My inauguration as a city boy still sticks in my mind. My father had to wrench me away from my mother to take me to Atabara, where he worked in the Railway Headquarters of Sudan. The scuffle was loud and took place in the village square in front of our relatives and all who had come there to bid my father farewell.

    Each of my claimants had strong reasons to think he or she was doing the right thing. At the age of five, I unquestionably belonged to my mother. Though not divorced from my father, she was maqanjira (angry) and living with her family in the village. However I was almost school age and my father, whose primary schooling was rare for his generation, had awakened to the usefulness of education for achieving social mobility within the colonial setup. He could not let this opportunity slip because of a capricious, recalcitrant wife. Represented by my mother and father, this dramatic struggle has remained with me for years.

    Before my inauguration as a city boy, I dreamt of going to the city to see my father, but like most children of migrant workers we reunited only briefly during his annual vacation. The city, as my friends and I imagined it, was a land of riches where sugar took the place of sand. We would look at the hills that lay behind the village and repeat what we were told — crossing the hills and going south would take us to where our fathers lived. Missing our fathers, we would assemble and sing:

    Oh moon
    toss your red bread
    see whether my father is coming

    Later, as a youth in the city, I sensed I no longer belonged to the world of my parents, where the village was the source of memories of a time when people associated with their tribe. My generation associated with people scattered all over the country. We were being groomed to enter a new world.

    Urbanization by default

    I have always been intrigued by the urbanization of my parents’ generation. The decisions they made to cope with this venture must have been excruciating. Yet for most men at least, their urbanization never involved a conscious or deliberate decision. Many became urbanites by default.

    Men were lured from their villages into the urban centers by a labor market opened up by the British colonial administration early in this century. They left their villages thinking they would raid this market, save some money, then return to their villages to get married and help their families by acquiring land or building a better house.

    Not all families permitted their sons to migrate. The fathers of some of these young men were already losing their slaves through colonial abolitionist acts, and they did not want to lose their sons too. For many, migration was viewed as an episode of shurad (escape) from the village. Migrations were also known as tashish (losing one’s way), in recognition of both the diabolic enticement that the labor market represented and the reality of the village as the ultimate anchor.

    Yet my father’s decision to migrate was welcomed by my landless grandfather. In a farming community, having no land is both a form of unemployment and an abomination. Land ownership distinguished the village people from the nomad. With his first savings, my father bought a piece of land in town, restoring respect to his family.

    Landless, my father and his elder brother had time to attend the colonial government school in Korti, the northern provincial capital. Government schools had a bad name then. One village called their school “the church” to mark it as a non-Muslim, culturally-polluted space. And I still remember the pleasant-looking man who stopped my friends and me on our way to school and said slowly, “They will teach you the world is round. Don’t believe them.”

    Ironically, this first urban generation was the last to realize they had taken a journey of no return. Even when they brought their families with them, they “shelved” their rites of passage until they returned to their villages for vacation. Grandmothers and grandfathers served as the erstwhile masters of ceremonies for marriage, circumcision, and birth, giving the village a ritual authority and creating a fluency with the cities. Tied to village and kinship spaces, these early migrant laborers refused to consider the urban neighborhoods in which they lived as other than temporary abodes.

    The gift exchange

    The generation of my father tried to make the city a “minimum settlement” where nothing festive or spiritually enhancing interfered with their utilitarian focus: work. My father would never go to the movies. Some people would even pronounce “cinema” in a classical Arabic pattern to read as “evil has grown.” Once when I missed a school movie outing, I remember my father taking my mother and me to the door of a theater, paying for the tickets, then coming back to take us home.

    Nor did his generation understand the idea of having a relationship with a neighbor who was not a relative, “a guy on the block.” They wanted their sons and daughters to marry the right relatives, according to the Book of Kinship. But this plan faltered due to the attractions and desires of the guys and gals on the block.

    My father’s generation, like all migrants, faced the challenge of sending “full letters,” letters in which money talked as well as words. Fathers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and wives left behind in the village were the recipients of these “money orders,” a la Ousmane Sembane's The Money Order. A monthly flow of cash blew in the direction of the villages to satisfy newly acquired needs.

    Similarly, a gift exchange ensued between village and city. Villagers sent dates, margarine, powdered okra, and wheat to the cities in drab, dirty sacks. From the city, people brought back sugar, tea, soap and new fabrics. The gift exchange was important, and you had to plan carefully for a trip back to the village counting the bundles of sugar and tea. Everyone was entitled to something. You had to think of your aunts, of cousins three times removed, of local religious and political personalities.

