The Kenana Handbook of Sudan: A Reference Resource and Travel Guide by Peter Hopkins

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The Kenana Handbook of Sudan: A Reference Resource and Travel Guide by Peter Hopkins

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Category: Travel
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Covering history and politics, but also the arts and commerce and the environment a detailed review of Sudanese life, which goes beyond the wars and deprivations to show a country with the capacity and potential to become a truly productive modern state. At the same time it doesn't shy away from the systemic failures and potential for further collapse. A reference work, rather than one to be sat and read. Detailed and intriguing, but sometimes heavy going for the non-specialist.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 900 Date: September 2006
Publisher: Kegan Paul
ISBN: 978-0710311603

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Sudan. A name that hasn't been out of the news much over the last few years... but how much do we really know of this country - the largest in Africa, a third the size of the United States and with a population of some 34 million people? Beyond recent disasters Sudan has a past, maybe even a present and certainly (with hope) a future that are worth exploring.

If the country is to bring itself back from its current reputation and misappreciation, it will need all the help it can get and that is presumably how the Kenana Sugar Company were persuaded to sponsor this work.

For the record Kenana Sugar styles itself the world's largest integrated sugar company producing 400,000 tonnes of white sugar a year, with diversification into dairy, timber, animal fields, farm machinery and consulting services. Whether their operation is as sustainable, politically and/or environmentally, as their website claims is something upon which I just don't have the knowledge to comment. Irrespective of that... in helping to bring this book to fruition they have aided a worthwhile endeavour to share the richness of the Sudan with the rest of us.


OK... let's get one thing clear. This is not "a handbook". A hardback volume, at just under A4 plan, and approximately 900 pages... it weighs in at over two-and-a-half kilos. I don't normally go around weighing my books, but you need to know. This is a veritable tome. Not the kind of thing you pop in your back-pack. It is in fact an encyclopaedia of the country.

In true encyclopaedic fashion, it's the work of many authors. Some 52 contributors are listed, which doesn't include the many photographers, cartographers and others involved in the production. The writers are ministers, economists, academics and businessmen. Some from within the country, others from abroad.

The book is arranged thematically:

  • Three articles on history from the unwritten days up to the 20th century
  • Three on pilgrims and traders
  • Five on the environment, flora and fauna
  • Eight on 'experiencing Sudan'
  • Six on art & literature
  • Eighteen on business and the economy
  • Three looking to the future

With supplements on current leaders (i.e. a picture of them at the date of publication), useful words & phrases from English into Sudanese Arabic and an amazingly comprehensive A-Z compendium of useful information for the visitor.

It is illustrated throughout with colour and black & white photographs, maps and drawings.

Dates, apart from the occasional oversight, are given throughout in the 'Common Era' designations of BCE and CE.


We're taken from almost the dawn of mankind 1,750,000 years ago through the various ages of stone (Paleo-, Meso- and Neolithic) and into the copper ages in parallel with the Egyptian kingdoms and see how those cultures are directly mirrored, and in times/places preceded by those of the Nubians of northern Sudan with their own fortresses and pyramids and royal burial chambers. More intriguing, perhaps, is the level of trade with Greece and Rome and then as we enter the first few centuries of the Common Era the ruins of churches. Considering Sudan as a primarily Moslem country today, we forget that from about 543 until the arrival of the Funj Kingdom in the early 16th century this was a Christian country.

Another view focusses on the Wadi Howar a long-dried riverbed, only relatively recently determined to once have been a tributary of the Nile when some 400km became discernible through satellite imagery.

Study of the ecology of this area tells the parallel story to that of the kings and empires, showing what was happening to the landscape, and therefore to the ordinary people who depended upon it. Rivers and lakes long gone become visible in the shells that are uncovered by the desert winds. Eerily beautiful pictures show a stark landscape where relics speak of the giants of the savannah plains, or of farmed livestock. Shifting sands reveal and hide fortress walls.

Gizu vegetation grows again in places... an unexpected turn of global warming might be a return of farming to this edge of the Sahara.

We're brought up to date via the Nilotic kingdoms, (ACE580-1600), the various Empires: Ottoman, Turkish, The Mahdi, Anglo-Egyptian condominium - in varying degrees of detail. Some writers assume you have the background, others give basic this happened, then that happened with too little context to enable you to understand how and why.


Most of this section I found quite difficult - not being a scientist by trade or nature - and the facts, figures and scientific names detracted from the narrative for me. On the other hand, it includes probably one of the most useful maps of the country for those of us so ignorant we don't even know how the river systems fit it, never mind where the main towns and political boundaries lie. It also re-tells the tale of climate change, for those who still don't believe, and allies it with the ability of man with modern weapons to decimate his local ecosystem.


With the exception of Jickling's contribution, this isn't as traveloguey as it sounds. Rather it's an overview of life as it is in really broad terms. A short section with two of my favourite articles... Jickling and colleague getting lost on the Nile, and Daum's exploration of creation myths in the indigenous religions. The one stirring my wanderlust, the other my spiritual curiosity.


Deng's "Search for the Soul" article is lucid and informative and more readable than most. Although included under the culture section, it probably gives the clearest and most succinct picture of the turbulent history of the country and explains how that has led to the recent turmoil. It also gives the best insights into the hopes that there are ways forward. One of Deng's comments that really made me think was on the nature of democracy... our tendency to equate it with voting systems automatically causes it to fail in circumstances like Sudan where force of numbers can not just override but utterly obliterate the views and legitimate rights of sizeable minorities. We need to review the concept and find ways of conceptualising democracy that can work, not just in Sudan, but throughout the African continent where many states are made up of areas with distinct geographical-, resource-, and cultural/religious/ethnitic- challenges of kinds which do not exist in the western world which has thus far framed definitions of democratic expression.

