The re-opening of the Nile Basin
[ places - march 04 ]
Aged 63, Donato Dut is seven years older than Rumbek Secondary, the school in southern Sudan where he works as the bellman.
Like many educated southerners, he studied as a boy at the Catholic seminary, a passport to the priesthood, until he succumbed to the coils of desire and family life.
But the bishop of Rumbek arranged for Donato to be trained to look after the school's Lister, the Morris Minor of power generators and one of Britain's more valuable legacies to the colony it abandoned in 1956.
Since the engine was stolen by the government troops who used the school as a barracks during Sudan's civil war, he has brought the same kind of precision to his new job as timekeeper.
Every day, an ornamental wall-clock, wrapped in plastic, ticks by his side as Donato surveys the quadrangle and marks the end of class with the bell.
Nothing could be more serene, or reassuring.
As buzzards creak and wheel, sweepers rearrange the sand in the courtyard and a breeze stirs in the mango trees, planted long ago for shade. From bungalow classrooms, arranged in a square, float the muffled chants of learning.
But Donato and his clock hark back to happier times for what was once the Eton of southern Sudan, the "glorious days" as one present teacher told me. Unwittingly, I had been part of them.
Twenty five years earlier, I had answered an advert in The Guardian for graduates to teach in Sudan. Despite the best efforts of officials in Khartoum, I obtained permission to fly south to the African part of the country which, at the end of 16 years of brutal civil war, had won what would prove to be a temporary autonomy.
After two weeks of obfuscation in Juba, a sweltering sprawl on the banks of the Nile, the education officer instructed me to hitch a ride in any direction and only descend when I came to a school that suited me.
After three more days in a Kenyan relief lorry, we groaned into the outskirts of what was to become my home for the next 12 months. This was Rumbek, a town engulfed by dung-fire smoke and dappled with neem shadows, at the geographical centre of the southern cult of cattle worship.
As I wrestled with my baggage in the cabin light, a gentleman with ragged clothes and ravaged teeth tottered in my direction.
"You're coming back," he exclaimed, "you British are coming back?" Twenty-three years after independence, he had mistaken me for the advance guard of a re-colonialisation.
Britain built Rumbek school in 1948 to train an African elite to rule over a southern Sudan that it fully intended to separate from the Moslem north. The first secondary school in a region as large as Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi combined, it is still cherished as the cradle of southern education - though it could just as easily be offered as a measure of Britain's colonial neglect.
Nonetheless, its geometry of sturdy buildings imposes a rare sense of order on the surrounding landscape of thorn and brush that the local Dinka tribe calls toc. No doubt, that was the impression the British wished to convey as their work crews quarried stone and hewed mahogany to build classrooms, dormitories, chapels - and to lay the foundations of a new African and Christian state.
Culturally, southern Sudan belongs with Uganda: indeed, just as half my pupils were orphans from Idi Amin's regime, so 225,000 southerners have escaped the current civil war to live in Uganda. Explaining to them, as the syllabus required, the humour of the Oscar Wilde jest - "To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness" - went way beyond my teaching skills.
Seven years after Rumbek school was opened, Whitehall abruptly dropped its plans for an independent south in the rush to be rid of what had never been a very profitable colony. More even than the discovery of oil in the south in the 1980s, it was this snap judgement that created the conditions for the civil war that has raged for nearly half a century, qualifying it as the longest in Africa's history.
My first visit in 1979 had coincided with the only intermission in that conflict, a nine-year period when the south was allowed to rule itself, with Juba as its capital. In my recollection, they were far from the "glorious days", in the teacher's phrase, though they must appear so in retrospect to Sudanese.
Since the war resumed in 1983, two million southerners are believed to have died as a result of direct military action, avoidable famine, inter-tribal fighting or faction wars caused by splits in the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the largest rebel movement. A further four million have been displaced, either by fighting or the loss of their herds, and live in ghettoes in northern cities.
As well as their love of cattle - and great height - the Dinka are remarkable for believing that the world was 'spoiled' long ago, possibly a reference to the slave raids that became a feature of their lives centuries ago and continued throughout the civil war. When I asked a herder about the war, he replied briefly, "Cidhul ping", a catch-all phrase that, according to the translator, means "it's all ruined, killed, dishonoured, dispersed".
My second visit 25 years later came just as the SPLA and the government are hammering out the final details of a peace agreement that will provide for southern independence after a referendum in six years time. An air of worried anticipation was mingled with the trauma visible in the faces of almost everyone I met, except for the very young.
Nobody believed that Khartoum could possibly renege on the concessions it had already made to the SPLA - especially with the Bush administration breathing down its neck. But no one was fully convinced of the government's sincerity either at a time when it was busy crushing another rebellion by African Sudanese in the western province of Darfur. By the end of February, 600,000 people had fled the fighting.
I had gone to Rumbek to return a book I stole from the library a quarter of a century before. Cool and crammed with texts on every topic, it was an ideal resort from the afternoon heat, though the headmaster declared it off-limits to students lest they sell its precious contents.
This lighthouse of knowledge, the Google of its time, stood undisturbed - except by me - hoarding its secrets for a better class of student. Across the years, I wondered what happens to libraries in wartime, and to the people who need them when the gunfire stops.
Called The Opening of the Nile Basin, the purloined book contains the diaries of the first missionaries to travel up the White Nile in the 1840s, two decades before Richard Burton and John Speke vied to discover its source. Their doomed faces adorn the cover.
Daniel Comboni, Ignaz Knoblecher, Angelo Vinco and Bartolomaus Mozgan were among the Catholic Livingstones, men in whom the twin urges to evangelise and explore had fused in a climate that could only end in their deaths. Most of the Comboni Fathers, as they are known, died of malaria in the southern swamps, but their mission survives under the Verona Fathers, who had given Donato, the bellman, his first education.
While Donato dozed, I took stock of the scene. I was startled to discover that you can spend a year in a place, be involved in the life of that place, but when you come back after 25 years, it only rings a bell - not a peal of them. I had a glimmer of memory of Rumbek and my life there, but not a flood of images, not a full newsreel.
On first appearance, the school seemed to have suffered little damage though 950 northern soldiers had used it as a barracks and, in 1997, it was the scene of a pitched battle for possession of Rumbek which the SPLA won.
Beyond the stage-set that is the entrance to any school, however, a different story unravelled.
A row of trenches was strung along the perimeter to ward off SPLA attacks. Dormitories and housing for teachers had been demolished to create free-fire zones. A burned-out tank leaned against a classroom wall. Parts of the grounds had been made inaccessible by landmines.
In the past, hundreds of pupils would be rushing to class, but numbers had fallen from 1,200 to 300. Many were well into their 20s, studying a syllabus intended for early teens. Some had been child soldiers, only demobilised by the SPLA as recently as 2000.
"Everyone from the SPLA chairman down has been traumatised in this war," one aid worker had told me, "they all need counselling." Looking at the faces in class, it was easy to agree.
But these students, with troubled pasts and uncertain future, are also the fulfilment of a long-held ambition: a generation of Africans to run an independent south.
Though the walls of Rumbek Secondary survive, the library and its contents had not. Some said it was blown up by the northern garrison, others that it was hit in an air raid.
After 25 years, I was the only person there with any sharp memory of that world of knowledge just out of reach - a local story that must have attained legendary proportions after much erroneous re-telling.
And The Opening of the Nile Basin, the only account of the first journeys into southern Sudan, was the only book from the library to have escaped its destruction.