Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wilfred Thesiger's Cook

In the school holidays at the end of 1985 Rosie and I travelled from Nyala, the capital of South Darfur to El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur repeating in reverse an eventful trip we had made a year and half earlier.

We had visited some sites with rock-paintings on small jebels rising out of the flat dry savanna around Nyala. Although they looked similar to the prehistoric cave-paintings in some areas of Europe, archaeologists in colonial times had dated them (using a European timeframe) to early medieval times and almost certainly hunting records/guides. Our interest in Sahelian history had been sparked and we read as much as we could of the history and archaeology of Darfur, principally through research conducted in colonial times and written up in the academic journal Sudan Notes and Records.

Our aim was to visit Kutum, a town of 45,000 people c. 130 km north-west El-Fasher and then to continue to the oasis of Ain-Farah, perhaps 15 km from Kutum.

Looking back at my journal of that time I noted that ¨Kutum is very pretty, nestling down by a wadi with big shady trees and date palms. Today is one of the two souk [market] days so there are lots of peope sitting and walking around, buying and selling. Very much a rural market.¨

We managed to get rides to and from Ain Farah on Save the Children Fund lorries carrying food aid.

Ain-Farah consists of a jebel, on which the last king of the Tunjur (the tribe still exists) kingdom, Shau Dorshid, had, in medieval times, built a citadel overlooking a still delightful oasis of date palms and sweet springs. Many of the ruins on top of the hill, overlooking the oasis, still exist. We were hot, tired and dusty but still the scale and mode of construction of the palace and mosque (red brick!) held us in awe. The view was astounding - jebels in every direction with wide, open, flat dark and barren spaces in between - to the north Jebel Siro hiding a view of Jebel Uri where Shau Dorshid built another mountain-top palace. On the steep slopes of Ain Farah stone walls and hut circles surrounded the palace.

The legend goes that his subjects got so fed-up with building hill-top palaces for him, they finished him off.

We returned to Kutum and sitting in the souk drinking the inevitable tea we ,struck up conversation with a very well-known and respected old man, Hajji Zanussi. He spoke some Italian having spent time in Eritrea presumably on his way to/from Mecca.

¨I was Siger´s cook.¨

Wilfred Thesiger was probably the last of the ¨Great White Explorers¨. Those men, and occasionally women, who walked, rode, sailed the breadth of the world during the 19th and early 20th centuries, principally I believe as they enjoyed it, but, as an excuse to do it at someone else´s expense, to increase European knowledge of its geography and hence power.

He was born in Addis Ababa, capital of the only independent African country at that time, Abyssinia, his father being the British minister assigned to the Abyssinian court. The family was held in such high esteem that he was to be invited to the Ras Ta Fari´s coronation as Emperor Haile Selassie. After average educational success, he joined the Sudanese Political Service and in 1934 was assigned to be the Assistant District Comissioner in Kutum, Darfur.

He was the only European in Kutum. He learned to ride a camel. And, using his newly-found, skill made trips far into the desert even reaching the Tibesti mountains in north-west Chad in 1937.

Later, he travelled the breadth of the Arabian peninsula, Kurdistan, lived seven years with the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions so much in the news today, Iran and Kenya.

He shunned ¨civilisation¨. He ¨went native¨. He despised the trappings of 20th/21st century life.

Hajji Zanussi also recounted how he had known Guy Moore, the District Commissioner based at El Fasher. We had heard stories about Guy Moore - how many ¨natives¨ were flogged on his account, how he banned motor vehicles from travelling to Kutum (a sympathy imparted to Thesiger who was also inspired by Moore to learn Arabic and travel light) and left Darfur amidst scandal when the British media discovered his ¨Heart of Darkness¨.

However, Hajji Zanussi was more positive, noting Moore´s and Thesiger´s rapport with the local population, their enjoyment of sharing asseeda and merissa (millet beer) with their employees. Thesiger also described Moore as humane and just.

He also talked of Mr Campbell, a predecessor of Thesiger, whom I have not been able to trace.

Eric Newby (probably the first of the new breed of traveller, of a ¨known world¨) describes bumping into Thesiger in the Hindu Kush:

¨The party consisted of two villainous-looking tribesmen dressed like royal mourners in long overcoats reaching to the ankles; a shivering Tajik cook, to whom some strange mutation had given bright red hair, unsuitably dressed for central Asia in crippling pointed brown shoes and natty socks supported by suspenders, but no trousers; the interpreter, a gloomy-looking middle-class Afghan in a coma of fatigue, wearing dark glasses, a double-breasted lounge suit and an American hat with stitching all over it; and Thesiger himself, a great, long-striding crag of a man, with an outcrop for a nose and bushy eyebrows, 45 years old and as hard as nails, in an old tweed jacket, a pair of thin grey cotton trousers, rope-soled Persian slippers and a woollen cap comforter."

I feel honoured to have met Hajji Zanussi and to have heard a few of his memories.


1. Thesiger was reputed to have killed the last lion in Darfur.

2. We saw old leopard traps in the Jebel Marra mountains.

3. Kutum is now an epicentre of the current Darfur conflict in the middle of Tunjur and Zaghawa territory. See this report and this map.

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