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Searching for the Rashaida of Northeastern Sudan
written by Mark Pelletier


A young Rashaida girl ... always careful to cover her lower nose and mouth in the company of those outside her family: ISO: 100, Flash: On, 20.0mm, 1/200 sec, f/6.7

 

July 2003 – Khartoum, Sudan

The Rashaida nomadic tribe of northeastern Sudan, seldom photographed, fiercely independent, wary of strangers, and only an eight-hour land journey from the capital city of Khartoum. I had been anxious to find the time away from work to spend one or two days in the northeast to see them and to try to photograph them. I say "try to photograph them" as they will usually decline any request to be photographed, even by locals. This July my wife, our friend Isam and I were able to get away from our commitments in Khartoum and head out to see them. Finding the Rashaida would be easy, photographing them would be another story.

Like most nomads, where they call home is entirely dependent on the season and the duration of the rains. As the rains had arrived the Rashaida had began their biannual migration from Gadarif to Kassala. With all our travel documents processed and government clearances received, we gathered our equipment and supplies and headed east toward the Red Sea.


Shepherd boy and flock by the side of the road while en route: 28.0-135.0mm @ 28.0mm, 1/90 sec, f/13.0, ISO: 100, Flash: External E-TTL

 

The plan was to leave in the early afternoon after work and spend the night at the halfway point in a city called Gadarif. The road to Kassala is a good one by African standards, nicely paved and relatively straight. Once out of the cluttered traffic of Khartoum our paved road followed the southeast course of the Blue Nile. We often saw barges ferrying villagers and their animals to islands on the Nile. At the trading town of Wad Medani we broke away from the Blue Nile and headed east toward the Red Sea. From this point on only irrigation schemes and the occasional view of a young shepherd tending his flock broke the monotony of the landscape.

We spent the night at a hotel in Gadarif, a real fancy one in the center of town. One of the more memorable moments was negotiating our room price at the front desk while huge portraits of the hotel owner in his Mujahadeen military uniform stared down at us from above the counter. Room rate negotiations were quick, as under the watchful eye of the owner’s portrait we were hesitant to bargain hard. Anxious to see the Rashaida and avoid the hotel owner, we were off at 7:00 am the next morning.

 


Nomads on the move as they migrate toward Kassala: 28-135mm @ 135.0mm, 1/60 sec, f/19.0, ISO: 100, Flash: Off

 

Along the route we saw the Rashaida moving their camels north as they followed the rain. The Rashaida are known for their brightly colored turbans (or emmas) and their colored robes (dashdashas). These garments are the only colored dress in Sudan. All other traditional outfits worn by others are white. The Rashaida are closely related to the Saudi Arabia Bedouin, who migrated to Sudan from the Arabian Peninsula about 150 years ago.

Kassala is located at the foot of Kassala Mountain on the Gash River and serves as the state capital, the market center, and the rail transport hub. It was founded in 1840 as a military camp for the troops of Muhammad Ali during his conquest of Sudan. Kassala was captured again by the Mahdists in 1885 and by the Italians in 1894.



Young Rashaida men practicing sword fighting: 20mm @ 2.06mm, 1/60 sec, f/4.0, ISO: 200, Flash: External E-TTL, Flash

 

Just outside Kassala we passed through our last but most thorough checkpoint. At the checkpoint our papers were scrutinized and after several minutes we were allowed to enter the city. Security is tight in Kassala, due to its proximity to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Kassala often serves as a staging point for armed rebellions supported by the neighboring regimes. It is not uncommon to see land cruiser pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns tooling around town. We first needed to settle into a hotel so we checked into the Hipton, the finest hotel in Kassala. As this is the best hotel in town, we were given a wide variety of options when checking in. We are given the choice of a room with an air cooler (like an A/C but much less cool) and a western style toilet, or a room with an eastern style toilet (squatting required) with a modern air conditioner. The choice was either coolness or bathroom comfort. After much discussion, and despite the desert heat, we opted for bathroom comfort over coolness.

Finally, by late afternoon we headed out of town toward the desert to find the Rashaida. Again we had to clear our departure from the town with another stop at a security checkpoint. Our papers were again checked and rechecked while we waited by the roadside until given the all clear. We then left the paved road and headed into the desert toward the random goat skinned tents which dotted the landscape. We approached with our 4wd as quietly as possible so as not to spook the camels feeding and resting by the tents. At the first set of tents, Rashaida women and children cautiously stepped out of their tents to stare at the curious strangers who had just appeared uninvited.

