Saturday, October 1, 2011

Overland Trip to Sudan, 1982

Leaving Northern Kenya, 1982

Sometimes the best-laid plans become the best-waylaid plans. My original idea was to have gone overland from Nairobi to Juba and then catch the last overland bus that would leave from Sudan travelthrough the Central African Republic or C.A.R. then through the middle of the continent and westward to Nigeria. Why would someone want to this in the 1980s no less? As planned, I had met up with my younger brother and his girlfriend in Kenya and they wanted me to visit them when they went back to work in Nigeria. Previously my parents and my brother’s girlfriend’s parents had paid a visit to northern Nigeria, so basically, if both parents could make it to Nigeria then why couldn’t I. This was a marvelous plan and initially it went off without a hitch as I finally made to Nairobi after a brief hectic trip that emanated from Canada. While in Nairobi, I managed to hook up with two Dutch overland guides who were leaving Nairobi and heading to the southern Sudanese town of Juba with the intention of selling their huge overland M.A.N. trucks. But, as usual, Africa had its own plans and threw a screwball at me. Little did I know what lay ahead of my original plan and me?
according to my trusty Michelin map, we should have been on a metalled road, but, in fact,we were following in nothing more than a dirt track in the northern Kenyan bundu. 
 We were really in the sticks: no gas stations should we break down, no soda shops, no supermarkets, no fast food joints, but just bald-ass savannah with a few thorn trees thrown into the mix. Occasionally, the red soil had been dug up and evidence of small plantations where some farmers had tried their luck at growing some subsistence crops. At our brief road stops for tea, flat tire, engine maintenance, the acacia thorn sheltered us like an umbrella from the brutal African sun—perhaps that is why it is called the umbrella thorn or Acacia tortilis. While driving along, a troupe of three women walked off to the side of the track as we bumped along our way in our heavy overland truck. Two of the women were toting some kind of foodstuffs in sisal baskets, whilst the last women in a reddish skirt turned to face my camera as I tried to frame her in with the endless backdrop. One woman had a huge metal can atop her head and no doubt had just filled up at the local watering hole. There were no taps here and no running water save for what you could scrounge from neighbours. I guess she had turned to look at us, as we were probably the first mzungus or westerners who had come this way in awhile and as such we were the cause of a brief form of amusement.

Break down in Northern Kenya.
 These were desperate times in East Africa: the Tanzanian border to Kenya was closed, Ethiopia was a no-go zone with the Marxist regime under Haile Miriam Mengistu had closed off the country from the outside world and Uganda was just coming out of years of hellish Idi Amin’s repressive rule. There was an air of repression everywhere you went these days. Most of the overlander trucks were skirting the southern Sudanese border en route to Nairobi, after sneaking through Zaire and Central African Republic (C.A.R.). Not many overlanders went from Nairobi just to the Sudan, as Juba would just be a pit stop en route to Europe. I was bucking the trend and hoped to catch a lift with other onward overland trucks from Sudan. It was a risk I was willing to take besides what’s an adventure without tempting the fates.

My daydreaming was broken by the sight of a nude little boy running to the outside of some women just out of the reach of the clutches of his mom. There was no fear for his being hurt in a road accident as traffic up here was few and far between—there just wasn’t any. Moreover, being so removed from civilization— the hustle and bustle of urban African centres made this part of the trip feel more like you were in some surreal reality removed from the present and transfixed in time for eternity.

