When I was in Sudan, I met a man called Mohamed Mohamed Musa. He was one of the people who had undertaken a seven hour bus journey to travel from Kassala to meet me at the Practical Action offices in Khartoum. I interviewed Mohamed at length, to learn about his life, and how he had worked with Practical Action.
My conversation with Mohamed was a fascinating one, and I wrote about it at the time on my blog Sprouting seeds for success and happiness. I remember being struck by his height. I’m quite small, and Mohamed towered over me. But he was very thin, and his collar bones protruded sharply. I remember noticing his clothes – he wore a ‘jalabya’, a simple long white gown, and an ‘eimma’, a turban – but he was also very proud of his very cool Ray Ban style sunglasses. But mostly I remember Mohamed’s face. It was fascinating, magnificent, the sort that has a whole life etched into it.
Today I received some really sad news from one my colleagues in Sudan.
Mohamed has passed away.
He died on 9 September after falling ill with a parasitic infection which is spread by contact with dirty water.
I am filled with sorrow. Mohamed was 64 – a good age – but at no point in our conversation did he seem weak, or frail, or ready to leave his life. He was passionate about Practical Action, and spoke enthusiastically about his hope that one day he would be able to help other poor people in Sudan in the way that Practical Action had helped him, and his community.
In my notes of our conversation, I scribbled “Mohamed is like hope embodied.” I feel so sad that his life and that hope have been snuffed out so soon.
I’d like to share Mohamed’s words with you, so you too can be inspired by the story of a very hard-working, determined and humble man.
“I was born in 1947. I’m 64. I’ve lived all my life in Tambi. I have two wives and 16 children – nine sons and seven daughters. Some of them are still in school.
My childhood was a happy time. I had six brothers and four daughters. My father was a farmer and he also did some teaching. I left school when I was about 12 and started working with my father, helping with our animals.
I was 26 years old when I married my first wife Mariam, who is now 50. And then I was 44 when I married my second wife, Fatima, who is 37. My marriage to Mariam was arranged. Fatima is a relative, the daughter of my cousin. Her parents died when she was young and so I married her to look after her.
I live with my wife Mariam in Tambi, in a small mud house with four rooms. Fatima doesn’t live with me; she lives in Kassala because I want the children to go to school there.
Every day I wake up at 4am and prepare to go to the mosque to pray. After that I drink some tea and then will travel to the farm to work on the land all day. After I get back to my house at 5pm and we pray again and maybe have some food. In the evening times, I will go to the community centre which has been built by Practical Action. As a community we’ll discuss any issues or concerns, or problems we might have with our farming, or the latest news.
Mariam searches for the firewood for cooking. We cook on an open fire outside in the open, not inside our house. Otherwise it gets too smoky.
It’s our children’s duty to go and collect the water for drinking. We have water that is pumped from Kassala, but we rely on the rainwater to water our crops. We know that climate change is making life more difficult. We now need to plant seeds that don’t require as much rain because the rains don’t come as frequently these days.
Practical Action told me about these new seeds. They actually yield more, and I am able to get more money for my crops at market! I decided to bring these to share with you because I know you are meeting other farmers in Darfur. We can all see the difference between the old and the new seeds.
Before Practical Action came to Tambi, I was always worrying about the future, fighting for tomorrow. Mostly I was worried about food. We never had enough to eat. But I never gave up. We were just farmers, we had no skills, no other jobs. We had no choice, but to continue trying to make a living from farming.
I volunteered to be a ‘lead farmer’ in my village and am part of a network of lead farmers across Kassala called ‘Elgandhl’ (it means ‘sprouting seed’ in English). This means it’s my duty to share farming skills with other farmers in my community. This could be how to build a terrace or how to hoe the soil. I know how to do a small germination test to check the quality of the seeds – you simply put one in a saucepan of water, and watch to see if it will grow. I now know about weeds and pests and how to control them using local techniques (that have been forgotten over the generations) about scaring birds away. Practical Action has informed us of our rights, what we can expect from our government, how we can make ourselves heard.
Practical Action has helped some of the women in my village to set up a women’s farm. Mariam, my wife, is one of these women. If she has time she also comes and helps me with the animals. We now think of the women as equal – we are the same. I know my wife can think as well as I do.
