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SOS Save the Nubian

Deconstructing Nubia

(Dr.Arif Gamal-African-American Studies-UC Berkeley - < agamal@uclink4.berkeley.edu >)

Around the mid fifties an eccentric and crazy man, Hameed, used to roam the streets of the city of Halfa which used to be the capital of modern Sudanese Nubia(see map of Sudan). Presently Halfa and all the surrounding villages are under the waters of Lake Nubia due to the 1962 construction of the Aswan Dam. He wore a shouting red turbin and colorful jalabiyiha. With his crooked stick he’d point to the limestone hill tops, formed through insistent flow of the mighty Nile for thousands of years, and he’d shout “We are drowning. People listen, we will drown. Nation of Mohammed listen, we are all going to be flooded. The waters will reach those mountain tops...People, we are drowning”. Nobody heeded poor Hameed, and life went on as usual, until one fine day a delegation of public officers arrived from Khartoum (capital of Sudan). This delegation met with the chiefs and mayors of the towns. The news of the Egyptians building a dam at Aswan spread like fire through the Nubian villages. Though the Nubians were aware of Egypt’s intention through the press both in Sudan and Egypt, they still could not take the blow. The blow was too hard for them to bear: many were so shocked that they could not believe their ears and ran into the streets in the hope of finding someone who could tell them otherwise. Repatriation and resettlement in another far away land was not an option, but a must. Hameed’s prophecy became a reality. Overnight from a “madman’s” status, Hameed was proclaimed a “Wali”(holy man), a clairevoiant. Today, Nubians are trying to purge Hameed’s mythical power and ward off a second coming of the deluge... only this time they would need more than a Wali.

Suad Ibrahim Ahmed, a retired academic and activist, circulated an appeal early May 1998, denouncing the building of yet another dam(s) over Nubia. The appeal went to all of the UN organizations, embassies, news agencies, advocacy groups and concerned Non-Governmental Organizations. “I was shocked yesterday when the mass media announced the signing of a preliminary agreement with a Chinese Company to begin building the Kajabar Dam in the heart of remaining Nubian land. This kind of disaster has fallen on us before, this is the fifth time this century (1902, 1912, 1933, and 1963)” she states in her letter. The story and its sad reading follows..

The Nile and Its Dams

The Nile has always been the artery of life to the huge population living on its banks. To the Nilotics its the source of their hunters and gatherers societies since dawn of humanity, to pastoralist its the grazing ground of their domesticated animals, to the northern communities, the Nile flood plains were the grounds where the first human civilizations were known as people settled, grew and flourished as they were able to master irrigation and select different breeds of barley, wheat and sorghum. In our modern times, the Nile, like many rivers around the globe, became a potential to support the new mode of civilizations and modernity through generating electricity or/and supply constant streams of water to our growing urban population. The first dam to have been constructed on the Nile was at Aswan in 1902

The uplift, 200 million years ago, of the continental mass of Africa, caused extensive internal faults and cracks, forming a series of regional basins usually occupied by major rivers, like the Nile. This mighty river pursue leisurely meandering courses through much of its long passage, occasionally spreading out into broad, shallow basins that once held inland seas, and finally spilling over the continental edge of the plateau in waterfalls and courses of rapids or cataracts, before emptying into the sea. The celebrated cataracts of the Nile are six, all in the land of Nubia (see map of Sudan). Since antiquity, these cataracts were buffers and protectors of Nubian from all marauding seafarers and sailors from the North. The cataracts and ability of Nubians in the use of arrows, were major obstacles to ancient Egyptians desiring to conquer “Tai-Seti” or the “Land of the Bow”. Today, the first and only cataract lies in Egypt while the five others lie in the Northern State of present day Sudan. It is around the first cataract that Aswan was built and heightened three times, and it is around the third cataract that Kajabar is to be built this time.

