God's Desert Highway

The following is a short story I wrote after living for a year in northern Sudan.  It's a true story about one of our many treks across a desert I grew to love as much as the people in it.  If you would like to send me a comment regarding this story, please click on the "contact me" button just below the "Remembering the Poor" book in the column to the right.

"You're soft," my professor told me.  He figured I needed some tough experiences in a difficult setting to make a man out of me, and invited me to fill a vacancy with a community development agency in northern Sudan.  And to confirm his assessment, I told him (in fewer words) that I didn't  want to go to such an extreme setting for a long hot year of my thus-far comfortable life.  But as I prayerfully considered it, I couldn't escape the attraction of the challenge and decided to go and see what I could do and learn in the desert.
The place I called home there was a mud hut with a dirt floor and a thatch roof in a tiny desert village called Hamrat el Wiz.  It was an off-road faraway place that had no electricity or running water.  Camels were more common than cars, and sandstorms more common than clouds.  The people of that village were wonderful, but spoke a language I didn’t know and practiced customs far different than my own.  I was there as part of a development team that was helping a desert community to recover from the drought of the mid-1980s.
It was 1987, and to add to the extremity of our isolation, we had no computers, let alone e-mail, and there were no cell phone signals or satellite cell phones to give us access to the outside world.  The only way we could communicate with someone outside our village was to go to them – across a roadless, hazardous desert.  There was a day when the four girls from our team failed to return from Sudan's capital of Khartoum in a reasonable number of days, and left us concerned for their safety.  So we asked our most experienced driver, Ahmed, to drive the route that the trucks typically drove to get to and from Khartoum, and to see he could find out if they were stranded somewhere.  He left the morning of June 1 with a couple of villagers who wanted to go to Khartoum.  It took about fifteen hours to complete this 175 mile trek in perfectly dry, windless conditions, which were rare, and if there were no vehicle difficulties, which were common.  This was the beginning of the hot, rainy season and we had already seen a few brief rain showers in the previous couple of weeks.  Ahmed feared that heavier showers between Hamrat and Khartoum may have delayed the girls.
The rains began in the village that day at about 2pm.  The showers we had seen in the distance over the past weeks had been encouraging signs of an early rainy season.  We were happy to see such rains.  Crops would soak them up and boost the village's economy, which was still recovering from the drought.  But on June 1 the rains came a little too hard for six solid hours.
It only took about another twelve hours after the rain had ended before the flood came.  Most desert villages are located beside fertile wadies – natural riverbeds that fill up in the rainy season, but when empty, are excellent soil for gardens.  Many of the poorest families' homes were located at the edge of the wadi by our village, and we as an organization had 10,000 tree seedlings growing in a nursery there.  But when the water came unexpectedly rushing down the wadi from the far south in the nighttime hours following the rains, the wadi overflowed its banks more quickly than even the oldest people in the village could remember.  Many homes were destroyed and many families dispossessed, and our treebelt project suffered the loss of most of its 10,000 trees.  The brown dust-laden waters rushed down the wadi like a river after a fast melt in the waning months of a prairie winter.  As the wadi widened further into the village, everyone pulled together to help save peoples' belongings as well as some of the tree seedlings.  The initial day's race to save some seedlings, rescue many people’s personal effects and to build an embankment large enough to protect the village market was exhausting, and it was followed by hours of clean-up as we assessed the damage the following day.  But it was only the beginning of a week in Sudan that I would never forget.
The morning after the clean-up began, a camel rider came to our compound with a message from Ahmed:  "I'm stuck a couple of hours' drive from Hamrat.  The Land Rover is broken down.  Please come with help and food and water as soon as possible."
Ahmed had been helplessly stuck since 10:00 of the morning he had left us – nearly two days earlier!  I rushed out to him with an available mechanic, and after some research, we found that the clutch-plate was ruined.  It needed to be replaced.  The next 24 hours were spent travelling the desert – dodging shrubs, dunes and stones, and bogging down in wet sands – trying to find a suitable clutch-plate from other derelict Land Rovers, whether in Hamrat or in a village well beyond where Ahmed and his passengers remained with the vehicle.  After twelve full hours of desert driving, the dismantling of two vehicles, and a night spent sleeping under the stars, we had no clutch-plate to show for our efforts.  Once back with Ahmed, we decided that I would go back to Hamrat, hire a guard for the vehicle, and then Ahmed, his passengers and I would go to Khartoum for the part.  By ten that night, I returned to Ahmed with the guard.  Leaving the guard with the stranded vehicle, we made two efforts to drive that night, but because we literally found ourselves driving in circles, we stopped and slept and waited until morning to press on.
Ever since coming to Sudan, I had been confronted with the unexpected.  I had been led to believe that my responsibilities and locale would be quite different than life in this very remote desert village.  Then once in Hamrat, the problems with projects seemed never ending, and the endless delays only added to the frustrations of team life and culture shock by giving us too much time on our hands.  Africa is not a good place to be in a hurry.
