A Journey to Southern Sudan

Mathew J. Betz, PhD

The story of one Professor's travels through the North African country.

In January 2011, Southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly to separate from the North and become an independent country. That status is scheduled to take effect in July 2011*. In 2005, the two sides signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement putting an end to decades of war that killed or displaced some two million people. Although much has changed in the past fifty years, I believe much has not, and a view of the recent past is useful.

In 1956, I was selected as the first participant in an exchange between Northwestern University and the University of Khartoum. At the end of the academic year, Dr. Dean Smith of the Kitchener Medical School kindly included me with his wife, Catherine, daughter, Esther (then eight), Dr. Ali Hogalli, and a Scottish terrier named Roy, on an extensive trip through the southern Sudan. After traveling from Khartoum through Kosti, El Obeid, the Nuba mountains, and Abyei, we reached the White Nile opposite Malakal. The following are journal excerpts from the ensuing months.

Malakal to Bor

Malakal is on the east bank of the Nile. We reached the west bank ferry crossing at dusk. After a short time, the ferry, a small barge just large enough to carry our two vehicles, arrived. We proceeded to the rest house where, with dawn the next day, we would experience a uniquely different part of the Sudan.

Our travels until now had introduced us to many types of rest houses from small mud-walled, thatched roofed structures to small cubical Middle Eastern buildings made from mud or cement block. The Malakal rest house was constructed of bricks and the first we had seen of a European design, with an extremely large front porch and pitched roof. The city was a transition point for the White Nile. North of Malakal is a fairly well-defined river, but not too far south of there one enters the Sudd, a flat marsh area, estimated to cover 50,000 square miles through which the river meanders, divides, and subdivides into multiple streams. For millennia, the Sudd defied penetration.

Malakal, being the entrance to the south, separated the area ethnographically between the mixed Arab bloodlines and culture of the north from the African tribes of the south. The south can be roughly divided into two major regions. Extending southward from Malakal, beyond the end of the Sudd, and westward into Bahl el Ghazal, is an immense area populated by the Dinka, the Nuer, and the Shilluk tribes. All are very tall, thin people who are cattle herders, with their culture and society intimately connected to their cattle. The cattle were their wealth, survival in time of drought, and the center point of much of their rituals. Their year was dominated by the need to move the cattle toward the river in the dry season. Although all three tribes were represented in the city, the tribe that seemed most numerous was the Shilluk. They had the smallest population of the three tribes, and some of their customs made them the most distinguishable. In all three tribes, the males scarred their foreheads in a pattern unique to each tribe. The Dinka and Nuer markings were a set of long parallel and horizontal scars across the entire forehead. The Shilluk, on the other hand, typically had a series of small round raised lumps in a line across the forehead. Often these followed a line parallel to, and just above, the eyebrow. At a short distance it reminded one of the upper rim of a pair of eyeglasses. The Shilluk men also were renowned for extremely intricate and unusual hair styles. The most characteristic style involved letting the hair grow to some length and matting it into shapes best described like dishes or platters. Normally there was one on each side of the head, somewhat towards the back. The plate might be a foot in diameter with the rims standing out three or four inches from the skull. The rest of their hair, between and behind the plates, was generally cropped quite short, much like most other Africans we saw. However this shorter hair was decorated in a variety of ways. Not all men sported the plate style; one young man had no hair plates but a "helmet" of red clay and a line of snail shells standing on end on a line down the center of his head.

Young Shilluk man with unusual hairdo in Malakal. The style was not unique, as we saw it several times.

After a few days of reprovisioning and visits to local hospitals and clinics as well as being the recipients of much local hospitality, we departed from Malakal on the main track leading directly south and crossing the Sobat River, a tributary of the Nile, a short distance out of town. This track would lead us to Bor, Gemmeiza, and ultimately Juba. For the most part, the track was heavily rutted and composed of dry, dark, organic soil with occasional very slippery soft spots. The rainy season usually starts in April in the south and progresses northward. It had not started in Malakal, but as we traveled south there were increased indications of recent or coming rain. Once the rains arrived, the track would become impassable and no road traffic would move between Malakal and Mongalla for almost six months. During the rainy season, the Nile River steamers were the only surface connection between the two. We were told that near Mongalla we would connect with the all-weather roads of Equatoria. These were composed of the red gravelly lateritic tropical soil that covers most of Equatoria and much of Africa south of there.

