Zillions of stars eyeball you from a quiet night sky as you dodge creeping goggas when using the toilet in Dilling, one of the 99 villages surrounding an equal number of Sudan’s Nuba Mountains.
I’m still undecided which was more surreal: using the roofless, hole-in-the-ground toilet in the dark or finding a Pepsi bottle cut in half to pour water over my soapy body. Showers aren’t common in Dilling. It’s village life without the basic reminders of Normal Anywhere Else.
I made sure I had a seat on a shortly-after-sunrise bus ride from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, headed to Dilling for the annual harvest festival (known as Sibir) of the Nuba people living in western Sudan.
I was prepared to have my mind mixed up like a freshly blended orange/mango/guava juice from a makeshift sidewalk stall in entangled Khartoum. I wanted to feed my imagination with the celebrations that make People of Other Cultures dance. I wanted to dance with them.
And in Dilling, the Nuba welcome these desires much like untainted 10-year-olds imagine that anyone they talk to — even only once — simply has to be their ultimate best friend. It took almost all of daylight by road, including one interchange in a town called Al Obeid, to arrive in this wide-open world a stone’s throw from neighbouring Darfur.
Eight tribes of the Niemang branch of the Nuba people had gathered at the Nitil Mountain in Dilling to celebrate the Sibir. This festival, held annually around November, dates back to a time before the idea of a monotheistic God spread through the Nuba Mountains. With God at present firmly embraced and feared, the modern-day Nuba include Muslims, Christians and animists dancing side by side during the Sibir.
The Sibir has been abandoned by some Muslim Nuba tribes, though, while others have replaced the home-made beer, mareesa, with a favourite non-alcoholic Sudanese drink, Karkade, when it comes to marking the end of official proceedings.
Samples of harvested crops from various tribes are the main display at the Sibir. It’s a communal acknowledgement of the fruits of hard labour that has given birth to food that keeps communities breathing. Anyone would admit that’s reason enough to kick back. The Nuba do more than that.
They dress up in colourful costumes made of cheap materials that include sweet wrappers and cold-drink bottle tops. Women wear elaborate hats, some made of trash — a sign of poverty and a resourceful approach to dressing up — while African touches include beads. Some women are also draped with colourful materials, while the men are mostly underdressed.
Employing elaborate hand gestures, I asked the women if I could photograph their hats. They couldn’t care less and some welcomed me to have my picture taken next to them. What I refused to do, though, was act pretentiously like the United Nations troopers also checking out the Sibir. Armed with cheesy smiles, they showed little need for wasting time as they hastily removed their blue berets and got photographed with some of the women’s mad-looking hats of trash.
At the Sibir, the Nuba also kick up a substantial amount of dust with their traditional kiran dancing. A circle of shaking bodies and beating drums sets the tone for the kiran. Men dance opposite women in this circle. Dust clouds rise as serious foot stomping inside the circle continues.
One of the men enters the circle, firmly stomping his right foot a couple of times as a challenge to one of the women, who then joins him with equal enthusiasm. A few other men zealously enter the circle and do some more right-foot stomping around the couple. Music energises the crowd into a clapping chorus. Men and women enter and exit the circle for as long as there are willing participants.
My mind was mixed up. I had entered another sphere of being.
Wrestling is another distinctive Nuba tradition at the Sibir. The crowd gathered around an arena to watch wrestlers from various Nuba tribes and villages test their opponents. My humble host, Adam Ramadan, informed me that the eight tribes that had descended on the Nitil Mountain were not all from Dilling.
Most were from neighbouring villages and had travelled to Dilling to hold a large Sibir instead of smaller festivals at home. Apart from distinctive costumes and sample crops, wrestling is another way of showing off the tribe’s prowess.
A woman from a particular tribe or village literally kicks off the wrestling bout. She enters the arena and does a little bit of foot stomping as a taunt to lure a challenger to face her village’s champ, who peacock-prances about. A woman from another village steps forward and announces, again with foot stomping, that her village’s hero is ready for a fight.
The muscular bodies of the opposing wrestlers battle it out. The wrestler who lands on his back first is the loser, while the winner is airlifted to a wave of cheers. Some jovial supporters even decorate the winner’s body with cash.
The wrestlers are a proud crew. Some appear with painted upper bodies and most find it essential to show off their muscular physique. It’s a roaring spectacle that ultimately aims to win tribal pride. The wrestlers of today are very different, though, to the images of Nuba wrestlers documented in south Sudan some decades ago.
