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.