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Out of Africa

By: Mike Swarbrick


Well, Iíve been out of Africa for some weeks now and feel itís time, while I am still gagging up the Sudan desert from my lungs, to write an end to the little series of journals I started at the top of Egypt. This one is not tempered for publication though; it is written for me. I just need to sweep some soil from my soul.

River of Life:

I have learned a little from the new friends I made along the way about the North East desert lands in which we traveled and the sturdy people who inhabit them. Life is hard there for most, perseverance and ingenuity are qualities that are fundamental to their living in this barren land of sand and sun. I have always held in high opinion, people who possess perseverance and ingenuity but I have never known any who had to use these traits at all times or probably perish. I am used to turning on a tap for water. They haul it in an old steel barrel on a cart, pulled by a labouring little donkey, sometimes for miles in the blazing desert sun, to get theirs from the Nile. Although infected with parasites and polluted, it is still the river of life to them.

All Decked Out:

The rusty old steel ship, that brought us over Lake Nasser to Sudanís rough and tumble border town, Wadi Halfa, was heavily over-loaded with both cargo and passengers. The decks were awash in a living sea of dark bodies, all jockeying for position in a race to claim a few square feet of the greasy deck to them selves. Entire families endured the twenty two hour journey on an area the size of a small blanket, which most did not have. They breathed diesel fumes from a tail wind while continuously being bombarded by the deafening noise from generators and engines Although the waves were not large, one man fell into a steel hatchway near our cabin and died on the spot. Perhaps he was one of the men embroiled in the fist fight that took place around Shaunna and I, on the plank, as we tried boarding the overloaded vessel. Men were fighting to get on the ship as the crew was fighting to throw others off. Shaunna and I somehow managed to duck through the distracting altercation to the musty darkness within.

We later met four Belgian men on deck who were doing the Cairo to Cape Town trip by motorcycle. They didnít have enough upper deck space, so they eventually snuck into one of two life boats to steal some sleep. It was stolen back soon after when a ships mate caught them and kicked them out. They sat out the rest of the night with their feet dangling over the gunnels. Me? I was among the very fortunate sharing a cabin this night.

Laugh or Cry:

It is said that when Allah created Sudan he did not know whether to laugh or cry!

Itís about the most God forsaken place that Iíve ever seen. Despite the fact that life is hard in the Nubian Desert, the Nubian people choose to laugh. After a hot day and evening of shooting, writing and cursing the new ďcutting edgeĒ satellite broadcast system that would not broadcast, Iíd share a few laughs with some of the village men on the street after the rest of the team had retired.  Although I was functionally illiterate we would find bits of common language to share. They with their Ramadan breakfast tea, (I swear it was some kind of intoxicant), and me with my smuggled vodka, disguised in a water bottle. (The Sudan is totally dry! Itís against the Islamic religion to drink alcohol.) All were very curious to learn about Canada and did their best to educate me in Islamic and Nubian ways. They are very proud of the little towns they have built from the local sand, lime and straw mixture that resembles mortar.     

This is the new Wadi Halfa; old Wadi Halfa was buried deep below Lake Nasser, upon completion of the Aswan dams in the 50ís. Twice, the Nubian people have been displaced by the dam EgyptianísÖer, I mean, Egyptian dams that flooded their ancient villages. Twice they have pulled up stakes and relocated what they could salvage. Many were displaced as far away as Cairo in the North and Khartoum to the South. The vegetation that they used to enjoy along the old shores of the Nile has still not taken hold on the new shores of Lake Nasser, the largest of man-made lakes, and likely never will in our lifetimes. 

The Wadi Halfa Hilton:

Shaunna and Khairoon did the staple shopping and pack-out in Egypt. They purchased the food, bowls and cups but forgot to get cutlery and plates. Among the four of us at dinner that night, we shared one borrowed spoon to eat the pasta that Ben had prepared in a filthy rundown cafť kitchenette on a dusty street corner. Laughable in hindsight, but I still find myself shaking my head over that one.