There is not enough time to talk about all that Practical Action does in my village. Practical Action is like a mother to us – we see ourselves as the children of Practical Action. Before I was a poor man, but now I am rich – not with money but with knowledge. Knowledge makes me richer than anything.
We will know what to do long after Practical Action leaves. I am very happy and proud. I am hoping that one day we will be able to do for other poor people in Sudan what Practical Action has done for us.”
Mohamed will stay in my heart forever. My thoughts are with his family and community in Kassala.4 Comments » | Add your comment
Over the last 48 hours I have listened in horror to the tragic news of the shootings of the British family in the French Alps. The detail that makes me shudder most, that fills me with the deepest distress, is the fact that the youngest child, a four year old girl, was so scared that she sheltered under the legs of her murdered mother for eight hours. I cannot imagine the fear and utter trauma that must now envelop her, and her critically ill seven year old sister.
That sense of terror, of shell shock, reminded me of a story I heard in Sudan. I interviewed a woman called Sara, who aged 21, is only a few years younger than me. She told me how when she was only five, government soldiers stormed into her village and shot everyone they could see. She was so frightened she could not move.
Sara’s story is one of dignity and of hope and of survival against all odds. But above all, it is a story of one woman’s strength. I think you will find it an inspirational and a moving one. I hope so anyway.
“I was born in Al Llafa, near Fato, in Kassala, in the east of Sudan.
I remember the first day the war came to Al Llafa. It was in 1996. It was early morning, the first day of Eid and my best friend and I were holding hands and walking through our village, going to the celebrations. At that moment, we heard gun shots. We couldn’t make it back to our families in time, because of the fighting. I was separated from my mother and was so scared. Most of the villagers fled, they ran into the desert and hid. But I could not move. My friend and I stayed together, cowering under a bush, and then under the cover of the night we found our families. I still have nightmares about the sound of the guns. A school friend was hit by a shell. We had to travel to a safe place in the same truck as her dead body. I still remember the smell of the blood. For months afterwards I couldn’t eat or drink anything, I felt so sick all the time. The smell of the blood.
Organisations like the Red Crescent came to provide shelter and build a camp for the people who were fleeing the war. We stayed in this camp, in little tents. My whole family in one tent – my parents and my three brothers and my four sisters. We lived in that tent for two years, until I was seven.
Then another NGO came and helped us to build some new houses in Fato. Slowly, very slowly, we have rebuilt our lives.
I didn’t go to school for two years. I was just in a constant state of shock and also my parents had no way of earning money for the school fees. They had been farmers in Al Llafa but when we fled, we left the land. It was an impossible time. We used to get food from some of the kind people in the village, and from the World Food Programme. My parents used to sell the food from WFP so they could earn enough money for my school fees. We were hungry but at least I was getting an education.
Sometimes I can’t believe my childhood was like that. I can’t believe I got through it.
I left school when I was 15. I didn’t pass my Maths and English exams. Since then I have stayed at home helping the family.
Every day I get up at 6am, pray, and I clean the house. I cook our breakfast. It’s my job because I have siblings younger than me. The duties are divided between me and my sisters. The boys don’t do very much.
We buy water from the water tank in the village and my father goes to get the firewood. We cook on an open fire which means that there is lots of smoke inside the house. It can be difficult for our chest and our eyes.
We get electricity in our home by using our neighbour’s generator. This means we have can have light. The main reason for getting electricity though is so my siblings can read in the evenings. We’ve had it for one year and it has changed our lives, although we can’t afford it all the time, and we can’t afford our own generator.
During the afternoon I’ll make coffee for the family and then I cook dinner. In the evenings I help my brothers with their homework. Then we pray. Then we sleep. My days are very busy.
I am a member of the Village Development Committee which Practical Action helped us to set up. I was nominated by my village to be in the VDC because I am strong-minded and have my own opinions. The men worry about women like me. The fact that I completed my school education was also a good thing. No-one had a bad word to say about me.
One of the things our VDC has done, with Practical Action’s guidance, is set up a social fund. Everyone pays in a small fee to a central pot each month and then if someone gets sick there is money to help the ill person and their family. All the villagers will also come together and help that sick person with the farming work – planting seeds or harvesting, or whatever needs doing.