The Motley Crew
Motley crew L-R: Craig, Wolfgang, Aussie Phil, Ben, Terri and Simon.
 We really were quite a motley crew with the entire commonwealth being accounted for among the passengers: Craig and Simon from New Zealand, Philip from Australia, Terri from Tasmania, Ben from the motherland and Mark and myself from the Canadian colonies. There was the European contingement with Wolfgang from West Germany; the drivers Henk & Jos were from the Netherlands. Craig and Simon were hard core Kiwis and especially good at helping the drivers at fixing trucks, as well as being boisterous and cracking wise-assed jokes. They never gave Phil ‘the Quiet Aussie’ a chance and liked to rub in their brand of jingoism about male culture revolving around cricket and rugby. Terri was proudly Tasmanian and let the other antediluvians know that Tasmania was its own country. There was the reserved Judallah Borei who was our resident Sudanese traveler and official guide for the trip through the nether world of the East African borderlands. He was tall and skinny and his blue-black skin contrasted sharply with his full-length white galabiyyah or flowing Islamic gown. He didn’t interact with many of the others probably owing to his poor English-speaking skills. However, we sort of hit it off, partly because I was reading Peter Mansfield’s book on The Arabs and my burgeoning interest in Islamic and Arab culture.[1] We also became good friends through our love of poetry and would practice reciting to each other in the warmth of the night. Ben came off initially as gay but he was just a gentler academic sort; a ponce as the Aussies/Kiwis would say. His gay image was shattered after he spent a night shagging Terri in the Africa Hotel in seedy Juba of all places.  Mark didn’t say too much and was quite reserved, but was heading up to Khartoum to see his sister who was working there on a newspaper. Mark, Wolfgang and I would eventually continue our trip up the Nile from Juba to Kosti. Wolfgang was the cheapskate of the bunch and bragged about how little he had spent on his overland trip but that was because he pleaded broke all the time and we shelled out for him. I didn’t much appreciate his company especially when he was scrounging off the rest of us. Our drivers Jos and Henk were very levelheaded guys and not too much seemed to phase them as they had seen it all before from numerous overland trips. I quite enjoyed their company and knew that we could get through anything with them as our drivers. I had also seen how long overland trips can tax some traveler’s patience and relationships. You really get to know someone when you travel through the thick and thin of Africa in such close proximity as the bench seat on a M.A.N. truck. It’s not difficult to see how a torturous trip can lead to strange group dynamics with couples breaking up over the course of the trip. or cute girls heading off with their macho drivers. Sitting around the Nairobi Youth Hostel, I had heard such tales. Six months travelling with the same sour pusses can be enough to drive anyone stir crazy and especially in such tight spaces. We didn’t really get on anyone’s case because there was enough room to maneuver in the truck plus Mark, Ben and Wolfgang liked to ride in the cab but I wanted to save my ass from the continual bouncing from riding roughshod over the track that was our road. I used my legs as shock absorbers from the continual pounding on the dirt rutted roads that make up the majority of northeastern Kenya. The cab was unique in that the windscreen could fold down on the engine hood and the roof part folded back behind the cab seats.
M.A.N. truck with L-R: Canuck Mark, Wolfgang and Henk.
Our M.A.N. trucks were painted a drab yellow and the cab had inane comments written on them: No Job For No Money, Better Red Than Dead, and the company name Thomson Tours. Usually Brit Ben and Aussie Phil got the best seats in our cab with the driver Dutchman Jos, whereas Terri the Tasmanian, Mark the Aussie, the two Kiwis and the hippie Canadian me, opted to stand holding on for dear life to the rigging for the majority of the trip. When the road wasn’t too bumpy, we would sit down to jot down notes in our journals, read a novel or doze off. In the other truck, it was usually Wolfgang from Germany and Mark from Canada who sat up front in the cab with the driver Dutchman Henk. We often took turns changing trucks or if we were interested in having conversations with a different group but for the most part I stayed with Jos.

Gazing out over her territory, Terri was in her glory because she had just seen some well-hung Turkana gentleman squatting in a village. She was duly impressed because one man’s genitalia was touching the ground from his squat position. Noticing this, I tried yelling above the growling of the truck engine noise—“The man of the year exposed!”
Terri turned to me, her raven hair blowing in the wind, her face had turned the colour of her hair and she just howled. Up here in the middle of nowhere, apparently they hadn’t heard of underwear nor did they have the wherewithal to afford it—I think it would have cramped his style. Terri usually hung out with the boys holding on desperately to the steel bar just behind the cab. She also attracted a considerable amount of attention from us lads when we were travelling, as her bra didn’t stand a chance with her great bosoms pushing out her halter-top. There’s no denying she was vivacious and I think she scared some of the locals with her flaming red hair. Not only that, she brought even more attention to herself when she took to wearing a mosquito net over herself to keep the clouds of flies off her once we had got into the Sudan. As the only female on the trip, she was guaranteed to attract attention.

As the light faded in the late evening, both Jos and Henk were growing weary; we stopped for the night and set up camp in a forest with a canopy of gum and acacia trees. There was nothing but a dirt track where we pulled off and a soft shoulder to set up my one-man bivvy tent. I hardly used the tent as I was just content to string up my mosquito net to the underbelly of the truck and use one of the foamies on board the truck. We were basically a self-sufficient unit and that is the way the overland trucks were built for travel in the heart of Africa. Besides, the bivvy tent wasn’t big enough to fart in and I felt claustrophic in it. I was still battling another obstacle I had picked up in Kenya—salmonella poisoning. I had finally got the right antibiotic but my guts were still roiling. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to see me bolting off into the bush whenever we had a road break. Being in the bivvy tent didn’t help matters especially in the morning as I just about shat my pants, as it was a devil of a thing to try and bolt out of. You ended up backing out of the blame thing and god help me if there was a hyena or lion waiting outside, as they would have bitten a chunk out of my ass first.
In the northern Kenyan bundu.

