At independence Francis’ father, the Ngok Paramount Chief, had judged that the future of his people would be better served by remaining in the North, closer to the power centre of the country, than by cleaving to the Southern region with the other Dinka tribes. Not all Ngok notables agreed with him. Throughout the seventies there was talk of a referendum to resolve the anomaly of Abyei—a referendum had been specified in the peace agreement that ended the first civil war in 1973. But the political state of the country was not amenable to such adjustments.
Now, ten years on, as I mapped out our route to Abyei, my cartographic error no longer looked so innocent. The Misseriya inhabitants of Kordofan, allied with the Government, seemed bent on following the logic of the North-South boundary and annexing the Ngok Dinka lands. Abyei was under military occupation; most of the Ngok had been displaced from their villages; and the Misseriya militias moved freely through their land.
The place of garbage
The day after our conversation with the Dinka street vendors in Khartoum I visited Hillat Kusha, a huge shanty town across the Blue Nile, in Khartoum North. I went with a Dinka colleague—I’ll call him Majak Kuol—who had agreed to accompany Mark and me on our journey to Abyei. Majak was from Abyei himself; he had made a study of relations between Southern pastoralist groups, of which the Dinka are the largest, and Baggara Arab groups such as the Misseriya with whom they share grazing grounds. Majak knew about shanty towns too: he lived in one.
To get to Hillat Kusha we followed the railway north to the city limits. There, in an ash-grey wasteland where dust and smoke swirled in the wind. were two separate settlements. Combo and Hillat Kusha proper. In Arabic hillat kusha means “place of garbage”. Twisted metal, broken glass and human faeces littered the black sand. Women picked through the refuse in search of scraps. Somehow amid the squalor they managed to keep their clothes bright and clean. The reek of illegal home-brewed merissa beer and distilled aragi hung over the settlement. The raised voices of drunken elders could be heard in the shade.
The Dinka chief at Hillat Kusha was sober, but he’d had enough of outsiders’ inquiries. Why these questionnaires? he demanded of Majak. All these questions and no blankets. What we need is blankets, not questions. Why do they send big fish like you to eat up us little ones? And what is happening to this information we give you? What is the government doing with it? Why all this talk about us Dinkas? Why are they directing these things against us?
Majak explained that we were not the government, that the agency we worked for was helping displaced Southerners elsewhere in Sudan and was trying to find the best way to help people here. But we knew the chief had a point. In Hillat Kusha they had seen more relief workers than they had seen relief. They had seen journalists and television crews; but they had never seen themselves in a newspaper or on TV. There were no TVs in Hillat Kusha. And no electricity. And the stories were not published in Sudanese newspapers.
So what was happening to the information? I could not tell him. I did not know either.
At Hillat Kusha I met a young man from a village in the South where I had lived in the early 1980s, Pacong in Lakes province. The village as I remembered it was a place of shade trees and, to the north, endless grassland. The people of Pacong and its surrounds lived, not in the hope of relief supplies, but by the labour of their own hands, by cattle husbandry, farming and fishing. I was hoping to talk to someone about this life, the life they had been forced to leave, and to confirm some of the names of Dinka clans and tribal sections. It seemed, though, that the young man could remember fewer than I could myself. Distance and merissa were eating up his memory. Or perhaps he was just tired of questions.
“All these questions and no blankets. What is happening to this information we give you? What is the government doing with it?”
There’s a promise that anthropologists, coming from outside, make to the people they live with and write about: “We are asking all these questions,” we say to our hosts, “so we can write down your history, so your children will know it.” The undertaking may well be heart-felt. Field anthropologists tend to identify strongly with the people they live among. They fall in love in the plural, with peoples and cultures and have an investment in their well-being. But a promise like this rang hollow on the rubbish tips of Khartoum. No one knew what would become of children born in this place. It seemed unlikely that any of them would ever learn how to read, let alone read what outsiders wrote about them. And many would die before they got the chance.
That night we drove back along the airport road by the line of social clubs that service the local elites in Sudan: the Army Club, the Armenian Club, the Greek Club, the Arab Club. Here expatriate workers mixed with Sudanese, those middle-class Sudanese who had managed to sustain their standard of living amid the wreckage of the national economy. From a tent in the garden of one of the clubs came the sound of music playing. It was “The Rivers of Babylon”, the Melodions’ reggae setting of Psalm 137. The words of the psalmist of Israel wafted towards the new mosque by Suq Two as the moon rose over the airport.
By the Rivers of Babylon
Where I sat down,
Yea and I wept
When I remembered Zion.
Drought, floods, locusts. War, famine, pestilence. And the pale horse of death. With the cataclysm in the South and the diaspora of southern peoples, it was beginning to seem that the disaster in the South was of biblical proportions.
