customs seem to occupy the same position that contractual obligations occupy in developed nations. Obligations here though are unspoken, and morally binding rather than written and only binding for the set period of the contract. Such obligations in Sudan ensure stability, continuity and more open behaviour that bodes well for society in general.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of this openness, to a stranger’s eyes particularly, is the way that the older members of the community are integrated into society in ways that are sadly becoming more and more common in England.

The elderly folk enjoy the respect of the young whilst they join in the social life of the towns and villages. Most nights will inevitably see old and young alike sitting drinking tea at the tables that surround the suq. The old provide the link with the past and the customs and traditions that serve to inform the younger members of the community.

This is not to say that the customs and traditions of Sudanese life are foisted on a tardy youth. On the contrary, the young fiercely defend these aspects of life to the hilt. I recently spent an enjoyable day in the company of several young men of 18 or 19 years of age and they heatedly discussed with me the detrimental effects that television was having on these social mores. They argued vehemently that the influence of TV was eroding standards of behaviour in Sudan – they wished something be done about it and implored me to give them an answer to this problem, and all my mental resources were stretched to provide them with an answer that stood up to their searching criticism.

The enthusiasm of my inquisitive companions assured me that this was no show or display of their ability to speak English for the ustaz from England. Rather, it was a frank and emotive discussion of a subject that greatly concerned them. I tried to think of the last time I had had such a discussion about the evils of TV with teenagers in England – I couldn’t recall one off hand.

I should be careful here not to paint a picture of the young people of the Sudan as being too severe or moralistic in their attitudes, although this is undoubtedly the case on certain issues. No, boys will be boys, and Sudanese boys are no exception, enjoying fun and games every bit as much as their counterparts the world over.

Fun and games though, doesn’t seem to involve the downfall or misfortune of others. Fighting, for instance, is rare, and the friendliness towards others in the community at large is found in miniature in the schoolyards, and although this is no place for a day Sermon on the Mount, I only say that we might do well to consider how other, supposedly less developed countries conduct themselves before we attribute to ourselves the accolade of a civilized existence.
Robert L. Fielding

El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys: # 10


For me, the rain presents another problem; my roof leaks and it is all I can do to keep my belongings out of the dirty water that pours in through holes that need fixing. I have been told that every roof leaks in this kind of rain – I presumed they meant ‘wet rain’ but didn’t ask.

Leaking roofs are nothing to write home about for the Sudanese teachers next door. It is the will of God and is stoically accepted. Besides, what if the roof does happen to let water in, there is nothing to get wet. The contents of an average Sudanese home wouldn’t fill a teenager’s bedroom in Bradford, Buxton or Birmingham.

There is nothing to get wet – except skin, and that is soon dried. In the howaja’s house it is different: he has four suitcases, a typewriter and an expensive camera to keep dry, he has ten shirts, four pairs of trousers and a check jacket to save, he has ‘Ulysses’, ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Catch 22’ to cover, he has the portable remnants of a Western life to put into black poly bags and the rain is a problem.

It quickly passes, and I mop up, cursing my sieve of a roof. Perhaps I should be more like Salah and the others but Rome wasn’t built in a day and changing the habits and attitudes of as lifetime cannot be done overnight, particularly when that night is a wet one. I am trying but it will take time. A change in my attitude to life, a change from a Western orientation to a more relaxed pace that suits both the climate and the temperament of the Sudanese would certainly be to my advantage. My lesson in the Ministry of Education was a salutary one and I am learning.

In a land where change is at most gradual, and at least, almost non-existent, failure to adapt to the traditions and customs of its people, could and would make life more difficult than it need be. You might say that the average Englishman in Sudan needs to lower his sights regarding his surroundings, and raise them in his dealings with his fellow man.
Robert L. Fielding

El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys: # 9

The trouble with traveling

In a country that stretches the equivalent of the distance between Aberdeen and Gibraltar, and from Dublin to Athens across, travel is always going to be problematic. In Sudan it is doubly so due to the sparse number of good roads, the weather, and the distances involved.

I was told of an unfortunate teacher who had to travel by train to the region of Darfur in the north west of the country. The journey took three weeks from Khartoum and the teacher spent that time on the roof of the train with the poorer Sudanese, who travel this way out of necessity; you don’t pay on the roof, although I imagine the advantages of free travel are easily outweighed by the need to spend 21 days on the roof of a rumbling rain with several pieces of luggage. I am sure it was an experience she will remember for a long time, but I must say that I am in no hurry to follow her, experience or not.

For more modest journeys, the time is measured in hours or days rather than weeks, although this can depend on the weather of course. Right now it is the rainy season and disruptions to travel are not infrequent. The rain falls in the night – usually, and is heralded by much thunder and lightning, the like of which is comparatively rare in Britain. The night sky lights up and the Heavens grumble.

The thunder is followed by howling winds that can be frightening in their ferocity. After ten or fifteen minutes of torrential rain, we are left to get about as best we can in the mud and surface water that takes days to vanish, in spite of the heat that returns almost immediately.
Robert L. Fielding

El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys: # 8

Rain stops play

The return journey is cooler in the late afternoon and the bus speeds along. All is well. All is well until we leave the tarmac road. There has been rain here and our progress is difficult. At the point of no return, several kilometers from the main road, our driver stalls the engine and we are obliged to get out and push.

The rain has stopped falling but the evidence of it lies all around in pools of muddy water. My white trainers very soon become a muddy brown colour and are caked with an inch of the road’s surface. As ten or twelve men struggle with the mini bus, another two truckloads of people converge on the slippery corner and two more vehicles get stuck.

