Sunday, July 20, 2008

 

A warm welcome in the Nuba Mountains


The first thing you see when you fly into Kauda is the sudden dramatic change in landscape. From flat plains with meandering rivers, a green rolling mountain range appears from nowhere.

Kauda is in South Kordofan, ‘officially’ in the North of Sudan, but actually one of the buffer states between North and South. During the war it was a stronghold of the Southern SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army), but under the 2005 peace agreement, the people of the Nuba Mountains will have no say in separating from the north, as their southern counterparts will in the 2011 referendum.

This is the first place I’ve visited in Sudan which can lay claim to being beautiful. Whilst not providing the most spectacular mountain scenery, the area around Kauda in the rainy season is lush, green and temperate, in contrast to the dry season where it’s apparently parched, dusty and sweltering, so just as well I came now.

It’s an African Arab area, prodiminantly Muslim (though that doesn’t stop them selling you a hush-hush can of out-of-date Tusker if you ask in the right places), and this is reflected in the food and drink, where you can sit inside a rush tukul in the market and enjoy flat bread and ful – aduki bean stew doused in oil and topped with chopped red onion, a glass of spicy chai or karkady – sweet hibiscus tea – or my favourite, bunn, cardomon spiced coffee boiled on a charcoal burner to within an inch of its life in a jug made from a recycled tin can, then decanted into a small round tin pot and served with a toe-curling amount of sugar in a tiny cup.

The radio station there, The Voice of Kauda, is run by an enthusiastic team of four reporters, Ahmed, Walid, Nasreldin and Mosquito, and their female manager, Taysear, a formidable character indeed. In fact they were so enthusiastic, they’d ended up with a programme schedule of numerous 15- 20 minute programmes, starting at obscure times like 9.12am, which they were so confused about that they didn’t really have a clue what they were doing. After a clean sweep of the schedule and some clear programme plans, my colleague Sam and I got to working with the guys and they were great.

We took a trip to the Wednesday market on the edge of town, a buzzy vibrant place with fresh vegetables, chillis, home-made perfumes which looked like they’d strip the skin off you, and some dubious looking hooch, araki, a pinky-grey runny porridgy liquid, sloshing around in filthy buckets and decanted into gourds, which all looked so minging even I wasn’t tempted.

But I did splash out 5 Sudanese pounds ($2.50/ ₤1.25 – khawaja price, I know I was diddled) on a pair of sandals made from recycled car tyres. I’d heard about these a few years ago and always fancied a pair, and several guys were making them here. Not an exact science, so it was a case of trying on a few pairs until one fitted, which I found, and I can safely say they are the most uncomfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. But – hey, it’s recycling and it’s a local craft, so I’m not complaining and I’ll just gaffa tape up the worst blister-inducing edges, and at least I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to buy a decent pair of shoes, which many people here aren’t.

We were staying at the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organisation (NRRDO)’s compound, in concrete buildings with tin roofs and shutters, sharing the compound with several lively chickens and very competitive cockerels. On the first night I was being driven crazy by a constant scratching, nibbling and rummaging under my bed, which stopped every time I moved, only to resume a couple of minutes later. I'd sit up quietly, wait, then snap on the torch, but see nothing. Now, I've shared sleeping quarters with a rat on more than one occasion and I know what they sound like, so at first light I opened the door and shutters, jumped out of bed, pulled it back from the wall and shouted "Right! I'm gonna get you!" only to find a huge plump red chicken nestling in a basket under the bed looking quizzically at me, as only chickens can.

The radio station’s based at the NRRDO compound, and you reach the town via a low hill, across a sandy riverbed which fills when the rains really kick in, and a short path by a football pitch, some tukuls and grazing land. Walking back to the station with Ahmed, we were stopped by two boys herding goats, who pointed urgently to a crater in the ground. Poking out the side of the hole we spotted a white plastic protruberance, which had been cordoned round with logs and thorn branches – the top of a landmine. The Nuba Mountains were the scene of considerable fighting during the war, and both the North and South were responsible for extensive landmining, frequently unrecorded. While most have now been cleared, the rains continue to wash them up, and one was found just the week before, and children and animals continue to be at greatest risk. Four days later at lunchtime the mountains echoed to a resounding boom – fortunately a controlled explosion, not a wandering goat.

Sunday afternoon was spent on what I’d anticipated to be hill walking, but actually turned out to be mountaineering. Nine of us – a Cameroonian, Filipino, two Germans, a Russian, Liberian, Lebanese, Kenyan and Brit – set off in a spirit of international co-operation from a hospital built high in the hills during the war, when the people fled the towns and took shelter in the mountains. We got there in two Landcruisers on a journey that Jeremy Clarkson would have killed to be on – across river beds, up seemingly impassable sandbanks, down vertiginous rubble-strewn tracks, through craters, and deep puddles of squelching mud. It made me wonder if death would be a preferable option to being driven there if you were seriously ill.

The climb was exhilarating, past small tukul settlements, a former SPLA commander’s house which is now a museum, up rubbly slopes then finally clambering over boulders, searching for tentative handholds. After an hour’s climb to the top we deserved the now warm out-of-date Tuskers we’d brought to reward our efforts and take the edge off the wasp stings some of us had acquired.

The view across the mountains was spectacular after the flat lands of the south, the setting sun casting long shadows across the valley below. We were wondering about the viability of actually getting down again, when we spotted a local guy sauntering down a path fifteen feet below, waving up at us. Errr… so we’d been scrabbling on our hands and knees when there was an easy way up after all huh? Never mind, it was all part of the fun, and made us appreciate the warm Tusker all the more.

At the end of the week Taysear invited Sam, me, the reporters and other friends to a delicious moonlit dinner at her tukul. It’s decked out in colourful drapes, really cosy, and she’d gone to the trouble of making a fantastic aubergine and peanut dish and spicy potatoes specially for me, which was without doubt the very best food I’ve eaten here. I was really touched as Taysear gave Sam and me a pair of sandals each as a gift, and one of the reporters, Nasreldin, gave me a bunn set of tin heating pan, little round coffee pot, cup, spoons, coffee, spices and sugar, as he knew I’d become such a bunn-head in Kauda.

For people who live simple lives with bare amenities, you can’t fail to be struck by the generosity and friendliness shown by the people in Kauda to strangers in their community. They’re keen to put the war behind them and rebuild their community and you can only hope they’ll continue to get their wish, which is never certain in this country.

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