One indication of recent rain was a dry weather camp, probably Dinka, that recently had been abandoned. These camps are typically constructed by cutting the very tall reeds and papyrus that grow in the Sudd and stacking then like overgrown sheaves of wheat. They can be twelve or more feet high. The bottom was spread apart and the middle provided shelter at night. The structures themselves either became extremely wet or collapsed in the rain. Cooking was done outside.

We arrived at Bor, located near the southern end of the Sudd. That first night we encountered heavy rain. Although the road had provided challenges up to this point, none of these was serious or threatened to impede our progress beyond a short delay.
Bor proved to be an interesting town because it is a permanently inhabited site and is situated on the bank of the river with enough elevation to protect it from most flooding. We still had some of the Sudd to cross as there were substantial areas of papyrus ahead of us. At Bor, the river had a well-defined and stable bank, thus it became a major stop for the steamers. Historically it was also a fueling station where there was wood to harvest for use by the old wood-burning steamers. A very few of these wood burners still plied the river.

The rest house in Bor was a large oval enclosure composed of five-foot high mud walls and covered by a massive thatched roof supported on timber framing. The structure must have been twenty to twenty-five feet high and about forty feet long. There were no major interior partitions except for some quite low mud walls that did not provide much privacy or separation. The floors were compacted dirt. Nevertheless, it was a very clean, dry, and a comfortable place to establish our camping equipment, as there were no furnishings. The timber-framed thatched roof did not extend down to the top of the exterior mud walls, leaving a space of about two feet between the two. As a result, both the roof and walls were free-standing. Because of the large, high ceiling and the relative lack of use (no one seemed to use the house when visitors were not in residence), the roof was home to a large population of bats. The sanitary facility was a small, thatched hut about ten yards away with a deep hole dug in the middle. All water was carried from the river in old five gallon petrol tins or calabashes.

The next morning we had an early start because we were concerned about the rains. Here the road was a track cleared of vegetation but with no attempt to elevate the traveled way. Thus the passage of but a few vehicles after a rain could create a rut that collected water and mud, making the way impassable.

A government rest house in Bor.

Mongalla was a trip of about one hundred miles. As the road from Malakal to Juba was normally traversable only from December to mid-April, we were pushing our luck. Unfortunately our luck ran out soon after leaving Bor. We were about twenty-five miles south of Bor when we started to encounter larger and larger, deeper and deeper, expanses of oozing, sticky mud. Both vehicles were four-wheel drive and Dean's Land Rover had a power wench with a steel cable on the front. After one fairly serious incident, we proceeded only a short distance, probably about a half mile, before it became clear that the going had become extremely difficult and was unlikely to improve. We had encountered a stretch where both vehicles became hopelessly mired. After a couple of hours of work, aided by a group of passing Dinka who had followed us in a ton and a half Bedford truck, we were able to free both vehicles. Thus we all, including the Dinka and their truck, returned to Bor and our party reestablished ourselves in the rest house. After a quick meal, we settled in for a good night's sleep, too tired to be disturbed by the cohabitating bats.

After some inquiries around the village, we were informed that there should be a southbound steamer arriving in three to five days, our only realistic hope of reaching Juba. In addition, we were lead to believe that it would be possible to transport the two vehicles.

The Nile steamers used at that time were composed of a large, rear paddle-wheeled, diesel-powered towboat, or in this case, a "pusher" surrounded by a variety of passenger barges. There were four classes of travel for passengers. The first class barge usually was attached to the side of the pusher and was two decks high. The first deck had some open space for cargo and contained the kitchen and some mechanical equipment. The first-class cabins were on the second deck and were long and narrow, running across the barge from port to starboard. They were only about six feet wide and perhaps fifteen or more feet long. They accommodated two people in single bunks oriented head to toe. There was also a basin and a small closet. Sanitary facilities, including showers, were located at the stern of the barge. The bow section on the second deck was a large, screened area that served as observation deck, tearoom, cocktail lounge, and dining room for the first class passengers. The cooks on board served three meals a day, tea in the afternoon, and cold beer on request. Other than this screened area, the entire second deck was surrounded by a narrow open passageway.

