To find out how a very small project can show so much meaning about the real values of rural poor people, which make them happy and give meaning to their lives, read about the day I made a visit which made that day exceptional.
My visit to Silkyay village in the rural area of Kassala was a routine field visit like many others but my encounter with a woman called Nafisa changed that visit into an inspirational lesson.
Nafisa is involved in Practical Action’s “chicken for eggs” project. This aims to enhance nutrition and provide income for poor households. She has 20 hens in her small, clean den, and managed and cleaned this den every day, until she began producing 20 eggs per day. Some of these she consumes and the rest she sells. The day I met Nafisa happiness overwhelmed her and joyfully she told me that now she has work, and she owns something, she has control of her life.
In the beginning she faced difficulties marketing her produce in her village, because people weren’t used to eating eggs. The varieties of food they ate were very limited – mainly porridge and milk and this culture led them to refuse anything unfamiliar and prevented them from having a healthy and diversified diet.
Nafisa started introducing the egg as a main meal in her own house, as breakfast for her children before school. Then she began an awareness campaign about the nutritional value of eggs. Gradually the skeptical village changed to be less hesitant. In a short period the whole village began to depend on eggs for breakfast. Nafisa proudly stated that now she alone cannot supply the increasing demand and has other five women working in this project.
Nafisa said that now she feels appreciated by her family and community, and she is happy about the simple tangible change her project introduced to the life of the people in the village. The happiness of Nafisa and her pride at her achievement taught me that helping women to access and control resources, is the right approach for justice and for improving the status of women and mothers in our communities. Productive work gives women a proud feeling of ownership and control of their resources as Nafisa reflected as she enthused about her hens.
The change happened when people began buying eggs after being convinced of their nutritional value. This taught me the meaning and practicality of such small activities when they relate to people’s real needs.
Before concluding this story, I would like to tell you about my own experience when I bought some eggs from Nafisa and cooked them myself. I learned something else important – that the home-produced egg from this village is a natural egg, free of chemicals and is tastier and more beneficial than the ones we purchase from markets which are produced by companies using chemicals and hormone injections.
How inspiring are these small works when powered by a strong will and the strength of women like Nafisa!No Comments » | Add your comment
In September I had the chance to visit our work in Kassala in the eastern part of Sudan. Travelling there took 9 hours. Although it was an exhausting journey, we enjoyed the beauty of the journey, the green spaces and towering mountains covered with trees, like a beautiful painting painted by a masterful artist. Pastoralists and farmers were grateful for the blessing of rain this year, despite the difficulty of storing water in those rural areas.
We visited Bagadir village, 30 Km from Kassala, which is inhabited by tribes called Bani Amer, who have migrated over the years from the Arabian Peninsula. Some also live in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Eritrea and different parts of the Arab Republic of Egypt.
Women are not considered a good omen for this tribe and their role is limited. Moreover women are not allowed to leave the village for any reason and their fundamental role is parenting and serving men.
Food in times of scarity
Practical Action Sudan has introduced ‘Jubraka’, small farms for women, usually established near the house to provide food for farmers’ families during the critical time of food scarcity. In these farms women have been cultivating crops such as okra, watermelon, henna and bananas, using our new advanced drip irrigation technique. Our visit coincided with the period of fruiting and I’ll never forget the scene. I see the taste of success in women’s eyes, their efforts paid off.
My colleague Nahid Ali Awadelseed started to talk with the women, gathering in the corner where a thatched umbrella is erected. Usually, during irrigation and taking care of the farms women gather to do craft work or drink coffee. We start to chat with them and find out their opinions of Practical Action’s work in their community
One 16 year old girl, Afrah Karar, spoke on behalf of all the women. I admired her courage and her ability to express herself and asked if she had education or training. I knew Practical Action had offered her agricultural training in Kassala but unfortunately her father refused her permission to leave the village. We were able to send a trainer to her village to help pass on this knowledge to the rest of the women.
Then Siham Mohamed Osman, the leader of this programme of work for Practical Action, asked the women a question:
“Do you sell your farms’ production in the markets outside the village or do the men not allow it?”
I was impressed by the swift answer from one of the women telling us that the men had began to abandon their stupidity. I felt this was an amazing answer. Women’s work has started to change the customs and traditions of the tribe and then to change the status of women within their community.
Small works lead to small change and small change is the start of big success.
Much can be done to empower women. Practical Action is taking action by putting women’s empowerment at the center of development plans in our work. There can be no development, and no lasting peace on the planet, if women continue to be relegated to subservient and often dangerous and back-breaking roles in society.7 Comments » | Add your comment
It’s International Day of Peace today.
But I want you to think about a place synonymous with war – not peace.
It’s one of those places to which you just don’t go – “hell on earth” as someone once said to me.
Sudan has witnessed some of the most horrific acts committed by humankind. Images of genocide and famine are beamed into televisions around the world, and this is what we think of when think of Sudan.
Only last week, demonstrators in Khartoum protested fiercely and furiously outside the US, UK and German embassies in order to express their anger at an American You Tube film which allegedly mocks Islam. In August, a Sudanese police man was shot dead by an armed gang and various government buildings in Darfur were attacked. Such violence serves to underline the dangers of operating in one of the world’s most volatile places.
In June 2012, I spent two weeks there, primarily to visit Practical Action’s work in Darfur.
On Saturday 23 June, the day of my 25th birthday, I met 9 year old Idris Abdullah. He was tending to his herd of goats as they drank from the water trough, and he was not holding a gun. He was one of the few children without one. The water point was engulfed by herds of thirsty goats and cows and camels, but I could not stop staring at the innocent children gripping guns.
This is the reality of life in Darfur.