The sight of upwards of fifty people shouting, pushing and sliding about in several inches of mud is amusing at first until I realize that it is getting darker by the minute and the clouds are gathering for more rain. I had all but resigned myself to walking the remaining nine or ten kilometers to Messelemiya, and had convinced Salah that it was for the best if we started walking before it got too dark. We were ready to go when the engine fired into life and the muddied passengers jumped on board, only to find later that rain had only fallen on these few yards of the road, the rest of our way being perfectly dry and problem free, and we were duly dropped off at our own dusty corner in time for super.

Robert L. Fielding

El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys: # 7

In town

The roads leading away from the station are hardly less crowded and the traffic winds in and out of the throng as best it can. Red taxis noisily ply their trade, speeding to their fare’s destination. Crowded trucks take those whose journeys are unfinished, to the suq kabir (b big market) where vans that have been adapted to carry people take them to the surrounding villages of Soriba, Hantoub and El Hosh.

The avenues by the wide Blue Nile are cooler than the hot marketplaces, and old men sit and ruminate in the shade of the acacia trees. Some smoke tobacco, others put a brown pellet of snuff in the space between their teeth and their bottom lip. Some speak very quickly and excitedly, pausing only to spit the spent snuff into blackened earth or drink water from aluminium cups. Small boys play football where they can, and mothers wipe the sweat from the little head poking out from the folds in their clothes.

A large, imposing building houses the Ministry of Education and men in Western dress saunter along its corridors. Only howajad rush, and they too learn to go more slowly in the midday heat. The business that is conducted in these rooms, kept free from flies by slowly whirling fans is undertaken at this same pace; slowly, and any attempt to hurry up the proceedings is doomed to failure and can actually be counter productive.

A harassed bureaucrat can be a serious obstacle to progress and the only way to proceed is at his funereal pace or not at all. If tea should be served, even at a crucial stage in your dealings, the best thing to do is to partake of a glass when it is offered, which it always is.

The to-ing and fro-ing will eventually end and you will leave, but things must run their course, which they will do in spite of your impatience which must be stifled under a hot collar.
Robert L. Fielding

El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys: # 6

Wad Medani

We reach Wad Medani very quickly on the main road and the traffic increases. The area around the bus station teems with people: tall men in white, flowing jelabiyas, and turban-like headwear; women in brightly coloured tobes that cover them from head to foot, leaving only their faces uncovered to survey the stalls on the suq seral (small market) which doubles as the headquarters of the Gezira Public Transport Company.

Next to the bus station is the football stadium and on match days this area of market, bus station and stadium is thronged. Along the walls of the stadium men crouch and urinate, ignored by marketgoers and travelers alike.

The bus journey leaves most people hot and thirsty and the sides of the station are lined with stalls of brightly painted, corrugated iron to meet this overwhelming need. Yellow crates of Pepsi cola stand ready to be transferred to the large fridges to cool. Other stands sell sweet, ice cold lemon juice to thirsty travelers. Small disheveled boys in rags touch your elbow as you drink and are only placated when they are assured that you will share your drink with them.

Between the stalls and the buses, a ditch of water, diesel oil and rubbish provides an unspeakable cocktail for the unwary. Next to the drink stalls, women crouch over charcoal burners and serve tea in small glasses. On the other side, young girls carry trays of cones made from pages of newspapers, containing peanuts.

The more substantial stalls in the market proper sell all manner of bric-a-brac – wrist watches, bootlaces, perfume, Chinese sandals, innards of carburetors, pens, notepaper, and clothes pegs, while those stalls between the suq and the stadium sell mostly fruit, which is arranged in conical piles on the wooden stands.

In another part of the market, small boys kneel and polish shoes for a few piastres. Others sit and roast maize to sell to passers by. Piles of bright green water melons lie waiting to be sold, bleeding bright red under the sun.
Robert L. Fielding

El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys: # 5

Going to market

For anything bigger than a pair of sandals, the mini-bus leaves for the nearby town of Wad Medani about fifteen kilometers to the south. The Japanese mini buses wait to fill up and only leave when every seat is occupied.

In the heat of the afternoon, sitting waiting for would be passengers can be trying, especially when nobody seems in the slightest hurry or to have any inclination whatsoever to step aboard. With my arms and forehead bathed in sweat, I ask my friend, Salah, when the driver will start the engine and drive, and get the answer, “alakeefu”, which means, ‘it’s up to him’.

Eventually the bus fills up and we leave for the town. Fort five minutes and fifteen dusty kilometers later, we reach Wad Medani. We have stopped three times to pick up passengers from hamlets and farms on the way. The young woman sitting next to me has unconcernedly fed her little bundle and its crying has stopped.

Some of the men sleep fitfully, their heads nodding down almost to their knees before being jolted awake by the bumpy road as it twists and turns over and around the irrigation canals that crisscross the Gezira. The main canal is boiling as it churns through the sluices into the subsidiary canals and ditches.

In the hot afternoon the main canal is full of schoolboys from El Messelemiya, swimming and resting, shouting and laughing in the swirling brown water. The road turns one more time before it reaches the main road which runs from Medani to the capital, Khartoum, and is one of the very few metalled roads in the Sudan.
Robert L. Fielding

Saturday, January 13, 2007

El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys: # 4

Supplies and cooks

The women in the kitchen work miracles, and I suspect very hard, using the most basic utensils on charcoal stoves on which to prepare the many dishes that swill suddenly appear from a kitchen that would make anything but a boiled egg a problem for the average London chef used only to the most modern stoves and food mixers.

