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Originally produced for UNICEF
The journey from El Obeid to Um Badr takes ten or twelve hours by car and maybe 20 days by camel. The trail, no more than a couple of tire tracks etched in the sand, runs so shallow at times that it could be obliterated by a breath of wind. Vast plains extend on either side, covered by spindly clumps of um semama, the tough, yellow grass that feeds the camels and goats. The land is scattered with green reed-like bushes called el mareih and thorny trees called syaal that the nomads use to make their houses.
I traveled north from El Obeid, with Mohamed Hassan Abu-Shaura, Director General for Education, in the state of North Kordofan, and Mohammed Idris, the Director for Nomad Education. Our mission was to visit the schools that serve and travel with the nomadic communities that populated North Kordofan.
We drove passed the Jabel Abu-Sonnoun (Mountains of Teeth) that jut out of the plains like an odd set of molars. We passed the hills of Abu-Assal (honey) and the higher mountain ranges beyond Kojom, and crossed cracked, grey-earthed wadis (seasonal river beds) including the vast wadi of Abu Zaima (the wadi of Milk) that runs from Darfur all the way to the Nile. And we crossed the seemingly endless undulating dunes beyond Um Khirwa. Legend says that the dunes were formed in ancient times when pregnancy belonged to Man, but Man kicked so hard during labour that he pushed against the very earth and created the dunes. Afterwards childbirth was given to woman, laughed Mohamed Idris, “because women are more tolerant.”
Every hour or so a settlement appeared that had grown up around a watering point for the animals and now also served the occasional truck that plied the route to Libya. The settlements carried evocative names – Um Keraidim, Tinna, Um Khirwa, Um Khusus, Sawani El Shekhaib and the provincial capital, ironically named by former British colonists as “Sodri” (So-Dry) but now given a more lyrical lilt as Sodiri. We stopped often for hibiscus tea and for the driver and the other men to pray. Mohammed Idris laughed again explaining that it was always a good idea to give a driver time for prayer.
The landscape seemed so stark yet, as Mohamed Idris explained, when the rains come, the land is transformed. The wadis flood with water, the hafirs (man-made ponds) overflow, the desert blooms and the earth springs crops of sorghum, watermelons, castor oil and hibiscus – the blossoms of which are plucked, dried and served up as tea. During the rains, the trail is lost altogether and travellers can be held up for a month or more before they can cross the raging wadis.
But we were travelling in May, the harshest month, The heat was relentless, and we were not immune. The air-conditioning in our land-rover had broken down. We shook along that trail, bathed in heat , sweat and drowsiness. The vast dome of the milky sky often seemed to promise rain yet delivered none. Then the clouds lifted and the sun burned fiercely out of the bluest sky. The plains were littered with the skeletal remains of dead trees.
All natural water sources were dry. The water points were nothing more than a cluster of wells surrounded by animals. Donkeys hauled the water to the surface. Men poured it into mud-pools for the camels and goats to drink. The last short rains had failed completely and rumours abounded that the long rains of June and July would also be scarce. Children along the trail called out to us: “Moya! Moya!” they shouted. (water! water!) Everywhere, in every village when we tried to discuss education, the talk always turned to moya. One elder told us “Without moya there can be no education.”
The nomads used to say that education will steal their children. Once a child gets a taste school and the town, they would say, that child won’t want to come back and be with his family or move with the animals. But things are changing. Today, an increasing number of nomadic tribes travelling the state of Kordofan in northern Sudan move not only with their herds of sheep, cattle and camels — but also with a teacher. Here are some of their stories.
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