Mohamed Altoum had faint childhood memories of his father’s stories about their Nubian culture from their ancestral village in north Sudan. Yet when his father, Osman, an accountant who also wrote poetry, recounted them again in 2010, Mohamed paid close attention.
His father was dying from liver cancer. So while Mohamed and his family cared for Osman around the clock at their home in Khartoum, Sudan, his father’s stories rekindled something deep inside him.
“He spoke about the music, literature and culture,” Mohamed said, “and told me that I needed to discover my roots in the Nubian community.”
Mohamed had grown up in Khartoum, Sudan’s mainly Arab capital, and though his mother, Majda, is also Nubian, he rarely had contact with the Nubian culture other than listening as his father fell asleep to the sound of Nubian songs on the radio. But when Osman died, Mohamed started a quest to find out more about his father and what it means to be Nubian. He traveled throughout north Sudan to Aswan in southern Egypt, as well as to Kenya and Uganda, where there are large Nubian communities.
While visiting his uncle Al-Haj in the family house in the town of Hoshmar in north Sudan, Mohamed found a photo of himself as a boy dressed in traditional clothing.
“I realized that my father had always tried to pass on this culture,” he said, “but I wasn’t making connections between the history and the present.”
Nubia is a region along the Nile, stretching from Aswan a thousand miles south to Khartoum, and its rich culture dates back to at least 2500 B.C. It was home to several powerful empires. By the sixth century A.D. most Nubians had converted to Christianity. After almost a millennium of rule, the last of three Christian kingdoms fell around 1500, and most Nubians converted to Islam.
Mohamed participated in the Arab Documentary Photography Program started by the Magnum Foundation, the Prince Claus Fund and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, and he continued his project under the mentorship of the photojournalist Randa Shaath.
He photographed weddings and festivals as well as everyday life on the street and inside houses. In Khartoum, he photographed Nuba wrestling matches, a sport he recognized from the games his father taught him and his younger brother Maaz as children. In the countryside he learned about the importance of nature in the Nubian culture.
His journey made him more “relaxed and peaceful” and also affected his photography, emphasizing the importance of storytelling, which, he said, is central to Nubian culture.
“I have a responsibility as a Nubian person to tell our story in the right way and counter the stereotypes from colonial days,” he said. “I tried to reflect the identity, and the humanity of Nubians. It is a very strong culture, and the people are really helpful to each other and respectful of every living thing.”