Raison D’etre of Kajabar

The first thing that a visitor to Khartoum will notice, is the acute energy crises. Power cuts and shortage of water, especially during the flood periods July-August, are simply hellish in some of the hottest and, over populated area like Khartoum. This has been the case for more than a decade now, and many futile efforts were made to alleviate the situation, but to no avail. There was even a feasibility study that was produced by the World Bank in the seventies, to heighten the Damasin Dam on the Blue Nile; a dam that supplies Khartoum with electricity, but nothing came of it. The government of Colonel El Bashir hence decided to role its sleeves and build another two dams. In closed doors sessions they decided to build these hydroelectric dams in the Northern province. One around the Hammadab area (see map) and another micro-dam, 111 km North of the town of Dongala, the capital of the northern state at the level of the Third cataract. The former dam will supply electrical power needed to Khartoum and to all of the urban areas in between. While Kajabar dam promises all electrical “goodies” to the region around Dongola (see map). The lake behind the dams will ofcourse be used in “greening the desert”. I will focus on Kajabar which targets the rest of the Nubian territory:Sekot and Mahas.

Kajabar Dam, will span 23 m long and 40 m wide at 221 m crest. It is projected that the lake created behind the dam will stretch 140 km South, with an anticipated storage capacity of 1.8 billion gallons of water (Table). The government of Sudan estimates that there are only 9 villages that will be flooded, and these villagers will be well compensated for their cooperation and repatriated to some other region. But if the officials of the Sudanese government look harder into the facts on the ground, they will realize that the reality is different from what they anticipate and that much more than 9 villages are at stake.

Adverse Effect of the Dam

The August 1988 floods that plagued the region, and again this year since August, were measured at 207m at the contour lines. The past and present floods have almost immeresed many of the villages around the banks of the Nile, and 22,000 families lost their hom, and an international appeal is under way to help these families with food and medical supplies. The lake behind Kajabar is measured to rise above the level of 210 m, 213 m, 215 m and 218 m consecutively. This enormous amount of water will immerse no less than 200 Nubian villages on the Nile. This is contrary to the government’s statement stating that only 9 villages will be affected (see detailed map of villages).

The irony of all this is that the area that will be flooded by Kajabar includes Wadi El Khawi. This Wadi or valley was also amongst the suggested regions for the repatriation and resettlement of affected and displaced population of the 1963 Aswan Dam floods. Had they been resettled in that area, this would have meant that they would have had to be resettled again in another location.

Dissipation of a Sustainable Agro-ecosystem

This last stretch of Nubia that is to be flooded by Kajabar reservoirs is some of the world’s richest soils. The meandering Nile, is steadily and continuously is fed each rainy season by the Atabara River, which rushes down from the Ethiopian Highlands. The Nile deposit its heavy and much needed chocolate-colored load in Nubia from the fourth to the third cataract. Short as the flood period is, from July to October, the renewed vigor brought to the land, together with an optimal climatic conditions, brings in some of the most important growing period; the Shitwee. Nubia since antiquity was ready to feed a whole nation with basic staple fooand spices that perfumed the dullest of cooking pots. A short, but highly intense growing season.
The agro-ecosystem is a sustainable one in Nubia. It has been so for the past thousands of years. Working diligently on improving his harvest and making the best of small land holdings, the Nubian farmer was able to maximize his/her harvest and stock enough for out of season crops. Nubians practice a three rotational cycle, that coincide with three different climatic periods and satisfy the exigencies of each of their food, fodder or cash crops. Though no fallow, the crops are chosen with the utmost care to keep and build on the health and integrity of the soils. It is here where the first wheat and barley were ever domesticated around 10,000 BC and here was the first technological revolution occurred with the invention of the escaly or the waterwheel allowing exploitation of further land through irrigation and flood control.

The crops grown during the best time of the year; winter or shitwi, starts during the cool month of October and are wheat, barley, peas, beans, lentil, chick peas, potatoes, onions and other vegetables. While the seifi or harsh summer cycle would start in July where fodder crops and quick growing vegetable crops are sown e.g. millet, red and white beans, okra, mulukhia and rigla (the two later’s are green leaved plants used with a base of tomato or soup sauce in cooking). The last cycle is the dameira or flood cultivation. Water and sweet melons, groundnuts, marrow and onion seeds plus most of the seifi crops are sown as of mid-July. A bonus to all farmers are the Nile banks juruf/slopes as the river subsides and the rich silt deposits allow the sowing of tomatoes, lupin, red and white beans. No Nubian was deprived of a healthy meal. Citruses are abundant everywhere. Lemon, orange, mango and some of the finest grape fruit trees are on Nubian lands. Guava, fig and other drought resistant fruit trees are in practically every house and along every water canal. Five million of these fruit trees will be lost under the new Kajabar scheme

Environmental Considerations

The storage capacity of the lake behind Kajabar is estimated to be around 2 billion cubic meters of water. This amount of water extending into the desert will definitely have negative affects on the flora and fona of the surrounding region. Many vital studies were not carried out addressing the effect of the water on the indigenous species of plants and animals. No mention to the climatic change that could occur due to the evapo-transpiration from the surface of the lake and the effect on the region and its surroundings.

