At the beginning of the third millennium the Nuba mountains are a place without roads, vehicles, houses, running water, electricity or even candles. In an area of some thirty thousand square kilometres there are a couple of primitive hospitals and one operational airstrip for small planes to land during the dry season. There are not too many places on earth as remote and isolated as these rugged hills. Indeed the people living here - a quarter million Nuba - are not only cut off from the rest of the world by the vast expanses of the burning hot Kordofan scrub but also by the Sudanese army closing in from all around. The beginning of the millennium is truly looking like the end for these people.
For most westerners the Nuba exist through the photographic works of George Rodger and Leni Riefenstahl. Visiting them in the late forties and sixties respectively they became fascinated by the artistry and athletic ability of these people. In spite of their ferocious wrestling matches and stick fights, these are a peaceful and tolerant people; some fifty sub-tribes have coexisted for centuries. Even the intrusion of Christianity and Islam didn’t split them - jihad seems a rather alien concept here. Indeed the Nuba are now defending themselves under Animist, Christian as well as Muslim command.
The mountains form a formidable citadel. Splendidly jutting monoliths erect an obstacle that renders any motorized troops obsolete. Climbing the slopes under the blazing sun even without guns to carry challenges you to the limit. Moving in the bush at night is virtually impossible unless you have learnt the trails by heart. It is hard to imagine how any desert infantry could overwhelm the agile Nuba on these rocks. Perhaps with helicopter gun ships the Sudanese army could do it and then wipe out the highland villages. But this expensive weapons system is still to enter the game - at least until petrodollars pay for it. Indeed the presence of our greed is no longer that far away. Canadian, Chinese, Swedish and other companies are trying to secure their oil fields with nasty mop up operations that push the Nuba higher and higher in the hills. It is easy to be nostalgic in the presence of the Nuba. They are handsome and easygoing people who love play and games. Quiet market afternoons as well as short march breaks inevitably end in a domino or card game. At night there is drumming and a local troubadour picks up his rababa to accompany it. It’s a simple five string guitar often made from the shell of a land mine. A cup of durra beer or liquor goes around and people dance and laugh. But it is all in the dark. Better not to light a fire or even an oil lamp to guide a bomber hovering above.
Among the Nuba you learn things long forgotten in the abundance of supermarkets. How sesame seeds are converted to cooking oil with a simple camel-driven mill. Or how the water in a mountain cascade is used according to how clean water is needed. Or how bomb fragments are all collected for the local smiths to hammer into axes and hoes. As the villagers say: ironically its the government of Sudan that is keeping the Nuba away from the stone age - by bombing. The Nuba beat their adversaries in other games as well; many of the Kalashnikovs have been bought from Arab traders in the plains. All this is private enterprise so it is not surprising that so is the aid: just a few courageous NGOs operate here. The UN has abandoned the Nuba mountains as a consequence of a Faustian bargain with the Khartoum rulers.
The Nuba are a splendid example of man at one with his environment. The children being light enough climb the wild fruit trees - they all seem to contribute something edible to the Nuba suppers. The graceful rows of terracings enveloping the hills remind me of the multiple strings of beads the women decorate their necks with. When the rains fall the mountains are a land of plenty supplying even cattle to the Arab markets in the desert. Yet mountains can dry up and become traps. Fetching water from the desert river beds during the dry season is the riskiest task. As everywhere in Africa it is a woman’s duty. Doing that they are targeted by the enemy. Any tactic will do in a total war.
Living a few weeks with the Nuba and marching with them hundreds of miles you reach something lost in yourself. How satisfying it is to live by your body’s strength alone! To be guided by your own senses only, to be carried by your own legs only. You also have plenty of time to run an inventory in your head. You compare life as you know it with their existence. Are they going to survive?
Should they become like us to survive? More to the point, do we in our alienated and wasteful way of life deserve to survive? The bottom line here is their superb adaptation to a niche in the environment versus the needs of a greedy, technologically more advanced civilization of the northerners.
In the simple huts of the Nubas I sleep better than ever at home. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night though. I hear steps outside or occasionally shots further away. The final question reaches me. Have I accepted the possibility of dying here? The bombs at Christmas didn’t fall all that far away. The bigger villages and the airstrip are constantly targeted - I’ve seen the explosions and smelled the sulphur and phosphorus fumes afterwards. Kummi, my guide, is worried about my safety. We march together yet he shrugs off the question of us being ambushed stoically: me, not him, being hit would be a problem. He knows that this is his place until the end of his days. He has no flight out in reserve like I do. My task is to take the word out. That flight is the step that remains, the step that separates me from the Nuba reality.
During the hours of waiting for the flight out an analogy strikes me. Is the Nuba struggle in a way just a rerun of the match that took place somewhere around here eons ago? One branch of the homo-tree diversified into walking in the plains and developing tools while the other continued living the old way, up in the trees. In the end the former grew more resourceful, conquered the savannah and finally finished off his brothers in the branches.
Two eras, two stories, one about biological evolution, the other about cultural evolution.
Monsters have prevailed before. There is no progress, just evolution. A process blind to our wishes and judgements. I cannot fault the logic yet in my gut I hope I’m dead wrong.