Practical Action has also trained me on food processing. I was one of 30 women who participated in the training. We learned how to make jams, spaghetti, cakes, biscuits, juices, and chutneys – all of this from the produce we grow on the land. Food processing is a wonderful thing for us because it helps us to make our food last longer and also get more value from what we sell at market. Instead of selling a pumpkin, we can sell the pumpkin chutney we make, which enables us to earn more money.
I’m proud of myself because food processing helps me to make a living and also take care of my family. For example, I am paying for my brother to go to school so he can have a chance at life.
I am so happy that now I have skills because I can earn money to have control over my own life. My Dad cannot tell me what to do. I have freedom. Thank God for this.
As a child I had no hope. I never thought I would be strong enough to live again. I am happy Practical Action has changed my life in a way that brings our community together. Before everyone was isolated, as if we were all existing in our own separate shells. But now we are connected. And the men in my village respect my contribution to the development of our community. I never ever thought I’d have the chance to come to Khartoum. I didn’t even have to ask my Dad’s permission. I could just come, because I wanted to. Because now I am free.”
No Comments » | Add your comment
My mother, Helen, is an inspiration to me. She left school aged 16 and went straight into a responsible full-time secretarial job at a local engineering firm. Aged 21, she moved to Italy for some adventure. She made friends and a life – and can still speak Italian fluently. After she returned to the UK, and met and married my father, she embarked on motherhood. Aged 35, she had four energetic children all under the age of seven. I look back on my childhood, and remember my beautiful but boisterous brothers, and marvel at how she kept her sanity. She then went back to college to study, and finally embarked on a degree in English Literature – while still being a committed and dedicated mother and wife, and working at a local school. I struggled to focus on my degree even when I was 18 and totally free, and it was the only thing I had to think about. The fact my Mum did hers, and graduated with a 2:1 from one of the best universities in the country, is still completely remarkable to me. Her unfaltering sense of calm, and enduring belief that everything will be ok in the end – you will survive the very worst of life: heartbreak, illness, bereavement – is an inspiration to me.
But I know many people feel like this about their Mum. The bond between mother and child is the most unique, the most unshakeable love.
Today I am writing up many more of the stories I collected while visiting our work in Sudan. And what strikes me is how passionately the people with whom we work feel about Practical Action. Over and over again, I listened to stories from people who have clung on to life in the face of poverty, famine and war. The words they have for Practical Action are profoundly moving, and go beyond the clichéd (although still wonderful) “Practical Action changed my life”:
“Practical Action is like a mother to us – we see ourselves as the children of Practical Action.”
“I thank Practical Action. You know how to save people.”
“Practical Action thinks about the whole picture – our animals, our land, our food. Our community thanks Practical Action, the words “Practical Action” are never far from our minds!”
“Practical Action solves problems. It is the only organisation that actually looks at us as people. We are no longer alone.”
“I could not have done it without…Practical Action. Practical Action is a mother, a teacher, a saviour.”
I love the fact that people are so eager to speak about Practical Action in this way. And what is particularly compelling to me is that suggestion that “Practical Action is like a mother”.
Why do people say this?
Well firstly, I think it is testament to just how wonderful our project workers are. They are loyal, hardworking and compassionate people.
Secondly, I believe that the phrase “Practical Action is like a mother” illustrates our unique approach to development. Like the best mothers, Practical Action seeks to raise confident, caring, fulfilled, independent offspring. If children cannot live happily beyond their mothers, then something has gone wrong. Similarly, if people cannot move successfully to a future beyond Practical Action’s development projects, then something hasn’t quite worked.
In Sudan what was perhaps most impressive to me was the sense that Practical Action empowers whole communities. Our work might start with technology, but that’s all it is – the starting point. The end point is leaving communities in a state where they are capable of making their own development dreams a reality.
Or as someone else said:
“We will know what to do long after Practical Action leaves. I am very happy and proud. I am hoping that one day we will be able to do for other poor people in Sudan what Practical Action has done for us.”No Comments » | Add your comment
Yesterday was my first day back in the Practical Action offices after being in Africa for a month. After my work trip to Sudan, I then spent some time exploring Morocco, on the other side of the continent. I love Africa, but I definitely missed certain home things while away: yoga classes, green trees, red wine, BBC Radio 6, dark chocolate, peanut butter, the weekend papers. I think, to my surprise, I even missed the rain. So now I am home, where I can enjoy all those things I missed, and reacquaint myself with the realities of my life.