 After I set up and tried our failing satellite system yet again the team retired that night in one small rented space on four steel cots within four bare concrete walls that had one steel door with a common keyed padlock for a door handle. There was a vent hole in the ceiling to let out the stifling heat of the day. It also let in the few mosquitoes that ventured this far hunting fresh flesh from the stagnant waters at this end of Lake Nasser. Malaria, although not rampant was still a concern here.

Would you like fish with that?

We ran the trucks hard through the desert this day. Ben and Shaunna with all the food followed in one truck, while Khairoon, Siddig the Sudanese government representative, Mr. Midhat and I led in the other. I met Mr. Midhat on the ship out of Egypt. Ben had struck a deal to transport him to his home in Ferraig several hundred kilometers South in exchange for gaining access to the village school for video interviews with the children. Mr. Midhats sister is a teacher there. Both he and Mr. Siddig were to guide us through the dangerously hot Nubian Desert. It is easy to get lost amongst the myriad of desert tracks so we welcomed their company and guidance. I soon realized though that he and Ben had had some kind of falling out. Ben was threatening to dump him off even before leaving Wadi Halfa. I also soon realized that Mr. Midhat was an extremely irritating little man; one of those people who just naturally rub you the wrong way. I also quickly came to realize that neither he nor Siddig had the slightest clue as to where they were going. Instead of village hopping down along the Nile as planned, they led us too far east and through the very centre of the searing desert. Both he and Siddig were continuously giving me apposing directions as to which tracks I should be choosing and in time I was forced to hush them both and choose on my own from the multitude of criss-crossing paths.

On we went for several days. At one point I made a bad decision and plugged the truck into a deep soft sand pit. Many local men in white robes seemed to appear from nowhere to observe our little dilemma. When requested, one of them brought me an old broken shovel and between Ben, (who appeared furious with me), myself and a few of the local men, we took turns digging the hot searing sand from beneath the chassis that kept the wheels off the ground. In 46 deg. heat all movement was deliberate and measured. After three attempts of digging and pushing we finally got that damn truck far enough out of the sink hole to get a tow strap onto it from the other vehicle. 

When all was said and done Siddig suggested we offer our helpers some ice from our coolers. Siddig made himself busy breaking and distributing the ice then he and I handed out water bottles from the boxes in the back of the truck. Turns out that the only place Shaunna could find ice before leaving Wadi Halfa was at the local fish processing plant and by God that ice stunk of dead fish. To add fuel to the fire and insult to injury; in an extreme Islamic country where one can be flogged and thrown in jail for even possessing alcohol, I had just handed out my last 1.5 liter bottle of straight vodka, disguised in a water bottle, to some poor unsuspecting tea toting soul who had probably already taken it home to his wife and kids! (And, with Siddigís help, I had implicated the government in my subversion!) Amid the frantic search, it was eventually found in the fishy cooler. Whew! At this point, I really needed a drink!

Stuck In The Desert With You, Wondering What It Is I Should Do: Here, I AmÖ

Everybody Sing!: 

When Benís truck died in the desert, we were about 100 kmís. south of Dongola and perhaps 500 kmís. north of Khartoum; just about in the middle of freakingí nowhere. He used the satellite phone to call back to Dongola to request a tow truck. Apparently there are no tow trucks in Sudan so they sent a flatbed and about fourteen men to help load. The side rails on the flatbed were too narrow. So, as the men waved goodbye and headed off into the desert they promised to return with a larger truck, which they did, about six hours later. This truck had a welded rack roof which was too short, so off they went again, this time never to return. Siddig, exhausted from extreme dehydration due to his Ramadan fasting, (no food, no fluids, sunup to sundown), and 47 degree day-time tempís. began calling everyone he could think of to get help. Shaunna and Khairoon spent this night sleeping in the trucks, Ben slept on a tailgate and I slept curled up on top of one of two large steel toolboxes that were bolted in the truck beds. Both Khairoon and I were sick with some kind of belly bug that required many trips out into the desert sand which is mighty hot during the day and surprisingly chilly at night.

