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.