Through past experiences from Lake Nubia, a number of major Nile fish went through a drastic biological adaptation which affected the culinary and economic values of those fish. A good example is the known Nile perch (Tilabia nilotica), from a free flowing fish, it had to adapt to a sedentary lake life which affected the biological cycle of these species. They grew to enormous sizes, several meters in length while they are usually less than 50 cm up river. As they grow in size the texture, taste and quality of the meat is greatly compromised. Also the pressure brought by this dominant species in Lake Nubia, have certainly affected many of the more fragile and less abundant species on the Nile. Presently, the perch is about the only fish that is caught in and around Lake Nubia. The biodiversity has certainly been affected as down the Nile, there are more than 30 species of fish that garnishes a Nubian kitchen at any time of the year. It is doubtful that these fish will ever be seen again after the construction of Kajabar.

Maybe an important aspect of the change in the ecosystem will affect birds habitat, both migratory and sedentary ones. Reptiles, crustaceans, arthropods, and arachnids living on the banks of the Nile will loose their niches forever and are more prone to destruction and extinction as they seek higher grounds and try to establish new territories. While useful and important riparian species of insects might be extinct, it is certain that harmful ones will persist. The mosquitos, vectors of malaria protozoans, are known to take advantage of erratic movement of water, and can make use of the rising waters to hasten their life cycle and spread faster the disease. The disease is already one of the most serious in the region and need not to be nurtured further. It is inconceivable, but very likely, that another program be established, similar to that of the Egyptian funded one on Lake Nubia since the early sixties, which dumps an enormous tonnage of DDT in Wadi Halfa. Many studies have shown the hazardous nature of such a program to the local population and its drastic effect and bioaccumulation on marine fona and flora.

Cultural Considerations

The essence of the Nubian culture evolves around the “date palm”. Those of you who have looked into pictures or films and saw palm dates on both banks of the Nile, should know that these are not floristic growths that went out of control nor ornaments left to proliferate at will nor botanical species with the sole purpose for a picture perfect horizon. They are property, and very important property at that. They are the Nubian stocks, bonds and long term investment. “I entrust for thy care and attention thine aunt, the date palm”, Prophet Mohammed of Arabia said. A Nubian nursing, weeding, watering, pollinating and harvesting dates, will repeat this phrase and all that is holy, with regard to the date palm. The shade of the beloved tree, the honey sweet Bartamouda, fleshy Gondeila and delicious Barkawi are Ramadan’s aperitif, the sugar for a dark and steaming pot of tea, an offering to visitors and a good omen during all marriage ceremonies. Rugs, mats, decorated baskets, robes, roofs, sagia (water wheel), furniture and even female coffins are all useful secondary products of date palms. Most important, the tree was symbol of respect, peace and harmony. A great uncle of mine summarized his misery for having to leave the old country and forced to relocate to the desert region of the East: ‘Kashim El Girba’ in this morose sentence: “We left some good dates, my son and... I miss them.” To Nubians date palms are quasi humans.

There are more than 5 million date palms that are going to be inundated by the lake created by Kajabar. The economical importance, beside the ecological and cultural aspects of the loss of dates are dire. Many families obtain an appreciable source of their cash income from the date harvest. These are small scale family enterprises, gender orientated, as women clean and process the dateor their by-products. Other large scale enterprises are left to men, selling the harvest to urban city merchants while they are still on the tree. There is no way to compensate the social activities that evolves around the palm tree.

Loss of a Global Heritage

Timothy Kendall, an associate curator at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, leading an expedition in northern Sudan in 1997, came across important ancient Nubian archaeological findings. “The Nubians were not just vassals and trading partners of the Egyptian Pharaohs but also the creators of an ancient and impressive civilization of their own, with a homegrown culture that may have been the most complex and cosmopolitan in all Africa”, he wrote (Time, September 15, 1997). He goes on to state that, Nubia, not Egypt, may have been the first true African civilization. Indeed the story of Nubia is still novice to historians and aspiring archaeologists have not yet scratched the surface of this rich and resourceful region.