Although the conflict, which was primarily an ethnic clash, ended in 2006, the official peace is fragile. Spikes of intense fighting between rebel groups, warring tribes and military forces continue to wreak havoc on the people who make their homes here. I met and spoke with so many women, children and men who must live under the ominous shadow of violence.
One mother, Amel Mahmoud Osman, said to me “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.” And then she recalled watching pregnant women “bleed their babies away” during the heights of the terror of war.
Another young woman, Sara Abubker Ahmed, remembered the day her friend was blown up by a government bomb: “I still smell the blood. For months afterwards I couldn’t eat or drink anything, I felt so sick all the time. The smell of the blood.”
The words of another young person, Yassir Oman Musa, will haunt me always. “It’s tragic, but everyone in Darfur has a story of loss to tell.”
Yassir’s acceptance of the futility of war is, of course, understandable, but it filled me with a sort of righteous rage. Why should anyone – even if you live in Darfur – have to accept a world dominated by violence?
Practical Action refuses to accept such a world. We have worked in Sudan, and in Darfur, for the last 25 years and continue to work there, employing a team of national staff to help vulnerable and marginalised communities to survive and thrive, against the odds. Working in partnership with local people, we endeavour to provide small-scale, sustainable and appropriate solutions to the daily problems caused by a rapidly changing climate and the chaos of war. We use simple techniques to help communities improve their own food security by planting community forests and improving access to and quality of water through harvesting rainwater.
But as sustainable development work is nearly impossible in the face of conflict, we are also striving to achieve a lasting local peace between traditionally warring neighbours. We use a host of approaches including facilitating mediation meetings, raising awareness about land ownership and demarcation of boundaries, and even producing educational community theatre.
Our efforts to build peace in these fragmented communities are innovative, unique, and most importantly, showing signs of success. Indeed, Yassir told me joyfully “for the first time ever we are hopeful of lasting peace.”
We have a chance to change the story of Darfur for good, to enable Amel, Sara, Yassir and so many others like them to move from war and suffering to peace and prosperity. But the work cannot be completed without further support.
By supporting Practical Action this International Day of Peace, you could give the people of Darfur a chance for a stable, peaceful and secure future, for the first time ever. Children like Idris Abdullah can look after their animals in peace, free of those weapons which are too adult, too ugly for their innocent hands.
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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.”
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I’ve been very short-sighted since I was 8 years old. An optician seeking somebody to blame told me it was my own fault – I’d read too many books when I was younger. As my mum is also very short-sighted, I think it was more a case of bad genes.
So for the last 17 years, I have worn contact lenses and glasses. There is nothing more excruciating than losing a contact lense behind your eyeball, and nothing more infuriating than losing your glasses in the middle of the Indian Ocean when you’re on holiday. My short-sightedness has meant a lifetime of horrible eye infections, irritated eyes after long days of writing, and innumerable pairs of lost lenses and glasses.
Six months ago, after a particularly severe eye infection, I was told by an eye specialist that I would never be able to wear contact lenses again. I have spent the first half of 2012 wearing very big glasses. They were cool glasses, but mostly they felt like a huge barrier: between me and the rest of the world. So I decided to do something about it.
12 days ago my life was utterly transformed by laser eye surgery.
Waking in the morning and being able to see – actually see – the world in all its magnificence feels miraculous. Everything is more beautiful, more colourful, more perfect than before. I have had 12 whole days of 20/20 vision but it still seems unreal, as if tomorrow when I wake, my world might be a sleepy blur once more. I feel so overjoyed – and very lucky – that modern day technology has fixed my broken eyes.
When I was in Sudan I met a woman, Randa, who also couldn’t see. But her poor vision was nothing to do with short-sightedness. She was going blind because of the smoke caused by cooking on an open fire in her kitchen.
Randa is from a small village in North Darfur called Kafut, and has cooked with wood for her whole life. This means walking for maybe three or four hours to collect firewood, which she then carries on her head.
Cooking with firewood means that Randa’s whole house is constantly polluted by toxic smoke. Her house is made of hay, and the inside is burnt black. Randa’s lungs are also blackened by smoke, and like all the other women in her village she has suffered from countless chest problems.
But the cruelty of the smoke is that it is stealing her sight, and Randa is beginning to go blind.
Since working with Practical Action, Randa has been introduced to a new kind of cooking, using a stove which uses a clean energy source: liquid petroleum gas. The benefits of this are multifarious: not only is it cheaper for families, it also reduces the pressure on the dwindling supply of trees in North Darfur.
But for Randa, the most wonderful thing about her new stove is that it does not aggravate her eye problems:
“The LPG stove has totally eliminated the smoke… I think it has saved my sight. Before my eyes would stream constantly but now this has stopped. And I can breathe easily.”
Randa belongs to the Women’s Development Association in her village, and she is now educating other women about the benefits of cooking on an LPG stove, and also helping to distribute 19 stoves to families across her village, and 61 to other communities nearby.
Meeting the beautiful, determined Randa , and listening to her story, confirmed to me that simple technologies – such as a new stove – really can be life-changing. I know Randa was thrilled that the stove had saved her sight.
But how I wish that she’d never had to lose it in the first place. And that like me, she could benefit from wonderful new eyes.
What fills me with fury is the injustice of it. Because Randa’s near-blindness wasn’t inevitable. It need not have happened. I know that Practical Action’s work is helping her now, but for thousands of other people, it’s already too late.
Nelson Mandela once said “overcoming poverty is not an act of charity, it is an act of justice”. I think he is right.
We are not being charitable by helping. We are helping to restore some sense of justice to this world of ours that is so unbalanced and just so unfair.5 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
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.
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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