The second-class barge was similar but usually less well maintained and considerably less well furnished. Sometimes the third-class barges were only one deck with no superstructure, which left them open to the elements; at other times there was a simple covering that provided some protection from the sun and rain. Fourth-class was the flat metal deck of the barge with no covering. There were no sanitary facilities for either third or fourth class except the river itself. These passengers cooked, washed, slept, and socialized on the open barge deck, carrying all their necessities with them. Fresh food and charcoal often could be purchased at villages, such as Bor, where the steamer stopped.

The steamers operated day and night on most stretches of the river. Because there were virtually no navigational aids and because of the nature of the Sudd, the captain's knowledge of, and experience on, the river was absolutely essential for a safe and efficient transit.

The unforeseen delay in Bor resulted in a unique experience. In the early afternoon of the third day, we heard drum beats coming from the edge of town. This was followed by a general movement of people walking from the river and the rest house locations toward this sound. Needless to say, we followed and came upon a large group of Bor Dinka involved in ceremonial or at least traditional dancing. There were over a hundred, possibly as many as two hundred, people almost all of whom participated in the dance at one time or other. They danced in small groups of two to four women followed by a like number of men. These groups combined to form a mass of people moving in a circular path around the drummers. Their movements could be described as a form of strutting, combined with high leaps by the men. The women often held a tree branch and the men held a club or a walking stick and, in a few cases, a sword or spear. There were people in Arabic djellabas, others in western-style shorts or pants and shirts, and others with very little clothes on at all. It did not seem to matter to the other dancers how or to what degree one was dressed. The dance continued for several hours and we did not leave the area until dusk. The dancing and music ended soon thereafter.


Dancers at Bor. Note the beaded "corset" on the male dancer in the lower photograph. There were a number of these at the dance.

The next afternoon, as we were sitting outside the rest house discussing the dances of the previous day, we again heard the drums. This time the rush of people from the village was greater, with many more people involved. As we had done the day before, we went with them, and traditional dances were underway. The dance movements were essentially the same as we had seen the day before, but more enthusiastic and ritualized. What surprised us was the change in the mode of dress, as we presumed that most of the dancers were the same as those who had attended the previous day, and, in fact, we recognized many. This day the dress was much more traditional. Most of the young women were draped in many beaded necklaces that covered most of their upper bodies. Their faces and torsos were partially painted, mostly in red. Many of the men wore less clothing than they did the day before, but were more decorated including fanciful dress, feathers in their hair, and more ornate walking sticks. Many of the men wore a style of garment we had not seen before. It was a large beaded corset that started high on the chest and went under the arms and down to the waist. The strings of small beads went around the body and were fastened in the back. These were elaborate and represented a lot of resources used and time spent in their construction. Although there was less European dress this day, there was some creative use of European clothes. A couple of the men wore kilts or skirts and sported large lady's straw hats with artificial flowers.
We had decided that it would be inappropriate for us to participate in the dance. I believe we would have been accepted by the Dinka who probably would have been very amused by our attempts. Although the music and dance were very infectious, we decided that discretion was the better avenue, as we did not know the purpose or cultural relevance of this celebration. We stayed for several hours and again departed at dusk, but this time the dancing went on well into the night with the aid of a bonfire.

Bor to Juba

The afternoon following the dancing, the southbound steamer arrived. Obviously the captain had no warning that he would be requested to take five first-class passengers and two vehicles as well. There was considerable discussion. Our personal passage was not a problem as there were adequate first class cabins available, assuming the Smiths could fit into one, with special accommodations for Esther. Although the cabins were available for us, there was considerable discussion about Roy, as the captain was not accustomed to having dogs in his first-class cabins. After many assurances and maybe because of much laughter on the part of the local Dinka, who had become somewhat used to him, Roy was accepted. This left the problem of the vehicles. The steamer had pulled ashore such that the first-class barge was next to the shore. It was determined that there might be just enough room on the lower deck of the first-class barge and the power unit to squeeze in one vehicle on each. Further consideration was put off until the next morning when everyone would be fresh and more amenable to rearranging ropes, cables, and other bits of paraphernalia now occupying the deck areas.

