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Issue Date:  March 10, 2006

By Gabriel Meyer; photographs by James Nicholls
Eerdmans, 231 pages, $20
Understanding the history of the Nuba people


To the crisis-numbed and tragedy-weary of the West, journalist Gabriel Meyer presents a refreshing if still painful snapshot of one people and region in Sudan. Why read more about distant Africans struggling, killing or dying? Because as novelist Anne Lamott writes in her pithy introduction, “We’re here to pay attention, bear witness, and find our way to an authentic relationship with spirit.” The least we can do -- and it is a lot -- is to look and absorb, feel and know, and somehow, someday, act on behalf of those suffering in far-off lands, even when the solution seems as remote as Pluto.

Mr. Meyer makes it easy, even compelling, by concentrating on the people of the Nuba Mountains and then zooming in on a Sudanese Air Force bombing run that flattened a school and scores of children. It’s a wise choice. We cannot take too much in one sitting, and the grief of the few can become painfully real.

The Nuba people, not to be confused with the Nubians of the lower Nile Valley, occupy the southern Kordofan region of central Sudan. Despite the name, the Nuba Mountains consist largely of fertile farm fields amid the hills. Outside forces have long found it attractive. Since Sudan’s independence in 1956, land grabs became bolder and even corporate in nature. During Sudan’s second civil war, 1983-2005, the Nuba became embroiled in the government’s war against nearby southern insurgents. They were even targeted during a “holy war” declared by Khartoum’s leaders against rebellious infidels. The Nuba’s most recent fame otherwise came from the photographs taken there in the 1960s and 1970s by Leni Riefenstahl, the documentarian and Nazi propagandist.

Though wary of romanticizing noble savages, Mr. Meyer discovers the Nuba to be a reserved, indomitable people who do not seem defeated despite their suffering. He finds in the local Catholic bishop, Macram Max Gassis, a suitable center of gravity who combines faith and realism. “Gabriel, you’d better be going now,” Bishop Gassis calls to him one day from a speeding motorbike. “The planes bomb around this time.”

Mr. Meyer takes an experimental approach in this book. Along the narrative spine of his developing interest and travels in the region, he appends journal entries, interview segments, news releases, wire stories and an array of citations from literature, ethnographies and scripture. Sadly, it does not cohere. It’s the material for a book, but not the book he clearly could have written. Instead of the modern story of the Nuba or even a meaningful snapshot, this pastiche thrusts before the reader a mélange of misery and moving segments. But what does it all mean?

However, Mr. Meyer and his very able photographer, Jim Nicholls, did record a useful account of these easily forgotten people based on six trips there. Mr. Nicholls’ pictures are eloquent, documentary and unobtrusive. The author’s touching insights and revelations are often engaging. Mr. Meyer can be a comforting guide along the trail into this distant world. But we lose the path during his lyrical flights. What does it mean when he writes that the most serious challenge posed by the Nuba Mountains is to the soul? Why is bringing along a book of poetry an act of subversion? And in one bothersome dent in his trustworthy account, he implies that female circumcision is rare among non-Islamic Africans.

We are treated to some powerful truths about the life-and-death nature of faith, such as among Nuba converts to Catholicism, and the industrial and often destructive nature of international relief operations. But his long digression on the uninviting city that houses many of these charities veers off point.

Mr. Meyer uses several profiles or set pieces to focus our attention. His account of Nuba wrestling matches tells much about a people’s use of ritualized contests to preserve their culture and unity. The book’s strongest segment comes in a late chapter that details the government’s bombing of a Catholic school with 230 students. Having covered other conflicts in the Near East and Balkans, Mr. Meyer realizes that armies aim to inflict “the wound from which no one recovers … for in the death of children, one strikes at the very possibility of hope.” It’s a powerful insight. Mr. Meyer knocks us from our deeply held hope that youthful casualties in wars must be accidental, “collateral” in the language of cold-blooded strategists.

The book ends as a respite thankfully settles in among the Nuba people. The United States brokered a 2002 Nuba Mountain Cease-Fire Agreement between Khartoum and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, later capped by a larger settlement in southern Sudan. By 2004, an estimated 250,000 displaced Nuba moved back to their villages, a remarkable reverse migration. One Nuba farmer reports that he and neighbors are negotiating with Arab cattle-herders, their traditional enemy. Only a good reporter catches that kind of small detail to enliven his dispatch with a real sign of hope.

Christopher D. Ringwald is a journalist in Albany, N.Y., and the author of The Soul of Recovery and Faith in Words. He reported previously for NCR on the insurgency in northern Uganda.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2006

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