There was something infinitely distant about Port Sudan in the late eighties, something that defied explanation in physical distance. The place was full of refugees and dust and mottled oranges in the markets. Gunshots at night. The ancient ruins at Suakin and the crumbling remains of colonialism still in evidence in the Red Sea Club. The ineluctable beauty of the shoals of coloured fish between the corals of the Red Sea itself, coming to the surface to the urgent tapping on the line and shouts of , ‘Shark!’ Danger lurking beneath the surface of every smile, every conversation a potential minefield of diplomacy as the Gulf War and its implications murmured like the wind beyond and behind every interaction. Refugees made up the vast majority of the students and it was amongst that group that I developed the deepest friendships. They came from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and the South.
The South evoked something of a reversal in relationships, of life lived between great forces.. The culture and its people seemed drawn two ways, between continuing as things were, the ancient conservation that honoured balances, and the extravagant curiosity that asked how things might be. There were still pastoralists in Port Sudan and amongst the refugee population were cohorts who failed or, more properly, refused to recognise, borders imposed by powers (like ours) who had named themselves as victors during the age of Empire. Instead, people in Sudan and the surrounding countries had continued the age-old reciprocal system of hosting one another, when and if conditions, for whatever reason, became intolerable in different regions. Kipling would have said, in different spots. The spots remain. The hotspots. The cooling off spots. It was an exciting, exhausting stay, wrestling with personal demons but determined to be open in the exchange.
Before I left, my father had presented me with a book. A hand across the divide, perhaps? ‘The Nile’ had been published the year before and was a breathtaking introduction, not least because, as many have done before, I felt a deep pull towards the experience of pastoralism and Moorhouse’s photos rang with the light and the heat and the smells of woodsmoke and cattle. We’re all throwbacks, in one sense or another, aren’t we? Dad must have known about Moorhouse’s previous book, and given this one to me as a kind of joke. I thought I could help but like so many volunteers, I was never sure whether what I was bringing was just colonialism recloaked as Aid. I still don’t know. The Gulf War erupted into open hostility towards British citizens and, in spite of some resistance on my part, I found myself on a plane home.
It took a long time to get back to Africa. I had no money. I was culture shocked. VSO sent me to Indonesia and when I returned, I could not recognise the place I’d come from. I dropped out completely, lived under bridges, refused to participate. Eventually, by a long and painful route, I managed to get myself a job and, with some effort, I was given the golden opportunity to go back to university in, of all places, Oxford. An extraordinary woman there, Dr Harrell-Bond, had founded a new field of study: Forced Migration Studies. It was broad enough to include refugees, academics, military strategists, lawyers, and the likes of me. It took a couple of years but in the end, I managed to persuade VSO to take me on again and at last, I was on the road to South Sudan – almost. I ended up living in Kenya, in a refugee camp, but I was working with people from South Sudan. I was also working with people who saw the South Sudanese as impossibly distant, unable to understand anything of the concept of democracy, doomed to exploitation and eventual integration, subserviant, outmoded, a dead culture. I disagreed. I could see the push, the strength, the link with forces beyond them – not fatalism but a deeply ingrained understanding that there had to be regard for weather, seasons, the larger, background flows, political and geographical, that they had walked with for millenia. I could see the same regard, the same patient vision, in the faces of the Turkana of northwest Kenya. Huge pressures on landuse were forcing them to alter patterns of pastoralism that had sustained them for centuries. The imposition of a refugee camp, complete with highway, razorwire fence, bribes, guards, guns and, incongruously, a swimming pool, did not help reciprocal relations between refugees and locals. Yet so many features of the lifestyles of both grounds showed deep respect for the cycles of seasons, of birth and death, of the lives of other creatures and systems, both those they used for food and those outside their immediate circle of needs. I watched as the pressures grew and groups fragmented, absorbed into the white-shirted Aid brigade or lost in the slums of Nairobi, only the old and weak and very determined remaining, their eyes reflecting, not hatred, not resignation, but knowing.
It felt then that there was nothing to be done. That the project of the global North was too determined, the dice too loaded, to merit resistance. I’d resisted, myself, once, and I had found myself forced out: I could not recommend it. Yet I found that listening to people’s stories was itself a key to their empowerment. I began to listen and to find the authentic tales of movement both moving and, somehow, resonant with an ancient restlessness. People knew what had been lost. People always know.