To ancient Kemit, Nubia was “Tai-Seiti” the land of the “Bow People”. These people could never be subjugated, they knew how to use their bows and arrows. Pharaohs sought, either to befriend them or mount a capable invasion on their territories. Egyptologist measure the grandiose of any of the dynastic Pharaohs by either invading Nubia or keep them at bay. Inscriptions at Jebel Suliman, on the west bank opposite Degheim village, shows that Nubia was conquered by King Dejr (3000 B.C.), the third king of the First Dynast. Later, Snefru the jewel of the Fourth Dynasty, father, grand father and great grand father to those Pharaohs who built the Giza pyramids and the Sphynix, some of the seven wonders of the world, inscribed in his daily that he invaded Nubia and brought 100,000 prisoners and more than 200,000 head of cattle. The fact goes to speak, not only of Snefru’s greed, but of the flourishing population in Nubia. The New Kingdom Pharaohs, the Amenhotps and Ramses II (1290-1224 B.C.), rose to prominence because they were able to ward off Nubians and drag them into humiliating defeat. Nubians and jews were to build Ramses’ palaces, multitude of statutes, and temples. To prove his divinity he found no better than building his marvel temple at Abu Simble. A mountain that dwarfs Mount Richmond, both in age and craftsmanship, and talks of the Nubian tenacity and astrological knowledge in sculpting the sides of the limestone mountain. While in the heart of Nubia Ramses II built his temple at Aksha and the Viceroy Stau and his wife were represented in a temple at Faras, further North, worshipping him.

One of the most important marvels of these temples were erected by the Queen King or Hatshepsut (1490-1468 B.C.) dedicated to Horus, the falcon-headed God, at Buhen. Another at Semna West and again at Dibeira. In Semna East (Kuma) she dedicated her temple to the ram-headed god Khuum and this was extended by her successor Tutmosis III. While at Semna West respect for the local gods made Tutmosis III dedicate his temple to Dedwan, the God of incense, God of Nubia. Later Shabaka, Taharqa and Piankhi revenge their ancestors and drive their chariots of vengeance all the way to the end of the Twenty Fifth Dynasty to secure at Memphis the white-and-red double crown of Upper and Lower Khemit. They stayed on the throne for 67 years and their artifacts are still in Egypt to today. An intact scripture in Nubian language, first in history of the region and was attributed to the place of its found and the person who wrote the book is known as “The writer of Sarra East”.

Persecuted Donatists, Orthodox Christians or copts speaking of the divinity of Christ in Egypt, found refuge in Nubia during the fourth century AD. They were allowed to build their churches and worship freely knowing that they were amongst trustworthy and open-minded people. They soon were able to convert many families to their own faith and made of Nobada with its capital at Faras one of the first Christian kingdoms in Africa. The paintings and drawings of the black Madonna and black Jesus found in Faras during the late 1950s, are fine example of good craftsmanship and artistic capabilities of Nubians.
All the theologies left their imprints, artifacts and stories in Nubia. The first Moslems, during the seventh century, seeking to infiltrate into the heart of Africa through the Nile valley, had their dreams crushed. They were not able to travel beyond Nubia. In peace they came and in peace they were allowed to build a mosque and call for prayers before they were hurriedly ushered back to where they came from: the North. Christianity remained the dominant religion of the state and flourished to the eighth century.

An international effort was made to save many of the Nubian temples and churches that were found in the late fifties and before the rise of the Nile waters after the Aswan Dam. More than 22 missions from all over the world were actively excavating for the buried treasures over which the Nubians were living. The High Dam over Nubia gave little chance for further excavation. Kajabar with its water behind the dam, will definitely submerge the last remnants of this great civilization. There are some 24 sites in the area that are known to be of archeological importance, all of which are jeopardized by the rising waters. Old Dongla, is known to house some of the earliest Coptic/Orthodox churches in the world. At Dabla island some of the most ancient Christian cemeteries, dating to the six and seventh century, will be lost forever. These are some of the global human heritages that are known and if Kendell is right, there are many more that are to be known. Nubians are literally walking over a sand of human history.

