On our short journey together I taught the bearded stranger some of his history, and some of our local language. We left the Nile on our left after we departed from Abri, and headed north into the mountains. We also left behind the villages where the stranger had so admired the doorways which led into the courtyards containing people’s houses (and animals). They were often monumental, some of wood and mud, others metal. Simple reliefs were carved into the mud ones, wiggly lines or bobbles, and often saucers or car headlights were embedded to give sparkling decoration. The metal ones were vividly painted in stripes or diamonds.
The lorry drove on. We passengers, constantly jostling for comfortable positions on top of the load of petrol cans and machine spare parts, got bored of singing and I taught him to count in Nubian. The lorry drove on, along sandy tracks winding between rocky hills. We would reach the port at New Halfa in seven hours.
At one point we stopped for a break. Surrounding the flat top of the nearest hill were some waist-high ruined walls. ‘British’, I told him. As they came down from Egypt through Nubia into Sudan, to defeat the Mahdi, the British made a big camp north of Akasha. They spread out to defend their marching route against the Ansari, the followers of the Mahdi: this hilltop fort would be part of that defence. I heard the stranger as he wandered around, staring at the ground, whispering to himself: ‘Weara, oowo, toshko, kemso, dija’ - and so on up to deemi, or the number ten which was all I had taught him. I came over to look: he was counting hundred-year-old brass rifle cartridge casings - and imagining his ancestors defending this hill against mine.