…I lean back in my chair and try to watch the whole scene in front of my eyes with some distance. And I have to start smiling, because somehow it just seems absurd. With a big grin in her face Andrea holds a foot into my face and happily I find out that it is her own – full of henna. It is exactly this event which somehow seems weird and “strange” to us. Chief Mohammed Rahal Mohammed Rahal (yes, indeed 2x) had especially for Andrea , spoken out an invitation on behalf of his women. She was invited to take part in a coffee ceremony and henna painting. And hence we sit here – already 3 hours and there will be at least 2 more. The women of the Kadugli tribe are apparently very happy to try out their henna art on white skin. And Andrea’s hands are not enough for them – they took the legs as well. And so now she has black flowers and patterns on arms and legs. The women around us (yes, I was the only man sitting among them) giggle and chat – unfortunately we don’t understand much, they speak either Arabic or Rotana. Fatima, the only English speaking tribeswoman, has a lot to translate, she explains us that every bride-to-be in Sudan would have such henna patterns painted on her body, or mainly on hands, lower arms, feet and lower legs. And suddenly she has a “brilliant” idea. In Sudan, not only the bride gets a henna, but also the groom – and so it is my turn! I wouldn’t have it on hands and feet, but the fingertips of the left hand. Inside my head, I frown – how would that look, a man with a henna??? And I am a little shy as well, being the only man present amidst a group of laughing, singing and chit-chatting women. This makes the whole situation even more unreal.
To get to Kadugli, into the Nuba Mountains, had been, just like a lot on our trip, been a series of coincidences and chances we took. Had we not met Abdel Salam and Taha in Khartoum, we would have never come here. Though we had read about the Nuba Mountains in our guidebook and were interested in the South of Sudan, but sometimes it needs the extra little piece of luck . Taha’s sister, Ihsan, lives in El Obeid, halfway to Kadugli and his friend, Hafiz, lives in Kadugli. So for us the decision was made – we wanted to have a look there. But unfortunately, in Sudan, nothing works without travel permits, but we could apply and get them within 24 hours – and even for free! So very excited we had left Khartoum and were on our way into the Southern Kordofan – what would expect us there?
The landscape South of Khartoum is, apart from the banks oft he Blue and White Nile, quite barren and arid. There are seemingly endless, savanna-like plains, in between some quite clean looking straw-hut villages and nearly no traffic. When approaching El Obeid, we saw the first baobab trees rising out of the burning heat. They looked like giant trees which had been planted upside down by someone. Just before sunset we reached El Obeid, and were happy to find out that Ihsan, Taha’s sister, spoke English. What one hast o get used to when travelling in this part of the world is being stared at by nearly everyone, nearly all the time. On the way to El Obeid we hadn’t seen one single white person. Ihsan, her husband Maki and their 2 sons Ismail and Ibrahim were very hospitable, seemingly happy about our visit and we communicated with hand, foot and English, talked about Sudan and our travel through Africa. Of course, after dinner and baobab juice (tabaldi) we were not „allowed“ to drive on but stayed over for a night. In the evening we had another power cut and sat talking by candlelight.
The next morning Ihsan had already been up from 5 o’clock onwards, doing her prayers and cooking and baking. For breakfast we had a nice breakfast with fried, spicy liver, „foul“ (sudanese beans), fresh cakes and jebennah – coffee with spice. Wow! We were absolutely amazed! The guidebook just talks about falafel and beans, but what we have eaten up to now was a lot more diverse and delicious – we are really wondering, where the guidebook people have eaten!
We bid farewell to Ihsan and her family and continued the last 350 km to Kadugli. In the beginning we were happy about the tarmac roa, but soon had to realize that it was deteriorating into a quite bumpy dirt road. Often we would look for a track next to the actual road because it was easier on our suspension. Bulldust was another big challenge, creeping into the car through the tiniest of holes, making breathing quite hard at times. Driving to Kadugli took us nearly the whole day, so we finally arrived at the outskirts of town in the early evening and just pitched our camp somewhere in the bush not far from the airport. We had read a lot about the security situation in Sudan, but once being here, it all seems a little different, except for the Darfur of course.
The next morning we passed another checkpoint, then we met up with Hafiz, Taha’s friend and officer of the Sudanese army. He spoke little English and introduced us to Jabir, a 23 year young man who works as information officer for the SPLA/M (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement) and who was willing to guide us through Kadugli and surroundings. From the beginning on we liked him. In general we must say that we really liked the Sudanese people, especially down here in the South. They are friendly, generous and obviously happy to have visitors, because not many travelers make their way into this piece of land. We had heard that Southern Sudanese people are the “blackest” on the continent and we must agree with this. They have very fine features, are really “crow-black” and one more tribal feature down here are scars and tattoos. Different tribes have different scars, like dots across the forehead or cuts on the cheeks.