The Funding and Construction of Kajabar

The Government of Sudan (GOS) is seeking $1.5 billion to construct Kajabar. The Democratic Republic of China is contracted to build the dam and the preliminary agreement has been signed May 1998. Mr. El Shariff El Tuhami, Minister of Energy declared in July 1998, that they have approached several “friendly” countries to help in funding this project. Malaysia was approached by Minister of Power Mr. Awad El Jaz in August 1998, but was delivered a note of protest by Nubians residing in Malaysia as to the construction of the dam. The Malaysian government is not part of the funding as rumoured. The Chinese governement decided to fund building of the project as an “Offset” to their investments in Sudan. Other sources of funding is expected from Dongola rich bussinessmen and expatriate who are inticed to invest in the project and have direct interest in the power stations for their towns along the Nile.

There are no indications of any multi/bilateral organizational involvement and it is greatly doubted that any funds will come from these sources view the dismal human rights record of the GOS and the heavy debts incurred through the years from every known bank in the north.

Alternatives to the Myth

The energy crises and finding a resolution to it will always be with us. True, in Nubia, the alternatives to hydroelectric power stations are few, but this is because we did not look long enough. However there are two projects, one already executed and has shown an enormous success in the use of solar energy to pump drinking well water as well as irrigate agricultural lands from the Nile. The land holdings are small and these photovoltaic cells can be easily assembled and moved from one place to another. The technology is there, it has been tested and proven promising. The second project, pending funding, is one that is similar to the above-mentioned project in Kosha (Mahas region), where research will also focus on generating electricity from individual solar panels for a number of neighboring houses. These are only two examples of successful efforts and am sure that there are many more that can be made, where the energy needs for the region will be satisfactory and be an exemplary model for other regions of Sudan.

Popular Reaction to Kajabar

The Kajabar Dam project has been a “closed session” deal, that brewed in the Khartoum offices since 1996. The local people have not beenconsulted. There is no social, economical or ecological package assessment to it. The feasibility studies were also executed in Khartoum by engineers affiliated to and appointed by the regime to start processing the compensation and repatriation procedures of the resident local population.

The first reaction to the rumors of another dam over Nubia was disbelief. What with an atrocious civil war blazing in the South of the country and bad relations with neighboring countries, the GOS seemed to have placed Kajabar in the back burner for a while. As of the end of 1997, there seems to have been renewed energy to go ahead with the construction of the dam. This brought about an angry reaction from the local population, who were quick to voice their concerns to the local and central administrators to no avail. Nubians in the diaspora, and they are estimated to be about 3 millions, mailed and faxed their rejection and distaste to the inception of Kajabar.

The most vocal of these have been the local population who in reality need all the national, regional and international support they could get. The Nubian Studies Documentation Center (NDSC) in Cairo have worked long and hard on this issue. The NDSC is extremely active in following up on all the developments to this project, informing the local population and trying to rally support for their cause. In their petition to the president, dated March 18, 1998, the Committee have categorically refused the principal of compensation or repfrom the region. “The Nubians have vowed not to leave their lands” they clearly stated their opposition. They were the ones to “sit-in” in May 1998, when a prospecting Chinese technical team first arrived to visit the site and acquaint themselves with the region. Amongst the demonstrators, fifty persons who dared to voice their disapproval were arrested. They were eventually released, but their names on government documents is definitely not in their favor..

Other active Nubians and non-Nubian personalities and organizations have taken the lead in rallying support to the local Nubian population and have inspired many to work on the preservation of and on the Nubian threatened and unfortunately dying culture. In the United States the Nubian Alliance has been a major supporter to the Nubian cause and one that we would like you to contact at the address below if you esteem that this is a worthwhile cause to support. I will also suggest that you visit Sidahmed’s Nubian homepage (address) for further information on Nubia and the Nubian culture. Sidahmed himself is a wealth of knowledge and most resourceful in directing and channeling your support.

Let me end with the words of Suad that I began with: “I believe as Nubians, we have a right to remain on our ancestral homeland, a right which is being brutally violated. We are being denied the right to organize or hold unfettered public meetings to oppose the project or demand proper, scientific and comprehensive studies by independent consultants.” Suad on her own can not change much, all of us together have a greater chance in deconstructing Kajabar not...Nubia.