During the time I was in Khartoum, there was a flurry of peace talks outside the country between the government and the Southern rebels. There was talk of a ceasefire and a constitutional conference. Abolition of the shari’a laws was the rebels’ first demand; but the government, with military backing from Libya and Iraq, showed no signs of retreat from Islamization. So fighting continued in the South and refugees continued to come. It was the fifth year of the war. Among people of good will in North and South there was an air of desperation. “Peace,” said a headline in a Khartoum newspaper, “is the milk of birds.”
Rebellion in Sudan had started long before, in 1955, even before the country achieved independence from Britain; civil war gathered pace in the 1960s. The first war ended in 1972: the current war began a decade later. The country is fatally divided: North and South: centre and periphery; Arab and non-Arab; Nilotic and non-Nilotic; Muslim and non-Muslim. The first civil war was fought by southerners on a separatist platform. But no war of secession in Africa has yet succeeded: Biafra. Katanga, Western Sahara and Eritrea stand as warnings to would-be secessionists. If such wars worked, the face of the continent would be quite different. North-eastern Africa, certainly, would he comprehensively balkanized. A giant country like Sudan, the biggest in the continent, would cease to exist.
In 1972, after seventeen years of war in the Sudan, the Southern separatists had settled for regional autonomy. There were ten years of peace, more or less, but the Khartoum government became increasingly dictatorial. In the early eighties, with southern autonomy abrogated and the country half bankrupt, and an oil strike in the South and Islamic law imposed in the North, southerners took up arms again. This time the stakes were higher: the rebels’ programme involved transforming the politics of the whole Sudan, not just the South, redirecting economic and political development to areas outside the central zone. This would end, they said, the hegemony of the Khartoum elites, composed of the members of a few powerful Arab lineages―politicians, army officers, business men and leaders of religious brotherhoods―the elite that had, directly or indirectly, controlled the country since independence.
The rebel forces, calling themselves the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, were led by a Southerners, a Dinka, Dr John Garang de Mabior, a former Colonel in the National Army with a doctorate from Iowa State University. By 1988 the year I returned to Sudan the SPLA controlled the greater part of the rural South. The government held the bigger towns, but by a thread.
The Survey Office
In Khartoum I visited the Sudan Survey Office close to the Presidential Palace. It was a house of maps, an oasis of charm and efficiency in the midst of Sudan’s general bureaucratic decay. There were women in high-heeled sandals, with gold ear-rings, wearing tobs that billowed underneath the ceiling fans, the scent of sandalwood wafting across the counter. For five Sudanese pounds, less than a dollar on the currency black market, they would sell you 4,000 square miles of desert or forest—or mountain or swamp or savannah. Their fingertips were tawny with henna, dark as earth; their nails painted silver, like pools in a desert. At their command young clerks scaled great wooden edifices constructed of metre-square pigeon holes stuffed with bales of maps and charts. The clerks extracted whichever you wanted of the 150-odd sheets it takes to cover the expanse of the Sudan. Then they were rolled into a tube and wrapped in an old copy of one of Khartoum’s daily newspapers, Al Usbu, maybe, or Al Ayyam.
Most of the maps had clearly remained unchanged since the country was first surveyed in the 1930s. Despite civil wars and political upheavals, little in the rural areas of Sudan has changed. “Sacred baobab tree”, a map may say, alongside an arcane symbol in the middle of a vast plain. “Many cattle camps”, “Open grassy area”, “Unsurveyed”, or “Major Titherington followed this route in 1931”. Some of the sheets, particularly those covering the Libyan desert in the North-West, are great blanks; others are dense with rivers, footpaths and human settlements.
The maps I was eager to see bore the names of southern places: Malakal, Rumbek, Wau, Nyamlell, Abyei. The sound of these words had once made me quick with longing for the South. Now the shadow of death lay over them. I gazed at the map of Abyei District, covering the area south to Aweil, between the river that the Dinka call Kiir (and the Arabs Bahr-el-Arab) and one of its tributaries, the River Lol. The North-South border followed the Bahr-el-Arab form a distance, then left the river and zig-zagged and forth across the swamps and grazing lands between the two.
In the House of Maps, women in high-heeled sandals, with gold ear-rings, their tobs billowing underneath the ceiling fans, the scent of sandalwood wafting across the counter, their fingertips tawny with henna, dark as earth; their nails painted silver, like pools in a desert.
It was more than a decade since I had made my cartographic error in Oxford. Since then I had come to know Southern Sudan at first hand. With my finger I traced the route I had taken to Aweil eight years before. The villages in that area had been the most densely populated in the South, and the richest in livestock, their cattle byres heady with smoke and the exhalations of animals. Now many of those byres and villages were empty, burned to the ground by marauding militias.