We have to thank Jabir Tutu of the „Kadja“ – tribe a lot, through him we were able to learn a lot about the people of the Nuba Mountains. We met a lot of different people in and around Kadugli. What we can’t forget to say though is, that it was obvious that the Nuba Mountains had seen a 22 year long civil war, which only ended in 2005. And even now, it seems more like a cease-fire and not a real peace. In these 8-9 days that we spent here in Kadugli, we would often sit in one of the street cafes and talked –as far as possible- with people around us. Well, the “cafes” are not much more than a coffee woman with a little cart full of glasses containing herbs, coffee and tea, next to her she would have a little charcoal grill (kanoon) for boiling water, around her in a circle some plastic chairs and that’s it – the “café”. People use this sort of hospitality anytime during the day. Often we came there in the evening, sitting in nearly complete darkness (electricity in Kadugli is as unreliable as rain), some faces only lit by mobile phones and even then we could only see the white teeth and eyes. And very often we would meet living “victims” of the war – often young men with injuries, a lot of them mentally. They lost their mind in the war and are now sitting in the cafess, seemingly crazy and telling their confusing stories to everyone who would listen (or not). It is sad – but despite all this we admire their will to live, to rebuild, to hope and believe!
So how did we get to this henna ceremony? Jabir had shown us the largest tribe in Kadugli, the one, after which the town was named – “Kadugli tribe”. That’s how we got to Hadjaralmak, where we met Mohammed Rahal Mohammed Rahal (yes, twice please!) – the chief of the tribe. With him and his oldest sister we sat in the shade of a tree and talked through the whole afternoon, learning about the history of the tribe and looking at very old photos from the beginning of the 20th century in which his ancestors are pictured with British colonial commissioners. We heard a lot about the bitternes, sadness and anger of the Nuba tribes, who had lost lots of men, whose women got raped in the war and other atrocities. Mohammed Rahal looks sad and angered when telling these stories. In South Sudanese opinion the main conflict has one simple reason: Racism. Sudan is a divided country. Here, Arab and Black African mentality clash, and this carries a lot of potential conflicts. The Northern, Arabic people want the Southerners to submit, for them they are of lesser value as human beings. Of course, the Southern tribes are proud and won’t give in – and in the blink of an eye one has a civil war. To give you an overview over the tribal and Sudanese history would be enough material for another article and after centuries of fighting, who knows who did what and who is right? Mohammed Rahal had invited us to stay with them for a few months to learn more about the people of the Nuba Mountains and to take this story home to make people aware of what is really going on there. Unfortunately, we have an itinerary and follow the traveller’s fate – moving! As Mohammed Rahal had just come back from his “hadj” (pilgrimage to Mecca) he would hold a ceremony in Hadjaralmak and invited us to come along as well. We felt honoured and accepted. Of course, our friend Jabir would come with us as well, he had so often brought this area closer to us and was not a guide for us anymore, but a good friend. The ceremony itself was quite a sight. Only men, the women were cooking, and we were 7-8 people per table. A meal, like “kisra” (sorghum pancake) and “okra” sauce with goat meat was served, before someone would pass a watering can around to wash hands. Then we would all eat from the same bowl, dipping our piece of kisra into the sauce, but only with the right hand. And after we had finished our food, the women served tea. Sweat ran down our foreheads, we were lucky to be here in the Sudanese “winter”, which means only 40 degrees during the day and 30 at night! Later in the evening, just before the sun set, there were sounds of drums and the high singing of women. Trampling feet announced the arrival of a dancing group. We couldn’t believe our luck – we would witness the “Kambala”, a traditional tribal ceremonial dance. Some young men wore bulls’ horns and straw skirts, in which they danced wildly in a circle. Dust rose in the air and the low sunlight dipped the whole village into a surreal, magical light. Andrea and I looked at each other, smiled and felt absolutely happy and thankful to witness, what not many whites have ever witnessed.
Anyway, it’s that tree in Hadjaralmak that we sit under at the moment and wondrously stare at Andrea’s hands and feet and watch how the women draw little pieces of artwork on her skin.
We always have to look at each other and smile in unbelieving wonders. We are just so thankful to be able to experience such things, that we followed the right coincidences and intuitions.
But the more of these things we experience, the more it makes us sad, when we see how the politics and media do bad to the population of this country, and how overlanders and travelers just want to quickly pass Sudan in a line as straight as possible from Egypt to Ethiopia. Sudan doesn’t deserve this. We made friendships here and felt very well in the Nuba Mountains, there are virtually NO white tourists here, only UN workers, and they hide in their air-conditioned offices instead of trying to understand the people they are supposed to help. Secondly, this country is still uncorrupted by tourists, for that we are thankful.