I had slept on concrete floors and bare earth, and on the metal roofs of trains in the Nubian Desert, but none of these experiences made the task of sleeping on the wooden planks of a Nile steamer any more comfortable. I woke up a little after dawn, feeling as though I’d been beaten up in my sleep. I rolled onto my back, gingerly kneaded my aching neck and opened my eyes.
The woman immediately to my left was staring at me as though confronted by an object of rare and intriguing ugliness. She had a shaven head and pendulous, cicatrised breasts, her nipples surrounded by concentric rings of scar tissue. A baby was plugged onto one teat; a two-year-old casually sucked at the other. When I turned to my right a teenage girl responded with a generous, gap-toothed grin and handed me a 2-foot length of raw sugarcane, as though she had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity. The oil smeared across her torso glistened in the early morning light. She was smoking a pipe almost as long as her thin forearms.
She removed it from her mouth, picked up another piece of sugarcane and began chewing, eying me intently, as though she was giving a demonstration to a dim-witted child. I sat up, sucked at the cane and studied my other companions. I was, as far as I knew, the only white man among the 1000-odd passengers and I was the only man billeted in the female section. There were about 50 women and perhaps three times that many children and babies, crammed into the rear end of the upper deck of one of three third-class barges which were lashed together, side by side, and slowly making their way downstream, propelled by an ancient paddle steamer.
I had arrived in Juba, the point of departure, with just one thought on my mind: how to cover the journey to Cairo – a distance of some 2500 miles – without running out of money. My plans to travel overland from Kenya to South Sudan had been thwarted on the sensible advice of the British Embassy, who urged me to avoid Uganda. Idi Amin, the deranged president of Uganda, had recently embarked on a programme of murder and mayhem, so I was obliged to buy an air ticket from Nairobi to Juba. That accounted for half my savings, leaving me with just £40 in cash by the time I arrived, emaciated and unnerved, in the ramshackle capital of Sudan’s Equatoria Province. Emaciated, because I had yet to recover from a bout of fever and a heavy load of parasites; unnerved, because Sudan Airlines had deposited me for four days in the Uganda city of Entebbe – claiming technical problems – where I and three other white travellers were forced to take refuge in a hotel and listen, in the evenings, to Amin ranting on the radio.
There was no set timetable for the Nile steamer. It could be weeks before one arrived, I was told, or a matter of days. In fact, it was just two days, so it was with a profound sense of relief that I made my way towards Juba’s quayside an hour before sweaty dawn. The vast majority of those queuing were Dinkas. The men, jet black and shiny like jet, and enormously tall and thin with long knives slung from their waists, bantered among themselves. The womenfolk fussed around luggage and babies. Most of these families were heading for North Sudan to work as cheap labour and they were accompanied by battered old suitcases bulging with clothes, cooking utensils, bags of grain and bundles of sugarcane.
I asked for a third class ticket with a student reduction. The official asked to see my student card. I didn’t have one, but I produced a piece of paper which I’d discovered in my rucksack the night before – a receipt, six months old, from a launderette in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The official copied down the name of the launderette and the number of the ticket. I paid the equivalent of £2 and experienced a surge of parsimonious satisfaction. It was short lived. Soon after we set off, I made my way towards a small restaurant which I had spotted on the lower deck of the paddle steamer. The steward, a fat-bellied North Sudanese Arab with a wall eye, shouted at me as I was about to leap across the classes. “You pay third class, you stay third class!”
The sugarcane, sickly sweet and moist, and gallons of river water, sterilised with foul-tasting iodine, was all I had to sustain me till the second afternoon, when we briefly moored at Bor. The civil war had yet to begin – the town was to experience one of the worst inter-tribal massacres – but the dusty market place was full of soldiers, slouching idly in the shade of rough-leaved trees. I bought some bananas, some flat bread and a few packets of musty biscuits. Shortly before dusk, we entered the vast swamps of the Sudd. A monotonous carpet of green stretched away to the flat horizons, the tedium only occasionally lifted by the sight of a naked family on a dry hummock of land, or crocodiles slopping into the water. The former were invariably greeted by silence; the latter by shouts of derision.
The steamer negotiated the numerous kinks in the Nile – a web of interlocking waterways divided by floating rafts of papyrus and water hyacinths – by accelerating into the vegetation and bouncing off at an angle. A sulphurous stench would rise from the churned-up papyrus roots, accentuating the awful feeling of poverty which pervaded the third-class barges. With every hour, they became more foetid, the wooden floors developing an ever-thickening scum of child’s urine, spittle and discarded cane chewings.
During the day there was no escape from the oppressive heat and humidity and at night the whining and biting of mosquitoes was almost unbearable. During the first couple of days, there was much high-spirited conversation, especially among the young men. But it didn’t last. Soon, I began to dread the journey to the latrine, not because the sanitary arrangements were so poor – a hole in the floor in a closet without a door on the lower deck – but because the atmosphere had changed. The men had become weary and resentful; laughter had given way to bickering and periodic outbursts of anger. I now realised that I had been billeted with the women for my own sake and, perhaps, safety.
