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Osman: make land productive

Osman: 'The land here is fertile, but we lack the essentials'

Osman grew up with his grandfather who didn’t want him to go to school, but taught him to read and write. He looked after the family’s animals and travelled locally with traders before migrating to Egypt and then Saudi Arabia for work. After more than 10 years away, he returned to Sudan and got married.

Osman describes how sand dunes have encroached onto agricultural land, pests have multiplied, wells have dried up, cattle have died and crop yields have decreased. But he is hopeful that the community will work together and make the land more productive once again. He is less positive about current relief efforts, saying”I don’t think it is good because it doesn’t make an individual work.”

Osman has tried to give all his children an education but finds it hard to meet school fees. Lack of income has also made marriage more difficult because families cannot afford expensive dowries. He talks with nostalgia about customs surrounding marriage and funerals, which have changed as people’s livelihoods and migration patterns have altered.

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, I am Osman from El Ihemrat village. My tribe is Dar Hamid… I am 45 years old.

I grew up with my grandfather, who died aged 105. He had a large number of animals. There were very few people in the village [then]…and all were very comfortable. There was no desertification, there were no problems…

There were khors (seasonal water courses) and people used to irrigate crops with the nabro… a bucket connected to a long arched branch, used to draw water from shallow wells. The wells were not very deep – two or three men deep. People have told me that in the past, if you came to the well in the morning, you could take water from it with your cup [as the water level was so high]. But now there is no water in the wells…

I didn’t attend school because my grandfather refused, and told the teacher that he wanted me to look after the animals. He taught me the Quran, and how to read and write. Now I can read from Al Fatiha (the opening chapter of the Quran) up to the Al Nas (the final chapter), and I have memorized many of the suras (chapters)…

Travelling with livestock

I worked with animals and with traders, bringing animals from Al Fashir to Omdurman… There was an experienced person who travelled with us, who knew the roads and the locations of wells… In the morning, he gave us directions and distributed salt which was mixed in water… We were travelling by day and night, for two or three months, with our water and food on camels or donkeys.

[That was] in the 1970s. Then I went to Egypt, where I was a shepherd with camel traders. When we came back from Egypt, we brought goods with us which we sold in a market in Omdurman. Then I went to Saudi Arabia… In total I spent 13 years in Saudi Arabia. [Then] I came back and got married…

Times of plenty

In the past people used to drink milk and eat meat. They would buy a quarter of an animal, eat some of it, and the rest would be cut into slices and dried – that was used [later] to cook mullah (sauce). Milk and ghee (clarified butter) were [readily] available. Now I drink milk, but I can’t drink the same quantity that my grandfather used to drink. People were fit and their health was good… Our ancestors used to break the hooves of animals with their own hands…

Agriculture was good in the past; if you cultivated one feddan (approx. one acre) you would harvest about 15 sacks (each about 30 mid or 90 kg) – sometimes 20. Nobody sold milk. We used to laugh at people who made a living like that – they used to sell it in secret! We had many cows and our mother used to milk about 30 in a day. We also had camels and we used to feed them [milk products]. But since desertification… the cows have died…

“We can stop the desertification”

We used to cultivate dura (sorghum), but now we have stopped… because of desertification and pests. Some other areas still have good yields, but these areas are not yet affected by desertification.

All the land was arable land but [it has been] destroyed by desertification… Sand dunes formed and buried the trenches which collected moisture [and were used for planting]. The surface of the land has changed into high sand hills and dunes. In the past, the land was covered by grasses and plants like begail (high quality grazing grass, Blepharis ciliaris), narteen, hantout (perennial grass, Mitracarpus villosis), sesame, algow (grass, Aristida adscensionis) and al haskaneet (grass with thorny seeds that help in its dissemination, Cenchrus biflorus). None of these exist now because of desertification.