The only problem is it all seems a bit trivial. My life is trivial. I keep comparing my daily existence with that of the poorest people who I met in Sudan. For so many of them, life is about survival: the desperate, hopeful struggle to grow enough food, search for water, care for animals, walk great distances to collect firewood. I recall one woman from a small village called Kulkul in North Darfur which is grappling with a huge food crisis after last year’s rains didn’t fall. She told me “of course we fear for our lives, but we don’t have a choice, we can’t give up.” I don’t think I have ever feared for my life. Of course, there are universal unifying truths – birth, love, death – but in terms of what I do with my life – going to the office or the gym or the cinema or the pub or supermarket – it all just seems a bit meaningless. It’s just stuff that fills my days because I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I don’t have to spend my days fighting to exist.
So after being immersed in one part of the planet for a month, a few hours on a plane have delivered me right back to where I came from. It’s strange, internally there can be a seismic shift, yet on the outside, everything remains as it always was.
I am thinking of my Practical Action colleagues in Darfur. I wonder what struggles have they faced? And what successes have they celebrated? A colleague, now a friend, informed me of skirmishes and gun fire with government forces in the market place of El Fasher last week. All this is happening right now; other people’s lives, lives full of love and tragedy and struggles for survival and celebrations of success.
I keep returning to a Louis MacNeice poem called ‘Snow’, which has this beautiful line about feeling “the drunkenness of things being various”. It is not about being drunk. It is about feeling intoxicated by the sheer plurality of the world. I feel a bit like that today. Drunk on all that I have experienced in the last month – drunk on all the people I met in Sudan, all the stories of hope and loss and despair I heard, remembering that all those people’s lives are continuing right now, as I sit here typing my thoughts, re-writing my world as I try to make sense of all that I have learned.No Comments » | Add your comment
And the end of all our journeying
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Before I came to Sudan, I posed the question ‘what sort of country can this be?’ I was horrified by news reports that I had read about a court case which condemned a young Sudanese women to death by stoning, after unsubstantiated accusations of adultery.
I think back to that question, and I realise I am still not in a position to write a comprehensive or sophisticated answer. I was in Sudan for only 12 days. My insight is no more than that of a child on her tip toes, spying through a key hole to discover the mysteries that lie beyond a heavy door. Through that key hole, I have peered as hard as I can, trying to observe and learn as much as possible, and store it up, so that when I return – I feel in my heart that one day I will – I can unlock the door.
But I do know a little more than I did 12 days ago.
I know that Sudan is a place where the government is hugely oppressive. Whether one is pro or anti-government, its omnipresence and omnipotence are irrefutable.
And as I sit here in England’s green green heart I actually feel bereft, bereft of the friends I have made during my time in Sudan. I realise I am lucky to have had the opportunity to make those bonds at all.
For my 25th birthday on 23rd June, the Practical Action team in Darfur organised a surprise celebration – we spent the evening drinking tea, eating birthday cake iced with ‘Happy Birthday Ella Jolly’, and dancing, Sudanese style. At the end of the evening, there were speeches – ensuring everyone has the chance to give thanks is typically Sudanese. I was then presented with the most beautiful birthday present; a leather handbag, handmade in El Fasher, with my name etched into it. It is here with me now, and I am so happy to have returned with a little piece of Darfur. The leather is a rich terracotta colour; it is exotic and beautiful amid the whiteness of my bedroom.
It is hard to separate my impressions about Practical Action’s work in Sudan from my feelings about the people and the culture. But our work in Darfur is truly outstanding. When the conflict started in 2003, NGOs and their money poured into the area. Other agencies worked with people living in temporary camps, offering food aid and emergencies supplies. But because we believe in developing communities for the future, we focused our attentions on tribes in the remote rural villages who make their lives and livelihoods from farming the land. Our ‘Greening Darfur’ programme has transformed the fortunes of over 70,000 women, men and children, and revived thousands of hectares of land. We have worked in partnership with communities to developing farming techniques (setting up women’s farms, for example) and reforesting hectares of the Darfur earth, recreating a landscape that communities thought was lost forever, improving access to and quality of water (through rainwater harvesting and building dams) and providing modern energy (using low smoke stoves for cooking).
