Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sultan Senoussi's City on a Hill

After obtaining permission from the First Adjunct Mayor (the Sultan-Mayor's replacement when he is not around), the General Secretary of the Mayor's office, the Zone Commander of the army, and the Unit Chief of the gendarmerie, and finding a guide, this morning I was finally able to climb up the hill to see Sultan Senoussi's old city. (Once there, I discovered that it is in fact an oft-traversed plateau, where people come to collect firewood, to cultivate small, terraced gardens, or just en route to more-distant villages. But for a foreigner, it's different. There would be rumors if I just went up there poking around.)

Senoussi settled on the hilltop in 1891 and Ndele life centered on that well-defended plateau until the Sultan's assassination by the French twenty years later. At that point everyone fled and the city on the hill has been abandoned ever since. The town now spreads out from the southern base of the hill. If I could choose, though, I'd much rather re-site the town up onto that plateau. It is full of dramatic rock formations that provide hollows for afternoon resting spots with lovely views over the surrounding countryside. In a few places, paths shaded by tall trees that almost, just a tiny bit, reminded me of the trails I grew up with in New Hampshire, slope down toward verdant streams.

Of the old city, only crumbling half-walls of the more important buildings remain. The current Sultan-Mayor has put up little signs identifying some of the spots in an effort to make this a tourist site. For the time being it's not a very friendly place to visit, though, both for the red tape required and for the sharp, reedy grasses that remain in the aftermath of the dry season burn and copious other thorny plants through which one must bushwhack. I sliced open my ankle and one of my companion ripped his trousers straight across the knee. On the other hand the guide, Chef de Quartier Yaro, was in his 58, at least a foot shorter than me, wore flip-flops, and even so I kept having to call after him to slow down.

It must have been a vibrant and surprising place, set in such ranging topography and making such use of the rock formations and other natural features. I was struck by how many of the structures of which traces remain are guardhouses, soldier's barracks, or other military fortifications. The guardhouses ringed the perimeter at the access paths. The soldiers and close guards lived nearer to the sultan. (Insert reference to the Presidential Guard, army, and gendarmerie currently inhabiting Ndele, and their, ahem, variable comportment. Deleted for fear of being “too sensitive.”)

Today, when the sultan is in Ndele he lives in a tall house set within a large compound graced by mango trees. During the rebel attack on November 26, a rocket – not clear who launched it – landed in the foyer and burned a living room set that President Bozize had given for World Food Day Ndele 2008 as well as many old photographs of sultans and their families over the years. I ask people when the sultan will return from Bangui, and they cite the state of his house as a reason why he has stayed away: “Where would he live, with his house in that state?” But when I ask who will repair the house, they say that the sultan must return for it to be repaired. No one here has any money for that. If the sultan were here, they would gladly approach him and present in tribute their few francs. But only if he's here. All of which makes me doubt I'll see him in Ndele during my stay here.

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