Trade in Kufra (Libya)
If you travel along the coast eastwards from Tripoli in Libya, after about 800 kilometres you come to Ajdabiya, a small town near the coast which was the headquarters of the Sanusi administration for a few years of uneasy accommodation with the Italians and was a centre of battles in the second world war. It also has what must be one of the more romantic signposts of the world: there is a T-junction, to the east you can arrive in Benghazi, Alexandria and Cairo (1,000 kilometres); to the south you can travel 800 kilometres and reach to Kufra and then a further 1,200 to Khartoum or 1,500 to Ndjamena in Chad.
In the years 1975-91 was fortunate enough to spend rather more than two years in Libya, doing fieldwork among a group of people who called themselves by the collective name Zuwaya and who occupied a territory which stretched from the Mediterranean coast to the borders with Egypt, Sudan and Chad. Although, at least in the 1970s, rather few of them were engaged in trade, they regarded themselves as traders, and they were in fact the principal traders on the route which leads from the coast into black Africa. In the past they bought slaves and animals from Sudan to the coast for export to Alexandria, and also engaged in smaller trade -- one very old man, for instance, remembered bringing ostrich feathers northwards, for export to Paris, at the turn of the century. The trade even then was not a principal occupation of Zuwaya, but was integrated with a cycle of nomadic movement from the oases in the south and the catch-crop grain-farming areas in the north, in the sub-desert land around Ajdabiya: most people farmed and herded, a few (energetic young men) went off from Kufra for a few years to trade in the markets of Sudan, Chad and, from the 1870s, into Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, before rejoining the annual south--north movement.
Zuwaya were not the only people who traded along this route: other Libyan groups, some Egyptians and even Turks are thought to have travelled through Kufra. Other groups had settlements in the oases of Jalu and Aujla and were engaged in what seems to have been a classic struggle with Zuwaya for control of those important staging posts. But Zuwaya did control Kufra and the other smaller oases within 200 kilometres or so (Tazerbu, Buzaima, Rabbiana), a control which gave them a decided advantage over other travellers: these were the only major watering places on the