Whilst staying at the home of a friend recently, his elder sister brought out a silver tray upon which were all manner of dishes that would not have disgraced the table of any restaurant anywhere. There was variety, flavour and colour in plenty, and all cooked in the most austere kitchen imaginable.

The individual ingredients of those meals are sold from upturned dustbin lids or something that looks very like them. The suq (market) seems to have every herb and spice known to man piled on these aluminium discs and the women buy their weekly supplies, carrying them in the folds of their clothes in lieu of baskets.

The suq in El Messelemiya is a hive of activity, and sheep, cattle and goats are sold in front of thronged stalls where the piles of multi-coloured mis-shapes; the ripe mangoes and giant water melons are bought and sold in a furore of noise, dust and friendly chatter.

Barter seems to be the order of the day here, although to date, I have had little success, probably because of my being looked on as the ‘howaja’ (European/white man) with plenty of money to spare; that and my poor Arabic seem the best explanation for my failure.

Robert L. Fielding

El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys: # 3

After the school day

The school day ends at 1.50pm and I walk the short distance to my home where I rest until dinner arrives at 2.30pm. Dinner, like any other meal here, is one to be shared and enjoyed. We stand in a circle around the table, right hands ready to dip into the meat, salad, the beans or whatever happens to be the dish of the day. Bread is used to scoop up the food from the brightly coloured plastic bowls and in a very few minutes the food is gone. Six or seven hungry teachers don’t take long to demolish a bowl or two of dura (beans) or laham (meat) and the bottom of the bowl appears all too quickly.

On some occasions, the other teachers will join us for our meal; I counted twelve men at our table the other day. Just as you get to thinking that the food won’t get very far, a stack of shiny aluminium saucepans mysteriously appears and the choice immediately trebles. Some of the dishes are served with a somewhat monotonous regularity whist others are served only rarely.

Most of the food is al but unrecognizable but the batatis (potatoes) and laham (meat) are familiar enough and I enjoy them. One of the regular dishes very much resembles baked beans of that famous variety that is a particular favourite with some of the junior members of my family. Salaata aswaad (aubergine salad) is a regular side dish and consists of a well baked eggplant, peeled, and mashed with peanut butter, lemon juice, salt and shaata, which is a Sudanese version of chilli powder, added to taste, of course.

The resulting mash is eaten by itself, or more usually with meat: mutton or liver. Kibda (liver) is chopped and left to marinate with spices such as cumin, ginger and garlic, all mixed with sweet and hot peppers, the ubiquitous peanut butter and some seasoning before being fried in hot oil until the liver is browned. It is delicious and cheap.

Green salads are cheap and plentiful and equally delicious, cucumbers tomatoes and onions being plentiful. Salads here are usually covered in lemon juice making them at once a refreshing and tasty meal. For dessert, there may be tahnea which is a sweet, dry, powdery sort of cake, or else basta, a soft, flaky pastry dripping in syrup, all washed down with hot chi bi laban (tea with milk) or without milk (chi saada), both served piping hot with lots of sugar.
Robert L. Fielding

El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys: # 2


Teaching in Sudan is not the chore that it has become in some schools in England. A rapport is very soon established and the class polices itself. An English voice is something to be heard and enjoyed. An English voice attempting a simple Arabic phrase is hilarious and the uproar that was caused by my trying to say, ‘Sabah al kheer’ (Good morning) probably disturbed my neighbours in their classrooms. The clamor unnerved me until I realized it was not malicious but congratulatory and was no threat to my authority in class.

Once the class has settled down, after much clanking of the rough, iron chairs on the stone floors, the pupils are quiet enough with any talk coming from one boy helping his neighbour understand what the ‘ustaz’ is saying. Like schoolboys everywhere there are those who can do the work easily and there are those who find it more difficult.

There is no streaming here and the brighter students sit in the same classroom as those who are less fortunate. Knowing where to pitch the lesson is the prime difficulty here. Some boys speak a variety and level of English that would suffice in any English town or village, while others can barely utter a few words.

Usually, the boys’ ability is reflected by where they sit in the classroom; the keener, more proficient ones sit at or near the front, while those who are not quite so keen or able sit at the back. I say ‘usually’ for one of my brighter students, Mohammed Karmella, a tall boy of nineteen, sits in this pack who are perhaps happier with Maths and Physics than they are with English.

When things are not going as well as I hoped, up pops Mohammed Karmella and gives me the response I have been tearing my hair out to obtain. The rest will get the idea and soon their shining, black faces will light up with understanding.

When I am pining for news of my family, when I am feeling a bit homesick, when I am hot and bothered, up pops Mohammed Karmella or Sufian and things don’t seem so bad after all. The heat, the flies, and the chalk that crumbles to dust the instant it touches the blackboard, all pale into insignificance and I settle down to teach.
Robert L. Fielding

Thursday, January 11, 2007

El Messelemiya Higher Secondary School for Boys: # 1 The start of the school day

The plaintive tones of Victoria de los Angeles waft gently on the warm evening air. The electricity has returned to my little house next to the Higher Secondary School for Boys in El Messelemiya. It is five thirty and already the signs of the night are here. The bats in the eaves of the roof of my house are getting excited, it is nearly time for their flight to the trees and the insects there.

It is dusk and the insects are starting to bite the howaja – me! My light skin is a rare delicacy in these parts and they are not slow to enjoy it. The frogs in the nearby ditches and canals of the irrigation scheme are starting their nightly chorus, which might be taken for a farm generator that has been left running. Victoria finishes her aria and Lily Bolero signals the World News.

