National Geographic : 1951 Feb
With the Nuba Hillmen of Kordofan BY ROBIN STRACHAN RESH from Cambridge at the age of 22, I received my appointment from the British Foreign Office to serve the British and Egyptian Governments in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Many surprises were in store for me. The biggest, I think, was the size of the country. Lying between Egypt on the north and Kenya, Uganda, and the Belgian Congo on the south, the Sudan covers almost a million square miles-about one-third the area of the United States. From south to north it is traversed by the River Nile (map, page 250).* The Sudan's population of some eight mil lion is made up of Arabs; mixed descendants of the ancient Egyptians; Nilotes; and the many Negroid groups of the equatorial Prov inces.t With three other greenhorns I sailed from England for my new post at Rashad, in the Tegale district of Kordofan, one of the coun try's nine Provinces. I was considered the lucky member of the quartet because Rashad is a real bush station in the Nuba Mountains. Arabs and Nuba Live Side by Side Tegale is a political district twice the size of the State of New Hampshire. Here live side by side a group of nomad Arab tribes adhering strictly to Islam, and Negroid tribes men who, for want of a better generic term, are called Nuba. Their ways of life are different, but their problems have the same meaning for the British administrator. There are also some semi-Arab Nuba. They took to Islam about 1890 and have be come detribalized. My first interview with the British Civil Secretary in Khartoum, capital of the Sudan, revealed that for a time I would be kept busy learning Arabic, law, and accountancy. I tried not to show my chagrin and kept quiet about my ambitions to hunt elephant. Next my objective was El Obeid, capital of Kordofan and seat of the provincial adminis tration. It lay three days' journey by train southwest of Khartoum. El Obeid is steeped in the history of the Mahdi. I wonder how many of the thou sands of American pilots who flew over the town during World War II, and sometimes landed there to refuel on their long haul to India, realized that, some 60 years before, this peaceful place had been the hub of one of the great revolts in history. Mohammed Ahmed, a Dongola boat builder's son, had proclaimed himself the long-awaited Mahdi (Directed One). Vil lagers of Kordofan flocked to his banner. On January 17, 1883, he captured El Obeid and in the following November annihilated an army of 10,000 commanded by Hicks Pasha (Gen. William Hicks). Within a few years his successors had wrested the Sudan from Egypt. The famous Gen. C. G. (Chinese) Gordon was killed when Khartoum was captured in 1885. Winston Churchill-Army Officer Thirteen years later the reconquest of the Sudan, essential to secure control of the upper Nile, had been effected. Lord Kitchener won the historic battle of Omdurman in 1898. Winston Churchill, then a young officer with the 21st Lancers, inimitably described this final phase in his book, The River War. Since then the country has been a condominium, jointly administered by the Egyptian and British Governments. The railway from Khartoum ends at El Obeid. The remaining 150 miles of the journey to Rashad is by road, on horseback with pack mules during the rainy season. I first came to El Obeid in January, in the dry season, so I continued to Rashad in the luxury of a Ford truck. In contrast, on numerous travels later, eight mules were to be my constant companions. For wet-season service they cannot be surpassed. We civil servants used to fall heir to animals "boarded" by the military. The average age of my caravan was 17, yet seldom did one of its members tire or fall sick. Delami, Nuba Show Place The first night I passed at Delami, where my District Commissioner met me. Delami was not on the direct road to Rashad, but there was a Kordofan tradition that a new comer first set foot in the Nuba Mountains at this model village. Though the town was a police post in Nuba country, it was ruled over by an Arab mamur, as our native political assistants were called. Delami was a kind of retreat, selected on the smallest excuse for conferences or to be shown off to distinguished visitors (page 270). *See "Along the Nile Through Egypt and the Sudan," by Frederick Simpich, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, October, 1922. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Adventures Among the 'Lost Tribes of Islam,' " by Maj. Edward Keith-Roach, January, 1924; and "Two Fighting Tribes of the Sudan," by Merian C. Cooper, October, 1929.