By Ludvig Lundgren
In 1964, thousands of Nubians were forced to flee from their homes along the river Nile, leaving behind their culture and heritage. In their pursuit of economic growth, the government of Egypt had decided to undertake Africa’s largest infrastructure project: the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The construction forced people in the area to radically change their lives and resettle in new places. The people of Nuba, largely settled along the Nile at the time, were primarily affected. This is the story about a people ignored by their government, a story about hope and struggle. This is a story about the Nubian people of the Nile.
To begin with, one might wonder who the Nubians are. They are an ethnic group in north-eastern Africa, whose history can be traced back to the Paleolithic era, 300 000 years ago. At the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt, Nubians are said to have become ‘civilized’ 11 000 years ago, upon adopting agriculture as their main means of living. There are a number of Nubian languages, none of which are written. In earlier times, many Nubians practiced Christianity, but the main religion is now Islam. Occasionally throughout history, the Nubian people have had their own clearly demarcated territory; however, today most Nubians live in southern Egypt, northern Sudan and in Kenya.
As most Nubian people were settled along the Nile, the construction of the Aswan High Dam during the 1960s heavily affected the people’s lives. Many were forced to resettle and, as a light form of compensation, the Egyptian state promised to support their new villages economically, in order to provide the inhabitants with a functional life. However, Nubian’s today express their sorrow at being forgotten by the government, with government funding going only to impoverished areas and dilapidated houses. Nubians have, for a long time, felt forgotten and pushed away. When the Egyptian government was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Dam, the Nubian issue was not even addressed. This was something Nubian writer Hagag Adul reacted to: “The lack of any talk about the rights of Nubians during the celebration… is a strong indicator that this issue is being ignored again.”
I visited Heisa Island, southern Egypt, in January this year, to participate in a volunteering project focused on sustaining local culture. The project’s other participants and I were received with great hospitality by the local Nubians, who were sharing their experiences. Through the discussions, we received a good insight into Nubian culture and history. Our conversations were often in the homes of our Nubian friends, who never hesitated to invite relatives or strangers in for a cup of tea in their houses. “Hospitality and confidence towards one another is considered an important part of Nubian culture”, the Nubian man Rafat told me.
Fortunately, the Nubians of Heisa did not have to move due to the construction of the Aswan Dam, although for a brief period this seemed likely. Nevertheless, forced resettlement has created a feeling amongst these Nubians that they are unwanted in the country. When I asked an elderly Nubian man, Sa’ad, whether he considered himself primarily Egyptian or Nubian, he was uncertain. “It is too complicated”, he told me, before changing the topic. Many of the inhabitants on the island continue to experience discrimination on the mainland, although others express happiness for being well treated in the country. Most people I talked to shared the opinion that the resettlements in the 1960s did not take into consideration the lives of the Nubian people, and most sympathise with friends and relatives from those villages affected.
A number of notable phenomena come to mind while reflecting on the Nubian experience. When thinking about the settlement policies against the Sami people in 17th century Sweden, I see a similarity. When I hear of indigenous concerns over the Keystone Pipeline in Canada being ignored, I see a pattern. When reading about the poor treatment of aboriginal people in Australia and the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar, I see not an exception but a rule. Discrimination, neglect and maltreatment of minority groups continues to occur across the world, and it is equally painful each time I see such things happen.
I felt back then, and I feel right now, that their story has to be told. The story of the Nubian people is not one confined to Egypt, but is relevant to situations that exist around the world. This story is not just an isolated event in the past, but an important step towards realizing that the justice of minorities are always threatened, wherever in the world we are. It is simply our common democratic obligation to protect freedom, equality and justice for all.
By Ludvig Lundgren