It has been another hot day in my calendar of hot days that started when I stepped down from the Sudanair Tristar at Khartoum Airport, twelve weeks ago. Up until that time, my total experience of prolonged hot weather had been the summer of 1976. This is different. The temperature can reach 45C and does, frequently. These evenings provide the only relief from the incessant heat of a Sudanese autumn.

The freshness of the early morning is short lived here, with the rising sun putting an abrupt end to coolness at six. A shower is pleasant but provides no lasting feeling of refreshment – the water is already warm in the pipe, and the sensation, so eagerly anticipated, is lost.

A night spent under a mosquito net is not unpleasant. Sleep comes easily enough after the debilitating heat of the day, and my colleagues’ prayers at 4am hardly disturb me. Rising at six is no hardship.

Sometimes, while I am shaving, my mirror standing on top of the wall that surrounds our home, I hear the boys shouting a chant as they run around the school grounds with the ageing soldier struggling to keep up. When they reach my bit of the wall, I wave at them and they shout, “Hey, Mister Robert!” in between their rhythmic shouts, a tribe of young warriors limbering up for the day that lies ahead.

The day starts early here. At 7.30am the school bell rings and two hundred and odd lively boys stand to attention for the retired soldier who inspects them in the manner of the British who left in 1956.

Another bell at 7.45am signals the start of the day’s lessons and the boys are playfully chased to their crowded classrooms by the soldier. He is supposed to cane the boys who are sent to him, but lately some of the teachers have suspected him of shirking his responsibilities. I personally think that, like me, he has grown fond of the boys and does not like to hurt them.

The second bell goes and lessons begin. In Sudan, a class of 35 is a small one with classes of 50 or 60 being more common. A sea of faces can be unnerving at first until you realize that this is not a Stanley Baker film, but the Sudan, and the boys are not out to get the teacher’s blood, or indeed his goat, but actually want to learn some English from the ‘howaja’ who has come from that mythical land called England, a plane journey and an age away.
Robert L. Fielding

A Journey to the Red Sea # 10


Khuna: life in a refugee camp

Unbeknown to us, the bus to Gedaref stops after about one in the afternoon. A lift on a truck as far as the village of Khuna, several kilometers away is all we can manage today.

At first sight, passing through, this village might be overlooked as just another Sudanese village, like so many others. A closer look reveals that it is not Sudanese at all, but Tigrayan, and that it is not a village at all, but a refugee camp.

Feeling like intruders into the world of suffering and hardship, we enter the village and are thankful that we have left our cameras behind in Gedaref. Our intrusion would have felt doubly humiliating if we had had cameras around our necks, we thought.

Eventually, in the midst of the grass huts, some of them topped off with little crosses (the Tigrayans are not Muslim) we find a hut that looked a bit like the one where we had bought tea in Safawa. Sure enough, tea is on sale.
“What’s tea in their language?”
“Try Arabic,” suggested Ade. I suppose that saying anything in a questioning voice and pointing at the kettle in a place that only sells tea will always obtain the desired beverage. The young boy understands and gives us two glasses of tea.

In a corner of the hut two young men are playing draughts using bottle tops in lieu of checkers on a piece of cardboard marked out in squares. After a few minutes, we begin to watch and are invited to play. A game of draughts between an Englishman and a Tigrayan in the middle of Africa has got to some kind of first, hasn’t it?

Luckily for us, the man spoke a little English and some Arabic so we manage to communicate the fact that we are sort of stranded in Khuna. We are promptly taken to someone’s home and fed and watered and given beds for the night.

Eating a fine meal of adis (lentils), tomatoes and shata (chilli peppers) that has been been prepared by people who have been lucky to escape death or malnutrition, or the ravages of war in their own land is a peculiar experience, and the welcome is cordial and hospitable.

After the food and tea has been taken away, our hosts produce a radio and tune it in to the BBC World Service to make us feel at home. It does seem that the relationship between wealth and material possessions, and hospitality is an inverse one.

At first light the family rise and make tea on a charcoal stove, then after we have drank, we are taken through the bewildering maze of huts to a point from which lorries from Safawa arrive to take people into Gedaref to work.

Gedaref now has a familiar look about it, like an old friend, and our journey feels almost over. We step aboard the bus heading back to Wad Medani three hours away and it has ended. In front of us, the Shihada, a couple of days in Khartoum to tie up loose ends of Sudanese red tape, and a nine hour flight back to that other world of red double-decker buses, fast food and the good life. The thought occurs to me thatafter this trip the ‘good life’ might not have any of its former appeal.
Robert L. Fielding

Monday, January 08, 2007

A Journey to the Red Sea # 9


Going home

Returning to Kassala and Gedaref is much easier than the outward journey. We have had the foresight to book a seat on a bus and the hop to Kassala turns out to be much quicker and slightly cheaper as well. The section of road to Kassala, or at least that part of it from the small town of Haiya in the Red Sea hills, was built by the Italians between 1973 and 1980 at a cost of more than 30 million Sudanese pounds.

Similarly, the Kassala to Gedaref section was completed during the same period of time by the combined efforts of the Italians and Yugoslavs, at a similar cost whilst the Chinese built the remaining miles to Wad Medani astride the Blue Nile at about half that cost.

Prior to independence in 1956, there were only about 120 miles of metalled roads in the country, making the journey to Port Sudan from the Nile valley a mammoth undertaking. Now, because of the new road linking the Red Sea with the capital, Sudan is beginning to open up, although much remains to be done.

