The Sudanese proverb raises the question: Does the fool drown in his search for water or is he saved by it? And who is, in fact, this fool? Given the wasteful and unfair dealings of mankind with this dwindling resource – aren’t we all? While doing research on water, The Niles correspondents in South Sudan and Sudan met fishermen who deal carefully with the water that nourishes them and business people who exploit the resource without restraint. They report on conflicts around water but also on exemplary projects where water is shared peacefully. In short, the fool is still swimming, but for how long?
24 The Niles “His unsteady legs struggled with his meagre frame.” approached the village shielding his face from the painful raindrops with his left open palm. He was wet through and through – his pants dripped as if he had urinated on himself. He trudged like a drunk, a spook. It was bad to be caught up in such bad weather. He shivered as if he had fever, maybe he was hungry. It would have been worse if he was drunk. He would have fallen in the gutter and maybe drowned. The lone man stopped to scan the village with difficulty. In spite of himself, he instinctively branched off the main road. His unsteady legs struggled with his meagre frame as if he had lost his sense of direction, an indication that he was from another village. In his right hand he carried some small luggage in a gunny sack. The gunny sack looked like a stone because it was drenched in rain water. The man obviously looked disturbed and perhaps confused in his search for shelter from the storm. He branched off to the nearest hut, with smoke slowly spiralling from the roof. It must be warm inside there, the man presumed, for he badly needed some warmth whether artificial or natural. He cleared his throat and clapped his hands loudly, to announce the presence of a stranger. There was no answer. He clapped again and a man with a torn, white vest stood at the door of the hut. He squinted at the new arrival to his house. “Come in, come in brother. Come and take shelter. The rain is heavy,” said the man with the torn vest. “Come in, you must be very cold. Maybe even hungry. Sit down at the corner there, and feel at home.” The stranger sat on a low bamboo stool at the corner of the hut, as the owner of the hut retired into the second partition. The hut was semi dark and the traveler had no access to the hearth in the next room. He shivered like a man suffering from a serious case of malaria. The hut was quiet when he arrived. It seemed the man with the torn vest lived alone. It was quiet except for the rain outside. Now the rain poured gently, continuously. Soon crickets started chirping, prompting the frogs to croak in their ugly and dull tones. “My host be a brute, eh? How can you beat your wife at this time?” A moment later, the owner of the hut emerged from the next partition with a dry gunny sack which he handed to his guest. “Use this for keeping you warm, we don’t have a spare blanket. We rarely receive visitors,” said the owner of the hut who turned his back to the stranger and returned to the next partition which served as his bedroom. It was still raining, but gently. It was serene inside the hut, but the man had not fully recovered from the cold. His wet clothes were plastered to his body. The wet clothes smelled of sweat and body dirt. He wished he were in the comfort of his own home, his wife would have made for him some warm porridge to chase away the cold. The man was absorbed in his own private thoughts when he heard some funny noises in the next room, where the owner of the hut had entered. Somebody breathed heavily, as if in agony. Sweet agony? The man became curious as he cocked his ears. Curiosity made him forget about the cold in his chest. He forced a cough as if to say ‘hello!’. Now the heavy breathing became rapid. There was struggling, panting, moaning, cursing. The man could tell the voice was that of a woman. Eh eh! What battle goes on inside there? Are husband and wife fighting in this bad weather when they are supposed to huddle close to each other, to feel warm and happy? Strange people, these ones! The stranger wondered, shaking his head from left to right. But the moaning, panting, struggling went on unabated. The funny noises came from the woman of the house. She sobbed. Whaaat! It is really a woman’s voice! The stranger became more interested. He hoped the rain did not stop abruptly before he knew what agony went on in the next room. The struggling resumed again, and then it seemed the woman was slapping the man repeatedly and crying ‘mama, mama, I’m dying…’. Ah! The traveler mumbled to himself. He engaged in a monologue to keep himself company: My host must be a brute, eh? How can you beat your wife at this time? Hmn, You must be crazy. Crazy man indeed. A wife beater indeed. An idiot indeed. (He spat against the wall.) Or is it the woman