Reports: Peoples


The indigenous people in the Ingessana Hills of Eastern Central Sudan's Southern Blue Nile province call themselves Gamk [^ over the "a"]. The largest of a number of indigenous groups in the area who follow a mixture of religions, the Gamk are geographically and administratively connected with northern Sudan, but like their neighbours the Uduk, they are generally regarded by northerners as southerners and "infidels". Although the SPLA has included the Ingessana in
its call for "self-determination" for marginalized peoples, the Gamk have had little constructive contact with the South, and until recently have lived a self-contained and self-sufficient life. Through their traditional religion and their livelihood as farmers they have a strong spiritual identification with their land. In their language the words for hills ("gamk") and for people
("Gamk") [^ over the "a"] are closely associated.

Because of their isolated location the people of the Ingessana were relatively unaffected by outside influence until the early 20th century, when the Anglo-Egyptian government sent punitive expeditions to put down rebellions against taxation. In 1926 they were brought under the British "Closed
District" Ordinance, which ostensibly sought to protect non-Arab inhabitants of central and southern Sudan from the Arab slave trade and from Arab-Islamic influence. Christian missions were also discouraged in the 1930s and 1940s, and the apparent aim was eventually to incorporate the area into the Southern educational sphere. However, as is evident from the experience of the Nuba Mountains and Southern Sudan, this short-sighted ordinance created more problems than it solved, by exacerbating uneven development and preventing interaction with the rest of the country. When it was eventually abandoned, the indigenous people were at a disadvantage with regard to education and trade. They had been prevented from having schools and shops, and when Arab and Fellata traders moved in to open markets in the 1950s, the pattern of secondary status was perpetuated, since schools and other facilities were still not provided. The Gamk were unprepared for the challenges of the outside world.

While the influence of Islam was initially benign - the Islamic holy man or "faki" was accorded respect on a par with traditional healers but did not aggressively proselytise - the northern Sudanese traders and government officials have been exploitative and contemptuous in their attitude to the Gamk. During the 1985 famine the Islamic relief organization "Dawa Islamiyya", which had established an institute in the Hills, brought in food aid which they declared was only available to those faithful to Islam. Such attempts to buy off the practitioners of traditional religion and convert them overnight to Islam have continued into the 1990s, but the Gamk regard them with understandable cynicism, and Gamk "kujurs" or holy men have pledged to protect the old faith, in secret if need be, to heal the community.

Aggressive extraction of timber and mineral resources and the encroachment of giant, northern-owned commercial mechanized farming schemes on the fertile lowlands around the Ingessana Hills since the 1970s threatens not only the livelihood of the indigenous people but also the viability of the land itself. The efforts of the Gamk to advance their own agriculture have been met with scorn. When a consignment of tractors was donated to the villagers of the Ingessana by a foreign country during the Nimeiri era, the villagers asked local Arab traders how to use them. Instead of providing assistance, the traders convinced the authorities that the Gamk were too ignorant to use the tractors, which were sold off to the traders. They later began charging the
Gamk extortionate rates whenever they wanted to use the tractors.

Since the 1930s the plains around the Ingessana Hills have been seasonally occupied by Rufa'a Arab pastoralists. The Gamk, who established settlements and farms on the more fertile areas around the foothills, found themselves in dispute with the pastoralists, who disregarded the farmers' requests for compensation when their animals damaged the crops. This contrasted with the cooperative relations that were established with the Mbororo pastoralists from West Africa, who moved into the region in the 1950s. Pressure on both pastoralists and farmers increased with the expansion of commercial mechanized farming and the livestock industry by the "Jellaba", the northern merchants. The 1970 Unregistered Land Act abolished traditional rights of access and land use, leaving the state free to demarcate areas for development. Large concessions - up to one million feddans - were granted to northern-owned agricultural companies financed by external loans from Gulf investors and other international bodies through the Mechanized Farming Corporation. The Ingessana Hills were encircled. Vast areas of savannah woodland formerly used by the Gamk for shifting cultivation were seized and cleared of tree cover. Population pressure also increased, since the new schemes needed large amounts of manpower, and migrant labourers were drawn to the area in search of work.

War-displaced people were relocated there in government villagization projects in order to work on the privately owned schemes. The Gamk are aggrieved that outsiders have received preferential treatment in exploiting their land. Beni Amer pastoralists have for many years collected gum arabic from the acacia trees, and timber traders from the Gezira have come to cut trees - often the tallest and oldest - with official permits.

The civil war had its first impact in December 1985. After an attack - allegedly by SPLA forces - on the government-controlled chromium mine at Jam, which had been operating for two decades, a battle ensued 30km south of the mine at Jebel Moghaja, in which 500 people were killed and the "rebels" were defeated. The villagers in the area fled, and when they returned they found the village had been looted and burned. Shop-owning Northern Sudanese and Fellata traders told police that the rebels and local collaborators had been responsible, fuelling government suspicion and leading to prolonged hostility. After the SPLA briefly captured the nearby towns of Kurmuk and Geissan in November 1987, there were massive government reprisals in Southern Blue Nile province. Villages were burned, churches were destroyed and scores of people were killed. In August and September 1990 SPLA forces numbering two
or three thousand attacked Ingessana villages for the first time, ransacking houses and shops and appropriating cattle, until the arrival of government troops with tanks, when they dispersed without direct confrontation. Several rapes and killings were reported.

The economic and social losses caused by the sequestration of Gamk land and the tense relations between the Gamk and suspicious government authorities have been most damaging. It is now common for local people to be denounced by the Arab traders as SPLA sympathisers if they protest about any form of exploitation, and security forces in the area are said to carry machine guns. Since the early 1990s the SPLA has been preoccupied in the South, and references to the Ingessana in its propaganda for "self-determination" for marginal peoples do not reflect active dialogue or involvement in the area. By far the greatest threat to the Gamk is that of displacement from their fertile farmland in the Ingessana Hills and the destruction of their culture and their environment by the regime in the north. The relentless spread of externally funded commercial agriculture - for the benefit of the civil servants, army officers and merchants to whom the government grants land concessions - is both ecologically unsustainable and devastating in its social consequences.

Drafted for Minority Rights Group 1995