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Footsteps: around the World in 80 Countries

A collection of short stories from the road less traveled

 by Adam Rogers


Sudan (North and South)


It was a crisp, cold morning in Khartoum as I awoke before dawn.  I crawled out of my sleeping bag in the courtyard of the students' dormitory at the University of Sudan and woke up my Sudanese friends to bid them farewell.


No matter how much one gets used to travelling, it's always difficult to say goodbye to friends with whom I have spent some time. In the summer of 1984, I stayed in Khartoum for five months, teaching English to Ethiopian refugees to earn enough money to continue travelling. I met many good people, but now it was time to go. I say “summer”, but in reality, in Khartoum, it always seems to be summer, with afternoon temperatures exceeding 50 degrees centigrade.


A dear Sudanese friend of mine promised to give me a lift to the market, where I could find transport down to Kosti, about 300 km south on the river Nile. As I walked to her house, backpack firmly attached to my shoulders, the western horizon began to light up; a brilliant red sun rose into the sky surrounded by a sea of orange.


I arrived at Salwa’s house at about 6:30 and found her ready to go. We drank one last cup of tea and smoked a cigarette before heading to the market. On the way there, I noticed that everything looked different. I don’t know why, but whenever I leave a place I have spent time in, it always looks different on the last day than in the days preceding.


We got to the Old Town Market just in time to buy a ticket, secure a seat, and say a quick goodbye before turning and going our separate ways. She was back to her daily routine in a male-dominated Sudanese society, and I was, well, on a path of relative uncertainty.


The trip to Kosti was quite pleasant.  I arrived in six hours over a paved road in a comfortable European bus.  I was glad I decided to take the bus rather than the old train, which makes the journey in about 24 hours. One experience on a Sudanese train was quite enough – the 48-hour journey down from Wadi Haifa in the north, most of the trip sitting on the roof.


Upon arriving in Kosti, I immediately proceeded to the Abu Zeit Hotel, where I dropped off my luggage before heading off in search of the port.  I was told in Khartoum that I could inquire in Kosti about a barge that made the journey to Kosti, 1,447 kilometers to the south.  I had heard about the barge but had no idea when it would be leaving – only a few rumors that it was this week sometime. I just went on intuition, or gut feeling, which is pretty much the only way to travel around Africa – where information was often scarce, or highly unreliable.


I discovered that a barge was, in fact, leaving the next day but that foreigners would not be allowed on it without special permission from the chief of police. Thus, I went to his office and was politely refused. However, after a few cups of tea and cigarettes and a long conversation lasting several hours about my interest in travelling around the world, he relented and gave me permission.


The following day I ventured back down to the port with all my gear.  When I took my first look at the contraption on which I was to travel, I nearly changed my mind. Although called a barge, it was actually six barges tied together in rows of two, two floors high-  three including the roof, built of rusting iron and rotting wood. Each barge measured roughly 50 metres long and 15 wide. 


The several hundred Sudanese who were about to make the journey were held back by a large fence. Shortly after I arrived the gates opened and they flooded onto the barges to set up their temporary homes for the long journey ahead. They carried large sacks of sugar, mattresses, chickens, goats., boxes and boxes and boxes.


Disrupted Departure


Securing a tiny rooftop area of the barge, just enough to lay my sleeping bag and squeeze my backpack next to me, I became part of the floating microcosm. A shrill whistle punctuated the air, signaling the commencement of our voyage. The echo triggered a frantic last-minute scramble from those still ashore, their faces etched with rushed goodbyes as they clambered aboard.


As we embarked, one barge succumbed to the weight and started sinking, left half-submerged and forsaken in our wake. Its displaced passengers found refuge on the remaining barges, intensifying the already dense crowd. One barge, seemingly reserved for military purposes, was teeming with approximately a hundred northern Arab soldiers, their gear marking territorial boundaries.


Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we began our upstream journey on the five resilient barges, heading southwards. My fellow travelers were a vibrant mix of Sudanese tribes – northern Arabs, Nubins, Dinka, Nuer, and Shilluk from the South. Each tribe bore a unique facial carving, their skin telling stories of their tribal lineage. Nuers sported horizontal lines across their foreheads, Dinkas displayed precise scars above each eyebrow, and Shillooks wore wart-like scars extending from temple to temple. Northern Arabs too had distinctive cheek scars, offering a visual dictionary of their tribal affiliations.


