December 4th, 1973

4th December 2022 |

On this day, 49 years ago, I drifted along the Nile from Aswan to Wadi Halfa on a ferry consisting of two rickety boats tied together. One of them, the second class, was occupied by Nubian camel drivers. The other first-class boat carried Europeans. My ticket was second-class, but I found the snoring intolerable and smuggled myself into first class and slept out under the sky.

First Class accommodation on the roof of the ferry to Wadi Halfa

First Class accommodation on the roof of the ferry to Wadi Halfa

What follows is straight out of my notebook:

Bright moon. Stars becoming familiar. Cold at 3am but not too much so. Spent time talking to Australian Mike McDonald. Something about him remained alienating to the last. A conflict of styles.? His funny hat – a Muslim cap – was aggressively incongruous. The forthright manner was not quite true. – and concealed a complex and uneasy personality. Protestations of easy independence were contradicted by heavy point-scoring humour, and he lost few opportunities for self-congratulation. Yet there is a wistful, touching desire to find peace with himself (which he failed to find in his monastery).

From Wadi Halfa I had to take the train to Atbara and met a Dutch couple:

Although the Dutchman wielded an equally heavy sledgehammer he seemed to have found more peace in his 26 years. He and his wife Alice were travelling to South Africa to visit her father. It was her idea – he had wanted to holiday in Norway. Now he was finding much reward. His treatment of his wife was very masterful, and she was obviously devoted to him, even when he scolded her like a father. A big man, studying ‘marketing’, son of an old family, with a natural confidence which could make him boorish and pig-headed but for her moderating influence which he is happily able to accept. He was taken with my idea of classifying people as ‘alive or dead’ but said he would need to study it.

In Atbara I met Thomas Taban Duku and then Fabiano Munduk, both African Christians from South Sudan. With Fabiano an evening that started when he came to the hotel with his nephew Peter, a four-year-old boy in brightly striped jersey and shorts. They had come from school sports day. All day I had heard martial music of the (British) Empire drifting across. He explained they had been playing musical chairs. We drank two bottles of sherry between us in a bar, then took him by taxi to his brother’s house. Brother is in the police (a captain he said). Brother’s wife Rita speaks no English. He got her to give us a small bottle of home-distilled date liquor (like eau de vie). Dates left in water for seven days, then the container set out over a fire. Above it a lid perforated. On that a small bowl. Above it a bigger bowl serving as a lid and condenser, filled with cold water.

We took the bottle and walked across cultivated ground to look at the (Blue) Nile. Fabiano says the White Nile was a day’s walk away. He obviously didn’t know the Blue Nile only joins the White Nile at Khartoum 200 miles further south. We walked back to place where music had sounded. Fabiano was dodging about into bushes in the manner of Don Genaro looking for cars. I think he was looking for animals or snakes. We had been talking about his life in the bush – ‘bus’ – when he and his brothers were refugees from Sudan after his parents had been killed – he said – by the Moslem army at the time. He is proud of his brothers. They are twelve. Two are at Oxford, one doing economics, another librarianship. The others are mostly in the army – all of them officers. He is the youngest and least qualified.

The music came from a wedding party in a community on the edge of Atbara. Large square clearing with canvas spread over a large area, illuminated by bulbs strung out in large rectangle. Rows of chairs all round. Many children jostling for good positions, scrapping with each other but although they pushed each other around quite hard there was no bitterness in their manner and no crying. Fabiano says the children are allowed to be independent.

The band arrived in an army truck. We were given favoured seats, and then plates of food were brought specially for us, ta’ameya, bits of meat, salad, sweet pastry, bread and water. When the music started men would wander over casually, sometimes two together, snapping the fingers of one outstretched arm, to indicate their pleasure, and reach over to touch one or more of the players. Then they would retire, just walking way slowly.