I had never known time pass so slowly. Unable to talk to those around me, I raced though Huckleberry Finn and immediately regretted it, as I had nothing else to read. So I began the novel again, rationing myself, this time round, to some 60 pages a day. I dozed; I day-dreamed; occasionally I stood to lean on the iron railings to watch long-legged wading birds stalking through the reeds and, on one occasion, a group of men hauling a Nile perch, some 4 feet long, onto a muddy bank. After three days of grim confinement, I began to mumble imprecations. Oh please, God, please let the week pass in the twinkling of an eye! Oh, let this be a bad dream, let me wake up to a fresh misty morning in Yorkshire!
But I was talking to the wrong person: it was to Uncle Percy, not God, that I should have addressed my grievances.
Once every year, in June or July, Percy Durran, my mother’s youngest brother, would arrive at my parents’ house outside Huddersfield, stay for a week or so, frequently accompany us on our summer holidays, then disappear again for another year. In the early 1950s, when I was very young, he came from Sudan; later, from the Lebanon. The fact that he scarcely uttered a word to me when I was a child – other than hello and goodbye – did nothing to diminish my admiration for him. I looked on him as an ornithologist might a rare bird-of-paradise, or an anthropologist a remote tribe with improbable facial jewellery. I revered him so highly that I even named a succession of pets – a terrapin, a chameleon, a Dutch rabbit – after him.
In appearance, there was nothing exotic about Uncle Percy. He didn’t look Scottish, like his siblings, and waiters as far afield as Egypt and Spain used to whisk away the English menus, mistaking him for a local. But he would never have stood out in a crowd. Rather, it was his conversation, and his reflections on life in Africa, which distinguished him from everyone else I knew. His stories, which flowed like a bubbling stream, were liberally interspersed with snatches of Arabic, in which he was fluent, and he had a working knowledge of several tribal languages, including those of the Dinka and Nuer in South Sudan.
He was the sort of person, I reflected when I was in my teens, that you might find between the covers of a story by Ryder Haggard or Rudyard Kipling: a man shaped by Empire and perfectly at ease among foreign peoples. I doubt whether he saw himself in those terms: like his three brothers, and many Scots of his generation, he had headed to the colonies to make a living. He arrived in Sudan in the 1930s, after he had qualified as a veterinary surgeon, and spent many years working among cattle-herding tribes, dispensing advice, running vaccination programmes and endeavouring to control rinderpest, a disease which caused huge suffering for cattle and their owners. He loved cattle, and I think he enjoyed the company of the people he worked with. He certainly spoke about them with amusement and affection. “You have to be very careful when you are chatting with the Dinka,” he recalled over dinner one evening, “because they will pee, just like their cows, without any warning. All of a sudden you’ll find yourself having to leap backward to avoid being splashed by some chap with a great big tool.”
During the war, he joined the Camel Corps, and when General Orde Wingate’s forces invaded Ethiopia to evict the Italians and reinstate Emperor Haile Selassie, he led 6000 camels from Khartoum to Asmara. “The Eyeties were very cruel,” he said. “If they wanted to terrorise a village, they’d take an Ethiopian up in a small aeroplane and chuck him out from a great height so that he landed in the market place.” He had mixed feelings about the Ethiopians too. When he first went there he was accompanied by his Sudanese servants. The Ethiopians treated them with such contempt that they eventually chose to return to Sudan.
His yearly journeys home were grand affairs. He would stay with friends in Khartoum, then take the boat down the Nile, past the great temples of Abu Simbel to Aswan. Here he stayed at the Cataract Hotel, before proceeding by boat and train to Luxor, Cairo and Alexandria, visiting some of the sites along the way and staying, respectively, at the Windsor Palace, Shepherds’ and the Cecil Hotel. From Alexandria he took the boat to Venice, whence he caught the Orient Express to London, eventually arriving in Huddersfield some two to three weeks after leaving his home in South Sudan.
On one of the first visits I recall, he produced a black-and-white photograph taken during his travels among the Dinka. He was sitting outside a tent, having dinner, surrounding by a small army of black staff. He looked perfectly content in his crisply ironed shirt and trousers. I knew, at this moment, that sooner or later I would visit Sudan – or the Sudan, as it was known in those days. And before I did, Uncle Percy, by then retired in Scotland, gave me a letter of introduction to a government minister in Khartoum.
“He’s an old friend of mine, very nice chap, but I don’t suppose it will be much use,” he said as he handed it me. “He’s probably been shot by now.”
Midway through my third day on the steamer the girl who’d given me the sugar cane indicated that I should get to my feet. Standing at the stern of the paddle steamer was the steward. He explained in harsh, guttural English that I could use the restaurant if I wished. He clearly resented the fact. I made my way across to the steamer to be greeted by a white man – I had glimpsed him twice the previous day – with a hooked nose, skin so white that it looked as though he had never ventured outside and pale blue eyes. He was dressed in Muslim garb: white jellabiya, white skullcap.
