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Most narrators talk of desertification as an almost unstoppable force, although there are differing attitudes to whether it can be halted, or even reversed. Some, like Fatima, are pessimistic, while others are more optimistic and determined, such as Ismail and Widad.

The movement of sand since the drought of 1984 – seen by many as the catalyst for the worsening situation – has forced many villagers from their homes in old El Ihemrat. El Nour talks in some detail about the relocation of his village to a new site.

Some, however, are too poor to make the move. Fatima, a single mother of six, remains in her old home – “leaving needs money,” she explains.

Although many talk of the drought of 1984-85 as the turning point, before which life as an agro-pastoralist was tough but tenable, a few place the blame for environmental deterioration more squarely on human activity.

Madinah cites people’s “uncivilised” practices: cutting down trees, overgrazing, and slash and burn agriculture. Perhaps because of this, she is more optimistic than some about the future. With greater education and awareness, plus outside investment, she feels progress can be made to halt desertification.

But Naema relates how attempts to protect her village with a shelterbelt failed: the combination of sand, wind and pests destroyed the trees and most of the crops it was sheltering.

Whatever their views on the causes of desertification the narrators agree that people’s low incomes compound the situation, forcing some into activities such as charcoal making.

Ismail also highlights the impact on agriculture: before 1984 “the harvests and agriculture were good. After the drought…we sold animals in order to get seeds for cultivation but unfortunately, we gained nothing [from the crop], not even the price of the seeds”.


Desertification is a key theme of the Desert voices: Sudan oral testimony project.


El Emam: no man remains

El Nour: inside my heart

Fatima: women are exhausted

Ismail: broader horizons

Madinah: progress is possible

Mekki: migration for survival

Naema: nothing the same

Osman: make land productive

Sayda: women’s lives

Widad: restoring the village

Key themes

Introduction to the project




Social change




Natural resources



Food security

Mutual support

Looking ahead