    In a story titled The Measure (1965), I tell how this gift economy became a measure of worthiness in the village. If you spent a vacation in the village and did not buy a cigarette box for the old, childless woman, the village would be upset. If you remembered the cigarette box, you were honored as a person who cared for those outside of your kinship obligations. In the story, the woman dies and the migrants in the city, deprived of an established measure of their worth, feel lost. Then the village develops another measure — sugar for someone else — to set things right again.

    The “minimum settlement” did not sit well once men started bringing their wives to live with them in the cities. My mother, an outspoken woman and not a relative of my father, was very critical of this gift economy. She thought my uncle back in the village was taking advantage of my father. He had failed to produce anything from the land bought by my father, she said, and should earn his own keep instead of waiting for money orders from my father. Instead, she complained, my uncle spent his days riding his jackass, drinking and carousing.

    As the migrant families grew bigger in the cities, it became increasingly cumbersome to schedule a meaningful vacation in the village. The death of the old folks discouraged migrants from taking their rites of passage to the villages. Slowly these families began investing in the ritual economy of their urban neighborhoods, attending marriages and wakes and giving gifts. To have their symbolic and monetary credits returned, the families found it necessary to perform their own rites in the towns and cities. And as a rising number of marriages became trans-ethnic, the bride and groom related only as neighbors, a city wedding appeared as a suitable arrangement.

    The Trojan Duck

    In my play, Trains have Shortened Distance, and Very Much So (1974), I dramatize the precautions of this first generation of migrants against succumbing to the temptations of the town. An emigrant who works for an Egyptian, Coptic family brings a duck home to his village, a bird not traditionally raised by the Sudanese. His friends are amused by this slow-paced, wooden-structured, unproportional, beaked fowl. One friend, the village fanatic, asks him:

    “What do you say to turn this bird away?”

    “quot;I don’t know.”

    “You say you don’t know?”

    “That is what I said.”

    “Did I hear you correctly?”

    “I am afraid you did.”

    “Why didn’t you ask the Copt the thing they say when they want to turn this bird away?”

    “I don’t know.”

    (He turns to the others) “This is bad news. We say ham to pigeons and they go away. We say car to jackasses and they leave us alone. We say kar to chickens and they stop bothering us. We say tak to goats and they let go. (Turning to the one who brought the duck). And here you are allowing a bird in our midst and you don’t have a clue to how you make it turn away.”

    “I’m afraid I don’t.”

    “What if it bugs you?”

    “I just didn’t think of that.”

    “Oh God. Oh, my God. A thing you don’t know how to command is there to stay. Oh, my God. We are implicated in the world. We are done for.”

    Women: Embracing Modernity

    Women embraced city life. They wanted to join their husbands because village life was tough. They brought the water from the river or the well, they did the weeding, fed the livestock, milked the cows and goats. Worst of all, in the absence of her husband, a woman was dominated by her mother-in-law, who demanded to be respected and served. The songs of the women equate going to the cities with liberation from village chores:

    O son of my aunt (my husband)
    if you really want my comfort and happiness
    send me the vouchers for a ticket to join you
    I pour drinking water from the tap
    cook in a pot that has a lid
    go to Khartoum and rest
    and on every Friday we pay homage
    to our Saint’s tomb

    It was no surprise that women opted for the modernity of the towns. Women, amidst the amenities of electric lights and tap water, looked back at their villages in anger:

    Our village
    you son of a bitch
    I adore Shendi town
    that civilized us

    Women liked marriage as a means of social and geographic mobility that could move them from the village to the town: but a marriage that did the reverse caused problems. In the village, the ideal marriage was the father’s brother’s daughter marriage, in which a woman married her paternal cousin. But city girls were loathe to marry a cousin still in the village. A female relative of mine was forced to marry a paternal cousin back in the village. The marriage lasted less than two years because she was a city girl.

    Women: Left Behind

    Early on, most migrant workers left their women behind in the village. As late as 1961, the dominance of women in villages left a powerful impression on me when I returned for vacation. I drew on their fervent celibacy in creating the “village women’s chorus” in my play, The Wound and the Crown-Crane (1973). In the opening of the play, the chorus laments the catastrophic dimensions of their abstinence:

    O catastrophe
    Alas, your breath sucked out dew
    Our farms are beds of greenery
    Why do you negligently tread on them
    with a vengeance
    Our bodies are from the clay of the pure fallow earth
    Why do the pimples of epidemics
    blossom on them?
    Our daughters and sons
    have yet to understand
    the grammar of desire and fulfillment
    How did you tempt them into early widowhood?

