ECPHORIZER readers may remember our narrative, "Sudan Diary," in the June 1982 issue. It described our journey from Khartoum to Aswan by train and boat, including two days chugging down the Nile in an Egyptian steamer, the S.S. Ashorah Ramadan.
In the early morning hours of May 25 last, the Ashorah Ramadan exploded and sank in deep water not far from Abu Simbel. Of the 599 passengers and 28 crew, 325 managed to save themselves; 302 were dead or unaccounted for. The passenger list included 547 Sudanese, 48 Egyptians, 1 Tanzanian, 1 Chadian, 1 Frenchman and 1 New Zealander.
It makes you think. The Ashorah Ramadan carried no life boats; if it had, they would have been impossible to launch through the barges full of third-class passengers that were lashed to its sides. There was no emergency drill, and we do not recall any mention of life jackets. The firefighting equipment, if any, was invisible. The crew ran the boat and Allah took care of the passengers.
In terms of our world, such a situation was intolerable. But in the Sudan it made a sort of sense. By packing the maximum number of people into the cheapest possible boat, they made transportation affordable. Our first class cabin berths cost less than ten dollars each; the barge passengers (who also had the best chance to escape) paid about two dollars. If they had built the boat to our standards, half of the passengers would have been unable to travel; they would have either stayed in their villages or found some even more dangerous way to go.
How much did these lives cost? One can estimate that during its ten year life the Ashorah Ramadan carried some half a million passengers. Of these, 302 died. If the proprietors had done it "right," the third class ticket price might have been $40 instead of $2; each life saved would thus have cost about $60,000. The Sudan doesn't have that kind of money to spend.
Would we travel that way again? One chance in 1655 of getting killed may seem like short odds, but you probably do no worse driving across the U.S. There is some value in going along with the majority - and if Allah decides to sink our boat, who are we to argue?
Staffers Martha Johnson & George Towner spent several months mucking about in Asia and Africa before settling into the obscurity of working on this magazine. You can read about George's latest book here!
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The detours are getting me down;
I follow, precisely, the directions you give,
But you keep moving the town!
Wallace Rhea is a motion picture projectionist who has excelled in a dozen occupations, including writing for dirty magazines.
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