young Rashaida girl ... always careful to cover her
lower nose and mouth in the company of those outside
ISO: 100, Flash: On, 20.0mm, 1/200 sec, f/6.7
2003 – Khartoum, Sudan
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
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
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:
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
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.
switched to digital using the Canon D60, my lenses include
Canon 70-200L 2.8, Canon 28-135 IS, Canon 20mm