Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North depicts the small village of Wad Hamid—as well as the country of Sudan in which it is located—undergoing major transformations as a result of modernization. The novel’s unnamed narrator witnesses many of these transformations, and ultimately takes an ambivalent view towards them. Many of these transformations lead to improvements in people’s lives and livelihoods, but not all of these changes are for the better. The novel suggests that with modernity comes a loss of tradition and ancient ways of life. Furthermore, most of the privileges of modernity are monopolized by the corrupt rulers who come to power after the end of British colonialism, demonstrating that the benefits of these changes are not equally distributed in a society like Sudan’s.
Both technology and education are modern transformations that influence the village of Wad Hamid, as well as the wider country of Sudan, in important ways. Early on in the novel, the narrator notes how, over time, he watched the traditional water wheels that brought water to the farm fields along the banks of the Nile river be replaced by water pumps. The narrator’s friend Mahjoub also notes other technological changes that affect the country and the village, such as the introduction of cars and radios. Furthermore, standardized education is another major element of modernity that reaches the villagers and other Sudanese people. The narrator himself, as well as Mustafa Sa’eed, benefits from the standardized schooling that is introduced initially during British colonial rule. Both go on to pursue advanced educational degrees in Europe. The narrator’s friend Mahjoub, while not pursuing an advanced degree, also attends school. Furthermore, as a result of this education, girls and women are given access to learning that they did not have before.
The technological and educational opportunities offered by modernity lead to improvements in people’s lives. The lorries that are owned by the village cooperative that Mahjoub leads, for instance, allow for a quick and steady supply of goods from the capital, Khartoum, to the villagers. This allows the villagers to access the things that they want more quickly and cheaply, as Mahjoub notes to the narrator. Likewise, the new water pumps are more efficient in distributing water to the farms that line the village, which allows farmers to grow more consistent crops. Furthermore, more prevalent education not only allows villagers (especially girls) more extensive access to learning, but it also helps them better organize and plan their livelihoods and affairs. Mahjoub, for instance, uses the writing and arithmetic skills he learned in elementary school to help run the village cooperative project, which leads to improvements in other villagers’ lives.
But the changes brought about by modernity are not always positive. In cataloguing these changes, the narrator suggests that they may also cause a loss of valuable traditions. The narrator notes, for instance, how Wad Baseer, the “village engineer” who had never gone to school and yet knew how to build doors and water wheels, goes out of business as a result of the coming of the water pumps. This, the narrator suggests, is a loss, as the water wheels represent an ancient, traditional way of life that is lost with the arrival of modern technology.
Furthermore, the fruits of modernity primarily benefit the corrupt rulers of the country and the continent. Foe example, the narrator recalls hearing the speech of an African Minister of Education at a conference in the capital, Khartoum. While this Minister talked about the necessity of being in touch with the African “people,” the narrator notes how he owned a massive, expensive villa in Switzerland, and how his wife went shopping in Harrod’s in London. The narrator’s opinions of the corrupt new rulers of the continent point to the ways in which these rulers—like their colonial forbearers—have simply co-opted the privileges of modernity (including mobility and wealth) for themselves. Instead of passing on these benefits to the people, they monopolize the benefits of modernity to lead lives of luxury and comfort.
Presented through the narrator’s point of view, the novel’s depiction of modernity and change is ambivalent. On the one hand, the narrator’s comments throughout the novel suggest that modernity does indeed bring about some positive changes to people’s lives. Both technological and educational innovations bring opportunities to the villagers of Wad Hamid to which they would not otherwise have had access. On the other hand, a sense of loss is also associated with these drastic changes, as the narrator notes how traditional skills, crafts, and knowledge are lost as a result. Finally, the novel suggests that whatever positive changes modernity enables, its privileges are largely monopolized by the post-independence ruling elite, who behave like their colonial forbearers in hoarding vast wealth for themselves rather than passing on benefits to people like the villagers.
Modernity and Change ThemeTracker
Modernity and Change Quotes in Season of Migration to the North
Though Wad Baseer is still alive today, he no longer makes such doors as that of my grandfather’s house, later generations of villagers having found out about zan wood doors and iron doors which they bring from Omdurman. The market for water-wheels, too, dried up with the coming of pumps.
“The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns not bread, and the railways were originally set up to transport troops; the schools were started so as to teach us how to say “Yes” in their language.”
[Mahjoub] will not believe the facts about the new rulers of Africa, smooth of face, lupine of mouth, their hands gleaming with rings of precious stones, exuding perfume from their cheeks, in white, blue, black and green suits of fine mohair and expensive silk rippling on their shoulders like the fur of Siamese car, and with shoes that reflect the light from chandeliers and squeak as they tread on marble.