In 1988 I became COP (Chief of Party) of the field component of a large natural resource management project in Western Sudan that was funded by USAID (US Agency for International Development). Situated south of el-Obeid, the project was to address issues of deforestation and environmental degradation, together with training of Sudanese staff both in community-based approaches to these issues as well as training in GIS and GPS applied methodologies.
Our major focus was on the the vast area of Acacia senegal* stands of the region, which for millennia had provided inhabitants with a rich source of products – primarily gum arabic – and related income. As well, these hashab trees, as they are called locally, are important nitrogen fixers in the rather impoverished soils of the area and provide both fodder and fuel wood.
- Acacia senegal has been renamed and is now known as Senegalia senegal. There are several other Acacia species that are similarly important in the Sahel, including S. sayel
I headed training and research in the rural areas together with developing data on agroforestry practices, while for the remote sensing training and research, we had excellent staff from USGS (United States Geological Service) and several other institutions who came out for training missions of several weeks at a time throughout the months that we were there.
As far as we knew, this was the first project to attempt integration of socio-economic data within a GIS (geospatial; biological) framework.
More information on the project, and on a later slice of work in Sudan (this time with dry land bamboo) can be found here: Sorghum ‘Stew’ and Dry Land Bamboo – Adventures with GPS in the Sudan
A Military Coup and What Followed:
Then came the military coup in 1989, and our work was briefly placed on hold, as everyone awaited the results of the coup: would the new government agree to foreigners ‘wandering’ about in the hinterlands of N. Kordofan Provence, with sophisticated GIS tracking equipment, and working systematically with local villagers to assess environmentally based problems and opportunities? For reasons that are still not quite clear to me, the answer was – Yes – we could continue our work.
However, since the U.S. Government does not support projects in countries in which there are no free elections following a coup, the answer from USAID was ‘No‘ – but we were given about a six-month grace period during which it was hoped that elections would take place and we could continue our 5-year project.
We had many adventures during those months of waiting, which I will write about another time. Now, merely to say that as time passed – due to structural changes in the government and the economy – daily consumer goods gradually disappeared from the markets and soon tea, sugar, oil and other basic items were not available. It was indeed a bad time.
We all became somewhat despondent – though the team continued in relatively good cheer with regard to our project work. So when November came, I went into Khartoum with my driver – about a 12 hour trip following sand-tracks – with the aim of purchasing items from the U.S. Embassy store for a Thanksgiving feast for the Sudanese staff, which numbered about 20 persons (I had become by then the only non-Sudanese on the project – in fact, the only non-Sudanese in the area).
In the embassy store, I selected the largest frozen turkey I could find, together with items such as tea, sugar, coffee, flour, Crisco (lard), tomato paste, stuffing cubes, some premixed cakes, and so forth – all of the things that had disappeared from the markets – as well as some that were typically American.
Then, with the help of the hotel in Khartoum in which I was staying, we surrounded the turkey in great amounts of ice and wrapped it in gunny sacks. So the driver and I returned to el-Obeid, where I put the turkey in the freezer of the nearby agricultural research station.
“We Need to Talk”
However, before Thanksgiving I noticed that staff were hovering in corners talking, and ceasing their conversation on my passing them. On Thanksgiving morning all of the women came to my house, which had a very big oven and stove, and we set about a massive cooking and baking routine.
But before, my Sudanese counterpart told me that the team wanted to have a meeting. There it came out, that relatives of our agricultural economist who lived at the research station (who was a member of our team) came to visit him, and not finding him at home – and being hungry – had found the huge turkey in the freezer. Never having seen a bird so big, they were fascinated and so took a hatchet and cut off one of the frozen legs to cook, putting the rest of the turkey back in the freezer.
When this was discovered, the agricultural economist discussed with team members what they could do – to repair the damage (hence the whispering meetings here and there). The best ideas that I recall included the following:
- Find the largest chicken possible and suture on one of its legs
- Cut a wooden leg the same size and attach it
Well, of course none of these would really work and so the whole story came out – and then we all had a wonderful laugh at the thought of a turkey with a wooden leg, etc; the story was so funny, that it became a tale all around the town of el-Obeid (‘the American turkey with a wooden leg,’ etc, etc).
So, cooking went on all day – and in the evening we had a huge feast and I had been sure to buy enough tea and sugar that each person could take a little home. As I remember, we had also a huge fish, baked and stuffed, and we also had a variety of local dishes – sorghum-based ‘asida porridge and accompanying vegetable sauces. I made the cake-mix cakes, which were a great hit.
It was a most successful highlight during those grim, post-coup months – and is the kind of event that, I think, Thanksgiving should be all about.