The next step is the construction of a road between the towns of Wad Medani and Kosti on the White Nile, and to the town of Damazin higher up the Blue Nile and south of Medani. Next, the towns of El Obeid and Niyala, well to the west of the Nile, need connecting with a road rather than tracks that are subject to flooding and hence huge delays for drivers. If these roads are built, Sudan will be able to go further to achieving its potential as a major cotton and grain exporting nation.

Returning to Gedaref and Derek’s hospitality in the rest house, we realize that the Shiada (Final Exam for Higher Secondary School pupils) is only a few days away and we still have one trip to make. The much traveled Ustaz Jeremy had told us of a village three hours from Ged, near the Ethiopian border, where the River Atbara is particularly beautiful and where swimming is safe.

The village of Safawa has little to endear it to the weary traveler; its market is not so very remarkable, consisting for the most part of ugly corrugated iron huts huddled around a square of bare earth. Its houses are mostly made from the straw from harvested sugar cane, and crowd around the edges of the market place in confusion and disorder.

In this respect it is like many villages that are sprinkled across the dry wastes of the Eastern region, and the area to the west of Gedaref in particular. What makes the village worth the three bumpy hours along twisted and rutted tracks, is the river, which lies half a mile through the village, still and brown in the shimmering heat.

At this time of the year, it is at its lowest as are all the rivers that originate in the Ethiopian highlands; the wet season is still several months away and there has been no rain for five months. The river, at the bottom of a small escarpment, probably a former meander, is a browny green colour, almost silent, stagnant and totally still.

Despite its colour and lack of movement, small boys are filling vessels made from the inner tubes of lorry wheels slung over the backs of donkeys, to provide fresh water for the villagers nearby. We reason that if it is OK to drink, it is most probably fine to swim in. In the brackish waters of these rivers, the main problem is bilharzia, a fluke wich enters the body and infects the bowel.

The fact that the locals have chosen to drink the water from this river would seem to indicate its absence. Personally, I am not entirely convinced and still need some reassurance about the absence of crocodiles, snakes and lizards or whatever.

After the others have splashed about in the water shouting me to join them, I find that the water is superb; cool and refreshing. The depth at this point also surprises me in view of the languor of the current.

Swimming and splashing about is all very well, but you’ve got to stop sometime, and in the heat of midday, by the time we have put our shoes and socks on, and we stand fully clothed again, any cooling effect quickly vanishes and the heat feels as oppressive as ever.

The trudge back up the escarpment cancels out any refreshing qualities that a bathe in a tropical river might be thought to possess. It only remains to have a look round, drink some tea and return to civilization at Gedaref.
Robert L. Fielding

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Journey to the Red Sea # 8

Old Suakin

Old Suakin, twenty odd miles south east of Port Sudan, used to be the country’s main link to the rest of the world. For centuries, it was a centre for Arab trading and was also a centre for pilgrims making the vjourney across the Red Sea to Meccah in Saudi Arabia.

The old town, now unhappily in a very dilapidated state, was built on an island which is connected to the mainland by a short causeway. Since the opening of Port Sudan with its deeper water and its wider approaches so vital for modern shipping, Suakin has been in a state of slow decline, until it stands today in mute testimony to the advance of the modern age.

Since 1900, Suakin has been deserted and now resembles a scene from the London Blitz. Its houses – what is left of them, were built by Turks and Egyptians, from local coral and Javan teak and still bear the stamp of former grandeur and affluence.

What immediately strikes you as you pass through the gate at the edge of the island is the contrast of colours – the white ruins, jagged gables, stairways that lead to nowhere, and the azure sea all around. The shores of the Rea Sea are similarly contrasted, with the white and blue – the golden brown of the strand of sand lining the brilliant shore – all bathed in bright sunshine under the canopy of a clear blue sky.

The former colonial presence is now only hinted at by a few rusting cannons that may have seen the great Osman Digna, leader of the Mahdist forces in the east of the country, and to whose memory a statue stands on a corner across from the Olympia Park Hotel in town.

Along the shores of the island we met groups of small boys fishing and swimming in the crystal clear water. As the heat has more or less reached its height, we quickly join them in the water to splash about and have fun while cooling off, ever mindful of the razor sharp coral beneath our feet, as well as the fishes, some of which the boys had caught and proudly held up to show us. They had sharp teeth, like sharks in miniature.

They noticed that we had cameras in the piles of our clothing, and pointed at them and shouted, “Sura, sura!” The Sudanese are a joyful race of people, given to laughing a lot and being cheerful. If you once point a camera at them, however, they become deadly serious looking. It is best to obtain consent before you take photographs of people, but these lads obviously had no problems – they wanted their photos taking. Even the smallest boy stood quickly to attention and looked as if we were going to shoot him with something else.

Cajolery, pleas to relax or else catching them unawares, which is almost impossible, is necessary if you want anything like a natural photograph that goes some way to catching the real nature of these friendly and hospitable people. We managed it with the boys in the water, and with another group proudly displaying the fish they have caught.

After a breakfast of ful and laham, in the mainland village which gains its living from fishing and light trade, we return to our hotel and a short rest before again wandering around the streets of the bustling port.
Robert L. Fielding

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Journey to the Red Sea # 7


Port Sudan

We arrive in Port Sudan in plenty of time to get a small room in the Olympia Park Hotel, a rather grand sounding name for a labyrinth of rooms, corridors and stairs that passes for a hotel.

