“We travel in the search for work, and certainly we are affected,” explains El Emam, as he describes how villagers’ lives are dominated by their need to migrate. The collapse of agriculture and livestock farming since the 1984 drought has meant that there is little local employment.
Before then: “people’s situations were good, there were cows, sheep, goats and good agriculture… people took four to five meals daily… when they harvested their crops one might get 50 sacks… when we were young, our fathers slaughtered the sheep and distributed the meat free…”
El Emam describes the uncertainties and difficulties that migrant workers face. Many cultivate small plots of land during the autumn but after the season is over”no man remains in the village”. They are often away for six or seven months but young people, especially single men, may leave for years.
The reason [I travel so much] is the search for money and a good job. In the past our father possessed a great number of livestock, but this finished, and he died in the year of drought and desertification (1984). I then carried the responsibility of taking care of my brothers and my mother, and I am the only breadwinner. These are the reasons behind my migration.
I was born in El Ihemrat village in 1962, educated in El Ihemrat primary school, and finished my education at the Intermediate School in Bara. I migrated to Omdurman and worked with livestock at the beginning of the 80s. In 1984/85 I returned to the village and worked as a firefighter for two years. Then I migrated again to Omdurman…and worked with livestock in Hay Alarab town. Then I went to Egypt for work, via Wadi Halfa.
After I made some money I worked in trade, between Egypt and Sudan, and returned to Sudan in 1989. That same year I worked in a livestock exporting company, and spent two years in Port Sudan. Presently I am working between El Ihemrat village and El Obeid. In the past, the work was excellent, the company’s performance was good, and there were a lot of livestock. But the work decreased, and became irregular – once every 10 or 15 days… I am [now] resident in the village and I planted sesame, but it failed due to desertification and drought…
We travel in the search for work, and certainly we are affected…[it is] the living conditions which push you to travel…While you are working [elsewhere], you don’t know who is ill or dead…
A richer past
There is no income here. In the past, when people’s situations were good, there were cows, sheep, goats and good agriculture. That means people took four to five meals daily: porridge with atroon (salt), milk, mullah (sauce/broth), curdled milk, mullah tagalia (meat and okra broth), cowpeas, and watermelon…
The area was very rich in agricultural and animal wealth…when they harvested their crops one might get 50 sacks (each about 30 mid or 90 kg) of cereal crops and store it… Their favorite food was milk and butter. I remember that when we were young, our fathers slaughtered the sheep and distributed the meat free, for the sake of God. The world was good and the people were very happy…
In the past, we mainly depended on millet cultivation from which we saved food for the whole year, and we stored it in the ground, buried it in holes called matmorah, and in sacks. This meant that we never purchased anything from the market except sugar, tea, oil and onion over the course of a full year – because we had animals from which we got milk and butter.
But from 1984 the drought finished our animal wealth and the encroachment of the desert finished the agriculture… the cows died – small quantities of goats remained because they live on the trees’ leaves – and the country became completely dry. It was once very green and we couldn’t travel on foot due to the rich pasture and [abundant] trees. Now the original soil is covered by sand…in addition to having locust and bird problems…
But those people who are clinging to the village and who did not migrate completely, they cultivate small plots, 2 or 3 makhamas (local measurement; equivalent to approx 0.75 of a hectare) during Kharif (autumn; July-October), and then we migrate to the big towns: Omdurman, Khartoum, El Obeid and Port Sudan. From there you send to your family what you have gained, and return for the next cultivation season.
In the past one makhamas of millet produced five sacks… [Now] you may buy 7 lbs of sesame seed for 5000 Sudanese pounds and harvest nothing…sesame production is weak, and now we are planting millet and sorghum, but there’s no guarantee of harvest because the soil fertility has deteriorated… one makhamas planted with sesame produces only two sacks. The price of a sack of sesame is less than LS 60,000.
It is rain-fed agriculture here. We have had heavy rains this year. The people planted but they couldn’t harvest – because people have no money for the labour cost of harvesting. If two people work together in a family they can harvest. The wage for harvesting one makhamas is LS 40,000 for sesame, and it is likely to produce two sacks – their price together in the market is LS 120,000…Now the number of those who sow is few, and the price of sesame is very cheap – which discourages farmers from cultivation.
The government did not deliver any aid… With the assistance of the village Sheikh (community elder and head of village administration), three or four people go to the Zakat Bureau (local body responsible for distribution of Zakat, charitable donations expected of Muslims who can afford them) which delivers aid to them…except for this, the government provides no help or activity.