I was not the only Khawaja (foreigner) onboard; Werner, a German geography student, was accompanying me. We were the only non-African passengers in a group of several hundred.


We reached the sizable town of Malakal in six days, taking short pauses at the quaint villages of Jebelain, Renk, and Kodok en route. Each time we passed a humble collection of huts, its inhabitants would emerge to wave us on. I could tell there was not much else happening there.  Now and then, passengers on the barge would toss items like onions to the onlookers, triggering a friendly scramble. Despite their ethnic differences, these moments of shared camaraderie were heartwarming, as if they all belonged to one extended, joyous family. This untouched corner of Africa, largely unchanged for millennia, was a stark contrast to the blended, modernized communities characterizing most African cities.


Our 24-hour stopover in Malakal allowed me to explore its unique charms. I wandered to a nearby Catholic parish and found myself welcomed by a Palestinian priest from Jerusalem. His hospitality extended to a shared dinner and an evening watching a film on his VCR. A peculiar setting it was, an urban novelty amidst the pastoral simplicity, colored by straw huts and a lack of roads or electricity.


Malakal was an intriguing blend of mud roads, wooden shacks, and remnants of colonial architecture. A central market offered a sparse array of goods—tomatoes, peanuts, local tobacco, and surprisingly, spearheads.


As we left Malakal, we set course for Tonga, marking our entry into the precarious territory known as the stronghold of the rebel forces, the Anya Nya.


The Anya Nya, formed during the First Sudanese Civil War in the 1950s, was a separatist rebel army of South Sudan. Anyanya II, a separate movement established during the ongoing Second Sudanese Civil War, derived its name from "snake venom" in the Ma'di language. This southern faction aimed for autonomy, fearing northern Arab domination.


Fast forward twenty-seven years, these rebels, along with another group further south (the Southern Sudanese Liberation Army), would eventually gain independence, forming what is now called  South Sudan.


Merely three days prior to our arrival in Malakal, a military boat was ambushed in the vicinity. Although the BBC reported 207 casualties, local accounts suggested some soldiers managed to flee into the bush, indicating the number could be lower. The unrest was a chilling reminder of the volatile landscape we were traversing.


Target practice


On a warm afternoon, I found myself in the lower deck of the barge, at a petite cafe serving sweet, hot Arab green tea. The tea was served in cups and saucers harking back to the colonial era, their design featuring a British couple dressed in Victorian finery. A surreal visual indeed! Clutching the saucer in one hand and the teacup in the other, I was engaged in conversation with a local from the Nuer tribe. Suddenly, the serene setting was shattered by an onslaught of machine gun fire. Instinctively, I dropped to the floor, mirroring everyone else's reactions, miraculously managing to keep my tea from spilling. As the gunfire persisted, I sipped my tea, trying to keep calm amidst the chaos. Ten minutes later, silence returned, and we all stood up, brushing off the dust, laughter nervously permeating the tension.


I soon learned that the gunfire was not directed at the barges but was from the soldiers aboard using the papyrus and bamboo stalks along the shores as target practice. One soldier was even firing at hippos that scampered into the water, startled by all the shooting. I found myself compelled to intervene. Placing myself between the soldier and the water, I urged him to stop. He responded by resting the barrel of his gun against my chest. The surrounding crowd watched in horrified anticipation as he stared back at me with bloodshot eyes, contemplating his next move. I realized he had two choices — to heed my request, preserving peace, or to shoot me, sparking terror. To my relief, his stern face melted into a smile, followed by laughter. Though his words were foreign to me, they evoked laughter from the others. He finally lowered his gun, patting my shoulder, admitting, "you are right."


The Sudd is an immense swamp in South Sudan, recognized as one of the world's largest tropical wetlands. Its name translates to "barrier", symbolic of how it hindered the ancient Egyptians and Romans from expanding their territories further south.