The next morning we were down to the ship early and much of the work had already been accomplished, creating two neat little spaces just large enough for the vehicles. Wooden planks had been found so that the vehicles could be driven on board from the shore as there was no formal dock. It was not as simple as the telling, but after two and a half to three hours of work, the vehicles were on board and lashed securely. It was with a great sigh of relief that we boarded and occupied our cabins. For the last five days we had been unsure of what the future held. It was a combination of good luck and good-natured help from a large number of Sudanese river men that made the most optimistic outcome a reality. The steamer embarked in mid-afternoon. At dusk, there was a cold (the first ice since Malakal) gin and tonic in the screened verandah.

For the next three days we enjoyed a leisurely and comfortable life on the steamer. The food was standard Sudan Railways menus, which if not varied, was at least fresh, wholesome, and without surprises. The standard breakfast was either fried eggs and bacon or sausage with toast, jam, butter, and hot cereal if you wanted, or the alternative breakfast of lightly breaded and lightly fried Nile perch served with limon (a variation between a lime and a lemon) with toast, marmalade, and coffee. Nile perch should not be missed by any visitor to the Sudan. Lunch and dinner were more in the British tradition with some type of meat (beef, lamb, mutton, or chicken) with potatoes and vegetables. That was always followed by a sweet dessert. Caramel custard seemed to be the favorite, although not a favorite of mine. One of the advantages of traveling in the south became apparent. It was the abundance of fresh tropical fruit that was purchased every day by the cook as we put into shore at small villages along the river. Most of the meat was obtained in the same manner. As we progressed further south, meat other than chicken was more difficult to obtain because of sleeping sickness, transmitted by the tsetse fly, that affected sheep, goats, and cattle, as well as people. It was the chicken that seemed omnipresent throughout the country that supplied the only animal protein for vast numbers of Sudanese. Traditional Sudanese cuisine was not served on the railways or steamers. The only exception was an occasional curry which was really not a traditional dish, but more akin to it than British fare.

Life on the steamer was fairly confined. Days were spent relaxing, reading, eating, and watching the country go by. The views of equatorial Africa that were outside our cabin were exciting and different. There are events in one's life that are never forgotten, such as major political events, a first airplane flight, or a solar eclipse. Of equal magnitude is one's first sighting of an African elephant in the wild. I was standing by the railing outside my cabin on the second day when I saw the topmost part of the backs and heads of a herd of elephants that were standing in tall grasses. There must have been twenty or more, and there were probably smaller ones who could not be seen because of the ten to twelve foot high grass. It might be assumed that they were somewhat accustomed to the steamers passing on the river as the majority of them raised their trunks and trumpeted as the steamer passed them. The river was also well-populated with crocodiles, although it was difficult to see any more than the waves they made as they slid into the water or their nostrils and eyes penetrating the surface of the river. As we sailed further south, the other elusive large mammal was the hippopotamus that we seldom saw out of the water.

Travels in Equatoria

On the fourth day after leaving Bor, the steamer docked in Juba, the largest town in the south and the provincial capital of Equatoria. It was a typical provincial capital of the 1950s in Africa. It had a relatively small population, but was a major trading point and government center. For a simple safari such as ours, there was almost everything that we could want in the town including spare parts, canned food, and, to a limited degree, medical supplies. There were also adequate supplies of gasoline, which might not be available as we traveled west. Both vehicles were equipped with four five-gallon jerry cans, but because of the uncertain fuel supplies outside of Juba we purchased additional five-gallon tins that we carried with our other supplies.

The uncertainty of the fuel supply was our only indication that troubles had occurred in Equatoria several months before. It was about a year prior to our arrival that part of the southern Sudanese army went into revolt against their northern officers and there was considerable unrest throughout the south, particularly in Equatoria, before the central government could regain control. The commonly accepted cause circulating at the time was that the initial revolt occurred when units of the southern army were told that they would be transferred to Khartoum for the independence celebrations in January 1956. This supposedly initiated a rumor that they were being sent north to be sold into slavery. In the spring of 1957, there were no signs or rumors that would have lead one to believe that the riots of 1955 were just the beginning of hostilities that would extend for over forty years.

