Walking on Fire: Perambulatory Fieldwork and Shared Interpretation of Date Palm Fires North of the Third Cataract of the Nile (Northern State, Sudan)

Ille, Enrico and Mohamed Salah published an article in 2023 in the review Sources. Materials & Fieldwork in African Studies n° 5, which is intitled “« Walking on Fire: Perambulatory Fieldwork and Shared Interpretation of Date Palm Fires North of the Third Cataract of the Nile (Northern State, Sudan) »


A significant increase in date palm fires in Sudan Northern State since the mid-2000s has triggered different and partially contradictory assessments of why and how they have broken out. These assessments were not merely disinterested cause-effect analyses or differing environmental interpretations: they were profoundly intertwined with political conflicts and socio-economic changes in the region that did not relate just to planned hydropower dams and the presence of extractive activities, respectively posing an immediate threat of displacement and pollution. The ensuing debates have also discussed wider implications for the future of the region and its population, especially for the Nubian majority that considers it to be their ancestral homeland. This connects an investigation about date palm fires to broader political issues, such as the resource policies of the Sudanese Ingaz regime (1989-2019).

In this article, we discuss the subsequent politics of information and evidence that had an essential impact on what data were gathered and made available, and which explanations were given credence by the actors involved. We started out from a set of questions guiding the reconstruction of the preconditions for the outbreak, spread and aftermath of the fires. Why was a place vulnerable to fire? What were the conditions that allowed the fire to happen? How did it actually break out (wildfire, accident or arson)? How did it spread? What conditions facilitated (or hindered) its spread? What was the response of those with an interest in extinguishing it? To what extent was the response successful in putting it out? What was the ultimate damage it caused? What did this event mean for the perception of and/or response to potential future fires? Our subsequent investigation was not defined by the need to identify a specific perpetrator or factor, but was rather aimed at producing a genealogy of circumstances and developments that influenced the way the fires gained ground. At the same time, we had to take into account the complexities of the landscapes and the changing status of date palms both in these landscapes and in human production planning.

Parallel to our own investigation, we began to observe the formation of opinions about these fire events, and to record the responses to our becoming involved in the societal debate on which interpretation was convincing. This brought in aspects of our own positionality, especially regarding the politically loaded differentiation between “wild” and “man-made” fires, and between “accidental” and “intentional” fires. Accusations that the Sudanese central government had instigated a huge proportion of these fires were prominent among Nubian anti-dam activists, and the fact that one of us—Mohamed Salah—belongs to that group had implications for how we approached and analysed our research. The fact that we both opposed the Ingaz regime was also cause for reflection.

In order to deal with the ensuing methodological complications, we referred to academic debates on research approaches to and methods for the study of spatio-temporal relationships with different environments and evidence-making within the framework of these relationships. We identified walking interviews, a form of perambulatory fieldwork, as an appropriate technique for thinking through these complications, as they combine the detachment process of the interview—as a conversation intended to create a temporary reflective distance from the flow of social practices in order to look at them—with exposure to the familiar, in the sense of paths that have been taken numerous times. After reflecting on the multiple disciplinary contexts in which this technique has been discussed—such as anthropology, memory studies, environmental sociology and human geography—we present examples of fire event case studies that used it as part of the research process. In our presentation of walking interviews, we also use and reflect on different techniques of visualisation and illustration, including geotagged photos in combination with edited transcripts or self-reflective comments. We then offer more systematic reviews of the interpretations that were put forward during these and other interviews during our research.

As a result, our article indicates the different ways in which the affected date palm owners considered what exactly they had lost when their palms burned, and whether this may have been intentional. The complex answers to these questions highlighted both social and political processes around the palms. The economic and socio-cultural status of date palms has changed among the resident populations, especially since the second half of the twentieth century. Being intergenerationally linked to families through property relations and shared memories, palm trees and their changing status can simultaneously represent roots and the immovability of origin, or their loss. When one looks at the socio-ecological landscape and the place of date palm fires in it, one therefore finds several layers to the amount of damage done.

At the same time, the ongoing political tensions meant that many of the interpretations suggested by date palm owners, activists and government officials had a political thrust, whether accusatory or defensive, often along the lines of pre-existing hostilities. However, we found that in spite of the tense, antagonistic dynamics in the region, these interpretations could not simply be inferred from the various standpoints and interests in these dynamics. Our open-ended conversations with date palm owners, who generally shared opposition to the then ruling party (the NCP), revealed multiple and differentiated processes of interpretation. The juxtaposition of their arguments with statements from a local NCP member attested to the existence of points of convergence amidst their political antagonism around common notions, such as “negligence” and “climate change.” A careful mapping of the boundaries of these shared ideas seems to us to be a valuable mediatory and methodological principle.

In conclusion, we confirm the importance of exposure as a crucial element of environmental research, especially if it relates to issues that not only our interlocutors but also we ourselves are invested in, whether emotionally, politically, or otherwise. At the same time, this also requires a highly reflective and critical analysis of subsequent research materials and their sources in order to navigate the intricate methodological complications this type of research process generates.

Quote this article : 2023. « Walking on Fire: Perambulatory Fieldwork and Shared Interpretation of Date Palm Fires North of the Third Cataract of the Nile (Northern State, Sudan) ». Sources. Materials & Fieldwork in African Studies n° 5 : 99-168 (i-lxxi).

Citer ce billet
cedejsudan (2023, 15 mars). Walking on Fire: Perambulatory Fieldwork and Shared Interpretation of Date Palm Fires North of the Third Cataract of the Nile (Northern State, Sudan). Researching Sudan - A perspective on contemporary Sudans. Consulté le 22 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/mhna

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