Shattered Sudan | Drilling for Oil, Hoping for Peace, National Geographic: Sugar Cane Migrant Worker War Refugee | Northern Sudan

Sugar Cane Migrant Worker War Refugee | Northern Sudan

This sugar cane migrant worker is a war refugee from the south of Sudan. Osama Bin Laden built the most modern infrastructure in Sudan.  Sudan is the largest country in Africa, but it is impoverished, so it couldn’t pay him in cash.  Osama took sharecropping income from this sugar cane area to pay the bills for roads and airports.

From my journal:

We get up early to go to the Kenanan Sugar Factory.   The Blue Nile and the White Nile join just below Khartoum and form the Nile that flows into Egypt.  They exploited these two Niles in colonial times and ran irrigation between them creating the largest irrigated scheme in the world.  Half of Sudan’s GNP still comes from agriculture—mostly from this area.  When Osama Bin Laden was building infrastructure here, they paid him by letting him sharecrop large plots of this scheme.  The sugar factory is on the southern end of the scheme along the White Nile.  We bumble into the PR trailer… there is an air conditioner with no front and a big exposed fan… they’ve tried to cram a computer in here and all of the peripherals are covered with large sheets of plastic.  There is a wall of videotapes topped with 11X14 dime store framed faded photographs of mill machinery.  In the corner there are two cheap tripods covered with dust.  There is an overly paternal Idi Amin kind of guy in charge of PR for the plant—one of those guys who are always saying “enough?” “Finished?”  When I am just starting to work.  The truth is he probably doesn’t like the part of his job where he has to chaperone people like me.  I try to photograph folks irrigating but they aren’t doing much and he is way too constraining and he thinks he is way more knowledgeable of what I need to do than me.  At his office I asked to use a bathroom and was escorted next door to a club that must be for the managers—bleeding red windows with red wallpaper and multi-colored bricks and huge framed photos of Hallmark-style dewy-eyed lily-white children.

I have not seen anything in Sudan like this guesthouse.  This compound has beautiful green tile roofs and white walls like it belongs on a Greek island somewhere… Scandinavian teak furniture, sconces everywhere, 100 count Egyptian cotton sheets, quiet air conditioning and a restaurant with leopard curtains and art deco chairs with oak leaves carved into them.  There are TWO tablecloths on each table with European place settings, mango or baobab juice, crystal chandeliers and guys who have been pulled out of the cane fields and trained as European waiters.  In all of this opulence it seems strange that there is no sugar on these tables with every condiment imaginable-I mean-we ARE on a sugar plantation.  The meals here are a panoply of fried foods that arrive mostly cold, but the plate is arranged in a way that you feel you are in a world of plenty.  Desert is raspberry jello with pineapple pieces topped with a yellow meringue—this brings back memories of family reunions in Wisconsin.  It turns out this is where the board of directors stay—KSF is owned by a consortium of Sudanese, Saudi and Kuwaiti governments.  So this is how the privileged of the kleptocracy live.

They give me a factory tour and some of the machines are down and guys wearing flip-flops are walking inside these boxes of huge mashing gears and cleaning them.  They let me go in places without a hardhat that I shouldn’t be allowed into—deep dank humid bottoms of these huge gear contraptions that are dropping sugary, sticky rain while we are walking on boards suspended over pools of fermenting goo.

Tonight the winds are right to set some of the cane fields on fire.  The first field is set around 5:30.  The make torches out of dead cane leaves and leave them at intervals along the edge of the field.  It takes the first run for me to understand I need to be in front of the runners… they are already a third of the way across this huge field when I start running after them… It’s silly to think my out-of-shap- carcass strapped down with cameras can keep up with African runners.  I’m not the only one to realize this and a manager pulls up in a pickup truck to take Yahia and me along the fire line to get in front of the runners.  I made the mistake of asking if they can get ahead of the fire and the driver guns it down this narrow fire lane—the heat is intense.  They are all in the cab and Yahia and I are standing in the back of the pickup.  I am shielding Yahia so I get the worst of it.  Its hard to hang on to a flying pickup and try to shield your face from being scorched.  Working in front of the runners is definitely best.  The next fire is set at dusk and I am trying to run again, but the only time I can photograph is when they slow down to pick up another handmade torch and do the relay runner thing.  I end up in the back of another pickup but the fear of petrol explosion only gives me a few opportunities close to the runners.

The next morning we leave at 5am to photograph cane workers—many are still asleep along the side of the road like a row of corpses wrapped up in their thin white sheets.  It gets cold at night in the desert 14degrees c or so.  They are all lying on their handmade machetes to keep them safe I guess… they start work in the dark around 4am.  They strap cheap silver flashlights to their heads.  It gets too hot to work after noon or so… They are expected to cut an entire field before they stop for the day.  Once they burn a field they only have 24hrs to get it chopped down and to the factory.   There are 14,000 workers here (8,000 are seasonal).  The company could do everything mechanically but that would put a lot of people out of work.  The NASA night photo of the earth only shows a couple of blinks of light in Sudan—one is Khartoum and the other is here-the Kenana Sugar Plant.

Yahia’s friend is in charge here and he assigns us a ranger named “Smile.”  In contradiction to his name, Smile has a warrior’s demeanor, looks to be about 18, carries a Kalashnikov and doesn’t know how to operate a seat belt.

Everywhere we go, people stare at me… Adil tries to run them off the road with his crazy driving and I wave at them as this is going on so they forget how mad they are at my crazy driver.

Yahia has a scroll also… it is his special map… a long tube very carefully wrapped in newspaper… both tubes are in the back seat… I can barely keep cameras from being destroyed by keeping them in hard, dustproof, and waterproof cases.  These precious items of theirs will be destroyed in 5 minutes of this trip.  We have so much stuff on top of the car that we’ve busted the car top rack twice… three huge spare tires, cots, boxes of bread, bags of fruit, cans of baked beans and Tuna, Raman noodles, (I finally started doing the shopping after I nearly starved the last trip) spare parts, tool kits, sleeping bags, tents, bug nets, 5 people… and they all keep buying stuff and piling it into the truck. 

We are headed to the Ethiopian border where there are tribes from west Africa (near Genina-Darfur) I know we were thrown out of a town further north because of troop movement on this border.  They point out a small mountain and say it’s the border and then we drive right up to it… are Yahia and these park rangers bumbling us into a bad area?

I am already on a steady diet of cipro and Gatorade… it’s hard to believe you can actually keep working in 130-degree heat with raging diarrhea.  They all sense that I have a level of frustration and they all really do want to help… their solution is to try to get a whole village to dance for me.  I try to talk them out of it… I don’t want to be in the middle of some stage spectacle entitled “dance for the kowaja” but I’ve virtually given up trying to control stuff like this.  I know the dancing spectacle won’t work, but I will just photograph the periphery

Tonight at dinner, I walk by our thatch hut and smile (who also doesn’t know how to operate a propane burner) is holding a match way below the burner with the tank on full and the smell of propane everywhere.  I yell at Yahia to stop him and just keep going out of the hut… the last thing I need right now is to be in a thatch hut fireball.

That night I roll over and see Yahia in the corner on all fours throwing up like a dog, then I hear Adil and him talking.  There is so much noise in all these courtyards I’ve been sleeping in that I wear earplugs every night just by habit.

So in the morning the muffled sounds and Yahia on all fours in the moonlight just seem like some dream, but Adil points to him and says “malaria.”  Yahia is very ill he shows us a water bottle with his urine that looks pink with blood.  I think he is having some kind of organ failure and we are 12 hours from any decent medical care.   I decide to cut the trip short and head back to Khartoum. 

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