Adolf Hitler’s filmmaking sidekick and fellow Nazi Leni Riefenstahl turned her attention from propagating perfect blue-eyed Germans to seeking strong-bodied Nuba wrestlers. Her sojourns in southern Sudan resulted in a visual document, Die Nuba, and of course showed the naked African in all his seemingly primitive glory from the Eurocentric lens.
The wrestlers my lens encountered this time were hardly naked. As a sign of how times have changed, one of the warriors even wore bright red footballer’s socks. The Nuba tribes of the Nuba Mountains might not be as naked as their southern counterparts documented by Riefenstahl, but there’s no doubt that culturally and politically their connection remains strong.
It was only until about three years ago that the Sibir was sometimes limited to just a day. It could at times have been cancelled as a result of a bad harvest, but mostly activity in the Nuba Mountains was affected by the 21-year north-south civil war in Sudan that ended with the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005.
Dilling is a scene of village life that might seem relaxed at first glance, but security is Big Brother-like in this part of Sudan. When I arrived in Dilling I wasn’t immediately taken to Ramadan’s house to freshen up. I first had to announce my arrival at the local police station. I was asked a few questions and told to meet the station commander the following morning.
I managed to disguise my shock with a smile when I met the commander. He greeted me by saying my full name, reciting my passport number and telling me exactly where I live in Khartoum. This information was, of course, passed on to him by the minions who questioned me the previous day. But the commander didn’t even have with him the book in which the police officers had recorded these details.
I had to assure the commander that I was just another dumb tourist type wanting to learn more about Sudan and its diversity. I pulled that off while strange, medical-related thoughts on how a lack of privacy could lead to constipation came to mind.
This guy had even memorised my passport number … I struggled to come to terms with the thoroughness of his approach. He definitely aimed to unsettle me and ensure that I was aware that Someone Could Be Watching. And he did all of this with A Big Welcome Smile.
Armed and uniformed soldiers from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA/M) patrolled most of the area where the Sibir was taking place. North-south tension remains, as just last month (January) the southerners blamed Khartoum for a fresh round of killings. The southern independence seekers swiftly sent troops to border areas between north and south.
Evidence on the ground, in villages like Dilling, shows that the Nuba Mountains remain SPLA/M territory. Photos of SPLA/M leaders plastered the taxi that I took from the bustling Dilling market along the 10km ride past cyclists, donkey carts and minibuses up to the Nitil Mountain.
One tribe’s dress-up incorporated SPLA/M T-shirts as a political statement. SPLA/M leadership photos and flags were also proudly displayed at the Sibir. Plainclothed SPLA/M soldiers with massive guns paraded around the tea-seller and shisha spots.
Their guns casually monitored the Sibir market area where food, drinks and other items were on sale, much like a little bazaar. Popular local stomach fillers tameeyah and fuul remain the prime options even in these remote parts. You just have to go with the flow and eat the sometimes less-than-favourable meals available.
Restaurants in Dilling don’t offer that much either. There’s a food area at the entrance where some economic activity as a pass-through spot is guaranteed. But don’t expect three-course dining. The few food-stall options resemble a dilapidated attempt at setting up restaurants.
At one stall, raw chicken pieces hung from a wire, just like laundry on a clothes line. You choose the chicken piece you want roasted on a fire and a few minutes later it’s delivered to your rusty table, without much light to see what you’re digesting. And somehow the piece of chicken shrinks substantially.
Street boys hang around these food areas, waiting for a well-fed customer to leave before hurrying to score any leftovers. These are lesson-bearing moments. For example, sometimes it’s best simply to close your eyes and think about your stomach. And nothing else. That way, everything tastes so much better.
There was one local speciality for which I didn’t have the patience. Sugarcane sticks were on sale at the Sibir. Some young guys showed me the local way to eat this straight-from-the-earth treat. One has to break open the stalk to get to the juicy, sugary bit. This turned out to be too laborious, killing all thrill of a possible sugar rush. I opted instead for strong coffee, biscuits and shisha in the late afternoon sun while strangers joined me to practise their English-language communication skills.
This moment of cultural education — for me more than for my hosts in Dilling — was marked by those machine guns in full view. Wrestling bouts had by then also given way to young militants exhibiting mock training sessions, incorporating fast-paced jogging and SPLA/M slogan chanting.
The struggle for a “new Sudan” remains the back track everywhere one walks in this country. And in Dilling, under the vast observant sky, there are more tormenting matters than creepy-crawly goggas to deal with. And zillions of twinkling stars play silent witness.