There were many trees in the centre of the forest and the grasses were tall… Many, like the quddaim (small fruit-producing tree or shrub, Grewia tenax), don’t exist here now. The shepherds used [the fruit] to make a porridge …

There were many animals in the past, but after desertification they disappeared. All species of deer…were found here. You could find them 10 or 15 metres from this place. The jedai (new born deer), the hamra – it is beautiful and rare – even the wahish (male deer)! There were also lions…

If people grow trees at the beginning of Kharif (autumn; July-October), so as to establish a shelterbelt, we can stop the desertification. We can place the mosque between the two villages, and also build clubs that help to create good relationships among the people. We hope people will bring back the trees once again.

Women resort to making charcoal

Before desertification people were comfortable, but afterwards they burned trees to sell as charcoal in Bara… Some women who don’t have a family breadwinner do this in order to earn their living. People used to help these women, but now nobody cares for them. More than 15 or 20 women do that type of work.

Although we couldn’t educate women, they work hard. A woman fetches water, washes, cooks, takes care of the animals and chickens in the house, and helps us with farming and building, and all sorts of other things.

Our mother, who is still alive, had never seen a doctor or had an injection in her life. She [only] experienced that after the desertification came. In the case of a fever, we used garad (fruit from the sunut tree, Acacia nilotica) and local salt mixed with sesame oil. Pregnant women never went to a doctor.

The need for investment

People are just waiting for relief from the [changes] that made them jobless. Life has become full of problems, and all the people are running after [assistance] to survive… In my opinion, I don’t think [relief] is good because it doesn’t make an individual work. If you give a person an investment, he will work, and depend upon himself rather than on others…

Now some of our lands need investment. If I found the capital [to invest] I would work [on the land] and settle in the village. This would be better than going [away] for a month or so… when your family needs you. This way, you would benefit and stay with your family – being with your family is an important thing. You would make use of the land, have sufficient and be comfortable. Many people in El Besheri and Kheran received help and are now stable and comfortable.

We hope [someone] will help us with tractors so that we can face the desertification. The land here is fertile, but we lack the essentials [to utilise it] and life has become difficult. Agriculture and preparation of the land are costly…

We have one saqia (area of irrigated farm land). It was cultivated by Ustaz Bashir Alamin. Its production ranged from 50 to 60 jerkins (4 gallon container) of tomatoes per day; the size of one tomato was very large. He used to sell them in Bara and El Obeid. He also cultivated onions. What I am saying is that investment in land is guaranteed [results]. This farmland is big and everyone cultivates it, and makes use of it.

The economics of marriage

In the past people used to marry young, but now the age of marriage has changed. We can see some people reach the age of 30, 35 and even 40 without getting married. One of the reasons behind the late age of marriage is the expensive dowries, plus tradition and mothers’ stubbornness. Now, you can marry only if you are well-off…

People migrate to earn their living and come back again – the migration is seasonal…The youth migrate to [Omdurman to earn money to] marry… They do what they can but because of lack of money…there are about 200 unmarried girls here. If you have an expensive wedding, you will face [financial] difficulties after the marriage and so think of migrating [again] in order to earn your living. Migration is a big problem.

In the past…women were not asked to choose their men. They had no choice, therefore there were problems, and this was the reason behind divorces in the past. But now things have changed, [as a result of] education. Today the girl has a right to say yes or no…

Changing customs

[At weddings] in the past, there was dobait (type of poem with short stanzas) in which the beauty of girls and nature are described. We also had the toyah and jerary (traditional songs) and daloka (drums), but today we hear the disco, the cassette, and modern songs…

People would come [from nearby villages] to attend a funeral and stay for 40 days… For 40 days women didn’t comb or oil their hair or skin, and men didn’t shave their beards or hair. [Now] instead of 40 days, people stay for only three. Family members and close friends stay, nobody else. [There is] no hidad (traditional period of mourning). After only a week or so you hear drums and music.

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.


Osman: make land productive is produced as part 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