After a short nap and a meal at a nearby café, we head for the dock area and its lines of fine colonial style architecture which is so uncharacteristic of most of the country we have seen so far. It seems incongruous, even in this thriving port, which is itself unlike any other town I have yet visited. The air, for instance, there is something very unSudanese about it; it is humid and quite cool – the presence of the sea can be clearly felt if it cannot always be seen.

Inland from the dock area the streets become familiarly Sudanese again, and only the humidity belies our location. As dusk settles on the crowded streets, which are full of young men wanting to change our dollars into local currency, a stray knot of camels careers out of the half light and sends us scurrying for cover and safety behind the pillars of a building. Half a ton of camel in a stampede is not the sort of thing you feel you want to get in the way of, but our running has not gone unnoticed and we are roundly jeered for our apparent timidity. One boy summed up the hilarity; he said, “Hey, Mister, you afraid of camel?”

The train from Port Sudan to our next intended destination leaves early in the morning; the next one leaving exactly one week later. As we had set out primarily to see the old port of Suakin further down the coast, we decide that the town of Shendi will have to join that category of places to be visited some time in the future. Suakin, after all, was on everybody’s list of places to see and is most definitely on ours.
Robert L. Fielding

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Journey to the Red Sea # 6



Breakfasting in the marketplace in Sinkat soon brought those plans to an end. This day of all days had been earmarked by the Hadendowa as their annual or extraordinary general meeting to discuss a dispute with their neighbours in the east of Sudan – the Rasheida, with whom they had a quarrel.

I know no more of the affair than that, and this much I managed to glean from one of the Sudanese onlookers who spoke fluent English but who was apparently as bemused by the proceedings as we were. The Hadendowa are a conspicuous people whose menfolk carry huge swords which are some four feet in length, although, I am led to believe, not in anger.

Their other mark of distinction is their hair – worn long in the style teenagers in England call ‘Afro’. Whether these tribesmen whose ancestors fought the British and had the sobriquet ‘fuzzy-wuzzy’ coined. Kipling wrote that they were the only warriors to break the British ‘square’.

The meeting gets underway and is chaired by a man sitting in a Japanese car fitted with a public address system – a microphone. The crowd gather around this car or else stand on rooftops to get a better view. At what must be a significant point in the meeting, the Hadendowa throw their swords up in the air and whoop and haloo with glee, until I begin to fear for the safety of the Rasheida.

Like the journey of the day before, this meeting doesn’t look like coming to an end in the foreseeable future and as transport depends upon the meeting ending first, we decide to leave the allure of Urkowit for another day. We head for the lorry park and a lift into Port Sudan.

Robert L. Fielding

A Journey to the Red Sea # 5


Kassala to Sinkat

The morning of the day of the longest leg of our journey to the Red Sea starts well enough, although we have already noted that it is hot even at six in the morning. What it will be like at midday is anybody’s guess.

Securing a place on an empty lorry looks fine – at first. We have told ourselves that it will move all the quicker for it being empty. We had not reckoned with the fact that no vehicles ever travel empty for very long in Sudan. Soon the lorry is stopping at regular intervals to pick up travelers and their belongings, sometimes it seems like all of their belongings.

Women with children, men with swords (Hadendowa tribesmen), sheep, goats, sacks of who knows what, in fact all manner of household effects is thrown up onto the back of the lorry, so that far from having it to ourselves and being able to stretch out full length on the two sacks of cotton that had been loaded before we got on, we now find that we haven’t even got enough leg room, and there is still seven and a half hours of the journey left.

These remaining seven hours to the town of Sinkat at the edge of the Red Sea hills seem interminable and our three stops for water are welcomed by one and all. Only the sheep and the goats stay on the lorry. Sinkat, we have decided, will be the end of the day’s journey. Port Sudan and the Red Sea are still maybe three hours away.

Our main reason for stopping in Sinkat, apart from the shortening of the overlong and uncomfortable journey is the fact that Sinkat is the town from which transport is available to reach the hill-town of Urkowit in the Red Sea hills, and which is reputed to be very beautiful and cool and maybe, because of this and its remoteness is the haunt of newly weds on their honeymoon. Urlowit the following morning sounds a good prospect. The nearby training camp of the PLO hadn‘t deterred us from our plans to visit this veritable spa in the hills overlooking the Red Sea.

Robert L. Fielding

A Journey to the Red Sea # 4


Into Kassala

The next leg of our journey – Gedaref to Kassala is made easier by our sitting in the front with the driver of the lorry we have hitched. The three hour journey turns out to be nearer five – the lorry is heavily loaded and its progress is slow.

Again, before we reach the town of Kassala and in sight of the famous jebels (mountains) that separate it from Ethiopia, the driver cuts off the road and crosses the desert to beat the Police who are waiting on the edge of town. Our travel papers are entirely in order, having taken the opportunity the day before to have them stamped by the Police in Gedaref.

The driver still insists on the detour through a Rashaida village, rubbing his thumb across his outstretched fingers, and saying ‘Qurush kateer’, his way of telling us that the Police will want a lot of money to let them pass through without delay.

Kassala, well inside the Eastern region and now only eight or nine hours from the Red Sea, is brutally hot and dry. The River Gash which flows from the highlands of Ethiopia in more pluvial times of the year is now a dried up wadi that stretches out into the desert like a dead and sun-bleached snake lying across the eastern portion of Sudan.

Luckily for us, the teachers in Kassala are still at home and our sleep is assured, as is our company. Chris and Sue come from the south of England, only to fall in love with the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield whilst studying there several years earlier. As they are old sweats, so to speak, in the town of Kassala, we are taken out and treated to the best food money can buy.