Because of its importance as the major city in the south, Juba enjoyed one thing that many other provisional capitals did not, and that was a proper hotel. The Juba Hotel was a single-storied design with rooms built around interior gardens or at least what had been gardens. Being a hotel meant that it had dining facilities that proved to be a major convenience in the busy days spent equipping ourselves for several weeks of travel before we would return to Juba. Since the hotel was also run by Sudan Railways, the menus were every bit as wholesome, bland, and unchanging as those on the steamer.

The Smiths had spent a number of days at the hotel the prior year on a trek into Uganda. At that time they had become acquainted with many of the staff and so we were welcomed as long-established guests. One among us enjoyed particularly personalized treatment from the cook. That was Roy, who had hand delivered to him every day some of the best food he had enjoyed on this trip. Roy's demeanor gained him the title of M'zee (Swahili for a wise and revered older man) from the cooking staff.

After several days of refitting, we were ready for the extended trip into western Equatoria. We would travel roughly parallel to the southern Sudanese boarder adjacent to Uganda, the Congo, and the Republic of Central Africa. The purpose of the trip was to conduct a goiter survey, goiter being a very prevalent disease, and to visit the local hospitals. The survey was to take place at temporary immunization sites established by the World Health Organization (WHO) where hundreds of people a day would congregate to receive sleeping sickness inoculations. Since this often meant waiting for several hours in long lines, it provided Drs. Smith and Hogalli time to move along the lines and quickly determine if individuals had enlarged thyroids, and if so, to what degree. It would be a very useful, if not a highly scientific survey, since little was known about health conditions in the rural areas of the country. The people at the inoculation sites were assembled from local villages in a ten- or fifteen-mile radius. Without the WHO sites it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to conduct the survey in separate villages. Even if we could have located and traveled to the villages, it would have been time-consuming and probably frustrating to convince the leaders in each village to assemble the people to have someone feel their throats. Those assembled for inoculation were a truer sample of the total population. My limited contribution was to record the data.

The first couple of nights were spent in the town of Maridi about two hundred and forty miles from Juba. Although Maridi did not have a hotel, it had an adequate rest house with a view as beautiful as we would enjoy anywhere in Equatoria. The other unique attribute of the rest house was a very beautiful flower garden. Within the garden and overhanging part of the house was an immense flame tree with its red blossoms ablaze. I don't believe that we saw another such tree in the Sudan. Some previous district commissioner had probably brought it up from Kenya or Uganda.

After several days in Maridi, we continued westward and spent a night in Yambio, about a hundred miles away. After the night in the Yambio rest house, we continued on to a small village of Yubu (sometimes shown on maps as Yubo or Sources Yubu). This was the end of the road in Equatoria and was situated on the border between the Sudan and the Central African Republic. Many of the Sudanese maps do not show its location at all. We spent about five days in Yubu. The reason for our trip was to visit the local hospital and to bring medical supplies to the doctor who ran it. His name was Schumann, a German who had come to the area a number of years earlier. Dean had met him on various occasions during his travels in the southern Sudan, so we were welcome and honored guests in this remote corner of the Republic.

On the final portion of the trip to Yubu, we found the road lined with mature mango trees. They were not only a danger if you ran off the one-lane road, but at this time of the year, represented a unique driving hazard. As anyone who has eaten a mango knows, the mango has a large flat seed that does not part cleanly from the fruit but retains juice and fiber. The excess fruit fell on the road. As traffic drove down the road it squashed the mangos, leaving numbers of slippery seeds. There was a sense of waste and frustration as the vehicle crushed hundreds of mangos. In addition to the free and abundant mangos, we had ripe pineapples growing adjacent to the rest house. A combination of the two became our standard breakfast fruit.

The days spent in and around Yubu were interesting and provided me an opportunity to observe firsthand a rural and remote African medical facility. There was a small operating room in which emergency procedures and simple surgeries could be performed. We were told that most of the operations involved the setting of broken bones. The most common serious surgery was appendectomy. Burns were another persistent injury because of the practice of using open fires in thatched huts for cooking.

One of the wooden statues of unknown origin outside the hospital in Yubu.

There were a couple of recovery wards adjacent to the operating and treatment rooms. As is the tradition in much of Africa including Yubu, when someone is hospitalized, members of the family come with them. The family lives in the open areas around the hospital and provides the recovering individual with food and family support.