    In my village, a religious man named Ijami did not like this celibacy either. The bodies of women, cracking under the burden of desire, were an open invitation to Satan, so Ijami gathered these women for religious teachings. If bodies could not be nourished, disciplining them would be the only alternative. He preached to the women about the Prophet and the piety of his wives, about loyalty and family ethics. This was very unconventional in a religion conceived to be a discourse addressing men.

    Local members of a national religious brotherhood did not like Ijami’s reform movement. They accused him of associating with the women to satisfy himself. We grew up believing Ijami and his sect were immoral. We were told that their co-rituals climaxed with a call for putting off the light and “molesting the mermaids.” We used to follow the brotherhood’s youth group on their parades. When the group reached Ijami’s house, they would shout: “O unbelievers, beware!” We kids shouted too.

    In 1981, I interviewed Ijami’s son and asked about the accusations launched at his father. He said his father was worried that the women had been left behind and that something should be done to help them. He added that his father’s movement had gathered momentum as a result of discussing religion directly with women. In fact among his first recruits were the husbands of women who had attended his preachings. The husbands were astounded by the religiosity of their wives and wanted to associate with the man who changed them.


    People were very apprehensive about the changes brought by migration and modernity. They had a sense that they had lost control, that things were going the wrong way. To avoid being taken completely by surprise, people fell back on tradition.

    Using the telephone was a destabilizing experience, so they told a story of one old sage. “There will come a time when we speak on wires,” he said, “And when we approach the end of the world, we will travel in houses” (trains). These ex post facto predications soothed fears of being overwhelmed by the British — the infidels — by setting modern practices in the past.

    As people lived a split life between village and city, trains gained practical as well as symbolic importance as bridges between the two worlds.

    Love songs of separation sprouted. A decision by a migrant father to bring his family to the town could smother his daughter’s budding village romance. In one song, a lover curses the train, asking God that the train be destroyed and its wheels shattered because, “He took my loved one.”

    For railway workers living in Atbara, the national railway headquarters, the train took on additional significance. They returned to their villages on a special train provided by the railway service, which took them home on Thursdays and brought them back on Friday evening. The train became invested with sexual symbolism, nicknamed “The Thing” (sexual intercourse).


    Letters too assumed prominence in the life of the people. In The Wound and the Crown-Crane, my women’s village chorus says, “Men who were previously a taste, a touch, and a sentiment turned into a signature on a letter.” In the play, a proverb circulates in the village, announcing, “A letter is half a person.” But if half can be accepted as better than nothing with some items, it does not hold in the affairs of women and men. They are either together or nothing at all: either the total fusion of flesh, blood and storms; or ghosts, memories and bitterness.

    Letters, an emerging genre, consisted of three parts. (1) a greeting expressed in cliché language, such as “I am in good health, thanks to God. Hoping that you are enjoying health. I am lacking nothing but the precious opportunity to see you.” (2) a detailing of the amount of money sent and how to distribute it. (3) general greetings mentioning a number of relatives by name, such as Aunt X and her sons, Uncle Y and his daughters, Grandfather Z and his sons. This was known as “being included in the greetings.” Those included would then ask the father or mother to “include us in the greetings” in the reply to the migrant son.

    A letter then, signaled the measure of success achieved by the migrant. In 1984 I spoke with a villager of Rubatab who made two unsuccessful attempts at shurad, before making it on the third try. I asked him why he repeatedly tried to escape from the village to go work in the town. He said, “Why should I spend all my life tied to those cows, milking and herding? Those of my age who migrated started sending letters to their families. I thought I could have migrated and sent a letter myself.”

    The Seduction of Taking a Bath

    In the village people went to the Nile for religious absolutions, when they prayed, and when they slept with their spouses. But having a bath right there where you lived, taking a piece of soap and lathering — this was new.

    There is a jingle about city life, in which praise is given to civilization for bringing soap and the concept of “taking a bath.” According to the jingle:

    The most important thing
    is taking a bath
    and cleaning one’s body
    and putting a smile on your face.

    It sounds like a commercial, but this was a song on the radio and close to the popular way of thinking. The workers and their families admired the new things in the cities. They didn’t argue with the gifts of civilization, but had the generosity of mind to admit these things were new to them.

    The nationalist elite, meanwhile, argued with modernity and would accept its practices only if evidence of a continuing tradition. They would concede the worth of taking a bath only if they could prove that “soap and water were in our tradition.”

    Returning to a Fantasy

    With the sheer passage of time, migrants began to realize the long-awaited return to their villages was chimerical.