In Aweil, I remembered, I had whiled away the time losing at cards with the Police Chief. Where was he now? In the North? In Ethiopia with the SPLA? These days in Sudan you had to make discreet inquiries to learn the whereabouts of your southern acquaintances. Behind these inquiries lay a further implied question: were they alive? Many were dead, victims of war or its camp follower, disease.
I spread the map of Abyei out on the counter . The clerk who fetched it for me watched me curiously as I followed the road to Aweil with my finger. I could see he was a southerner.
“Have you been there?” he asked me in English, rather quietly. “That is my village. People are suffering, dying there. Many people come here now. We are all suffering.”
He told me he had sixteen relatives staying in his two-room house, most of them depending on his meagre salary, around forty dollars a month. In Khartoum, where every southerner with a home or an income has a dozen dependents, the kinship support system is reaching breaking point. Sooner or later some of those relatives would have to move out. And they would have nowhere to go but the shanty towns.
On my last day in Khartoum I visited Dr Priscilla, the sister of Robert Maker Joseph, who had been my research assistant in Rumbek eight years before. She was a doctor, working for the Sudan Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization with a burgeoning relief programme. Her brother Robert had been a student in Alexandria, home on vacation when we worked together in Rumbek. In 1985 I heard that Robert had joined the SPLA, and, in 1988, in May, that he had been killed in action at Bentiu, site of Sudan’s first oil well, the optimistically named Unity I.
In her makeshift office Robert’s sister and I discussed the problem of the huge numbers of the malnourished and sick in the shanty towns where she worked. We talked about the news from the South, about the current peace negotiations, about her brother’s death. I gave her a copy of the book he helped me write. I described the day, seven years before, when I had last been in his company. We had cycled to Karic, his home village, in the territory of the Duor, a Dinka section that had been involved in a year-long tribal feud with their neighbours, a feud that had left twenty-eight dead. It seemed quite shocking at the time. Twenty-eight! And now, how many had died as a result of the present war? How many thousands and tens of thousands?
Back then, in 1980, a week or two before that trip to Karic, Robert Maker and I had taken one of the victims of the clan fighting to the hospital. The man had a spear through his thigh. There was a drunken orderly on duty at the hospital. He came from another part of the South.
“Fucking Dinkas,” said the orderly, unwisely. “Fucking Dinkas. Alwavs fighting. Never stop. Fighting, Fighting.”
“Only when provoked.” said Robert calmly. He was a handsome man, sweet-natured, with reserves of patience. “And we are not fighting now.”
The youth with a spear through his thigh was treated and recovered. He was lucky. Robert took up arms against the government three years later. He had no such luck. He was killed in the first wave of the SPLA attack on Bentiu. Guns made it much easier to get killed. They upset the balance of violence.
On the first day of November, All Souls’ Day, the three of us left Khartoum: Mark, Majak and I. Driving south out of the city I felt elation: road fever, relief at leaving the urban wilderness and its derelict underclass, joy at the prospect of seeing village Africa again, the Africa that endures despite famine, civil war and economic collapse. As we drove south out of the city we dodged roadblocks and spirals of black smoke from truck tyres set on fire by rioters. They were protesting against the food shortages that afflicted the city. There was no sugar on the open market in Khartoum; no milk; no milk powder; and often no bread. There was anger in the market place.
At the edge of the urban area was a tent city established for victims of the floods. Then came the desert: scrubby grass left over from the rains, a few fields of stunted dura, spiky thorn bushes. No trees and no shade. The road from Khartoum runs close to the White Nile, parallel to the river at a few miles distance, but you wouldn’t know it. The river has no tributaries for six hundred miles. Everything was grey, the colour of stones. A German construction engineer was supervising the resurfacing of the road. As we drove past I saw one of the labourers kneeling to say his morning prayers on the virgin blacktop, as though it was a prayer mat that he had just unrolled.
We drove all day through the desert. There was a week’s journey ahead of us. Every mile brought us closer to the grasslands, closer to the West, and―for Majak―closer to home. We reached the bridge at Kosti at dusk. Here we saw the river for the first time since Khartoum. It was half-choked with water hyacinth, a floating plant with gaudy purple flowers that has blocked many of the great waterways of Africa. The town was crowded with Dinka families travelling away from the places we were going to.
In Kosti the hardtop ended. At nightfall we left the river and headed west on a pale sandy road. Dust swirled in our headlights. Mark had learned a lesson from the suq truck drivers: he liked to drive after dark, when the night kept the engine cool. As I dozed on a kapok mattress in the back of the pick up, I could hear him trying to raise the office on the radio: “Calling Khartoum. Calling Khartoum. Do you read me? Do you read me?”