Parts of our trek were through areas of thick vegetation; leleshwa bush grew in abundance, as did Acacia elatior. Turkanaland had its assortment of sub-Saharan trees: Euphorbia robecchii, Delonix elata, and Crateva adansonii. Quite often, whilst standing up in the truck, you had to duck as most of the acacia trees had thorns, which might cut your head if you weren’t paying attention. All the splendour of Africa was spread out in front of us like a broad rough canvas. Long grasses caressed the foreground with a backdrop of great black granite domes, which stuck out like sore thumbs in the high chaparral eco-zone. On other occasions, the land opened up into vast plains with tended fields, solitary trees and endless footpaths alongside the dirt tract. The vista was endless except for the brief outline of a far away magenta range that formed a jagged spine on the distant horizon. On the lower green hills we would pass by small villages with cone shaped huts, the ubiquitous zebu short-horned cattle milling about unguarded outside the thorn bush kraal. For some reason, this variety of African cow was more resistant to diseases, i.e. sleeping sickness caused by the tsetse fly or rinderpest that had devastated earlier cattle herds brought by European settlers at the turn of the century. Young naked Topasa sisters sauntered by unbothered with baby sisters strapped to their backs holstered by a kikoi wrap whilst a younger pot bellied sibling followed in tow.

Near the Kenyan border with the "Lost Boys".

Roadside beggars
Another of my favourite scenes occurred when we stopped at a makeshift village for a moment in northern Kenya or southern Sudan. I took the picture from inside the security of our truck's canopy. From time to time we could pull back the canvas tarp to let the sun and air in to bathe us in a glow or hook it up to keep out rain or for sleeping at night. At this time, it had become drizzly and cool which sounds impossible when you are just near the Equator but because of our high elevation, we had unrolled the canvas top to protect us from the hard rain. What's paradoxical about the shot is that one of the Kiwis is lost in his concentration of James Michener’s novel—Shogun, in contrast to the dire poverty and desperation of the locals that exists within arms length just outside our own protective world. A group of two older boys and nine younger boys are huddled close together if for nothing else but to seek body heat from each other to keep warm. The lads are next to the burnt out shell and the crumbling facade of a redbrick building, which has seen better times. Half of the boys have no garments on save for a crook of a stick that maybe they used for herding cattle or some livestock. The majority of them are looking away off camera except for the last boy, clad in his khaki shorts, distended belly, arms crossed touching his thin shoulders: one hand desperately clutching what looks like a blue paint can while his other hand covers his mouth. He has a look of both desperation and wanting. His stare has stayed with me forever in a haunting sort of way and I have always wondered what happened to this small group of boys. Were they part of the ‘Lost Boys’ from the southern Sudanese conflict? Since John Garang had led a mini-rebellion against his former Sudanese Army commanders, Southern Sudan had been plunged into a civil war between the animist and Christian south and the Islamic Arab north. There had been on-going atrocities on both sides with the north having the upper hand deploying Russian Antonov bombers on the southerners. John Garang had formed the Southern People’s Liberation Army or SPLA. Garang was from the Dinka tribe in the Jonglei State of Southern Sudan. There had been accusations that the SPLA had recruited young boys and teenagers to fight for their side: many from displaced families who had suffered casualties from the civil war. Did they grow up to be part of the SPLA’s “Lost Boys” in Sudan or go with the self-proclaimed ‘prophet of doom’ Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which would cause years of havoc and terror in northern Uganda? From what I could gather, all that these bedraggled lads were looking for was some food or perhaps potable water. My Kiwi traveling companion Simon was totally oblivious to this pathetic situation and may well be something I framed subconsciously about the west's lack of concern or appreciation of the dire straits that Africa is in or was in at this juncture. This indifference of the West towards Africa and in particular to Sudan has continued from 1982 up to today in 2011. It wasn’t until 2004 that the American government finally came to grips with what was going on during President Bashir’s Sudan and got the nerve to call the catastrophe in Darfur ‘a genocide’.[2]

Eventually when I got back to Canada later the following year, I did a slide show on my 1982 African trip for a few friends back in Banff on a cool, spring evening over a few beers. At some point in the evening, one of my friends became agitated by my ‘nice photos’—
These are great photos of Africa, but why don’t you have any of the poor people.
I didn’t take any” I replied.
She seemed flummoxed—“They always show so many poor people on TV, but you didn’t see any?
I saw lots, but I’m not paparazzi and don’t take those photos—it’s degrading.”
In the end, I almost had to defend why I hadn’t taken any shots of desperate people in a desperate land. I was greatly pissed off and said –
For Christ sakes, I didn’t travel through Africa to take pictures of poor people.
“That’s not my style.” I reiterated.
Moreover, in some cases taking a person’s picture is like taking away their soul if not their dignity. More to the point, I didn’t want to demean their poorness and plagiarize their poverty. Even poor people have dignity and to shove a camera in some fly blown person's face is just ‘not on’ as the Kiwis would say. Where is the humanity in that? I would be nothing better than some scumbag paparazzi guy or voyeur gazing into the starving mouth of the ‘other’. Furthermore, in the Sudan, you had to apply for a photographer's permit and it specifically stated that you were not to take photos of poor people. You could end up in a maggot-ridden Sudanese prison if the police caught you taking any pictures that were strictly off-limits. Anyways, I wasn't a scavenger or parasitic paparazzi guy, I had my morals and I was a social-documentary photographer in the vein of famous photographer W. Eugene Smith not a thrill seeker.