The vista was dominated by towering walls of green, a sight initially fascinating but soon turned monotonous and infested with mosquitoes. Just when I was convinced of the place's uninhabitability, I'd spot locals, as bare as their birth, spearing fish from their dug-out canoes — a truly remarkable sight. Occasionally, our barge would halt seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and some passengers would disembark onto waiting boats. They would bid us goodbye before disappearing into the swamp, their heads crowned with heaps of personal belongings from their journey up North.


The calm was once again disrupted by the staccato of gunfire. I tried to maintain a low profile, observing that the fire was coming from beyond the barges. This time the targets were humans, who were shooting back.  Grenades arced through the air, detonating on the other side. The soldiers responded with torrents of machine-gun fire towards the origin of the grenades. The anticipation of a grenade landing on our barge was nerve-racking, but thankfully, each one missed and exploded at a safe distance away. The rebels' failure to hit such a large target puzzled me. Were they merely toying with us?


I later found out that the barge ahead of us had been attacked by the rebels, causing the death of hundreds, primarily Southerners. I pieced together the grim fact that one of the five barges was occupied by Northern soldiers and officers. They were transporting men and equipment to Juba, utilizing Southerners as human shields.


A Divine Awakening


In the midst of the expansive Sudd, amidst all the turmoil, I had an experience that touched me profoundly, resonating deep within my spiritual core. I was lost in a dream where I found myself surrounded by a vast expanse of water, with birds mirroring their flight in the glassy surface below. As dawn gently unfolded, the vision in my dream became vivid. An unparalleled tranquility enveloped me, as I luxuriated in the serene aura of the dreamscape. A sound, more like a whisper carried on a gentle eastern breeze, echoed in my ears. It's challenging to express, but the word 'Allaaaaah' unfurled, drawn out as if on a deep, distant breath. At this pivotal moment, I opened my eyes, only to witness the exact scene from my dream in reality. The endless stretch of wetlands, a picture of absolute beauty and perfection. The final echo of the sacred word seemed to reverberate both within me and around me.


It had been several months since I had embraced Islam at a mosque in Damascus. I had thrice pronounced the Shahada, the testament of faith: 'lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāh' ("There is no deity except God") and 'muḥammadun rasūlu llāh' ("Muhammad is the Messenger of God"). But until that moment, my understanding of the faith had been largely intellectual. This spiritual experience, however, was intensely profound, resonating deeply within me. I choose to leave it at that, to let the personal significance of the experience speak for itself. And that is all I will say about it.



A Day in Bor - Far From Boring


We emerged from the vast Sudd and drew closer to Bor, about 50 km from its outskirts, arriving late on a Saturday evening. Known for being the heart of the Second Sudanese Civil War which began a year prior, Bor is a unique confluence of history and nature, housing the famous Bor Wildlife Reserve, a sanctuary of diverse fauna.


As Sunday morning dawned, I set off to explore the town, considering the barge was scheduled to depart at noon. Somehow, I found myself drawn to a local church, where the priest cordially invited me to attend the morning mass. It was a simple setup, a cluster of humble huts with crosses erected around a significantly larger hall, pieced together from worn wood and corrugated iron. The priest requested me to sit in the front row of the congregation. As the service commenced with the rhythm of resounding drums, I found myself caught up in a fervor, unlike anything I had ever experienced. The infectious beat was joined by an orchestra of African instruments (I wished I had documented them) and the congregation's rhythmic chants and songs stirred a deep joy within me. The mass included the recitation of bible verses in Dinka and an Arabic sermon. The wave of energy that filled that humble hall was unparalleled, overshadowing anything I had felt in even the grandest mosques or cathedrals. Regrettably, I had to depart before the service concluded as news reached me that the barges were about to leave.


In 1991, a chilling sorrow fell upon me as news broke of a horrific massacre in Bor. A divisive rift within the rebel forces had resulted in the death of thousands of civilians. Over the subsequent years, approximately 25,000 more would succumb to famine, their livestock stolen or slaughtered, and the incessant conflict had driven them from their fertile lands. These internal disputes would ominously foreshadow the calamity that awaited the newborn nation when it emerged in 2011, embroiled in a desperate fight over power and resources.


A journey from Bor to Juba would merely span a few hours by road, but by barge, it took us an additional two and a half days. Our next to last stop was at a village called Mongolla, where a small group of people and supplies disembarked.


