Sudan's Nile Island joins the 21st Century

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Tuti Island bridge in Khartoum, Sudan

Tuti island, where the Blue and White Niles merge, has always been seen as a little garden paradise in the centre of Khartoum, for which it used to provide most of the vegetables.

But a bridge that has connected the islanders to mainland Sudan has also brought them into the 21st Century and changed life irrevocably.

They watched the skyline of the capital change dramatically over the past decade, but remained divorced from many aspects of modernity.

Until last year, the island was only accessible by small ferries, but now the bridge literally seems to connect it to Khartoum's most striking landmark, the Burj Al-Fateh Hotel - known as "Gaddafi's Egg" because it was funded by Libya.

"The bridge has changed my life," says Abdilrahman, a farmer tilling his 5,000 sq metre plot with oxen not far from the banks of the White Nile, across from the parliament buildings.

"Before that, I used the ferry to take my vegetables to the market which was very expensive - it would take a long time and now it's very easy for me," he says.

Image caption,
Only about 30% of Tuti Island's land is now farmed

For those who see the island as a sanctuary the changes may not be as attractive, with more than 1,000 cars, once parked near Gaddafi's Egg, now struggling with the narrow bumpy lanes.

Some of the island's 15,000 residents do still take ferries from one side of the island.

"The Nile is the gift from heaven - the trip is very nice, it's free air-conditioning," says a midwife waiting for a ferry after delivering eight babies overnight.

But on the whole the business benefits are lauded, prices in the village shops are lower, and local tourism has picked up with weekend picnickers flocking to the island's beautiful beaches.

Even ferryman Waleed Abdullah Hussein, who lost his job when the bridge opened, sees its positive side.

"It is good as it makes it easier to take sick people across. I know what it is like to take people who were suffering across," he says.

Hotel fears

The bridge is part of a 10- to 15-year master plan by the Tuti Island Investment Company, headed by businessman Al-Fatih Abouda, to develop the island.

Until the arrival of Mr Abouda, Tuti was completely owned by the islanders. Now his real-estate firm has been buying up small plots, making it the largest land owner, and he plans to open up a hotel.

He has come up with feasibility studies and is urging the islanders to form an owners' union so that together they can negotiate a development package with the government and attract international investors.

"Historically Khartoum started from this island. The other side is developed while the island remained undeveloped so we are putting some efforts to develop and to improve the standard of living," Mr Abouda says from his office which has maps of the island plotting two more bridges, new roads and hotel resorts.

"If they follow the idea of forming an owners' union - they will be in control," he says.

But some islanders fear talk of hotels is a death knell for the close-knit community, which has already begun to change in the year since the bridge opened.

"On the ferry people talked, exchanged news in the five or 10 minutes it takes to cross the river," says Mahir Ahmed, an academic and member of the Tuti Cultural Forum who reckons he knows about 90% of the island's residents by name.

Image caption,
Islanders catch up with the news on the 10-minute ferry trip

"Nobody meets each other now for a week or a month as people are taking the bridge in their private cars," he says.

"For example, this morning at about two o'clock one of the Tutians died and we didn't know about it until this afternoon - this would have been impossible before."

These concerns are echoed by the former ferryman Mr Hussein, who worked for 19 years on a boat which took 125 Sudanese pounds ($56, £38) a day, which was shared between the driver, money collector and owner.

"I used to take emergency patients over the water for free. Now, nobody cares about me," he says.

"I survive by doing odd jobs. I had my first child yesterday, but I'm not optimistic about getting a job in the hotels as they probably wouldn't employ a man like me as I'm deaf."

Spirit of the flood

The Tuti Cultural Forum is working with The Sudanese Association for Archiving Knowledge to document life on the island and to warn islanders that their way of life may disappear altogether.

Image caption,
Residents want the island's main road widened

"We're welcoming people to share our social lives and to contribute to our society, but we don't want companies to change our lives," says Mr Ahmed.

"We want Tuti to remain a big farm, as a living society with a special tradition. We want Tuti to represent the real Sudanese life in the centre of the modern life," he says.

He even sees the prospect of flood defences as a possible step too far.

"Every five to 10 years we get a big flood - [it is] part of our culture, and good for land.

"The new clay from Ethiopia is essential for the farmers - and the practice of defending the island is deeply rooted," he says, reminiscing about the community spirit during the great flood of 1988 and the party afterwards.

"Two-thirds of the island was covered, we didn't sleep for a week - sometimes people were blocking the water, by putting themselves against the water until the bags came."

About 30% of the land is now farmed - compared to more than 75% in the 1940s when the islanders clubbed together to build a massive irrigation project.

"I reckon after three years, there won't be any farmland left and this irrigation will have to stop," says Hashir Yahya, in charge of the island's irrigation.

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