It’s guns that do the talking; books that set men free
In the Nuba Mountains the printed word is a prized possessionBy John Ryle • August 1995 • City of Words • The Guardian ∙ Reprinted in Nafir, The Newsletter of the Nuba Mountains, Vol 1 Issue 3, October 1995 • 1,207 words
Kodi Rahmatalla Kodi is in charge of logistics for the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Society, an indigenous organization working in the rebel-controlled area of the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan. Since the late 1980s he and other Nuba people living outside government areas have been cut off from all services—from schools, hospitals, shops and markets.
In that time the government of Sudan has done its best to isolate the region from the outside world. In a pitiless war against the civilian population, government forces have burned villages to the ground, corralling their displaced inhabitants into camps. Here the displaced villagers are subject to systematic physical abuse, while their children are liable to be forcibly enrolled in Islamic schools. Those, like Kodi, who are living outside government-controlled areas, lack access to almost all manufactured goods: soap, clothes, shoes, cooking pots, paper—and batteries for the radios that are their only access to the world outside the rebel enclave.
It’s Kodi’s job—an almost impossible one—to try and get such goods from outside. But, as he told me while I was travelling with him in the Nuba Mountains last month, what he would like most, even more than these vital items, is books.
Books and mountains
To get books, or anything else, into the Nuba Mountains is difficult. There is no ground transport except donkeys. To reach the rebel zone you must walk for a week from the area of Southern Sudan controlled by the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or else fly several hundred miles from outside the country—dodging the military installations of the Sudan government—to land at an airstrip within striking distance of the Mountains. Air charters are expensive and dangerous; cargo space is precious.
When I went to the Nuba Mountains I took a number of periodicals and books, as gifts for those few educated Nuba who read English. Among the books were S.F Nadel’s study, The Nuba, published in 1947, Gerhard Baumann’s National Integration and Local Integrity (1987), which is an account of the Miri, one of the forty or fifty different ethnic groups in the Nuba Mountains, and Facing Genocide, a book recently published by the human rights organization African Rights, which chronicles in detail the continuing destruction of Nuba communities by the Sudanese government.
Just one of these, it transpired, doubled the size of Kodi’s library, a history textbook that he carried in a kit bag, wrapped in polythene. Since leaving higher education when the war broke out, he had been continually on the move, from Sudan to Ethiopia for military training, from Ethiopia to Sudan, from Sudan to Kenya, and back Sudan to work in the nascent civil administration of the guerilla-controlled area. Kodi is one of just a handful of educated Nuba who have dedicated themselves to the war of insurgency against the regime in Khartoum. Their only regular source of information about the outside world, even about events in their own country, is the BBC World Service.
As we walked through the spectacular mountain landscape—rocky slopes concealing green valleys with terraced fields of ripening millet, sesame and maize—Kodi and his colleagues discussed world affairs with an intensity born of their long struggle to establish a political identity against the dominant Arab-Islamic culture of northern Sudan.
Men in their twenties and thirties, they have spent their adult years facing institutionalised racism and encroachment on Nuba land by Arab entrepreneurs operating under government protection. Now they are in military confrontation with a regime bent on destroying their culture and livelihood by force. At one point during our journey I heard one of his colleagues address Kodi as “Rifaat”. He demurred. Yes, it was one of his given names, I was told, but Rifaat is an Arab name, and Kodi said it was one he no longer wished to be known by.
It is not a religious war: many Nuba are Muslims. What these Nuba insurgents are against is life under the heel of the narrow, ethnic-based military regime that holds power in Khartoum. The books I took them that discuss the ethnography of the region are valuable to Kodi and his colleagues because they help define what is distinctive about the Nuba. Beyond these books, what they would really like, they said, is accounts of the experience of minorities in other countries—minorities that, like the Nuba, have asserted their right to their own way of life against oppression by a central power.
The printed word and its enemies
Since I returned from the Nuba Mountains I have been considering what to send them. The case of the Eritreans, who fought for twenty years to establish their own state, may be considered encouraging. Eritreans are not a single ethnic group and nor are the Nuba, but they have managed to make a country for themselves. The fate of other minorities outside the West is less hopeful. Amerindians. Tibetans. Montagnards in Vietnam. !Kung in South Africa and Botswana. Karen in Burma and Thailand. None of these is doing well. The Nuba had better know the worst.
In the West there is plenty of documentation available on the plight of such peoples. The problem is selection. And then the problem is getting the books to the Nuba Mountains. And once you get there there’s another problem—the problem of preserving books when you have nowhere to put them, when you have no permanent home.
It’s raining there at this time of year. It’s damp most of the time; nothing stays dry. Moving continually from village to village and sleeping in grass-roofed huts makes it hard to protect books from the elements. The pages of my own notebook are warped like crepe paper; ink runs across the feint ruled lines.
Even when the rain stops, in October or November, insects will be at work. We met a Catholic priest in one Nuba village; his most valued possession was a copy of the New Testament in the language of the Miri Nuba. It was a beautiful, slender, leather-bound edition, printed on fine India paper. But it was half eaten away by termites. And copies of recent newspaper articles about the Nuba that I took were rapidly worn to pieces by the eager traffic of readers.
In the SPLA-controlled areas of the Nuba Mountains half a sheet of old, crumpled paper—torn-up for rolling cigarettes—costs five Sudanese pounds, a couple of pence, not a negligible amount where the cash economy barely exists. Paper of any kind has a price; but printed paper–paper with useful information—is truly valuable. In the government zone possession of books and press cuttings about the war would be grounds for arrest: information control is the order of the day there. By contrast, in the rebel zone, there is comparative freedom of information and opinion—if only the information can get through.
There are, it’s a fair guess, more guns than books in this part of the world. It’s guns that do the talking, but books that make men free. Living, as most of us, do in Europe or America, in continents awash with printed matter, it is good to be reminded of this. ★