In over 600 villages, we have established Village Development Committees (VDCs) and Women’s Development Associations (WDAs). These are small community organisations comprised of community members, and which bring people together to take control over the development of their own villages and environments. We have established three networks (or ‘nets’ as the local people say – I love this): the Rural El Fasher Development Network, the Voluntary Network for Rural Helping and Development, and the Women’s Development Association Network. These networks, made up of members of the VDCs and WDAs, have enabled us to expand and continue our work safely, throughout the conflict, in the most inaccessible parts of Darfur. They are independent organisations, and one day, when Practical Action is no longer around, they will still be operating, because they are committed to driving the long-term development of their own country. I feel so deeply proud that it is Practical Action which gave birth to these organisations. As one community member said: “Practical Action is like the mother.” And when we die (for one day, we should – I do not believe that development organisations should live forever), our children will reign on.
2 Comments » | Add your comment
As someone who has grown up with so much freedom, the limitations and restrictions are difficult to accept without getting very angry indeed. And I did get angry at times. I cannot express my awe and admiration for my colleagues who are able to cope with and succeed in such difficult circumstances every single day.
I did encounter another kind of freedom in Darfur though. Away from the pressures of a commercial, capitalist, consumerist society, I felt liberated. In the UK, I am a slave to it. In Darfur I felt free. And happy. I was not expecting that.
As I get ready to leave El Fasher, my colleague Amel – an amazing force of a woman who is not scared of anything – tells me “my dear, you are my daughter of Darfur and I am your mother”. I am now back in Khartoum and in 48 hours I will be in London. But I hope some part of me will remain always the daughter of Darfur.2 Comments » | Add your comment
We are due to travel home from Tartora to El Fasher on Monday. Yet after only ten minutes we turn back. I am confused, and think perhaps we are picking up more passengers. But I am not Sudanese, and cannot sense the bigger problem. My colleagues know better and point to the sky: “look – the ‘haboob’ is coming.”
The ‘haboob’ is a sand storm. The dust wind, the ‘ghubar’, is responsible. In five minutes, the skyscape is transformed from a pale white vista to a colossal mountain range of sand, swirling towers which move as one – and faster than you can imagine. We run for shelter, fleeing from the unstoppable wind and sand.
I am naïve and stop to take photos. The sensible ones run fast.
Then everything goes dark. An inky night time blackness surrounds us in the mid afternoon. It is a strange, surreal experience. The wind is raging and the rain begins to fall. I feel like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Later the darkness lifts, and all is bathed in an eerie tangerine light. Silence. It seems like the end of the world, and I am one of the few survivors.
Every year the sand storm comes. The insubstantial hay and mud homes in which most people live are ripped apart, and everyone is forced to rebuild their homes and their lives.
The storm is a symbol of the elemental quality of life here.
In spite of our advances in technology and our tendency to dominate the land, to colonize the green with concrete, we do not rule the earth and we cannot control it. It is good to be reminded of that fact, to remember one’s own insignificance.
I think Schumacher (founder of Practical Action) writes it better than I ever can: “Modern man talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that if he won the battle he would find himself on the losing side.”
Nowhere is the rule of nature more evident than in here in Darfur. The people depend on the land to grow crops to eat and sell, and they depend on the rains to come so that those crops will grow. If the rains do not come, there is nothing. So there is profound gratitude among people I meet in Darfur for the ‘haboob’, because it brings one day of rain. They are praying for more. Last year there was none, which means this year people are struggling to find enough food to eat. 60% of the villagers in one small community Kulkul (I do not visit but I meet people from this place) are malnourished, and so desperate that they are forced to forage for food, sometimes subsisting only on hard berries. For these people I hope with all my heart that the ‘haboob’ I witnessed is the start of the rainy season. The alternative – that this year too will be a year of not enough rain – is too worrying to even contemplate.No Comments » | Add your comment
I think Darfur will change my life.
I step off the plane and all I see is colour. After the grey white sandiness of Khartoum, the colour is a joy. The cornflower blue of the huge huge sky. Swathes of sand, burnt yellow. Rows of slightly crumbling pastel painted houses in El Fasher. The flash of a dreamy pink flowering plant gracing the walls of the guesthouse in which I am staying.