On our final night, we anchored in sight of Juba, cautious of the river's low levels and the potential danger of becoming ensnared in the mud. With the break of dawn, the five barges were unlinked, and the tug boat nudged each one towards the Juba Nile River Wharf.


Juba Jitters


Our arrival in Juba marked the beginning of an unexpected ordeal. At the time, Juba was not yet the capital of South Sudan but served as a strategic base for the northern army and an extension of the Khartoum Government's control.


I was perched on the military barge's roof, drinking in the scenery as we docked at Juba. A crowd, primarily comprising the police and military, had gathered to welcome the soldiers journeying southwards. A military band, primarily drums and brass instruments added to the ceremonial spectacle. However, I made my first grave mistake: I pulled out my camera to capture the spectacle, catching the eye of a shore-side observer. Upon disembarking, my German companion and I were greeted by a less-than-welcoming committee. We were arrested, bundled into a vehicle, and driven to a military base.


There I was, grubby from 14 days sans a shower, weary, and famished, having not eaten all day. We were directed to a courtyard at the base, where we were instructed to wait. As the hours ticked by, I tried to entertain myself by juggling a few rocks, only to be instructed to desist and wait silently.


Five hours later, our wait was interrupted by the arrival of a heavily decorated, imposing northern Sudanese Arab in uniform. We were offered seats and he queried us about our presence there. It was here that I made my second blunder, likely fueled by my starvation-induced irritation. I explained that I had been on the barge, witnessing a grand celebration for the soldiers' arrival, nothing more. I referred to the overzealous observer who had spotted my camera as a "homar" (Arabic for donkey), expressing my annoyance at being accused of being a national security threat and squandering his time.


This response did not sit well with him. Incensed, he asked if I had traveled all the way from Canada merely to insult his men. He ordered me to empty my backpack onto the floor outside his office, and his men began to rifle through my belongings. Items like cassette tapes of Sudanese music, travel guides, maps, my Arabic language notebook, photos of my Swiss girlfriend, and all my journals penned since embarking on this journey two years ago were seized as potential threats to national security. In an unfortunate turn of events, these journals contained my third error: they held my candid views on everything from misapplied Sharia Law to Sudanese politics, including critiques of Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiry. Although these opinions were shared by many of my Sudanese friends in Khartoum, they were typically only spoken of in private, never written.


As midnight neared, they seemed to tire of us. They drove us to a hotel downtown, retaining our passports and imposing a travel restriction within Juba.


At the hotel, we finally managed to sate our hunger and savored a cold Zairean beer, our first taste of alcohol in a year. The scarcity of potable water in Juba led to an unexpected prevalence of alcohol—be it Zairean or German beer, or even Scottish whiskey. I discovered that Sharia Law, rigorously enforced in the North, was largely disregarded in the Christian and animist-dominated South.


Over the next few days, we were shuttled back and forth between the military compound and a government 'State Security' building. We were left waiting indefinitely, meeting only minor officials. At the military base, we encountered many familiar faces from the barge, who, despite their sympathy, could do nothing to help. The third day of waiting led to a meeting with Major Kamal, who seemed to wield considerable power in Juba. I noticed my disassembled journals in his office, photocopied to be sent to Khartoum for further scrutiny.


The following day, Major Kamal informed me that my case had been escalated to Khartoum and asked me to return after a week. It seemed that nobody was willing to take the responsibility of releasing me, and my case was being passed up the chain of command until it reached someone empowered to make a decision.


With my passport confiscated, I was essentially confined within Juba. Despite the lack of any consulate or embassy in the area and the military-enforced isolation of the town, I was permitted to move freely within its boundaries. In essence, Juba had become my open-air prison.


Malarial molestation


So with a week to kill I headed down to the docks for a swim.  The heat in Juba was overbearing – nearly 40 degrees Celsius with high humidity –and I needed an escape  Big mistake.  I stripped down to my shorts and dove into the Nile, where the undercurrent swept me a huge distance in a heartbeat.  When I came up for air, I was a hundred meters downstream and in the middle of the river, as the docks I had just jumped off faded into the distance. 