 


Rashaida woman and child: 28.0-135.0mm @ 75.0mm, 1/200 sec, f/9.5, ISO: 100, Flash: External E-TTL, Flash exp comp: -1/2

 

Although I was anxious to hop out of the vehicle and start taking pictures immediately, I waited patiently in the truck as our guide Isam went to greet the clan. The initial approach to a family or clan should appear as benign as possible and must be handled delicately. We were glad that the men of the household were present so that we could seek permission from them to photograph the clan. After the formal greetings, we gained permission from the clan leader to visit his family. After greetings and introductions we then asked the clan leader if we could begin to take some photos. Thankfully, we were given permission. I wanted to start taking out all my gear and start shooting seriously, but thought better of it. I reasoned it was better to start taking pictures slowly with just a few snapshots here and there until the family became more comfortable having us around. Showing them the snapshots on the back of the digital camera helped ease much of the awkwardness.

 


Rashaida boy with camels at market: 20.0mm, 1/180 sec, f/8.0, ISO: 100, Flash: Off

 

Eventually I wanted to use a 20mm wide-angle lens and this which would require me to get very very close to their faces. I knew that in order to be able to get that close, it might take some time to gain their trust. Just as I thought the family was warming up to us our guide Isam whispers to me that the clan leader has just left and it would not be proper to continue photographing the women without the clan leader present. We were disappointed and assumed we must have crossed a line or violated the clan leader's trust in some way. Perhaps we were too forward or aggressive, we were not really sure. We said our goodbyes to the family and headed to the nearby camel market. Hopefully later we would find another family or clan that would allow a longer and more in-depth visit.

While heading back to our truck after visiting the camel market, to our suprise, we were approached by the clan chief from our earlier visit. In typical Arab fashion he graciously invited us to camp by his tent if we did not have a place to stay that night. I immediately imagined the photographic possibilities of camping next door to Rashaida nomads as the sun goes down in the desert. My wife however is not a fan of camping in the desert amongst camels and preferred that we kept our reservation with the nice folks back at the Hipton. Thus we declined, but we did request another visit the following day to have tea in his tent with his family. I hoped that a second visit to the same clan would lend itself to a more relaxed environment and would allow for more photography. I suggest 5:30 pm as the light will begin to develop its warm glow in the desert. Our friend, the clan leader, agrees and we parted ways for the night.



Rashaida girls 28.0-135 mm @ 135mm, 1/60 sec, f/5.6, ISO: 100, Flash: External E-TTL

 


Young Rashaida married couple 20.0mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6, ISO: 100, Flash: External E-TTL, Flash exp comp: -1/2

 

Thankfully my wife brought the video camera, which acted as an unbelievably handy distraction. While 20 or 30 children of the clan screamed, struggled, and vied for video time with my wife, I was allowed relative peace with the adults. The adults, old and young, were gracious and kind and allowed me to get close-up portraits. However one older woman, who was completely veiled, did refuse permission but all others were agreeable. Most were shy at first, but with the ability to view the photo on the back of the digital camera immediately, they became relaxed quickly. In fact, knowing about their reclusiveness beforehand, I was frankly surprised at their willingness to be photographed.

 


Rashaida girl: 20.0mm, 1/60 sec, f/4.0, ISO: 200, Flash: External E-TTL, Flash exp comp: -1 1/2

 

Young Rashaida girls begin to cover their mouth and lower nose at about eight years old. The Rashaida believe that for modesty's sake the lower nose and mouth must be covered at all times. Despite their modesty they seemed to really enjoy being photographed. It was amazing to me that even with their mouth hidden, a smile can easily be noticed; their eyes revealed much.

 


Nomadic camp with Jebel (Mt) Kassala as a backdrop: , 20.0mm, 1/60 sec, f/4.5, ISO: 200, Flash: Off

 

The Rashaida are herdsmen, breeding primarily goats and sheep. Since they are largely illiterate, they memorize in great detail the pedigree of their animals, keeping mental records of their herds over seven or eight preceding generations of the flock. Their lives are simple, moving twice yearly to follow the rains and an occasional trip to Saudi Arabia to purchase goods. The Rashaida men try to avoid paying the mandatory duty (taxes) on goods brought into the country and thus are frequently at odds with the local government officials.

 


Rashaida preparing sorghum and camel milk for dinner: 20.0mm, 1/60 sec, f/4.0, ISO: 200, Flash: External E-TTL, Flash exp comp: -2

 

After the sun went down we reluctantly packed our things, said goodbye to our gracious and kind hosts, and headed back to our hotel with the beloved western style facilities.

Mark, along with his wife who hates camping in the desert next to nomads, resides in Khartoum.

Short Bio: My wife and I have been traveling Africa for the past four years, actually two weeks after our honeymoon we moved to Ethiopia. From there we have lived in Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Sudan.

Before I met my wife Beth I had lived and photographed in Zaire (now DRC), Ghana, and Uganda.

I have switched to digital using the Canon D60, my lenses include Canon 70-200L 2.8, Canon 28-135 IS, Canon 20mm L 2.8.

markpelletierphotography.com