I feel I can breathe here.
On Saturday I am 25 in Darfur. I wake early and expect to ache for home. Instead, I shower in the sunlight and sit serenely in the peace of the morning, enjoying one of those moments of complete perfect happiness.
Later, we drive for hours across the desert of Darfur, passing misty mountains which burst up through the earth. We visit Wad Koti, a small rural community just outside El Fasher. Here, Practical Action is helping the community to separate the water for animals and the water for people. At the moment, everyone – person and animal alike – drinks from the same trough. And invariably, the people – especially the little children – fall ill. I speak with one beautiful, but very timid, 9 year old boy who is responsible for caring for his family’s herd of animals three days a week, preventing him from attending school. He is not holding a gun. He is one of the few children here who is not. As I look around at all the cows and goats that have gathered to drink water, all I can see are the innocents holding guns. Guns which are too big, too adult for them. It is a horrifying reminder of the reality of living here in North Darfur. Although the conflict is officially over, there are many rebel groups who still struggle against the government. Peace in Darfur is something of a fragile veil. And as one mother tells me later: “We always have the fear that something will happen, but in order to survive we have no choice but to overcome it. We pray to God for safety.”
The insecurity in Darfur means that many NGOs and UN agencies that operate here use convoys of armoured vehicles. On Sunday, I accompany one such convoy north to Tartora, a small village which was close to the heart of the conflict.While travelling I look to the earth of Darfur. At first glance, it is barren. But the more you look the more it moves, it lives. People moving across the sand, leading their animals to pasture. Making lives and livelihoods from what appears to be dead. It is amazing.
When we arrive in Tartora we are welcomed with a traditional Sudanese greeting. Crowds of smiling women in technicolour dresses and scarves clap and click their fingers, gently sway and then produce the most astonishing half-song, half-whistle, the ‘zaghrouda’. It fills the air, my head, my heart. There is so much joy here. In spite of all that Tartora has witnessed, and the little it has in terms of services – still there is so much joy. The women here are joyful because Practical Action is going to help them to build a huge earth embankment along their ‘wadi ‘ – the fertile, clay soil. This means that when the rains fall, the water will not run off on to the sandy soil and be wasted, but stay and nourish the embryonic seedlings in the ‘wadi’ on which the community so depends. The work has not even started, yet already there is joy. It is hardwired into the hearts of Darfur. I remember the ‘gratitude diaries’ that we in the West are encouraged to write by advocates of positive thinking, and think how strange they would seem to the people of North Darfur. No-one here writes their gratitude – instead it is felt keenly, sharply, viscerally, every single day. And there is so much gratitude for life itself – however hard that life might be.5 Comments » | Add your comment
Half of Sudan’s population live in acute poverty.
This means that for millions of women, men and children, each day is a struggle to survive.
It is a country blighted by civil unrest, (so many people I have met have lost loved ones to the fighting), devastating droughts, and recurrent food shortages. Nowhere is the impact of these factors felt more sharply than across the rural areas of Sudan, which are home to a majority of the population.
For these families, an unsafe living environment, poor nutrition and few ways to earn an income have, lamentably, become a way of life.
Practical Action always focuses on the poorest of the poor, helping the most vulnerable, the most marginalised, those who live on the very fringes of society, to transform their lives. So we are operating in the rural areas of Kassala, Blue Nile and Darfur to reach out to those communities whose survival is no more certain than the balancing of a diamond upon a blade of grass.
Our work in Kassala is particularly impressive. This project represents an ongoing programme which aims to strengthen the self-reliance of its traditional farmers. By providing access to innovative technologies and training, the project is directly improving the lives of 99,760 people in rural communities! It’s a huge number – just slightly larger than the population of my hometown of Rugby. This project has helped to strengthen livelihoods and sustain and improve their traditional methods of production. As a result of Practical Action’s skill-sharing, communities can now grow enough food to both eat and sell at market, and are more resilient to poverty.
Before my arrival in Sudan, I was optimistic that I might be able to travel to Kassala to see the work first-hand. But after the expulsion of foreign staff from the area, it has been impossible for me to make this journey.