The need to find employment elsewhere
The population of Eastern and Western El Ihemrat villages together is slightly more than 600 people according to the last census, two or three years ago. The majority are resident, except some youths living in Port Sudan, Omdurman, and in the Eastern Nuba Mountains, from Dallami to El Rank, for gum tapping. This is not a secure operation [where the harvest is split] by equal shares between the owner of ginaina (acacia plantation) and the labour force. [Any gain] depends on the luck of the labourers [but] in a situation where…nothing risky thing happens, the workers benefit and can return to the village.
The majority of migrant workers are in Omdurman and some of them are in El Obeid working in animal husbandry with companies exporting live animals to Saudi Arabia. The daily wage is 5000 Sudanese pounds, and the worker spends three to four months there, collecting a specific amount of money from which he sends a portion to his family; if he has no wife and children, he sends money to his parents.
[Lack of employment] is due to the lack of cows and goats. During the drought the sheep and cows died… The numbers of those who possess livestock are only three or four today. Every one of them owns just 100 cattle, but the rest of the people may own one or two goats. During Kharif (autumn; July-October) they work in agriculture in the village to gain a small amount of money…
Directly after the end of Kharif – no man remains in the village! All migrate searching for employment and money for their children and parents, especially for the elders… everyone will migrate to Omdurman, El Obeid and Port Sudan for gum tapping, and for sesame harvesting in Gedarif – and also to closer areas if there are agricultural crops. They remain there until Greater Bairam (celebration 70 days after the last day of Ramadan), for which they return…
Long periods away from home
Recently, some migrants have spent more than two years away and have not yet come back. That is because they didn’t find any work opportunities, yet they possess nothing in the village so they can’t return.
[They are trapped] because they are working as shepherds with the livestock exporting companies on a daily wage of 5000 Sudanese pounds, and the monthly wage is LS 150,000, whereas the number of their children is probably four to five – who are in need of LS 150,000-200,000 monthly. So he sends LS 150,000 to his family and continues working so as to provide the money to be invested in purchasing animals for the benefit of his family.
The father may spend about six or seven months as a migrant worker. In most cases a householder spends a long period away from his family, and he does not know who may be ill or what is going on. All this is because of our living conditions. His absence may extend to a whole year, during which time he knows nothing [at first-hand] about his children’s condition. But whenever he gains money, he sends it to them – but when he returns he will not find any savings. He does send letters. He also phones…and promises them to return as soon as possible.
The elders don’t [migrate], they stay stable, but youths do, specially the single ones who sometimes migrate for one, two or three years, and never come back to the village [in that time] because they send money to their mothers, fathers and sisters.
Uncertainties and difficulties
They stay in the towns and work in marginal jobs such as animal husbandry or in the quarantine enclosures [where animals are kept prior to export] or graze animals in the daily livestock market, which is temporary work. It may be for just two months, during which he collects LS 300,000, and then may spend 20 to 25 days or one to two months without employment, till the work starts up again.
I am not able to be settled in this area and I have left it many times, but we always return to our families…. We have no other destination to go to. We are unable to migrate with our children, mother and father. They have to stay in the village due to the difficulty of travel…Sometimes one may spend a month or two travelling back to them.
I have five daughters and one son… My elder daughter is named Nidal, and she is 14 years old, studying in Milaha School in the fifth class. The second child is my son Mohamed. He is in the fourth class in Almugtamaa School in the village. Also I have twin daughters studying in the first class…and there’s another daughter of seven months.
Nidal goes to school on foot for about 5 kms… All the village children were learning in Milaha School, especially in the fifth and sixth class. We established Almugtamaa School in the year 2000…The school was in another village and we transferred it here, because…the desert buried it.
We built Almugtamaa Cchool between the two villages (Eastern and Western El Ihemrat) – about 500 metres from each. Also we have a number of boys and girls studying in Milaha School… In the coming year we shall be obliged to send our children to study in Milaha School, and if they pass the examinations they shall be admitted to Bara schools… [But] if you don’t pay [the fees] your child may lose the opportunity to learn, and become idle. I have three or four children who need 15,000 Sudanese pounds monthly, and the government does not contribute…
Education brings economic pressure
We purchase the school books…four or five pupils share one book, and we purchase the pens and the books for handwriting. The majority of pupils sit on the ground. We developed a system that those who are able to pay LS 1000 get chairs and those who are not, sit on the ground…
When I entered school in 1969, education was free, the textbooks and writing books all were free… But later conditions became very difficult. Presently we pay LS 5500 per student, and we have teachers to whom we pay accommodation expenses, because there is no help from the government…
There are 65 male and female students in Almugtamaa School and 30-40 students in Milaha School… Most of the young people dropped out of the school due to families’ economic conditions… But if the students are admitted to the secondary schools, the burden of the residential and living costs and the fees increases, and families fail to cover them. Then the student may come out of school and travel to work as a herder in towns like Port Sudan or El Obeid, because there is no other occupation.
This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.