Boating on the Nile

21 Dec 2010

Boating on the Nile

With the help of a few oil drums and pieces of iron, a Malakal man has transformed travel in Upper Nile State during the rainy season.

Boats made by Mohamed Hamza Abaker' have opened up trade and reunited communities previously cut off by flooded roads eight months of the year.

Before Mohamed began building boats in 1991, river transport depended on local canoes carved out of tree trunks.

Traveling no farther than neighbouring villages, the slow-moving vessels had little space for people or cargo.

Covering the 90 kilometres by canoe from Malakal to Tonga, for instance, took a day and a half. Mohamed's boats make the journey in about six hours.

Known locally as Mohamed Tokor, the craftsman learned his trade in 1976 at the age of 12, when he was apprenticed for six months to a Lutheran World Relief boat-building project in Juba.

"This was not easy because of my age, as the work involved lifting bags of cement (used to build the boats)", said Mohamed, shaking his head.

He worked for the Lutheran organization for the next nine years, building boats, constructing schools and even cultivating fields. But he eventually returned to Malakal to pursue his first passion.

"I came back in December 1989 with the idea of ... boat building," said Mohamed.

He began his boatyard in 1991, when Malakal was a Sudan Armed Forces garrison town and the country's civil war was at its peak.

"I bought some empty drums from NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and Sudan Armed Forces," the builder said. "Out of these, I made my first boat, which was 12 metres long and could carry 15 passengers."

The vessel's mainframe consisted of 16 iron angles, with 14 oil drums flattened out and welded together to make up its watertight body.

Each boat cost roughly 571 SDG ($241) to build. The finished A-frame craft was fitted with a 15 horse power engine, for another 5,000 SDG ($2,118).

National Security agents at the time warned Mohamed to make no more boats, as they could fall into the hands of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which would use them to transport men and equipment.

"But I never gave up to the idea," said Mohamed, although he asked boat customers to obtain approval from the security forces first. "Instead I went to Canal Town (Jonglei State) to collect old ship container sheeting for the boats. They were stronger than the ... drums previously used to build the first boat."

Canal Town had become a depository of ship containers that had transported materials in the mid-to-late 1970s to build the ill-fated Jonglei Canal, which was never completed.

Beginning in 1995, Mohamed and his students also ran their boats along the rivers, transporting goods and people up the Nile to Melut, down the Sobat River and up to Nasser. They also made trips to Fangak and Tonga along the Bahr El-Jebel River.

As the war was still raging, they often faced the risk of attack. "It was not easy -- we were often shot at, some boats were sunk and some of my pupils were killed, including my own brother," said Mohamed.

Bigger boats

More recently, Mohamed has ventured into barge-like 25 metre boats that carry 25 metric tons of goods and 45 passengers, and 37 metre craft that transport 96 tons and 90 persons.

To date, he has built 18 of the smaller and 24 of the larger vessels. A timely process, it takes 21 days to complete a small boat and 45 for a big one, when all the materials are available.

"The prices for materials are higher than before. This is main reason why there are boats still lying here unfinished," said Mohamed, adding that he currently only built two or three boats per year.

High prices for materials like zinc, iron, plywood and rabbit wire were making it difficult to survive, he added. Iron angles, for example, ranged from 67 SDG ($28) to 135 SDG ($57) now, as compared to 30 SDG ($12) to 96 SDG ($40) in 1991.

The high price of fuel and taxes had also reduced interest among potential boat investors, Mohamed said.

A trip from Malakal to Renk and back with a 90-seater vessel cost 3,500 SDG ($1,500) in fuel, noted boat owner Onyuti Gordon Shoogi. As passengers paid 70 SDG ($30) in fare, a full boat yielded 6,300 SDG ($2,600), of which 350 SDG ($148) went to the driver.

When Mohamed does get orders for boats, his return on the 6,000 SDG ($2,542) for a small boat and 8,000 SDG ($3,389) for a large one is diminished by expenses.

Money to pay his 12 trainees, buy fuel for generators, maintain his workshop and supply its monthly rent of 400 SDG ($169) eats up two-thirds of it. "I earn just about 7,000 SDG ($2,966) per year."

While boatbuilding may not make Mohamed rich, it has gained him a solid reputation in the community. Many customers believe his boats are the strongest and most durable on the Malakal market.

"I had a boat built in 2004 by Mohamed. This boat did last a long time as compared to others," said Malakal resident Andrew Kong Kur.

This means the craftsman has remained a step ahead of his pupils, as the only other two boat builders in the area were trained by Mohamed himself.

A family tale

Relaxing against a few sacks under a reed-roofed shelter on the banks of the Nile, Hussien Nasur Hamed said he built his first boat out of wood that was hand-carved from logs.

His family, the first boat-builders in the Abarouf area of Omdurman, Khartoum, had been constructing vessels this way for 150 years, said the 74-year-old boat-builder.

They began the trade in 1861, after arriving in the area with a group of people accompanying Sudanese religious leader Mohamed Ahmed El Mahdi from Labab Island near Dongala, Northern State.

One boat took about 10 logs, which Hussien bought from area sellers. "These logs mainly come from a type of acacia tree in the Blue Nile or in Upper Nile areas," he said, adding that the price ranged from 70 to 100 SDG ($30 to $42), depending on size.

Assisted by his two sons and two carpenters, he carved the logs into smoothly curved wood. Handsaws were then used to transform them into a boat shape, which Hussien said automatic saws could not achieve.

"I have two carpenters who diligently cut the log into pieces easy to join together using locally made nails," Hussien said.

The price of a boat depends on its length, which is measured using the builders' arms. A five-arm boat costs 1,500 SDG ($635.59), while a 12-arm runs about 15,000 SDG.

"Now the boats are used for fishing," said Hussien. "In the past they were the only means of transport besides donkeys, horses and camels."

Some fishermen prefer metal boats, which cost about the same but are more tightly sealed. "It takes a lot of energy to put pieces of cloth between minor spaces (in the wooden boat) to prevent water leakages," said Ganim Mohamed Ibrahim, a fisherman from Geithiana town, south of Jebel Aulia.

"There is a boat builder in Tuti Island who makes boats out of iron sheets and iron angles for the same price" said another area fisherman, Ali Ibrahim Shamali. "These ones are lighter and easy to paddle with less effort, as compared with the wooden ones."