who is causing all the trouble? I don’t know how she looks, this man’s wife. Maybe she has pout lips of a trouble maker. Maybe she has sparse hair of a rascal. What could they be fighting about in this cold weather, anyway? I think she is mean. Maybe she is denying him the sugarcane? But what sort of rude woman is she who has no feelings when some of us are dying from cold? Outside the hut the rain poured gently and the chirping of crickets and croaking of frogs increased. The man was silent but his mind was in the next room. From the cracks on the partitioning wall the stranger could hear the woman of the house moaning as if in some sweet but inevitable pain. The man swallowed hard and continued in his wild thoughts: She might have given in. The man might have pinched her backside hard. Maybe they are making love now or what? But the man in this house must be very wicked and inpatient indeed. For how could he make love to a woman in the presence of a stranger? But do they know me anyway? Let them enjoy themselves. As these thoughts raced through his mind, the stranger began to think about his wife at home. He felt some longing for his wife and was immediately overwhelmed with some strange warmth. A stupid smile lit his face. And he felt good. He left like running home. Before he could pronounce his wife’s name – Denya - he heard the woman of the house shout loudly as her husband tried to console her with inaudible words. The woman hissed and breathed heavily. The woman’s noise-making was followed by a brief silence when the stranger heard the piecing shrill of a baby’s cry. Wow! So they are blessed with a newborn! God bless you, good people. The rain stopped. The man stood, stretched himself and yawned. He dusted the seat of his wet trousers and felt like peeing. What name will the couple give to such a baby born on rainy day? It must be Jokudu or Lukudu. The man asked himself as he stared into the distant world of his imagination. He thought about his wife and six children all living under the roof of one hut. I hope that roof is not leaking again. He thought. If it leaks my children must be on their feet dodging the cold rain drops. My wife must be cold too, poor woman. Suppose the rain blew off the roof of my hut? Supposed rain water forced their way through the weak mud wall of the hut? The man looked miserable and felt like crying when these negative thoughts swept through his mind. He had a few kilometres to journey through the muddy road to reach his homestead. He was a bit unhappy. But when the newly born baby’s cry reminded him where he was he smiled a bit. When he thought about the new born baby’s cry he remembered his six children. He remembered them as babies. How does this new baby look like? Like father? Like mother? Is it a she or he? He badly wanted to pee. The rain was over and the cold evening was being swallowed by darkness. Fireflies were flying. “I didn’t know I brought blessings to this house. God bless you abundantly, good people,” he announced loudly for the couple in the partition to hear as he collected his gunny sack, threw it over his shoulder and stepped out of the hut. “I leave you in peace.” The man’s bare feet sloshed the rain water as he hit the muddy road. A village in the memory of water Osman Shinger | Khartoum “The rain was over, fireflies were flying.” theniles6_20151123.indd 24 2015/11/23 2:13 PM
The Niles 25 1. Ibrahim the Fiqhi* had a vision, a dream that betokened glad tidings. So Ishaq, his pupil, told the villagers the next day, in their remote hamlet in the far west of the country. For days, the Fiqhi kept to the straw hut at the foot of the mountain, summoning the rains that hadn’t fallen for years. In his dream, the Fiqhi had seen water falling onto the village from the skies. Many hatches had opened in the dome of heaven and the rains had poured out onto the soil, long coils of water crashing down from on high – and from the depths of the earth water had erupted, towering fountains in every direction, flooding the village’s sandy soil. The animals had drunk until their thirst was quenched, the people had been washed clean by the heavenly flood, and the irrigation channels had overflowed. Wherever you turned was water, blanketing the ground to the horizon. The Fiqhi woke from his long, watery dream full of joy and hope. He summoned his pupil Ishaq and told him of his vision, then despatched him to tell the villagers of the great blessing that was coming their way. Ishaq clambered onto his donkey and circled the low, mudbrick houses in the noonday heat, crying: “O most patient people of the village! Ibrahim the Fiqhi has sent me to bring you tidings of a miracle: much water is on its way. So rejoice at this blessing and bounty, rejoice at the great plenty that shall outmatch our simple needs. The Fiqhi does not lie, and his visions come true. For many days the Fiqhi has kept to his hut at the base of the mountain, and behold! He has seen a faithful vision, one that admits no doubt: a vision that shall summon the abundant rains in which such goodness resides. “Spread the word, O people of the village, rejoice in this plenty and bounty. The sheikh asks you to slaughter a fattened calf to celebrate this blessing, and commands you to gather together three or four small calves and place them in his enclosure, so that he may summon the rains as quickly as possible. Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!” The villagers were delighted to hear these glad tidings. They listened joyfully to every word that Ishaq spoke. From the time Ibrahim the Fiqhi first arrived, five years before, he had brought them nothing but good. Not a man who spoke often. They would see him entering the mosque or leaving it, a huge old Quran always in his hand. His tiny face bore the marks of righteousness and blessedness. And now they must just wait a few days and the man’s prophecy would be fulfilled. But before they could go their separate ways home, thick black clouds had spread out across the heavens over their heads, they heard thunder rumbling in the distance, and there were flashes of light in the sky to the northwest. That night, the village slept blanketed by dark clouds, and not a single drop of rain fell. 2. The people of this village in West Darfur had a long experience with drought. From the early eighties onwards this district and the districts that surrounded it, indeed, the entire west of the country, had been visited by a long-term drought. On every side, tongues of sand licked round the villages and the water table sunk deep below the surface. Many of their livestock perished, and many people, too, as a result of thirst and drought, and as a consequence of this great suffering and the impossibility of making a living in the region, many had emigrated north, where water was abundant and the mighty Nile was clothed in green. Despite the great exodus from this and neighbouring villages, some chose to remain and fight, to eke out a living in this remote region. During the long years spent waiting, some lived on and others died, and things remained just as they had been for a hundred years: no schools, no hospital, no government institutions to serve the villagers, save a small police station of reinforced concrete. Many years passed, and the villagers heard that a war had broken out in the region. Some of the villagers joined the armed movements to demand their people’s right to education, health and a dignified existence. Nothing changed. Everything remained just as it had been since the day God created this part of his earth. 3. The thick black clouds still loomed, unmoving, over the village. Nothing changed. Not a raindrop fell to wet the parched lips below. Many terrible thoughts plagued Ibrahim the Fiqhi. He was assailed by awful doubts about the worth of what he was doing. For days on end he had shut himself up, reciting the spells his forefathers had taught him in the rainy lands of West Africa. He had done everything he could to summon the rains but nothing at all had happened save these ugly black clouds gathering over the village. What would the villagers say about his powers now? Would they doubt them? He emerged from his hut and looked up. The clouds were still there. Even more clouds were gathering but no hint of rain. He called Ishaq and despatched him to the villagers with another message. Ishaq sprang onto his dawdling donkey, and when he reached the heart of the village, early that morning, a crowd of villagers gathered round him. Hearts tormented by hope. Maybe the sheikh had news about the rains. Very quickly and very severely, Ishaq delivered his message. He said that the sheikh’s vision had been one hundred percent correct. The sheikh had interpreted and reinterpreted the dream and was sure that the blessing would come, and that the lack of water they had suffered from for three decades would soon be a thing of the past. Quoting the sheikh, Ishaq insisted that the rain would fall in a few hours time. The villagers were overjoyed, for they placed great faith in Sheikh Ibrahim, and relied on him to treat their sick and find solutions to the problems of their daily lives. “The Fiqhi woke from his long, watery dream full of joy and hope.” No sooner had they crowded around Ishaq than he began explaining to them, time and time again, that his dream promised good things. The meaning of the dream, he insisted, was that the problem of the water would be over. Quoting the sheikh once more, he said that the water was about to become a reality, and that it would fall so abundantly that it would flood all the valleys round the village. When Ishaq had finished delivering his message he looked up and saw the thick black clouds massing, and not a drop of rain from them all. For a moment, doubt assailed him, but he soon drove it from his mind: he trusted his sheikh and believed in him - the kind of belief that admits no doubt. 