“Welcome to luxury,” he said with an ironic smile. “My name is Mohammad.” He spoke impeccable English, with just the faintest trace of a French accent.
“Do I have you to thank for this?”
“Not me, it’s the Minister for Weather you need to thank. He heard you were stuck in third class and insisted you be allowed here during the daytime.” The Minister, a charming, softly-spoken man from Khartoum, was the only person travelling first class, which meant he actually had a cabin to himself.
The restaurant had seen better days. The finely bevelled wood panelling had lost its veneer, mould crept across the ceiling and the brass plaque instructing passengers not to wear pyjamas at dinner looked as though it hadn’t been polished for decades. The cooking arrangements were of the utmost simplicity, consisting of a pair of charcoal braziers and a collection of battered aluminium pots. The menu was a simple one: beans and dried fish, occasionally supplemented with fried plantains, and accompanied by cups of sweet tea. I had never been a great fan of stewed beans – ful, as it is called in Arabic – and actively disliked dried fish, but these were unusual times and every mouthful of my first meal tasted like heaven.
For the next four days, this was my daily ritual. I would come over to the steamer midway through the morning, chat with Mohammed and perhaps the Minister, eat some beans and dried fish and spend the afternoon dozing among the second-class passengers, most of whom were Muslims from the North. Not that there was anything special about their accommodation. They had neither cabins nor bunks and they slept, as we did in third class, on wooden planks. But at least there was space. Space to sit without being jammed against human flesh. Space to lie down and sleep without being rolled on, trodden underfoot or kicked. Space – just enough – to sit slightly apart from others on a rusty capstan, and see nothing but one’s own reflections rippling in the silty water.
Several months earlier, I had travelled in – and on top of – two steam trains in North Sudan, and taken sufficient interest in this archaic means of transport to study the engines. Most had been made in Glasgow in the early 1950s. In retrospect, I’m surprised I didn’t subject the paddle steamer to similar scrutiny; or at least take note of its name. For many decades afterwards, I simply thought of it as the Nile steamer – or rather one of two Nile steamers, as we passed the other, heading upstream, near the town of Malakal, where Uncle Percy had once been based. But the mystery, in so far as it was a mystery, has been solved.
After Uncle Percy died, an album of his photographs did the rounds of the family, eventually coming into my possession in 2010. The first half of the album is taken up with black-and-white photographs from South Sudan and Darfur. In one of these, Percy is sitting on a Nile paddle steamer, looking thoughtful and dashing. The caption reads: “On the Lady Baker 1951.” There are several other photographs of the steamer, taken from the shore, one with a crowd of Dinkas flaying a hippopotamus. The steamer is the same, down to the last detail, as the one on which I travelled. Named after the wife of Samuel Baker, who ‘discovered’ Lake Albert, one of the sources of the White Nile, the steamer was the second to carry the name, the first having operated out of Malakal as a hospital ship. An Austrian who had been bought by her husband from a slave market in Eastern Europe, Lady Baker had worked tirelessly to improve the health of the natives. Meanwhile Samuel Baker did his best, on the instructions of the Khedive of Egypt, to wipe out the slave trade.
The Dinkas travelling north on the Lady Baker were economic migrants, not slaves, and the 20 or so individuals Mohammed and I joined in the back of a lorry from Kosti to Khartoum were clearly resentful of the fact. If we’d had any sense, we would have waited for the train, but after 10 days on the river we were eager to get to the capital as quickly as possible. In the market we found a merchant, a light-skinned Arab, who swore that the journey by lorry would take us just four hours – half the time of the train journey – and that we would arrive in Khartoum before nightfall.
We climbed into the lorry with the Dinkas and the merchant’s son and headed into the desert. It was ferociously hot, well over 40 degrees centigrade in the shade, of which there wasn’t any. After four hours, there was still no sign of Khartoum, and then the Dinkas suddenly realised that instead of heading north towards the capital, we were heading west. They shouted their anger at the driver, who ignored them, and began to berate the boy. He responded by producing a knife and shouting insults at them. The Dinkas drew their knives. Convinced they were going to kill him, I climbed over the side of the lorry and prepared to jump.
“For God’s sake, don’t!” shouted Mohammed. “If jumping doesn’t kill you, the desert will!”
The boy put away his knife. The Dinkas did the same. I climbed back into the lorry, feeling rather foolish.
Several hours after the sun had set we stopped in the desert. The Dinkas lay down beside one another in a long line, each on his left side with his right arm tightly clasped around the man in front. Mohammed, who had recently converted to Islam, took himself off to one side and prayed. I lay down in the sand, closed my eyes and fell into a fitful sleep. We set off again around midnight and stopped in a village to load a flock of high-backed sheep, which leaked on our feet and bleated miserably all the way to Khartoum. The Dinkas showed great restraint. I’d have been happy if they’d slaughtered the lot.