Earlier in the trip, near Lake Turkana, we had managed to scrounge some potatoes from somewhere along route and between Jos, Henk and Terri, they managed to scramble together a fine curry dinner for our travel weary gang. We were mindful after eating to not leave a mess that would attract scavengers around where we set up camp. We eventually buried all our vegetable scraps and stuff we didn’t eat. Early the following morning, I got up early and went over to fix myself a hot cup of tea and noticed two scrawny teenage Turkana girls lurking behind one of the trucks.
I saw that Henk was awake and feeling a tad suspicious I asked him—
Are these girls trying to nick something from us?
He looked at me as if dumbstruck and answered—
No, they are just waiting to see what food we will throw away.” He replied.
Then he told me—
Canuck Mark near Eliye Springs, Lake Turkana.
There has been a drought here for five years and the people are really suffering.”
A little later, I noticed they were actually gently digging through sand.
What are they digging for?” I asked somewhat perplexed.
Carefully and methodically they had dug down to where we had buried our potato skins from the previous evening. I guess they had seen us burying the skins that night, but waited till the morning to do so. After a careful search, the girls calmly scraped the sand off the peelings and then chewed on them as there was still some moisture left in them. We all felt sick seeing these girls, who were so desperate for anything, having to dig up day old potato peelings. We decided that after we ate our morning porridge, we would leave some for the girls in our big pot. It was quite touching to see that the girls didn’t fight over who ate what and how much, they just sat facing each other and patiently took turns eating and scraping our left-over porridge from our cooking pot. I didn’t have the heart to take their picture but I shall never forget that image as long as I live.

Some of the sights from this African Odyssey were heartbreaking others were quite breathtaking. On another early morning drive; I took a picture of a woman walking into the distance with some outcrop peeking through the distant glaze. What stuck out about this picture was the fact that the woman was smoking a pipe. It all seemed so surreal and at that moment I was glad to be in Africa and the continent was starting to get into my bones. In the movie, I Dreamed of Africa, Kuki Gullman’s husband Paolo keeps reminding her that “There is a different rhythm here” and that he lives “for the moment because just a bad decision or bad luck could decide your fate”. I must admit that Africa does have a different rhythm and my younger brother and other African travelers have referred to it as—‘African time’. My younger brother later wrote a song about his experiences and called the song It’s African Time. It was a song that reflected on his first impressions of time spent at Manchok Teacher’s College in Nigeria as a Teacher Trainer for the Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO) in the early 1980s.
 “When I first came to this country
  Thought I’d change a thing or two
  But the longer that I stayed here
  The more that I became confused
  You have to go slowly,
  Take it easy and learn to unwind—it’s African time.”
‘African time’ does take some getting used to just the same.

[1] I would later do a double major undergraduate degree and Master’s in Near and Middle Eastern
  Civilizations Studies and Anthropology at the University of Toronto in 1993 and 1996.
[2] The Clinton administration was quite reluctant to do this in Rwanda despite obvious reports that indicated genocide there. I saw a TV interview with Madeleine Albright who basically could care less about the slaughter of a few hundred thousand Africans despite her own background as Jewish survivor of Hitler’s ‘holocaust’.


  1. “I saw lots, but I’m not paparazzi and don’t take those photos—it’s degrading.”

    Do you think Africans are ashamed of the way they look? Do you think Africans should be ashamed of the way they look?

    1. Let me assume these are rhetorical and not sincere information questions. Given the content, do you think 'yes' are likely answers? Nowhere does the blogger indicate 'Africans' are or should be ashamed 'of the way they look.' You framed this judgment with your questions. He makes a moral choice about appropriate images sensitive to the dignity of individuals, not generalized 'Africans', whatever that might mean. I am assuming "African' is a coded political reference in the abbreviated discourse you have contributed.

      I think your questions will acquire greater significance if they lead to further discourse. You might have very thoughtful and well articulated comments disputing the bloggers commentary.

      I look forward to hearing your views.

  2. It's not a question of what I think Africans should look like or what Africans think they look like--but a question of my taking their pictures like some parasite. People have pride whatever their fate deals them. It's not only degrading as a photog to take their pictures but as a fellow human being. Where's is the benefit unless you are an international photog taking pictures to bring some catastrophe to world attention. I was just a traveller. For me it was an moral issue. Surely that's fair. Not sure what your point is?