Laham (meat), ful (beans), salata (green salad) is the order, all washed down with chi bi lebel (tea with milk) until the day’s journey becomes only a distant, dim memory band an aid to a good night’s sleep.

The town of Kassala is so picturesque that we have decided to spend the whole of tomorrow looking round the place, taking more photos (my last ones were lost somewhere between Khartoum and the processing laboratory in Wiltshire), and attempting to climb the jebel at the back of the town.

This last decision – to climb the mountain- is a bad one that is ultimately doomed to failure in the scorching heat. Only goats and hard bitten shepherds stray that way in the heat of the day. On our wretched return from our attempted climb, Ustaz Jeremy, who had been languishing in Kassala while we strove upwards, laughs at our foolishness and our appearance, but in a kinder moment fetches us much needed cold water and lays out two mattresses for us to take our rest on. Woken up later with cups of tea and the radio tuned in to BBC’s Play of the Week – Rattigan’s ‘The Browning Version’, it is a joy after a morning scampering about huge rocks under a scalding sun while being watched by the baboons that are said to frequent these hills but are only rarely seen.

Listening to Nigel Stock in the part of Crocker Harris is as nice and perhaps as unusual a way of spending an afternoon as I can think of, made all the more pleasant in the knowledge that we needn’t do it again tomorrow.

Robert L. Fielding

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Journey to the Red Sea #3



In another part of Gedaref market, the smell betrays its business – piles of dried fish from somewhere – the sea is still 350 miles away (perhaps these fish come from the Nile) are haggled over by men kneeling in the dirt.

In yet another part of this seemingly endless market, the market traders sell what I can best only describe under the generic label, artifacts, ranging from leather whips for the camels, horses and donkeys, to earthenware coffee pots and milk jugs made from old tin cans that contained powdered milk, before they were emptied, opened, cut and soldered so that they are able to pour milk as well as hold its dried equivalent.

We had often noted that not very much of anything is wasted in Sudan – perhaps the best illustration of this is the way worn out tyres are made into all sorts of things – cheap flip-flops, or vessels for carrying water – car springs from Oxford, Dagenham or Hailwood end their lives as knives, swords, or all sorts of kitchen utensils and are wholly unrecognizable from the original.

Having left the teeming market behind in a flurry of dust, noise and banter, we have to search out the home of one of our colleagues, Ustaz Jeremy of Rugby, Oxford and now, Gedaref. We find his house, but it seems from the people living across the dusty, wheel rutted street that he has had exactly the same idea as us and is using the time off to go exploring. This is a problem for us until another ‘howaja’ hails us to ask us if we are lost. He comes down from his rooftop to talk to us. It seems we have inadvertently stumbled on the headquarters of the Save the Children Fund in Gedaref.

The rooftop from which we were hailed is that of the rest house for the many aid workers in the area working under the noble auspices of the Fund. After a shower, a change of clothes and a cold drink, the aches from the lorry journey and the dust of the ‘haboob’ are easily forgotten – until the next time.

Derek, our host, is a pleasant man in his early forties, comes from Llanberis in North Wales and is the Field Director of the organization here in Gedaref. His job is to coordinate and direct the work that goes on all the time, year in, year out – the work that is largely unsung but so necessary in a country prone to endemic dysentery, malaria, and gardia, which is an unpleasant ailment that prohibits movement very far away from a toilet.

Most serious ailments and malnutrition associated diseases are not infrequent and at the moment Derek and his co-workers in the town are undertaking a project to enable the market traders to dispose of their rubbish – piles of rotting vegetables and all manner of organic waste. To this end, Derek has secured the help of Gedaref’s equivalent of the Town Council in providing rough iron skips with which to dispose of the potentially harmful waste of the market.

Other projects include the provision of culverts to drain rainwater from the wadis of the deluge when it arrives with the rainy season later in the year. This last project should hopefully remove or at any rate reduce the breeding grounds of the mosquitoes that so efficiently spread malaria to the people of Sudan – everybody, including the howajad have occasional bouts of the disease.

Robert L. Fielding

A Journey to the Red Sea #2


On and off the road

Conditions at the outset were something less than perfect; the ‘haboob’ was gusting strongly and the dust whipped up had rendered the sky a curious yellowy brown colour and made sitting on the backs of lorries loaded with sacks of cotton, bound at one time for the cotton mills of Lancashire, a dirty affair.

We reached the border of the Eastern Region and the Central Region at the town of Gedaref in a disheveled state – dirty, thirsty and tired. Sudan’s extreme flatness at this point makes the 4-hour journey an uninteresting one with the only thing to make you sit up and take a look being a caravan of hundreds of camels plodding eastwards to be sold in the markets there.

Our driver turns into Gedaref by a back road to avoid the Policed checkpoint on the edge of town. He knows that the presence of ‘howajad’ on the back of his lorry will delay him and may even land him in trouble.

In a towns without street names, the radio mast is a welcome sight and one that will help us find our way about later. After the small towns and villages of Gezira (El Hosh, Messelemiya, Hasaheisa) with their traffic of donkeys, horses and carts and the odd lorry, Gedaref town centre feels like Oxford Circus on Saturday afternoon.

Lots and lots of huge lorries with equally large trailers, loaded with sacks of cotton or grain hurtle past at terrifying speeds. Taxis, Land Rovers, Japanese 4 b y 4s and small trucks crowd the streets and make crossing them difficult. It has been said of Gedaref, that it has more millionaires than Manhattan, and the many mansions give it the look of affluence. Unlike Manhattan however, adjacent to the large, imposing buildings owned by rich grain merchants, are huddled grass huts with pointed roofs, the home of the less well off majority of Gedaref.

