A Journey to Photograph the Nomads of Northern Sudan
By: Mark Pelletier
Young girl waits at the well.
Canon D60, 70-200mm @ 200mm, 1/750 sec, f/5.6, ISO: 100, Flash: Off
Thursday, 30 January, 2003 – Khartoum, Sudan
Three hours north of the capital city of Khartoum lays a well that is 45 meters deep and is used by nomads living in the area to water their animals. For the past 18 months I have wanted to find the time to head out there and camp by the well for a night. I was eager to shoot nomads using the well in the wonderful early evening and early morning light, and finally that day arrived.
Shepherd waters his flock at the well.
Canon D60 and 20mm L lens, 1/200 sec, f/5.6, ISO: 100, Flash: External E-TTL
I need to be out of the city by 2:30 pm if we are to make it to the well by 5:30 pm and catch good light. I leave the office early, at 2:00 pm, and pick up Isam our guide and my wife, who dislikes camping. I pack our (my) camping gear, a D60, lenses, laptop, 1 gig worth of Lexar memory cards, 8 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Coke, water, a bag of dates, a bag of local string cheese, and 3 Kit Kats …. and at long last we leave the city. Isam our guide and a trusted friend whom I have known for some time helped to secure travel permits the week before and will also help to make friendly with the nomads while I take pictures.
Nomad on camel returning from well
Canon D60 with 28-135mm @ 28.0mm, 1/200 sec, f/11, ISO: 100, Flash: External E-TTL
Although the well is 3 hours north of the city and the civil war is hundreds of km to the south, any travel by foreigners requires a lengthy travel permit process which entails many rubber stamps and official looking signatures.
Nomadic woman returning from the well.
28-135mm @ 28.0mm, Subject dist: 0.47m, 1/200 sec, f/8.0 ISO: 100, , Flash: External E-TTL
Thirty minutes out of the city we approach the military checkpoint and Isam presents our travel permits. The soldiers are polite and smile, take down our registration number and the time, and wave us through. In front of us is 160 km of fairly smooth paved road. The first 160 km would be fairly easy, except for the buses and trucks which frequently and mind numbingly pass and merge into oncoming traffic, then we take a hard right into the desert. The scenery along the tarmac road, that parallels the Nile one kilometer to the east, is magnificent with green farms on the side closest to the Nile and all sand and mud homes on the other. At the 160 km mark we veer off onto desert tracks. We begin to see mountains to the north and goats dotting the landscape all around. Twenty minutes on the desert tracks and we see a small group of nomads returning to their huts after visiting the well. We veer off the sandy track and head out to meet them. After a few minutes of “Salam ma Lakum” (may God grant you peace) and other friendly greetings, Isam gives me the green light to start taking photos. I take about 20 shots of the women and children on their donkeys and the men on their camels but am anxious to get to the well as it is approaching 5 pm.
Young nomadic girl at the well.
20.0 mm Subject dist: 0.55m, 1/90 sec, f/5.6, ISO: 100, Flash: Off
Finally at the well and the smell of camel dung is overpowering, yet the light is good, the heat is bearable, and the D60 batteries are fully charged. My goal in situations like this is to shoot so much that the novelty of a strange guy taking pictures of them will wear off. Hopefully then they will become less self-conscious, continue working, and begin treating me only as an annoying pest or at best invisible. Generally, I will start with my 70 - 200L on a tripod, then move closer with the 28 -135 IS, and finally by the time they are truly bored with me I'll use my 20mm. I try my best to stay out of the way for there is much work to be done at the well.
Bringing water up at the well
Canon 20 mm, Subject dist: 0.55m, 1/125 sec, f/6.7, ISO: 100, Flash: Off
Typically the head of the household will bring his own rope and pulley to the well, two of the very few possessions the family owns. He will drop an animal hide bag down into the well and after he hears it splash in the water he will jostle it until if fills completely. A rope is tied to their camel or donkey and the animal, with a small boy or girl guiding it, will walk the equivalent depth horizontally in order to pull the water-filled bag out of the well. They then begin to fill their containers to take home and alternately fill troughs for watering the animals.
Using his camel to help bring up water at the well.
70-200mm @ 180.0mm, Subject dist: 5.12m, 1/500 sec, f/4.5, ISO: 100, Flash: Off
The sun is beginning to set, my wife is looking bored, and I have filled all my memory cards, so we hop back in the Toyota and take off to make camp before we loose all available light. We search for a campsite where the sand is not too deep and the trees are near enough to use in moments of required privacy, but far enough away so that moment of privacy is truly private. In search of this perfect spot we only get stuck in the sand once, and a quick hub lock and shift into 4 wheel drive and we are out again.
70-200mm @ 200.0mm1/60 sec, f/2.8, ISO: 100, Flash: Off
We make camp and put up the tents as darkness descends. After we are settled, I strap on my headlamp and start downloading images from the memory cards onto the laptop. I am aware that with the headlamp, laptop, fumbling with Lexar cards, and mumbling to myself in the middle of the desert I must really look like a geek, but I am in the middle of nowhere so I am confident no one will notice. When all is downloaded correctly, there were several scares in trying to write images to the laptop, but in the end the Lexar media cards preformed well. I set up the laptop on a chair and show my wife and the guide a slide show of the day’s photos and then after peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we call it a night.