While I was in Sudan, I found a psalm in the Bible that seemed to sum up a lot of my feelings, and it offered a unique perspective on the challenges I was facing.  While beginning with praises to God for his awesome works and ways and for his protection over our lives, the psalmist goes on to say:  "For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver.  You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs.  You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance (Psalm 66)."  Was God to blame for the challenges we faced?
The next morning, we awoke early and pressed on to the last village we would pass through before Khartoum.  From there we had two choices.  The long (20 hours) and much more likely to be dry route, or the short (12 hours) and more likely to be wet route.  We were told that both should be open, so we chose the short route.  As a 12-hour route, it took over 24 hours of driving, pushing, wading, and digging to get through the three wadis in its path.  It was a horrible route to have taken.
The first wadi we entered was large.  We drove up and down its edge looking for a suitable crossing point.  Finally Ahmed stopped and said, "This is the best place for us to cross."  Ahmed's "best place" was about 50 yards of water, six to 24 inches deep, under which was six to twelve inches of mud, some of which could be seen above the water’s surface here and there to offer hope.  It is difficult to describe the five hours of labour it took us to cross that 50 yards at temperatures that certainly well exceeded 40 degrees Celsius.  The mud was often right up to our undercarriage and we were on our bellies in the water trying to dig it out.  Then we'd lay branches of the wadi’s trees or shrubs under the tires, and then push.  Then after managing to get the vehicle about 80% of the way across, we hit the deepest part.  If four local shepherds hadn’t been nearby to come and help us (for a price), I’m sure we would have been there for many additional hours.
Tired, dirty and wet, and our feet cut up from the sturdy thorns of the branches we'd had to walk over as we pushed the vehicle over them, we drove on. The next wadi was worse. Instead of a mere 50 yards of water and mud, this one was at least 100 yards wide, with dozens of deep, steep, muddy and slippery ravines weaving their way across our path. Once again, Ahmed drove up and down its edge looking for the best crossing point. As he began our journey across the wadi at the best place he could find, we entered a ravine that was about five feet deep with slippery mud-soaked sides. We immediately got stuck at the bottom of it. Using piles of branches and some determined digging, we got out, but we got stuck over and over again – the final straw being when all four of our wheels were spinning freely on perfectly level ground in mud that was only one or two-inches deep. And given the energy we’d expended and the heat of the desert, we were getting increasingly fatigued as the wadi was becoming alarmingly impassable. It seemed we couldn’t move forward, and going back the way we’d come was looking equally uncertain as the afternoon sun sapped both our bodies and our spirits. I wondered if we were going to die in this remote and inhospitable place. Then along came a man out of nowhere – a nomad of the land, and he offered us help.
"You'll need to turn back," he told Ahmed. "The farther you go in at this place, the harder it becomes." So he led us out. He just began walking away from us expecting us to follow, and as Ahmed tentatively put his foot on the gas, and as we gave the vehicle a push, the vehicle moved and he was able to turn to follow the man. Somehow – I can’t explain how – he led us out of a place that had taken us over an hour to cross into in a matter of minutes. Once back on the side of the wadi where we’d started, the nomad jumped in the vehicle and directed us north. It didn’t seem like he took us further than where we had looked before when searching for the best crossing-point, but then suddenly we saw what seemed impossible: a passageway  a level and dry place to cross the wadi where we could drive straight across without a single barrier between us and the other side. Once safely across, we expressed our thanks to him, and as he kindly declined our attempts to pay him for his help, I remember wondering at how gentle the look in his eyes was, and I wondered where he had come from in this lonely place. Eventually, he just turned and walked back into the trees of the wadi from where he’d come. I couldn’t resist wondering if he had been an angel.
Once he had left, and as we paused to take some water from a container we carried, I went aside to a distant bush to be alone for a moment. As I began to thank God for the help he had given us, I began to weep. I remembered the psalm that says, “They wandered in the wilderness in a desert region; they did not find a way to an inhabited city. They were hungry and thirsty; their souls fainted within them. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble; He delivered them out of their distresses. He led them also by a straight way, to go to an inhabited city. Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness” (Psalm 107:4-8).  The challenges we’d been through were of the kind that I wouldn’t have wanted to face without knowing that God was helping us.
By nightfall, we were near the third wadi.  We slept out under the stars, and the next day, having no further problems crossing that wadi, we were in Khartoum by mid-afternoon.  I then took my first shower in five hot, dirty days.
The four girls were safe, and had never even left Khartoum due to unavoidable delays, so the entire trip had been unnecessary.  But I believe that God had wanted me on that trip.  He had wanted to show me that he would be with me in and through life's character-building challenges, and that I didn't need to fear them.  While I had wandered in one of life’s desert wastelands, I had begun to see the beauty of the lessons that could be learned there.

© 1994 by Ken Peters