No Last Flight Out for the Nuba
By Richard Critchfield

Berkely, California
October 16, 1992 (Int. Herald Tribune)

"The harvests are poor and the land infertile and the rains few," lamented the old, dethroned king. "Why?The people have become Muslim. They are leaving the faith of our ancestors."

That was years ago; Sultan Ahmed was nearly 100. He lived in self-imposed seclusion at the end of a rocky gorge. It took us a day to walk there, as baboons shrieked from steep cliffs and vultures soared overhead.

"There is a change in the ways of living, Sultan," my African interpreter told him gently.

"Because of these schools and modernization," the old man said bitterly. "The people become Muslim. I call myself a Muslim. But the true way of God goes back many, many generations. As long as we live, we must follow the old ways. In my dreams, the spirits speak of drought, famine, death. The people will be punished."

This was in the 1970s in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan on that great African divide between the Islamic north and the tribal south. The Nuba were newly converted to Islam. The Muslim missionary who worked with them, trained at Cairo's great Al Azhar University, told me: "After old men like Sultan Ahmed die, most of the Nuba will become what we call civilized. The coming generation, the children entering school, will not hold to the old ways."

He wanted to convert the Nuba but not change their customs and moral code, which he greatly admired. "The people have always seen the Sultan as an instrument of God," he said.It was clear to both of us that it was best to let a religion, especially a tribal one that is both a faith and a way of life, die out from feebleness and old age, and not try to destroy it all at once.

Even then, if there was a drought, Sultan Ahmed came to make rain. The tribe sacrificed a bull. Then the old man climbed the cliffs to the highest peak and plunged his spear into "solid rock." If his prayers were answered and God agreed to give rain, the Sultan withdrew his spear and came down to the people. The villagers celebrated with sorghum beer, drums and all-night dancing.

I spent five weeks in a Nuba village. The mountains were small and craggy, boulder-strewn cones that rose from the flat savannah grass like small, pointy volcanoes. The villagers said there were exactly 99 of them, each with its own subtribe. Our mountain was covered with acacia woods and inhabited by hyenas, baboons, exotic birds and, some said, the occasional winged devil. The old men remembered now-extinct giraffes, elephants and zebra. A few ruins of Anglican churches and Victorian bungalows showed that colonialism was extinct, too.

But the English had left their courts and schools behind. The judge in Dilling, a Nuba attired in suit, tie and spectacles, relied on a tattered old copy of the British penal code. He was a law graduate from Khartoum University and told me that the Nuba Mountains had long been a center of African slavery. Children were carried off by Arab camel caravans. A few of the poorest Nuba indentured their children to semi-nomadic cattle-herding Arabs in return for payment of a cow each year.

I stayed with the village kudjur. As magician, rainmaker, soothsayer, medicine man and social welfare worker, he was at the very heart of Nuba tribalism. He and his four wives herded cows and grew sorghum out in the bush, using slash-and-burn methods like everybody else. But our thorny-bush compound of grass huts was adorned with magical ju-ju - dried lizards, baboon heads, bits of gristle and bone.

The villagers were proud of a new microscope in the school's simple science lab. The schoolmaster adamantly opposed the old ways: "The kudjur exploits fear and ignorance. We must abolish these superstitions."

The missionary's opposition was religious: "A kudjur claims he is possessed by a benevolent spirit from God to take care of rain, war and disease. Sometimes kudjurs do seem to have supernatural powers. Rain can come. The sick may be cured. But this is mere coincidence. No human being can come between a man and Allah."

My stay in the Nuba Mountains ended suddenly. One day in the bush I was attacked by a rabid dog, which sank its fangs into my leg. It took us two days by foot and truck, crossing the desert, to reach the nearest airport, at El Obeid. There was a plane going to Khartoum. One seat was left. It was a bleak good-bye. Somehow we all sensed that in the villagers' lives there would be no last seat out.

In 1990 Sudan declared itself an Islamic nation. Many of its 25 million people are not Muslim. The real power behind military rule, it was said, was a Western-educated Islamic fundamentalist, Hassan Turabi.

This year Khartoum declared a holy war against the Nuba. Last month, Africa Watch, a London-based human rights group, said that 50,000 Nuba had been relocated from their villages into camps in the previous two months. It reported Nuba arriving at the camps as "living skeletons," and men taller than 6 feet (1.8 meters) weighing less than 70 pounds (32 kilograms). Africa Watch added: "The Khartoum government denies persecuting the Nuba or any other group on a religious basis."

"Sudan Update," published by London exiles, reported that families were being broken up and men and women sent as slaves to Arab farms and homes. It said that many Nuba villages had been devastated or destroyed by helicopter gunships, artillery and infantry, with arms supplied by Iran and China. Among the 29 villages named was the one where I had lived.