    They invested the savings from the best half of their lives to make their villages livable places on their return. The savings of the other half they invested in the towns, towns they earlier thought they would simply raid and then retreat from.

    Many engaged in a make-believe about village life to avoid looking at the irony of their urbanized lives. My father and uncles were oblivious to the city soccer tournaments. Movies were just too evil to attend and were shown at a time of night when they had prepared to go to bed. And I never heard them discuss the powerful national or trade union politics emerging at the time.

    But I do remember their loud meetings about village matters that could arise at any time and for any reason, whether due to a visit from a village relative or even to dispel boredom.

    Nothing galvanized my folk as a lawsuit with the village mayor over a piece of reclaimed river land. After seeing uncle Y draw a sketch of the contested land in the sand, I said to my brother, “I admire Uncle Y for his thorough knowledge on the village terrain.” My brother replied, “You would be impressed more to know that Uncle Y hasn’t been to our village in 20 years.” Uncle Y’s forceful argumentation struck me as an exercise in residual knowledge, in a fantasy that is very real.

    Not all the migrants resigned themselves to their fate as urbanite by default. A few returned to the villages on retirement.

    For many, return was not as triumphant as they had hoped. While the migrants’ fixed pensions could not keep pace with inflation, many villagers who stayed behind had enjoyed a rural economic boom due to the mounting needs for food in the mushrooming towns. In one village I studied in the 1980s the villagers mocked the misery of their kinsmen who had retired from government service and returned to the village, assigning them to an imaginary club of losers, “The Club of the People Who Walk Backwards.”

    Others had difficulty convincing their wives to go back with them to the hard life of the villages. One of my uncles threatened his children, “If your mother does not go back with me, I will divorce her. I need someone to hold my head. I will marry a woman from the village.” True to his word, he did. He shed one life to begin another, in Hobbes phrase, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

    The migrants’ realization that they were in the city to stay is still under-researched. Sociologists gloss over the agonies and trials of this relocation under the heading of “urbanization,” a forward-looking process. The hearts this process has broken have hardly been documented.

    Postscript: searching for buda

    Elite African discourses of authenticity distrust popular engagement with colonial modernity, where hybridity replaces African purity. As the product of a wrong history — a history that should not have happened — these colonial experiences, as nationalists see it, are amenable to correction before the colonized resume their indigenous parade down the wholesome annals of history.

    Yet the average people I researched showed a remarkable competence in debating colonial modernity. Unlike the elite, they saw traditions like J.D.Y. Peel, as definitions that are shaped and modified by new contexts, rather than disembodied emanations of original ideals.

    In these redefinitions, some folk became completely disenchanted with tradition, or rather with the elite veneration of tradition. This disenchantment reaches an apex when the elite flunk the test of national leadership. They fail to deliver the goods of modernity, such as electricity and improved transportation, then dismiss these needs as colonial relics.

    In 1984, I documented the impatience with the past of Rubatab men, in what I called “ancestor dumping.” An angry, diligent farmer, who did not like my “folkloric” inquisitiveness into their culture, took me to task:

    “What good do these ways of old people contain to deserve your attention?” he said.

    Laughing, I said, “I want their buda (amusement).”

    “These discourses are worthless in this time of ours. What really matters are today’s discourses,” said the farmer. “Past people’s discourses are futile. They are like someone narrating a folktale. I just cannot stomach such narration because it is like waking from a dream. These discourses have no zubdah (butter).”

    “Pardon?” I said.

    “Milk produces butter when it curdles — Nay, the stuff of old days.”

    He turned to those around him who were having the best time of their lives, watching an encounter in which a representative of the “authentic” national elite was unceremoniously grilled and contradicted. It struck me later that those villagers were using this research situation to protest their image as a stockpile of the cherished past — a sentimentalization, in Anthony Appiah’s words, required by the urban elites to legitimate their present authority.

    I felt injured by this veiled and unveiled aggression when the man continued saying, “Discourses of the past are nonsense! Or isn’t that so?”

    I asked with a suppressed anger, “But where do you think the zubdah lies now?”

    “In the discourses of today which are sound, pointed, and pragmatic. Past discourses lack acumen, shrewdness, discernment. You will find even the average person today adept, pragmatic, and discriminating.”

    Folktales lament those who came to comfort the weepers but returned weeping. Who laments those who went to study the people and came back studied?

    Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim is a Sudanese academic, playwright, and journalist, presently teaching at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the author, most recently, of Assaulting with Words: Popular Discourses and the Bridle of Shariah (Northwestern University Press, 1994).