Realizing I was in trouble, I mustered all of my strength and swam as hard as I could toward the back of a barge that was tied to the dock. A dozen or so Sudanese saw me and raced to the back, yelling incomprehensively and waving their arms.  I swam up to what must have been ten meters or so and then reached my limit.  My head swirled and my body went limp.  I started to drift backward and my legs sank… touching a sandbar just a meter below the surface. The Sudanese saw this and jumped in, pulling me to safety.


Once on the barge, I began vomiting violently. I was swiftly bundled into a truck and rushed to a hospital. There, a French nurse conducted blood and saliva tests and diagnosed me with malaria. I was administered a dose of chloroquine and invited to rest and recover at his bungalow.


Arriving at the bungalow, I noted the unusual proximity of the two single beds but dismissed it, as I was grappling with the feverish delirium of malaria and the side effects of chloroquine. All I craved was sleep, and I promptly drifted off into a deep slumber.


My sleep was abruptly interrupted when I felt a hand under my sheet, caressing my chest and stomach. As it slid further south, I opened my eyes in alarm, seeing the outline of my host lying next to me. I was weak but managed to assertively refuse his advances, collect my belongings, and stumble out into the night as he pleaded for me to stay. Somehow, I navigated back to my dingy hotel.


I awoke about two days later, drenched in cold sweat. The nurse had fortunately left some chloroquine at the hotel front desk for me. I consumed it like candy, along with copious amounts of heavily chlorinated water, and subsisted on crackers and bread. The experience was horrendous, marking the first of a recurring bout of malaria episodes that would revisit me approximately every six months.

This time, however, it was gone by the end of the week – just in time for a meeting with Major Kamal when he summoned me back to his office for an update.


Persona non grata


The orders came down from Khartoum that I was to be deported immediately via the quickest means possible.


“This is good news eh Adam? You will be able to meet with your Juliette.”


I had implored Kamal to enable me to reach Nairobi in time to meet Inez, whom I had encountered in Sinai and who was flying in for a reunion. Our relationship was brief yet intense, and we both yearned to rediscover our connection. We had met in Dahab, then journeyed together around Egypt. She returned to Switzerland to resume her nursing residency, while I ventured further into Sudan on my global exploration.


I was provided transportation to Nimule, at the Uganda border, where the border official was instructed to ensure the next incoming vehicle took me along. However, hours stretched into days in solitary wait. The delay arose from the border guards who had indulged in a homemade beer brewed from fermented mashed bananas, with sorghum, millet, or maize flour as a source of wild yeast. After three relentless days of inebriation, the severity of my simultaneous drunkenness and hangover forced me to leave. During afternoons, beers in hand, we'd use banana plants as targets for our machine gun practice. Fortunately, a car eventually arrived from the opposite direction, offering me a lift back to Juba along the narrow dirt road snaking through the jungle.


I stumbled upon Major Kamal at a local nightclub that evening. "Adam, I thought we were rid of you!" he exclaimed. I narrated my ordeal, and he empathized.


The following day, I was summoned back to Major Kamal’s office, where I was informed that a large cargo truck heading to Nairobi, manned by Somali drivers, had agreed to ferry me. I met my three travel companions at sunrise the next day, and we departed for Nimule. As we crossed the border, I observed deserted buildings scarred with bullet holes, remnants of the rule of Idi Amin just a few years prior.


Reflecting on my time in Sudan, it was a journey punctuated by both turmoil and camaraderie, a dichotomy that somehow revealed the raw essence of this complex nation. I had weathered many a storm, from the searing heat of the desert to the capricious currents of the Nile, from dubious welcomes to reluctant departures, and from unexpected bouts of malaria to the unexpected discovery of friendships in unlikely places. Despite the hardship, it had been an enriching experience, an opportunity to delve into the depth of human endurance and cultural diversity. But now, I was leaving behind the arid landscapes and military compounds of Sudan, ready to turn the page and open a new chapter in my journey. The verdant hills and vibrant cultures of Uganda and Kenya awaited me, promising new encounters, fresh perspectives, and the rekindling of a brief yet passionate romance. As I drove toward the Uganda border, I couldn't help but feel a potent mixture of trepidation and excitement, ready to plunge headfirst into the adventures that lay ahead.

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