During the night, the desert winds really pick up, causing the tent to flap so violently that it is impossible to sleep. My wife continues her grumble about the wind, the lack of toilet facilities, and her belief that there is a tremendous likelihood that we will be carried off by nomadic thieving bandits, never to be seen again. In an attempt to block the wind I get up, move the truck in front of the tent and settle back in the tent for a long uncomfortable night.
The next morning we rise at 7 am hoping to catch a beautiful sunrise and are rewarded with a great one. Not long after I begin to shoot the sunrise, two 7-year old’ish girls appear out of nowhere. Through our translator they request us to fill the small jugs they are carrying with diesel fuel from our fuel tank. I can only imagine that the diesel fuel would be used for some sort of cooking device, but really do not know for sure.
These young girls approach us in the early morning to request diesel fuel.
70-200mm @ 200.0mm, Subject dist: 5.12m, 1/20 sec, f/2.8, ISO: 100, Flash: Off
Word travels remarkably fast in the middle of the desert. During the night nomads for miles around probably heard that some hwadja's (white men) were camping out in the area. Very early that morning these young girls were likely sent off to get fuel from the hwadja's. Ultimately we did not have any fuel to give as we had no external fuel containers and no hose long enough to reach the internal tank.
Around 8 am, after packing up, we head off to the well to try to catch nomads using the well in the early morning light. No luck, we arrive at a well with no one there! As some of the world’s most outstanding ruins are only 100 yards away, we spend the next few hours examining the ruins (always with an eye on the well) and taking photos. The ruins are the remnants of the ancient Merowotic kingdom from 400-300 BC.
Our guide and friend Isam at the ancient ruins
Around 10 am, with no nomads at the well, we drive off in search off nomadic camps…any place we can still get great photos while the light is still good. Six kilometers down the sandy track we approach a homestead….. 3 or 4 huts that make for a nomads home. Isam does his routine and makes friendly with everyone. Thankfully, they give us the OK to visit with them.
In the first hut we come across an older woman, her 20-year-old daughter, and her 3-month-old baby. As we enter their hut there is that initial moment of awkwardness caused by entering uninvited into a family's most private space.
Elderly women in home.
Canon 28-135mm @ 100.0mm1/60 sec, f/5.6, ISO: 100, Flash: External E-TTL
However, I am very aware that opportunities like this are rare for amateur photographers… to be in a nomad’s hut in the middle of the desert armed with a D60. This is a one in a million opportunity, so I try to be as pleasant and kind as possible. I know that the first few shots are critical, and if I should play it wrong and snap away too quickly in all likelihood I could cross some line that I am not aware of and be immediately kicked out of the home. I am acutely aware that I am in a Muslim male dominated society where it is likely that I should not even be in the same room with a female of their clan, never mind taking photos. My aim in these cramped quarters is to smile a lot, try one or two harmless shots, turn the camera around quickly so that they see the photo just taken on the LCD screen, watch their face light up as they see their tiny photo at the back of the camera (thank God for digital), and then start shooting in a much more relaxed environment. It works. After they see themselves, they smile, relax and really begin to enjoy the experience.
New mom in her traditional home and attire.
Canon 28-135mm @ 85.0mm 1/60 sec, f/5.6, ISO: 100, Flash: External E-TTL
As the mom and her 20-year-old daughter begin to warm up to the lens, a small kink occurs as I try to take photos of the small 3-month-old infant lying in a bundle at the end of the bed. As I direct my camera toward the young child, both the grandmother and the mom get excited and place their hands in such a way that an idiot knows they are saying “don’t do that”. When asked the reason, it is explained as “the evil eye syndrome”. I have come across it occasionally and have never been able to completely make sense of it. In this instance it means that the camera could give the evil eye to the baby, and that in any culture is not considered good. I certainly do not want to cause a new mom any undue stress, so I do not even attempt a shot of the infant.
As we are exiting the hut the clan’s old, kind, fragile leader approaches us and asks us to please stay for tea.
For Arabs, especially nomadic Arabs, one would not even think about refusing hospitality, EVER. The thought that someone might be in too much of a hurry and refuse an offer of tea is incomprehensible to a nomad. Without any hesitation we sit down outside the hut for tea. The first few minutes of discussion always revolve around the amount of sugar one needs and why we only want a teaspoon of sugar rather than the accustomed half a glass. (On occasion, at tea rest stops along the road I have refused sugar and they happily oblige and serve the tea, but refuse to charge someone for a tea without sugar). The discussion continues around the weather, the land, their crops, and the condition of their animals.
Woman with her young child.
Canon 28-135mm @ 135.0mm 1/90 sec, f/5.6, ISO: 100, Flash: External E-TTL
After 50 minutes, 50 more raw files, and two cups of tea later, we beg leave and take off. Three hours later we arrive in Khartoum.
© 2003 Mark Pelletier
Mark Pelletier and his wife have been living in Khartoum, Sudan for the past 18 months. He assists in managing health programs. They have lived in Africa for 4 years and have also lived in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. Mostly due to the ease of publishing pictures on the web he says he has switched from a Canon 1n to a D60 and "has been thrilled with the results".
Mark, along with his wife who hates camping, resides in Khartoum.
Another fascinating look at The Sudan by Mark Pelletier can be found here.