Being near to the border with famine stricken Tigray, the town is a magnet for refugees who either live in camps that surround the town or else live in these huts, sandwiched between the grand homes of the rich. A walk around the open market though, might lead you to believe there is no famine or hardship of any sort. The vegetable suq is a colourful couple of acres of bright tomatoes, mangoes, bananas and melons. The shops that surround this thronged area are full of the things we had forgotten existed back in Gezira - tins of pilchards, bars of chocolate, tins of cocoa – all manner of foodstuff that originates from either America or Europe.

This apparent glut blurs the image of the Sudan , its people and their hard lives – shops full of food don’t necessarily mean full stomachs. The price of these ‘luxury goods’, for example, would be well beyond the reach of the refugee population and many of the town’s poor. A Mars bar costs five Sudanese pounds – the same price as five meals or twenty cups of tea. We declined the luxury and the shelves remained well stocked.

Robert L. Fielding

A Journey to the Red Sea (March, 1988)


Locations and alternatives

The Red Sea stretches from the port of Suez in Egypt, down through the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean. To its east lies Saudi Arabia and Yemen, to its west its coastline is claimed by Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Tigray and Somalia before it emerges into the vastness of the Indian Ocean.

The portion claimed by Sudan is that country’s only outlet by sea to the outside world, to foreign markets for its cotton which flourishes in its irrigated lands between the Blue and White Niles, the area known as Gezira, literally ‘island’.

Between Gezira and the Red Sea lies some five hundred miles of metalled road; a road that links the capital, Khartoum, with the important towns of wad Medani, the major town in Gezira; Gedaref, near to the border with Ethiopia and itself a major centre of trade for the Easter region; Kassala, with its population from Yemen – the Rashaida, from Eritrea and from Tigray, refugees from the famine and wars in those disputed lands now under Ethiopian rule, to Port Sudan on the Red Sea and built by the British.

Tarmac roads are more or less non existent in the rest of the Sudan, and traveling from Khartoum or Wad Medani to Port Sudan is considered an easy journey in comparison to treks to the west, to El Obaid and Nyala. The only alternative to traveling by those rough tracks and graded roads, that are impassable in the rainy season, is the train which only runs once a week and can take weeks rather than days to reach its furthest destinations. The road to Port Sudan is a long one but the buses and lorries travel relatively quickly and rain never hinders progress.

The two weeks between the end of 2nd Year Examinations and the ‘Shihada’ – the important 3rd and Final Year Examination for Higher Secondary School students, would, we thought, be more than sufficient time to reach the red Sea and look round Port Sudan and its redundant neighbour, Suakin, the port that served Sudan prior to the building of Port Sudan before the 1st World War.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Smuggling: 'brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk!

Smuggling has always been a way people have used to earn money by cheating Customs and Excise men out of their dues. As an island race, the people of Britain have probably indulged in it more than most.

A population with a strong government intent on extracting every bit of tax levied on things like tobacco and drink, the people of Britain have always had plenty of incentive to ‘import’ items into the country without feeling it necessary to pay duty on them.

Of course, smuggling easily and quickly found its way into folk lore; Rudyard Kipling wrote his well known poem, ‘The Smugglers Song’, and Charles Dickens mentions the activity in the early chapters of A Tale of Two Cities. Here are both – poem and extract.
A Smuggler's Song
Words by Rudyard Kipling, adapted and with music by Michael Longcor.Music Copyright ©1988 by Firebird Arts & Music/BMI.Used by permission
If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie,Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
ChorusFive and twenty ponies trotting through the dark-Brandy for the Parson, and 'Baccy for the Clerk;Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,And Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump if you chance to findLittle barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,Don't you shout to come and look, not use 'em for your play.Put the brushwood back again, and they'll be gone next day.
If you see the stable-door setting open wide;If you see a tired horse lying down inside;If your mother mends a coat that's cut about and tore;If the lining's wet and warm--Don't you ask no more!

If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red,You be mindful what you say, and mindful what is said.If they call you "pretty maid," and chuck you 'neath the chin,Don't you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one's been!
Knocks and footsteps round the house, whistles after dark-You've no call for running out until the house dogs bark.Trusty's here, and Pincher's here, and see how dumb they lie-They don't fret to follow when the Gentlmen go by!

If you do as you've been told, likely there's a chance,That you'll be give a dainty doll that's all the way from France,With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood-A present from the Gentlemen, along o' being good!

Final Chorus
Five and twenty ponies, trotting through the dark-Brandy for the Parson, and 'Baccy for the Clerk;Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie-And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Charles Dickens hints at smuggling in the port of Dover in A Tale of Two Cities
The little narrow, crooked town of Dover hid itself away from the beach, and ran its head into the chalk cliffs, like a marine ostrich. The beach was a desert of heaps of sea and stones tumbling wildly about, and the sea did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction. It thundered at the town, and thundered at the cliffs, and brought the coast down, madly. The air among the houses was of so strong a piscatory flavour that one might have supposed sick fish went up to be dipped in it, as sick people went down to be dipped in the sea. A little fishing was done in the port, and a quantity of strolling about by night, and looking seaward: particularly at those times when the tide made, and was near flood. Small tradesmen, who did no business whatever, sometimes unaccountably realised large fortunes, and it was remarkable that nobody in the neighbourhood could endure a lamplighter.
A Tale of Two Cities

Robert L. Fielding

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