4. In the evenings that followed the villagers held celebrations and banged drums to mark the great event that was soon to become a reality. The men danced with the women in the empty square outside the village, and they hired skilled musicians and experienced drummers from far and wide. Marissa was the specialty of such celebrations. The men put away great quantities of the thick, fermented corn beer, while a few of the young boys were given a thinner, less potent brew to sip. Sheikh Ibrahim was not too proud to drink it himself and he drained the many cupfuls set aside for him by the village elders. He was sitting with these elders, trying to enjoy the spectacle of dancing men and women, who were competing to display their skill in whirling about and leaping high into the air, but from time to time a hidden anxiety would course through him. He would look up at the thick black clouds massed overhead, his high spirits would droop, and he’d feel a painful cramping in his belly. 5. The hours dragged by, and nothing changed. On the fifth day a delegation from the northern government visited the village. The delegation consisted of a number of men dressed in suits of the most expensive cloth and transported in off-road vehicles with enormous tyres. They were accompanied by foreigners: short and squat with tiny eyes. The delegation toured the village with a group of elders, followed by the villagers, none of whom could understand the reason for the visit. This was the first time in the history of their village that they had been visited by a government delegation. From the inhabitants of neighbouring villages they had heard that a delegation was in the area. Some of the delegates were carrying strange-looking devices, which they would place on the ground to measure distances and analyse the soil. After a brief tour, the senior delegate asked to join them in the square because they were going to announce some very good news for the village that would solve all its problems forever. The inhabitants quickly congregated in the square, all with their own dreams and hopes. This was the first time in the history of the village that a delegation from the government had visited them. These people were like nothing they had ever seen: their smart clothes were quite different to the rags they wore, their plump, soft bodies utterly unlike their own emaciated frames. Their features and skin colour - every colours under the sun - were dissimilar to those of the villagers. Even their fluent classical Arabic seemed out of place. The bearded man in the suit spoke at great length about a great many utterly incomprehensible things. He said that this country must be governed by God’s laws, that all its daily hardships would be done away with if divine law was enforced. He informed the people of the village that they were living in a state of pagan ignorance, that they drank Marissa, and Marissa was alcoholic, and thus forbidden. That they danced with women and dancing was forbidden. He said that the celebrations they held were un-Islamic, and that this was the direct cause of the wretched existence they led: God was punishing them for the sins they had committed. The villagers exchanged looks, expressions of incomprehension on their faces. They were full of foreboding. The man went on, explaining that the Godless ignorance in which they lived was about to come to an end, because God had sent him to lead them from the straightened path of darkness to the broad plains of light. He was the candidate for their district, and if they gave him their votes in the coming elections he would solve all their problems, first and foremost the problem of water. He said that he had brought experts from distant lands to construct a huge reservoir for them that would solve their problem and that of the surrounding villages. At the mention of the word water, the villagers began to look more kindly on him. Some ululated, others cried, God is Great. They began to cheer up and looks of great gratitude were bestowed on Ibrahim the Fiqhi who was standing to one side. The vision the Fiqhi had seen in his sleep, of which he had informed them, was to come true at the hands of this official. The official said that he had brought experts with him to install the reservoir, and that these experts would dig a number of wells. A few weeks later the villagers descended on the ballot boxes and gave their votes to the solemn, bearded official. Hours went by, days, weeks, months, years, and nothing changed. All the official’s promises to solve the water crisis had amounted to nothing. Nothing in the village had changed, other than the mosque’s new white minaret that towered over the low, mud-brick houses. * Islamic scholar theniles6_20151123.indd 25 2015/11/23 2:13 PM