So today, four people from Kassala - Samera, Siham, Mohamed, Abubker - come to Khartoum to meet me at the Practical Action offices. This journey takes seven hours by bus, and across terrible roads in the oppresive heat, I am sure it is neither a comfortable or enjoyable experience. For Siham and Abubker, the visit today is the first time they have ever travelled to their capital city. I feel so incredibly humbled that my presence here is the reason for their trip.
Aged 65 years, Mohamed Mohamed Musa is the oldest of the group. He was born in 1947 (it is significant and rather moving that he knows his birth year, as so many people do not). He is a tall man, but so thin that his collar bones protrude sharply. He wears a ‘jalabya’, a simple long white gown, and an ‘eimma’, a turban. This is traditional clothing for a Sudanese man, and to complete the look he sports a pair of Ray Ban style sunglasses. It is a strange combination of the ancient and the new. I am fascinated by his face. He is toothless and lined, and just so animated. His face seems to tell a story of its own.
My questions for Mohamed are endless – I think he gets rather fed up with my unceasing curiosity in his life. He has two wives, for instance. The first marriage was arranged, the second one took place so he could take care of the daughter of a cousin after her parents died. He has many, many children. He can read and write – and he left school aged 12.
But most importantly, he is passionate about seeds – and about Practical Action.
Practical Action introduced Mohamed to a new type of sorghum seed. These seeds do not need as much rain to grow as the old variety, and as there is now less rain due to climate change, this is essential. The seeds also yield more crops – so when Mohamed harvests them, he has more to take to market. The new variety of sorghum weighs more too, which means Mohamed’s crops fetch a better price. The seeds – and the new hand tools and new terracing techniques that Mohamed now has - are transformational.
“In the past, we were always hungry. I was always worrying about the future, fighting for tomorrow. But I couldn’t give up, otherwise I would not have been able to care for my family.
I was a poor man, but now I am rich – not rich with money, but rich with knowledge. I’m proud I have knowledge because I can share it with my children and all the other poor families in my village. Other farmers come to me and ask me for my skills . We are so happy to have worked with Practical Action, but we will know what to do long after Practical Action goes. Practical Action is like our mother and we are like her children. There is not enough time to talk about all the good works that Practical Action does.”
I could write Mohamed’s words for the whole evening. He is so effusive about Practical Action. And he is so passionate about his new seeds that at one point he reaches within his jalabya and plucks out a handful of seeds. He has brought them all the way from Kassala to show me. He knows I am meeting farmers from Darfur this weekend, and he wants to tell me about these seeds, so I, in turn, can pass on his knowledge to other people in need. Mohamed is like hope embodied – he believes so vehemently in the power of these tiny seeds.
But juxtaposed against these stories of hope were tales of uncountable tragedy. While listening to 21 year old Siham recall her childhood and talk about the day soldiers came to her village with guns to bomb hundreds of innocent people – including her best friend – it takes as much self-control as I can muster to stop myself from crying.
It has been an overwhelming day. I am reminded of one of my favourite George Eliot quotations:
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
And I think maybe this explains why so many of us turn our backs in the face of suffering. I do not want to turn away. I want to listen to that roar. And then I want to write about it.2 Comments » | Add your comment
Today in Brazil, over 50,000 people streamed into Rio de Janeiro for the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development. Practical Action even has a team there, determined to ensure that total energy access for people in the developing world is high on the agenda.
Meanwhile, here in Sudan, hundreds of ordinary people participated in demonstrations campaigning against political oppression and economic austerity. I’m sure these protests failed to make the headlines in the UK, but in Africa they were big news. The demonstrators were greeted by police who used batons and tear gas to suppress them.
There is little personal freedom, and I have never experienced anything like it. Someone told me “it is like a prison here”.
There are sand storms today, the “Habob”, and the sand is everywhere – in my hair, my ears, my eyes, my nose, my mouth. Khartoum is a desert city – and the desert does not let you forget it.
Before I came to Sudan, three lovely colleagues in the UK gave me a poetry book – some soul food for my travels. Tonight, as I sit in my hotel room reflecting on my day, I find Maya Angelou’s poem “I know why the caged bird sings”. It’s a poem I have always loved, but tonight the last verse moves me more than usual:
“the caged bird sings
With a fearful trill
Of things unknown
But longed for still
And his time is heard
On the distant hill
For the caged bird
Sings of freedom”
2 Comments » | Add your comment