For five weeks from 15 June to 20 July, the Goethe Institute in Cairo hosted the pictures of nine photographers from countries overlooking the River Nile. The work by mostly newcomers to the photography scene offered diverse perspectives on what the Nile means to people living in the countries it flows through.
“The Nile is a very complex and layered story. It is not just a watercourse that moves across 11 countries from upstream to downstream. It is the essence of life for many people, the source of a livelihood, the setting for many stories, and the custodian of many dreams,” said photographer Roger Anis, curator of the #Everyday Nile exhibition.
As the exhibition was being inaugurated, Anis was busy taking pictures of the houseboats being removed from the Nile in Agouza in Cairo. His photographs, documenting the end of the houseboat era, are just one small segment of the very large story of the Nile that he and eight other photographers from the Nile Basin countries have tried to tell in the exhibition.
Their photographs were taken as part of a project funded by the Netherlands Foreign Ministry, the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands, and InfoNile, a cross-border group of journalists who work on issues relating to the Nile.
“I believe that we need to learn more about the Nile and have a better understanding of the magnitude of the stories and issues it carries with it through the 11 riparian countries,” Anis said.
Born and brought up in the Middle Egyptian city of Minya, Anis has always had a close association with the Nile. Like other residents of Minya, and for that matter of other cities across the Delta and Upper Egypt, Anis would often stroll along the Nile when he left for school or on his way home after an errand or simply when going for a walk with friends or family.
“The Nile was always there from the early years of my childhood in Minya and when I moved to Cairo to work after my graduation from the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Minya in 2008,” Anis said.
Having travelled across Egypt taking photographs for journalism or other purposes, Anis “unconsciously went to the Nile to take photographs.” He added that “I was really surprised by the number of pictures I had taken with the Nile as centrestage in Cairo and elsewhere.”
He has taken pictures of couples walking on one of Cairo’s oldest bridges or of people spending a quiet evening by the Nile in Minya or of farmers working their way around irrigation issues in Delta. He has always taken pictures of the Nile “if unintentionally,” he said. “I was just taking pictures of people’s lives, but quite often those happened to be associated with the Nile.”
A few years ago on journeys to Sudan and Ethiopia for photography assignments, Anis got to have a “very different take on the Nile”. Following devastating floods in Sudan that shattered homes and lives and during time spent in Ethiopia at the source of the Blue Nile that provides Egypt with the largest part of its Nile water, Anis saw a river that looked different and told other stories to those he was familiar with in Egypt.
However, there was still a definite similarity, which was the attachment of people’s lives to the Nile. “It is not always in the same way, but it is always there. Everywhere along the shores of the Nile, there are so many different stories of people’s relations with this fascinating river,” Anis said.
With this idea in mind, Anis chose to pursue a photo-dialogue with the other riparian countries. He thought that the Nile should be perceived across all its countries for what it is — a source of life and of endless stories, some happy and others less so.
Having secured support and funding, Anis started reaching out to photographers across the 11 countries. He was lucky in some but not all. For over six months and with a lot of coaching that he shared with collaborator Laura Al-Tantawi, Anis managed to secure photographs from Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia for his project.
PHOTOGRAPHING THE NILE: From Egypt, Asmaa Al-Gaafari offered a personal take on the Nile, sharing a family story from the Upper Egyptian hometown of her mother.
The latter used to tell her as a child that “the sea”, the word people in Upper Egypt use to refer to the Nile, was responsible for the marriages of the girls of the village. Al-Gaafari caught her mother saying that “as the water did not reach the houses, the girls used to go to the sea every day to get water. We used to have seashells in our hair so that it would make sounds for the men to hear and choose us as their brides.”
From Sudan, Anis himself shared devastating pictures of houses either partially or completely demolished as a result of the 2020 floods that swept 16 Sudanese states, killing over 100 people and destroying thousands of homes. On the outskirts of Khartoum, flanked by the Blue and White Niles, Anis also took photographs of water-supply shortages.
Stories of flooding were also caught in Uganda by Watsemba Miriam, who shows the growing plight of people living in the Ripon landing site off Lake Victoria in her photographs, as water levels increase and eat up the land they live on.
Diing Magot from South Sudan shows a country blessed with water in her photographs, but one that still cannot provide secure supplies of clean water to residents living close to Juba, the capital of a country that saw its independence in 2011.
Magot’s pictures show women on trucks heading to get water. The story that he attached to his pictures, published in a magazine produced for the exhibition, recalled the hardships of poorer people during the Covid-19 pandemic hoping to access water, whether clean or not.
The curious duality of rich natural water resources and short supplies of drinking water was also caught by Guerchom Ndebo from the Democratic Republic of Congo. This country is estimated to have around 11 per cent of Africa’s water resources, but it failed to provide clean water to the residents of Goma in the North Kivu province upon the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo.
The failure of Burundi to benefit from its generous water resources, despite the country’s being at the very source of the Nile, and its provision of hydropower to a meagre 11 per cent of its population was shared in the photographs of Selecous Ndihokubawaya and Helena Kreiensiek, who followed the Nile from its birthplace in the country.
In Ethiopia, which contains the origin of the Blue Nile, Mekonnen Teshome Tollera went to the Jama River region 200 km north of Addis Ababa to photograph soil degradation that seems set to get worse with the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This will further compromise soil sedimentation from a river that residents of the region call “blue gold”.
Also from Ethiopia, Martha Tadesse showed the bravery of the men and women of the Gambella region who are forced out of the area they call home every year by floods but who then return after they have gone down.
Tony Wild and Anthony Ochieng in Kenya understood the story of the Nile in a different way when they saw the climate-smart initiative of fishermen replacing their kerosene lamps with solar-powered ones and taking these with them instead on evening fishing trips.
In the pictures and accounts included in the exhibition there were many showing the impacts of development and climate change, Anis said, as well as of people trying to accommodate the River and now having to adapt to changes in the climate as well. #Everyday Nile, he said, draws “a visual map” of the stories of the Nile and its people from its sources to its discharge into the Mediterranean.
The exhibition opened on the eve of the rainy season in Ethiopia and the anticipated third filling of the GERD whose operation has been the subject of disagreement between Ethiopia, the upstream country, and both Sudan and Egypt, the downstream ones. It also took place as Cairo counted down the weeks and days before its hosting of the UN COP27 meeting on climate change in Sharm El-Sheikh in November.
But Anis said that the aim of the exhibition was not to comment on politics and conferences. Instead, he said, it aimed to take the story of the Nile beyond this framework to the human-interest stories of the peoples whose lives are associated with the river.
“We have told just a few of so many stories. I am hoping we can have another exhibition, hopefully next year, to tell more stories from the same countries and from other riparian countries that we failed to have photographers from this year,” Anis said.
“We want to share different perspectives and create a space for the peoples of the Nile to connect to one another through the stories and photographs we are assembling,” he added, concluding that he hopes to be able to take the exhibition on tour, maybe as early as next year.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.