Sudan: A Water Shaped Culture

In Water by Marrian Haileselassie

Home to one of the hottest capital cities in the world, water in Sudan is the most important resource in the country. Although it is characterized by the meeting of the White and Blue Nile, Sudan experiences flash floods in Central Darfur and growing desertification in the Northern regions with weathers starkly differing across the country. It is however, predominantly hot and dry and because of this environment, daily life in Sudan revolves around water – fetching, storing and using it – ultimately shaping the Sudanese culture.

In Vessels

All across Sudan, water is stored in a traditional red, shiny clay pot called a Zeer. The pots are made by women who learned the craft from the generation before them, and are more commonly used in the rural areas in Sudan. The process of making them is taxing and time consuming but these pots are considered cultural must-haves in Sudan. They are filled with drinking water and are taken from to present to guests. Oftentimes, people place two or three Zeers outside their homes for thirsty pass-byers to drink from. The design and porous structure of the Zeer keep its contents cool by regularly wetting its outer surface. Sometimes, a Zeer can survive for years and develop algae on its damp exterior. In this case, it is cleaned and left to dry before reuse.

Typical Zeer outside a family home for strangers to drink water

Another cultural vessel used to store water in Sudan is the Ibrik. Given that the majority of Sudanese are either Muslims or Christians, water is not only seen as crucial to life but also as purifying. Water is used to perform Islamic ablution or what is referred to as Wudu in Arabic. For this ritual, it is stored in an Ibrik. In the olden days, these were made of clay but are now mass produced in plastic. Public spaces such as flea markets and mosques offer multiple Ibriks filled with water for customers to use before periodic Islamic prayers. In recent times, architectural designs incorporate an outdoor faucet and in-built bench to avoid using Ibriks.

However, in the rural areas Ibriks serve a second important function. Since running water and syphon bathrooms are not common there, Ibriks filled with water are used for the toilet and washing up. It is not uncommon to see them in public bathrooms or people carrying one around to wash their hands in the outskirts of Sudan.

Asides from clay and plastic, other materials are innovatively used to store water in the rural areas of Sudan. For example, the traditional water vessel known locally as the ‘Girbaa’ is made of goat skin. Similar to the Spanish goatskin Bota bag, the Girbaa uses the full extent of a goat’s skin turned inside out – sealing the limbs and using the neck as an opening to fill and drain water. Despite the burning temperatures, it surprisingly keeps the water inside relatively cool.

While they might seem primitive, these vessels are decorated, colored and valued by their owners as important tools used in everyday life. Unfortunately, modern technologies like refrigerators and plastic tanks have caused the decline of their use. But although they are not commonly used now, they ought to be treasured as testaments of traditional ingenuity.

Multiple Ibriks available in public space for Islamic ablution

In Routines

In some cases, obtaining water to store in the first place is a hassle especially in the Northern states closer to the Saharan desert. Some areas in Sudan experience water shortages and full-fledged drought seasons. This has created a window for the few residents who can afford a water pump to sell it to their less-fortunate neighbors which happens in Al Qadarif state. Here, it is sold as a liquid in plastic jerry cans or as solid blocks of ice. The minority who opt out of the water market or don’t have access to one, venture on journeys to far away wells, ponds or NGO-built pumps to collect their daily supply. It is mostly women and young children accompanying their mothers who fulfill this task. Their journey is long under the scorching hot sun and comes with the danger of bandits and robbers along the way. That is why these groups often fetch water early in the morning when the heat is lowest and possible threats are few.

Pumping water in a South Kordofan village.  (File photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty) taken from Radio Dabanga

The women carry their water pots (different from the Zeer and Ibrik), jerry cans and plastic buckets on their heads as they return home with their young ones. When they arrive home, it becomes a woman’s responsibility to use that water effectively and efficiently. Oftentimes, daughters of a household will aid their mother in activities as part of preparing them for their future role as a caretaking wife and mother. These activities will range from carrying the water bucket, to cooking and cleaning and later filling the Zeer for members of the family to drink.

In Communities

Compared to the more developed areas in Sudan, running water is more available than the outskirts. In recent times, every home has been fitted with either a central water tank connected to a water pump or smaller water containers manually filled in case of a water outage. These mechanisms ensure some level of water security and less time invested in obtaining the resource itself – ending the long traditional water routine.

What’s interesting is that in all areas of Sudan, there seems to be one shared hydro-tradition – watering the dry sand in the afternoon. This can be considered the Sudanese equivalent to gardening. Because of the excruciating heat, residents often water their sandy front lawns to reduce the high temperatures. Even when the weather is not as unbearable, older retired men often take the opportunity to bring out their metal chairs at sunset and sit in the street to strike conversation with strangers and their neighbors. Water in this case serves as a tool to keep communities connected.

As water is seen equivalent to life, it is naturally the first thing presented to guests in a Sudanese home. In fact, merely offering a cup of water to a stranger is considered an esteemed good deed. Based on this principle and the Islamic faith, water is used to pay tribute to late loved ones by establishing water dispensers in their name. It is believed that any person who benefits from the water provided by that dispenser, that act of kindness will be accredited to the late benefactor.

The Sudanese people’s relationship with water was induced by their natural environment of the Nile river and hot temperatures. In turn, water has nurtured the Sudanese people and left its mark on their culture by slowly molding their daily routines, shaping their traditional tools and defining their cultural practices. In this day and age, it is important to acknowledge and appreciate its influences and glorify the beauty of the traditional simple hydro-centric lifestyle.