I had always assumed that many of these problems were born of the colonial era and our arbitrary drawing of lines on a map with no thought for tribal or other affiliations. The Sudan context suggests that many of these boundaries, as illogical as they remain, pre-date our Western European meddling.

Daumer & Rashid Diab take us into the realms of modern art, and bombard the reader with views that many will find stimulating and enlightening (I presume) but which I find baffling if not downright pretentious. This is a purely personal view born of a mentality that prefers not to dwell too much on what the artist was trying to say, but instead to listen carefully to what I can hear. An odd metaphor for talking about paintings perhaps, but you know what I mean.

Several things remain in the mind from this contribution. The sheer scale of modern art in Sudan. With my western preconception of the whole of Africa being impoverished and on the edge of survival, that there could even be several different schools of modern art - some with specific manifestos, others more loosely aligned co-thinkers - is delightfully shocking. Then there are some of the works themselves. Much of the calligraphic art passes me by; as beautiful as it is, I'm wary of words I cannot read. But Ibrahim El Salahai's pen and ink cubist work is stunning - reminiscent of Dali and Picasso; Diab's impressionist gatherings of people in empty landscapes as evocative as the more colourful surrealist works are joyful.

Unknown avenues here to be explored.

Speaking of which, Daumer freely laments the focus in this article on northern Sudanese art, with a plea for the newly established southern government to facilitate the return and sponsorship of the traditions of the south which can only enrich us all even more.

Literature is not so widely explored, being as it is a relatively recent development in Sudanese culture. The oral tradition survived here (as might be expected) much longer than in the western world, with the result that written works tended to be instructive, religious or moralistic. The idea of story telling on the page, for its own sake is only beginning to take serious ground.

A long series of disjointed excerpts from the 'great Arab novel' Bandarshah unfortunately served to put me off the whole - a single extract of some length would have given a better flavour of the work, whereas the attempt to cover so much of it merely left me confused as to who the characters were and their relationships to each other. Simply put, I had to concentrate so much on the plot that the flavour passed me by.


The 200 pages on Economy and Business form a book in themselves. Chapters focus on the main industries of agriculture, oil, and sugar - together with various overviews, and a detailed study of water resource management, which might have sat better under the Environment strapline.

All of these articles are very detailed in their analysis - perhaps too much so for the general reader, but certainly of use to the specialist. For all their occasional hyperbole and over-selling of the country's achievements they don't shy from covering the major failings in the system, and what needs to be done to overcome them.

Readability and understanding would have been aided by the inclusion of metric or imperial equivalences to the local weights and measures that were used throughout. An explanation for the non-Moslem of the precise nature of Islamic Banking Practices is also a major omission.


Overviews of political history explain how Sudan got to where it is now, while extracts from the Interim Constitution and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement clearly demonstrate where it is, and where it hopes to go. Once again, the authors are clear in their understanding of the continuing risks of breakdown in the system, although oddly silent on the subject of Dafur.

The CPA - if it is allowed to bed in and the commitment to it can be maintained long enough for a momentum to build in the economy and in cultural arenas - certainly gives the country the best chance it has had in centuries of remaining intact and of developing its undoubtedly immense potential. The fault lines are already shaking however and it remains to be seen if the will can be kept. The willingness to go public on many of the issues concerned does at least offer some hope in the very fact that awareness exists of both the potential and its possible destruction.


It's difficult to review a book of this type, because you're pretty-well required to sit down and read it... which isn't how it's designed to be used. Unlike a guide-book, which you could road-test by only using specific elements of it on a real trip... the real test of this kind of encyclopaedia is how often do you pick it up, either in passing interest, or in specific 'look-it-up' mode. Ask me in 5 years & I'll tell you.

Also you're faced with numerous writing styles, some of them evidently suffering from imperfect translation. How do you balance the poor against the brilliant? Or should you even try?

But I am charged with making a judgement, so this is it:

  • I cannot recommend that you go out and purchase a copy, unless you're planning not only to visit Sudan, but to spend an extended period there (or you have a particular interest in the area for other reasons)
  • I do, however, think that every School, University & County Library should have at least one copy available; as a reference source it not only covers a lot of ground itself, but many of the articles are well-referenced with further reading ideas.
  • If Kenana choose to view this as an ongoing project (which I hope they will) and issue an updated edition some time in the future - they can enhance its usefulness immensely by correction of the omissions noted above, but above all by redeeming the most serious flaw: there is no index. A comprehensive index is essential in a work of this kind - not least, because I found that I understood the history better by reading the Arts & Literature section; elsewhere passing comments explained things not followed in the relevant dedicated sections; some articles were under headings I would not have expected.

In similar vein... the Images of Sudan section is intriguing, but I'd have liked some explanation of the images - not an interpretation, just a what/where/when.

Another 'test' of non-fiction works of all kinds is: does it inspire you to seek further... my answer is yes, and in this context I would like to specifically mention the following contributors:

  • Jane Hogan for information on the Sudan archive at Durham University and the wonderful images from it
  • Les Jickling for his canoeing adventure on the Blue Nile
  • Werner Daum for The Religion of the Dinka and the Nuer and the collaborative work with Rashid Diab on modern art.
  • Francis M Deng for Searching for the Soul of the Nation, which is included under Arts & Literature but teaches much more about the cultural history of the place than is gleaned from the factual accounts in earlier sections.

Not the easiest book I've read and reviewed this year by any means, but I am grateful that it found its way onto my desk.

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