|The Sardine Tin|
The next day I went on a much anticipated trip to a village in the north of River Nile State called El Carava. I haven’t managed to find it on a map. Like most habitable places in Sudan it is next to the Nile, but in a much rockier, hillier area than any I have been to before. Sumaya, the teacher who had invited me, and her mother met me in Atbara and we took a very crowded bus which also contained numerous sacks and containers of provisions. We sat on sacks of flour, large barrels of petrol and many other essentials. This gave quite a flavour of how remote El Carava would be, which was confirmed when Sumaya told me that there are no shops apart from a pharmacy. The journey took three hours in which we felt like sardines in a tin (the bare metal of the roof and sides also gave this impression). Some passengers had to sit on the roof. In spite of the discomfort of being unable to move, everyone was very cheerful, even the children. The vast majority of passengers were members of the same tribe and were making the journey to attend the funeral of a young relative who had died of cancer. I can only assume that she can’t have been a very close relative, they were such a happy bunch of people! The bus driver was a cousin of Sumaya’s.
We arrived and walked the remaining distance along the barely operational railway track, which is also used as the main street. Traffic consists of the occasional boy or man on a donkey, or people walking. The original intention had been to stay at the family home. However it had been left empty for quite some time and it was decided that we would stay with cousins instead.
The extended family owns quite a lot of farmland beside the Nile. The household of Sumaya's cousins consists of a very old lady, two middle aged women and a live-in servant. As far as I could tell there are no men in the household, but I may be wrong. I have found many times that Islamic segregation of men and women in River Nile State is often so strict that you would never know that both sexes lived in the same house. The village has no electricity and relies on individual private generators. The family’s generator is only used for a couple of hours after dark.
On our first day, Sumaya took me down to the river. On our way she introduced me to a local type of insect repellent – a crown of leaves which she swears works very effectively (pictured). She also explained various local medicinal herbs, including a useful twig which makes an excellent toothbrush complete with toothpaste!
I slept very badly, partly due to the large number of rather noisy sleepers sleeping right next to me, but also because I had a very bad cold. The next morning Sumaya, her mother and I walked to their own home, taking in another part of the village (pictured with the mosque in the foreground). We tried unsuccessfully to buy some fish, although we were given some corn on the cob instead.
Sumaya’s childhood home is a very impressive house on a hill with fantastic views. It looks like an Arab style castle, hanging above the Nile in a way very reminiscent of castles along the Rhine. We cooked a simple meal on charcoal. It was fascinating to watch Sumaya’s minimalist approach due to the scarcity of charcoal. I was expecting to cook the corn still in its leaves to preserve the moisture, but was told that this would use too much heat. Instead we striped the corn and had it rather burnt and dry.
We walked back to the cousins’ house across the hillside. On our way Sumaya pointed out a very ancient graveyard, barely visible among the stones. It has been investigated by archaeologists, who found pottery buried with the dead. Frustratingly, Sumaya was unable to tell me anything more about the site.
Sumaya decided we should return to Atbara in a more luxurious fashion the next day. A local taxi driver took us across the desert to the nearest road, half an hour’s drive across a moonscape of dark rocks (see picture). We came to a small shelter next to the completely empty road. Sumaya had hoped that we could flag down a bus. However, there was a car parked there, and the driver was having a drink at the zeer (pottery water pots). We were very lucky that he was wanting to take passengers. As promised by Sumaya, the journey was far more comfortable and also a bit quicker. The cost was S£30 (UK £6) each, compared to S£15 in the sardine tin.
It was certainly an interesting trip, if an uncomfortable one. It really made me appreciate the home comforts of Ed Damer, where Kate and I have been able to adjust the arrangements to suit our western tastes (sleeping privately for example). Here we have reliable electricity, piped water (even if it is muddy and only works for a limited time a day), a large market and very cheap, fast and frequent public transport to Atbara where I can go to church and play in the band.
What El Carava has, which Ed Damer lacks, are the spectacular views and amazing contrasts between the black rock desert and the beautiful riverside farms. Sumaya has a brother who lives in London and visits with his family each year. His wife has suggested that El Carava would be a wonderful tourist resort. The river has sandy beaches and cataracts close by. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible for me to visit these, but clearly they would be a draw.