Dan Morrison’s book, The Black Nile: One Man’s Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World’s Longest River, recently released in paperback, chronicles his journey along the Nile River from its source at Lake Victoria to its mouth 3,600 miles later at the Mediterranean Sea. National Geographic News Watch interviews him about his journey and his travel writing. Morrison is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and News Watch.
It was a book called The White Nile that set me on the chase. I found a dusty copy of this classic in a Bombay bookshop and was hooked by Alan Moorehead’s stories of Richard Burton and James Speke; Samuel and Florence Baker; and the rise of the Mahdi in Sudan.
Moorehead’s history of exploration and exploitation, and its companion, The Blue Nile, described in gutty language the beginning of the colonial era in the Nile valley. Later books have focused on the turbulent post-colonial period of the 60s and 70s. I wanted to learn first-hand what life was like in this important region in the first decade of the 21st Century, as Egypt struggled toward a new future and the people of South Sudan began their final march to independence.
You’ve worked in the region as a journalist, so you have some context on the macro-scale. How did that bigger picture help you understand what you were seeing and hearing, and how did traveling among the people of the Nile help you better understand the regional geopolitics?
I knew the SparkNotes version of life and politics in the region before setting out. I’d read books, reports and academic papers, and had spoken to experts. But my experience has always been that whatever I learn prior to arriving in a country is right away buried in the immediacy of first-hand experiences and face-to-face conversations. Only later, at a distance, am I able to reconcile my preparatory reading with what I’ve learned on the ground.
How does the story of a mild-mannered southern Sudanese police officer — arrested by northern soldiers on suspicion of being a spy, and forced for weeks to listen to the cries of men being buried alive by a backhoe outside his jail cell window — fit into the larger story of Sudan? The trick is getting the big and small pictures to work together – to add context to the small and humanity to the big, all in the service of a good story.
Your writing is tight but highly detailed. How did you manage to record so many small details of what you experienced? Did you document your journey with many photos and notes?
I took tons of notes, and did my best to get at least few pages down each night. You want “hot” notes, made when what you’ve seen and felt that day are still fresh in your mind. These were supplemented with hundreds of film and digital photographs. At times the photos did a better job than my handwritten notes did in triggering memories or filling gaps.
Reading your account, it is clear that an adventure like this is not for people who over-think safety and health hazards. What would you advise people who want to follow your journey for themselves? Or would you recommend that most people don’t do it? What qualities should Nile travelers have to succeed and enjoy the experience?
For sure, this kind of trip isn’t for everyone. While not as treacherous as some others out there, the White Nile route is a world away from India’s backpacking circuit or the Cairo-to-Cape run. The instability of South Sudan leaves travelers at risk of being caught in various forms of armed violence – political, ethnic, and economic. The night I first reached Juba, dozens of people were massacred on the Juba-Nimule road. Their buses had been just a few hours behind my own transport. I later spent a night in Malakal cowering as militia looted nearby houses – the gunfire didn’t stop until dawn.
In other words, you should have a good reason to visit.
One very basic guide for travelers who do take the bait and venture into South Sudan is the United Nations’ security guidelines. If UN security thinks a road or an area is too risky for its own staff, with their well-maintained SUVs, VHF radios, and strong local knowledge, it’s surely too dangerous for a first-time visitor.
The other hazards are the same as every place else in the developing world: road accidents, malaria, bad water, and food poisoning. These risks can be mitigated, but sooner or later your taxi is going to crash and you’re going to get amoebas.
What moment on the journey would you rather not experience again? What was the most heart-warming experience?
It’s impossible to avoid feelings of impatience on a journey like this, and it’s always regrettable and embarrassing when you make that impatience known. No one likes a bad guest.
One of the nicest – and strangest – experiences of the journey took place in the southern town of Renk, right at Sudan’s north-south border. I’d just come off a very tense bus ride, one which took me through territory where military intelligence had just the day before tried to arrest me [a lighter moment in that bus ride is recounted here] and was searching for lodging. It was already dark, and some soldiers suggested I speak to a local official about finding a bed for the night.
The rickshaw driver became confused about the directions, and delivered me through a maze of sandy lanes to the home of a very different official – a political rival of one of my friends, a man who had been portrayed to me as an agent of the Islamist government in Khartoum. Without hesitating, the man’s family offered to put me up. Talking late into the night, I realized they were a microcosm of Sudan’s deep complexity – a mixed family of Muslims and Christians, living on the border of north and south, trying to stay intact and prosperous in a treacherous world.
What do you mean by “The Black Nile”?
I was interested in the Nile as an African river, one that flows north from the center of the continent (the White Nile) and down from the Ethiopian highlands (the Blue Nile), fed along the way by African tributaries that are themselves swollen by the southern Atlantic and Indian Ocean monsoons. Egypt is a marvelous finale to the river’s tale, but it’s still just a single chapter in an epic story. Added to this was the pernicious element of race and identity in Sudan, and the vexing question of oil. All of these together made my book “The Black Nile.”
Looking back on the entire odyssey, how would you summarize what you have grasped about the famous river and the way it impacts the everyday lives of the people who depend on it? Are you hopeful about their future?
The defining question hanging over the Nile today is whether the river can slake all thirsts. Upstream countries, including Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, have broken Egypt and Sudan’s colonial-era monopoly on the Nile waters. With drought and famine spreading from Somalia to East Africa, and with the newly-born Republic of South Sudan in dire need of agricultural development, the next decade will see ever-increasing pressure on the river and on the livelihoods of the many millions who depend on it.
Will Egypt learn to use its water more efficiently? Will Uganda and its neighbors reverse the deforestation that has contributed to a changing and unpredictable climate? I don’t know how much longer the region can muddle along on questions like these.