The last blog entry mentioned that in the area of the Blue Nile in which Sir Samuel Baker was traveling in 1861 there had been extensive stands of dry land bamboo, and that in the early 1990’s I was part of a team that went to the area to conduct a rapid assessment of forest resources and agroforestry practices, particularly in relation to bamboo.
Following our surveys along the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, during which we identified stands of the arid-lands bamboo Oxytenanthera abyssinica, we traveled overland to el-Obeid in western Sudan, which is located at about the same longitude.
Several years before I had participated in an environmental-agroforestry-agricultural project in the area that had to close down prematurely because of the military coup in the country. So it was a pleasure to return, to greet old Sudanese friends and colleagues, and to travel in the region south of el-Obeid in Kazgail Rural Council, where we had worked, and where now we were looking for stands that might contain the same arid-land bamboo found along the Sudan-Ethiopian border.
Massive amounts of wood and woody products are harvested in the South and taken towards el-Obeid and thence NE to Khartoum, and I remembered that a large percentage of these products were bamboo. We wanted to know where, exactly, the products were coming from – where were the stands, to assess them and identify the bamboo and related species.
To backtrack a moment:
The project in which I had previously participated had two large components – the first being agroforestry-agriculture (which I directed in conjunction with my Sudanese counterpart and our team) and the second being remote sensing-mapping of the area in order to develop forest inventory maps.
Both were training-oriented – I worked with our multidisciplinary Sudanese team in training techniques for use in conducting rapid assessments of village agriculture, agroforestry, socio-economic, and related activities, while the second component, led by remote sensing specialists, trained Sudanese counterparts in developing vegetation maps using GIS and GPS technologies.
As far as we were aware, ours was the first effort to begin to coordinate socio-economic data with a remote sensing inventory of biophysical features – in this case, forestry and agroforestry resources, to be incorporated into 1:100,000 and 1:250,000 image base maps.
More on all of this in other entries; it was a most interesting and rewarding project.
Traveling south through our old project area, we discussed bamboo with inhabitants and merchants – where were bamboo products coming from, quantities, and so forth. Eventually, this led us to Jebel al-Dayr, which is a rather amazing small mountain that literally thrusts itself out of miles and miles of flatness. We were told that it was the closest source of bamboo and that most of the bamboo trafficked North came from the Jebel (meaning ‘hill’ or ‘mountain’ in Arabic).
We were amazed – actually stunned, because this was the area of our mapping – Jebel al-Dair. However, because of the need to close out the project after the military coup, the ground survey and socio-economic surveys could not be done in this area.
It is difficult to describe the region because it is so unique. Imagine, a small village with mud dubbed houses and a tiny market clustered at the base of a very high and extremely steep small mountain. All is dry, hot (over 40 degrees), and as it is the summer – there are no crops, only the odd Acacia senegal and other trees and brush in the area.Village houses in the project area, made of sorghum stocks or branches that may be plastered over with smooth mud. Source: SRAAD-Kazgail Procedures Manuel.
We learned that gathering bamboo from the mountain had become an important source of income for inhabitants, but that because of over-exploitation only the hardiest of the younger men were able to collect the bamboo.
The trip up the mountain would begin at first light, with the young men carrying a knife for cutting and a rope for tying the bamboo. The stands now were so high up the mountain that it took at least four hours of hard climbing to reach them, and then after several hours spent in cutting and bundling, the men would hasten back to the village to arrive before dark.
Due to difficult climbing conditions accidents frequently occurred – often resulting in a broken arm or leg. However, due to increasing shortages of wood products, prices for bamboo were rising and so the risks were considered worth taking.
Other sources of income, short of labor migration, were – and continue to be – scarce. Due to the extensive droughts of the 1980s, many of the Acacia senegal trees that produced gum Arabic – the prior main money-earner – had been killed and those remaining had not yet fully recovered. Thus, harvesting of other forest products was increasingly a major money earner.
The loss of forest biomass due to extensive and uncontrolled harvesting is now a major problem not only in the Sahel, but throughout Tropical Africa.
We learned these and other facts from locals while we stayed there, enjoying local cuisine and hospitality. Since sorghum is the major crop our meals consisted primarily of either kisra – a flat bread made of fermented sorghum dough, or asida, a stiff, fermented porridge made of sorghum flour. Both are served with a sauce, and while we were there the most common sauce was made of dried okra with pepper, salt, and sometimes a bit of meat.
The okra had been dried after the cropping season by hanging on strings around the homes. The resulting okra is very good – tangy, without the ‘gluiness’ that is common in fresh okra dishes.
Depending on the season, other ingredients used to make the sauces include tomatoes, onions, mulukhiyyah (a green plant much-loved in Egypt and Sudan but seldom appreciated by foreigners – it has a slimy quality similar to okra), and other vegetables that might be available.
Diets in this and similar semi-arid regions on the Sudan tend to be fairly monotonous during the dry season, with sorghum products predominating. Now, of course, improved transport is bringing in canned goods such as tomato paste, maize flour, and wheat flour. But for the poor these may not be an option.
We had brought large supplies of tea, coffee, and sugar as gifts and these were greatly appreciated.
The bamboo stands of Jebel Dair were indeed the same variety of Oxytenanthera abyssinica that we had identified a few weeks earlier in the Blue Nile region. Further research and discussions with colleagues in other Sahelian countries to the West confirmed that this species could be found – generally in isolated pockets of hilly regions – all the way to Senegal.
In the report that we wrote for NAS-BOSTID (National Academy of Sciences, Board on Science and Technology for International Development), we therefore reported the existence of a band of Oxytenanthera abyssinica that can be found stretching from the Ethiopian border across to the Atlantic Ocean, and which parallels the Acacia band already well known to exist along this area (see map above).
However, we advised that no coordinated work had been done on this bamboo, its ecological setting, or socio-economic links. As well, that following the drought of the 1980s and subsequent extensive mining of bamboo in the Sudan – and presumably throughout the area where it occurs – there was a risk its ultimate demise.
We therefore advised BOSTID to support further applied research on the topic, which did take place with additional assistance from the Ford Foundation, the International Foundation, the US Geological Survey and others.
Colleagues from the Kenya Forestry Research Institute and the Sudan Forests National Corporation, together with other partners in the Horn of Africa, participated in the training that was organized as a follow-up to this trip. The training involved the same techniques that we had used in the Sudan (GPS, GIS and biophysical-socioeconomic ground assessments). The program was conducted in the Lake Naivasha Watershed in Kenya, which is another story of great interest.