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Notes on the Geography of Sudan: The Gezira

The plains lying between the branches of the Blue and White Niles attracted the eye of British engineers almost as soon as Kitchener retook the Sudan. Berms could be made to pond water for livestock, and shifting cultivation could be undertaken without irrigation, but the ambitious British built Sennar Dam on the Blue Nile and laid out an immense canal system over this gezira, or peninsula. For a time, the project was very successful, but like so many other things in Sudan, it has fallen on hard times.

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Sudan: The Gezira picture 1

A hafir, or constructed pond, at the unirrigated southwestern corner of the Gezira. The traditional crop here was rainfed sorghum, eaten as asida, a spicy porridge; the water was for both livestock and domestic use.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 2

The British put a good part of these plains to more intensive use by diverting Blue Nile waters into a canal network starting at a long, low, masonry dam built at Sennar. There were no "farmers" on the Gezira Scheme, only "tenants" with prescribed duties and rewards prescribed by the Sudan Plantations Syndicate.  Its main guest house is shown here, near Wad Medani. By the late 1980s, 30 years had passed since the Syndicate had been nationalized into the Sudan Gezira Board, and the guest house was succumbing to poor maintenance. The dining room still had a chest of long unused cutlery that bore the insignia of Harrods, Knightsbridge. The bedrooms offered bedbugs at no extra charge.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 3

Behind the mass of Bougainvillea: the scheme's administration building. Here, plans were laid out to manage the production of long-staple cotton grown for export.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 4

Many miles upstream from Wad Medani, and midway across the Sennar Dam, a guard sits unshaded in the sun, while the tablet behind him recounts the project's "salient figures." the engineer in charge of the dam's construction was Murdoch McDonald, an eminent figure of the 1920s.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 5

The main canal, near Wad Medani.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 6

A branch canal.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 7

One of the system's many night-storage weirs, behind which water accumulated during the night, only to be let out onto the fields the next day. Thus, water could move 24 hours a day, but tenants did not have to irrigate their fields at night.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 8

A night-storage weir.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 9

Guiding a tongue of water onto a field.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 10

A field channel brings water to an intricately furrowed block of land. Water management on the scheme is complicated, in part because the soil is a heavy clay and in part because the system is incapable of supplying water on demand. Instead, delivery of irrigation water must be rotated among thousands of tenants.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 11

The water sinks deep into the black soil, which when dry cracks into miniature chasms that await the next irrigation.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 12

One such natural fissure, opening as the soil dries.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 13

Southerners are hired to clear water-weeds from the canals. Local shun the work, because wading in them is a good way to contract schistosomiasis.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 14

Since the scheme's earliest days, foreign experts have drifted through in droves, handing out advice of one sort or another. Here, more such visitors sit on carpets spread under a shade tree and listen to tenants complaining that they are being sickened by the Gezira Board's aerial spraying of pesticides. Nothing came of their complaints.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 15

The success of the Gezira Scheme led the British to build many pump schemes to divert yet more Nile water onto these plains. The pump schemes range from tiny to massive, like this one.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 16

Such pump schemes line long lengths of both the Blue and White Niles. Here, the White Nile upstream from Khartoum is fringed by long irrigated strips irrigated by the pumps.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 17

Not far away, a ferry terminal on the White Nile at Ed Dueim, upstream from Khartoum. The river is enlarged here, ponded behind the Jebel Aulia dam, which stores water for Egypt's use, and there's a cool breeze, astonishing to anyone approaching the river overland. The British maintained a first-class ferry service on the river, but it's long gone.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 18

They also built a railway system that by the 1980s was severely overloaded and under-maintained. Over this line, cotton moved from the Gezira to Port Sudan.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 19

There hasn't been any investment in rolling stock for a long, long time.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 20

An old engine leaks steam at the Sennar yard.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 21

Tenant children go to school, in this case on the Rahad Scheme, a Gezira follow-on across the Blue Nile. Girls were kept on the left.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 22

Boys stayed on the right.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 23

This was a no-nonsense teacher, working under conditions that teachers in richer countries might consider impossible.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 24

Another classroom.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 25

Another group of girls.

Sudan: The Gezira picture 26

The entrance to Bakht er Ruda, the "lucky kindergarten."  This was Sudan's training college for elementary school teachers and was described (in J.D. Tothill's Agriculture in Sudan, 1948) as "the most important single step in educational progress in the last 40 years." The school opened in 1934 not in Khartoum but just north of Dueim and a 120 long miles upstream on the White Nile. Visitors arrived by the fortnightly steamer.

The first principal was V. L. Griffiths, and when he arrived he shocked the staff by seeing the pleasant greenery on the new campus and ordering it all cut down or pulled up.  If the school had trees and flowers, he explained, the school's graduates would expect greenery when they were sent to the villages where they would spend their professional lives. Finding none, they would quit and move to Khartoum.  Was he right? In any case the greenery's back, either to encourage graduates to plant trees or perhaps to placate staff who went nuts without it. Griffiths himself went on to a faculty position at Oxford.

In 1953 he published a book about his Sudan years: An Experiment in Education. In it, he wrote, "Here, on a slight and barren rise in the flat grey plains of clay which flank the White Nile, a small and rather forlorn-looking collection of buildings gradually arose in the winter of 1933-1934. They were built out of sun-dried brick from the same heavy, cracked clay, and plastered with mud and dung to protect them against the tropical storms of midsummer.

"The floors of the rooms were plain earth; there was no mosquito-wiring; water was to be delivered by donkey and cart; 400 trees had been planted on the site for our benefit; we pulled up all but a few. The idea was to live just one stage ahead of the ordinary village, not to set an impossible ideal" (p. 13).


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