One of the unique aspects of the hospital was a number of carved wooden statues in the front of the building. These were not totem poles as seen in North America, but approximately life-sized individual figures. Since they were carved from poles, they had an elongated, thin look which was not representative of the stature of the local population. It reminded one of the Dinka, but they were hundreds of miles from here. The custom of erecting these monuments predated Dr. Schumann's arrival and we were unable to determine the exact reason for their creation or the identity of the artist. They were well-carved and reflected careful workmanship. One statue of a baboon added more mystery to the tale.

After almost a week in Yubu, it was time to turn around and retrace our tracks eastward. In this area there was no meat except a few scrawny, tough chickens. Pasta, tomato sauce, and tinned beef became almost daily fare and we were glad to see the end of it when we returned to Juba. Although we became tired of it, we realized and often commented that it was better protein than the people in the area had and so we had little room to complain.

Upon arrival in Juba, we found that we had about four days before a steamer would depart for the north. This time we would have to take the Nile steamer all the way to Kosti because the rains had isolated all the area we had covered south of Malakal and severely impeded travel north of Malakal. By the time we reached Khartoum, the short rainy season would be occurring there too.

Since we were going back virtually all the way by steamer, there was no reason to restock our supplies and there was not much for us all to do once we had obtained our tickets and assurance that we would be able to put the Land Rover on the steamer. We would be leaving the Jeep in Equatoria for use by the Sudan Medical Service.

Return to Khartoum

It was now the third week in May and some six weeks since leaving Khartoum. We boarded the steamer in the morning looking forward to the six and a half day trip to Kosti. The steamer was much the same as the one we had taken from Bor to Juba. The daily routine was to be the same as well. After only a couple of days we were again docked at Bor. Produce was bought and sold, and cattle skins loaded on board for sale in Khartoum or Kosti. For the first time, we noticed a small area of beach and river set aside by sticks pounded into the river bottom that obviously was used for washing clothes or bathing or both. It was most likely that our clothes were washed there while we were in the rest house. The sticks were to keep the crocodiles out.

North of Bor was a new river experience for us. Between Bor and Malakal we would cross the heart of the Sudd. It took the best part of three days to cross the Sudd. We had the advantage of being on the second deck and could see over the top of the vast growth of reeds and papyrus that extended to the horizon. For hour after hour and from one day to another, nothing seemed to change.

Finally on the seventh day we arrived in Kosti during the morning. The Land Rover was unloaded efficiently and we all disembarked. The plan was for Catherine, Esther, Ali, and Roy to continue to Khartoum by rail on the day train, while Dean and I would drive the Land Rover via Sennar following the rail line. When we were about halfway between Kosti and Sennar, we came upon the train stopped at a siding in the desert. It had been there only a short time. We started looking in the first class coaches for our party and soon found them. We waited until the train started again and drove parallel to them. We were able to make somewhat better time and soon left them behind. We arrived in Sennar and turned north paralleling the Blue Nile to Khartoum. It was one a.m. on Sunday, May 26th, when Dean and I arrived at the Smith's house. We unloaded the Land Rover and drove to the railway station, which was near the house, to await the train that had lost ever more time en route. It arrived at five-thirty in the morning. We transferred everyone to the Smith's house where we all had breakfast. Although we now had the comforts of Khartoum, we were all sad that the adventure was over. For me, this was a life-changing experience.

© Mathew J. Betz

*Editor's Note: This status was changed during production. Sounther Sudan seceded July 9, 2011, becoming the Republic of South Sudan.

All photos within this article were taken by Mathew Betz.

Mathew J. Betz PhD

Born in Chicago, Mat joined the ASU Civil Engineering Department in 1961 after earning a PhD at Northwestern University. He first lived in the Sudan in 1956 while teaching at the University of Khartoum. He returned to conduct research in 1960 and later lead a major research project there during the mid sixties. He taught at the University of Nairobi in 1973-74. He retired from ASU in 1993 as Vice Provost for Planning and Budget, and Professor Emeritus. Since retiring, Mathew has traveled in Europe, China, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. Mathew continues to write and lecture on the Sudan.