An old ferry carries the new tensions of Sudan but Mohammed sails on

Mohammed Zaeed Abbas, navigator and 'leader' of the ferry from Aswan, Egypt, to

Mohammed Zaeed Abbas, navigator and 'leader' of the ferry from Aswan, Egypt, to Wadi Halfa, Sudan.

Sixteen handcuffed prisoners are lead onto the Sudan-bound ferry by Egyptian police. Their skin is midnight black, contrasting with the lighter skin of the Arabic Egyptians and Sudanese, who comprise the bulk of the Sakelniam’s passengers.

They stare at the ground in front of them as they are efficiently whisked away. No-one stares at them in return.

The Sakelniam’s (‘ostrich’s leg’ in Arabic) human cargo represents an uneasy cross-section of the two Sudans – the Arab north and the brand new country of South Sudan, which recently broke away from the north and where black-skinned Africa commences in earnest.

Luckily politics is not in Mohammed Zaeed Abbas’s job description. He is Nubian, native to the lands in the vessel’s path. He simply has to navigate the Sakelniam along the Nile, from Aswan in southern Egypt to the port of Wadi Halfa on Sudan’s northern border, up and back once a week, a gruelling 16 hours each way.

He is not captain of the boat; the qualified captain sits alongside him, to keep the bureaucracy content, but in every other respect Mohammed takes charge of this ferry. His title is Rais (leader) and the crew always refer to the father-of-three for direction, a swollen posse of hangers-on at his beck and call up on the bridge. To the more frequent passengers he is a celebrity – one who commands respect. They all know his story.

Mohammed has no qualifications, in fact he has no formal education at all, but he knows the channels of Lake Nasser better than most – because he once lived down within them.

The lake, a swollen section of the Nile, formed after the building of the Aswan Dam in the late 60s, forced the relocation of many Nubian villages – including Mohammed’s. The locals resisted valiantly, but inevitably the waters of Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser’s dream swallowed up their villages. They had no choice but to resettle on the virgin high ground at the newly re-built Wadi Halfa and beyond.

One of Egypt’s ancient treasures, Abu Simbel, shrine to Ramses II, also had to be swiftly relocated to a hilltop above the dammed area.

Mountain tops that Mohammed used to stare up at are now his greatest challenge below the water. He has ploughed this route for 40 years now, 25 as Rais.

One passenger recounts that every passage except one has been a success. About two years ago the Sakelniam ran aground in the shallows close to Wadi Halfa. Rumour has it that Mohammed and the captain had fallen asleep after a challenging journey. Regardless, channel markers have now been put in place.

The ferry keeps a fair pace as it heads up river, its diesel engines covering all on deck in a sooty film.

The prisoners remain out of site, but not out of mind. The word is that they are South Sudanese men being relocated to their new country.

They are among 570 passengers crammed into the boat’s hold, spilling out onto to its decks. Passengers certainly outnumber the capacity of the lifeboats on the Sakelniam.

Many on board are Sudanese traders, carrying anything from car suspension to flat-screen televisions, desperate to avoid customs duties at the upcoming port.

Mild-mannered men moonlight as black market money changers, offering three Sudanese pounds for one US dollar –the official rate is 2.7.

The bulk of Mohammed’s passengers travel second class or on the ship’s deck, where the disadvantage of daytime temperatures nearing 50-degrees Celsius give way to a bearable nocturnal existence. There is little need for shelter top side because rain is the exception rather than the rule in this desert region.

The ship’s first class sleeping cabins are out of reach for most Sudanese. They are only ‘first class’ in comparison with conditions on the rest of the ship, offering a bed and relative privacy.

Back in the real world down below, people flow into every conceivable space to sleep, marking their territory with masses of luggage and strategically placed infants. Single men and women are segregated rigorously.

Despite allegedly being air-conditioned; the hold is armpit humid. The limited numbers of squat toilets simply can’t cope with the mass of humanity aboard, only used on a need-to-go basis.

South-north tensions lie just under the surface in the cramped conditions. For south Sudanese travelling from Egypt, this ferry is one of the only options to return to their new country – through the belligerent north.

Northerners and southerners sit close to each other, but mix reluctantly. A fight breaks out between two women, the fists fly, quick-fire slaps are landed, hair is pulled, and the whole cabin is involved in breaking it up. There are suggestions that it kicked off because of north-south animosity, although no one wants to expand on this line of thought.

One Sudanese Arab says he is glad the “niggers” from the south have left. His tone is defensive; he seems almost hurt that they would want their own country. The loss of valuable oil lands to the south dwell heavily on his mind. He ponders his family’s future.

The partition is raw and the peace dangles timidly here, as it does on the tense border areas a monumental distance away to the south.

Regardless, as he has for the past 25 years, Mohammed successfully navigates the boat to its destination. As sweaty porters dressed in rags run onto the ship to unload the commerce, perhaps Mohammed is already pondering the return journey to Egypt in a few days. North to Egypt, south to Sudan – repeat.

This is the north-south reality that Nubian Mohammed has to deal with in his life.  

Steve Madgwick