The British Empire Library

Trek into Nuba

by Ian Mackie

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by K.R.M. Anthony (Sudan 1945-1955, Collon Research Corporation 1955-1975, ODA. London 1976-1983)
Ian Mackie's fascinating account of his first tour of duty in the Sudan, as an Inspector of Agriculture in the period 1942-45, will evoke nostalgic memories in those who served on outstations in Africa prior to Independence. Not least because of his ability to describe vividly the country in which he travelled, the people he met and the way of life of expatriate and Sudanese alike. Arriving in the Sudan as a young graduate with no tropical experience, his self-education proceeded apace with growing awareness of the problems faced by small-scale cultivators and stock owners and, in the rainfed areas, the conflict between these problems and government policy then dictated by the need to produce additional grain as part of the war effort.

His first year was spent, with a taciturn Senior Inspector, supervising the Abdel Magid Scheme, an extension of the gravity-fed Gezira irrigation scheme designed to provide alternative livelihood for people displaced by inundation of the lands as a result of the construction of the Jebel Aulia dam. Here he first experienced the loneliness of outstation life to the extent that he made evening visits to prisoners in the local gaol for conversation and entertainment. However, he emerged with distinction from what he describes as his apprenticeship and, evidently to the approval of his Senior Inspector, a firm believer in the principle of throwing new staff in at the deep end to sink or swim.

To Ian Mackie's delight he was then posted to the Nuba Mountains in the south central Sudan and home of the Nuba people. At last he was able to fulfil his early dreams of trekking in the African bush. In contrast to the flat, featureless but fertile Gezira plain, he found himself in a rainfed mountainous country, with hill communities farming terraces on the shallow hillside soils whilst use of the richer soils of the plains was limited by lack of water supplies during the dry season. The Nuba, a negroid people, few of whom then wore clothes, were regarded as primitive, a label which he was soon to query as he learned more of their culture. His duties, to encourage additional grain cultivation for export from the mountains, were at variance with the existing over-cropping and over-grazing of land and the resultant soil erosion. He describes with feeling the problems of the area, his ideas on how these could be alleviated and his own role in the water conservation activities then being initiated within the relatively meagre resources available to the Sudan Government.

His account of life on trek, by truck and on horseback, told with humour, is a reminder of the hazards of travelling in the remoter parts of Africa in those days and his description of escaping a rapidly flooding plain and watercourse with a group of nomadic Baggara Arabs, their families and livestock, makes gripping reading. Time has not been kind to Ian Mackie's beloved Nuba who are now victims to the policies of a fundamentalist regime trying to impose conversion to Islam. Thus, the book ends on a sad note with a plea by the author for appropriate pressure by the international community on the Sudan Government so that people such as the Nuba can be saved from their present plight.

This is certainly a book to be recommended, not only as a very readable account of an Africa long past and a reminder of the former way of life of a now oppressed people, but also for its entertainment value.

British Empire Book
Ian Mackie
The Pentland Press Ltd.


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