Travel to 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. See "Irrigation in Sudan Since Independence" for a dated (late 1980s) but detailed review.
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.
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.
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.
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." As the plaque states, the engineer in charge of the dam's construction was Murdoch McDonald, an eminent figure of the 1920s.
The main canal, near Wad Medani.
A branch canal.
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.
A night-storage weir.
Guiding a tongue of water onto a field.
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.
The water sinks deep into the black soil, which when dry cracks into miniature chasms that await the next irrigation.
One such natural fissure, opening as the soil dries.
Removal of water-weeds from a branch canal. The workers are southern Sudanese, recruited to do a job that the scheme's tenants shun, lest they contract schistosomiasis.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There hasn't been any investment in rolling stock for a long, long time.
An old engine leaks steam at the Sennar yard.
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.
Boys stayed on the right.
This was a no-nonsense teacher, working under conditions that teachers elsewhere might consider simply impossible.
Another group of girls.
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 a long 30 miles away, on the left bank of the While Nile. The first principal was V. L. Griffith, 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.
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