The next day, around noon, two huge Lorry dump trucks arrived at about the same time. The owner operators were enraged! One of them had just driven 100 kmís. through the dessert and would have to drive the 100 kmís. back with nothing to show for it. The ensuing arguments went on well into the excessively hot afternoon. This problem was eventually resolved and after removing the large steel tailgate from one of the earth movers we loaded the near dead Silverado from an embankment, (this took more digging of course).

We drove all night through sand so deep that at times we were all sure even the dump-truck would surely get stuck but we somehow made it into Khartoum in the pre-dawn where my truck promptly ran out of fuel. There was one fuel station about 450 kmís. previous but Siddig, our all knowing, government guide, erroneously told me there would be several on the route; there were none. In time, we eventually managed to remove the broken quad cab 4x4 Silverado from the back of the dump truck by crane.

Siddig put us up in a government flop house, (for 1,000. U.S. per week), the likes of which we had never seen. It was infested with all manner of bugs and cockroaches, the plumbing and electrics worked most of the time. Although all the toilet seats were missing, this was a bit of an improvement over the filthy concrete hole in the floor, squat facilities that we had experienced everywhere else in Sudan.

The whole trip was more than a little unsettling really.  Immediately upon our arrival in Egypt, customs seized all of our gear; cameras, computers, satellite communications, everything. It took a $6,000.00 cash guarantee and bribes to eventually get it back. They made lists of everything, right down to the lens filters and batteries and we were told that if anything was missing when we departed the country, the 6,000.00 would be forfeited.

We had guns of all types and sizes pointed at us far too many times at road blocked spot checks and were forced to carry a police officer and government press agent with us at all times. It took three weeks to have our vehicles released from their shipping containers and were then forced to drive in army escorted tourist convoys almost everywhere we went.

While stuck in the Nubian Desert of Sudan, I had to defend myself from the advances of a gay, police officer. Big guy, tall dark and ruggedly handsome type but not my type! I had to assure him of this emphatically; several times! I can now empathize with good looking women who are constantly hounded by over zealous men.

Whereas Egypt boldly seized our communication gear; Sudan did something a little less obvious to make our jobs difficult. After continuous unsuccessful efforts to broadcast our news pieces back to Canada we were eventually informed by Inmarsat, the satellite service provider that the Sudanese government was jamming all communication signals in and around our region in an effort to contain the news of the government supported militias who were burning and pillaging black African villages in and around Darfur.  This Islamic fundamentalist government prefers to explain the slaughter in Darfur as an ancient rivalry between nomadic herding tribes in the north and black African farmers in the south. They deny responsibility for the militias and claim they can't control them, even as they continue to train the militias, arm them, and pay them. Why?! Oil revenues to Khartoum from the fields around Darfur have been about $1 million a day, about the same amount which the government funnels into arms, helicopters and bombers from Russia, tanks from Poland and China, missiles from Iran. This government wants these people out of there in order to confiscate more oil rich land. Oil is fueling the genocide in Darfur.

The conditions we saw in the shanty-town slums surrounding Khartoum where the majority of these displaced peoples are running to, from the conflicts were abominable. As far as the eye could see there were hastily built mud huts with no plumbing amongst a sea of garbage and nothing else. No trees or vegetation of any kind. Water is tankered in by mule cart from the parasitic Nile River, some miles away. Young girls carried bloated babies on their hips in the blazing heat while dogs and the occasional goat scavenged what they could from dry open sewers.

According to The State Of Africa, published by Martin Meredith, while these slums were growing, the Sudan government in 2001 was producing 240,000 barrels of oil a day and increased defense spending by 96 percent. The latest figures from the CIA have production pegged at 401,300 barrels per day in 2005. Meanwhile back in the region surrounding Darfur, the Washington Post estimates that 180,000 people have died; many from deprivation; about 2 million are displaced and the numbers are growing daily.  

Yes, Iím still trying to sweep the Sudan desert soil from my soul. Itís foul; itís filthy and it reeks thoroughly of blood money, greed and oil.

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All content copyright 2006 by: Mike Swarbrick