Widad: 'The people of the village built this house for us...'
Since Widad’s father became sick when she was 14, she and her mother have been the family breadwinners. Her two younger sisters are still at school but her brother, like her, was forced to leave to earn a wage. He was”heartbroken” to give up studying.
Widad and her mother trade in firewood and vegetables, cultivating a small area of land, but they are forced to sell their crops at lower rates because they need the money straightaway. They also do some sewing and craftwork, but the market is very limited. Their food supply is precarious.”We listen to the radio, and we know the type of food we should eat, but we can’t provide it because of lack of money,” she says.
She has participated in several development initiatives and is involved in extension work, training people in vegetable gardening. The pressure of making a living and the time taken up by gathering water and firewood makes it difficult to sustain such projects. However, Widad is determined.”We want to restore the village to how it was before, and we will work on that.”
I am Widad. I am 28, the eldest in my family and I have been the breadwinner for 14 years. My father is sick…so my mother and I became responsible for the family. We work collecting firewood and charcoal. We collect it on one day and on another day my mother goes to Bara to sell it… In the season of vegetables (winter, mid-November-March) my mother sells them. She buys vegetables in Bara and travels the nearby villages, re-selling them.
“Heart-broken” to leave school
Our house is small, we own one gutteia (round room with conical roof) made from grass and straw, we all live in it… I have two sisters – one studying at the basic primary level and the other at secondary level. We are responsible for them and their many needs…
I studied until the 2nd class of primary school. I left school after our father’s illness, to help my family… I also have one brother and we took him out of the school…he has to help us in the house. My brother is 12. [He got as far as] the 3rd class in primary school. He wants [to return], but he sacrifices that for us, the girls. He is heart-broken. His classmates are continuing their studies in Bara, but he is unable to because of our condition.
Now he is a herd-boy outside the village – because he is a man, not like us. What we do is just trading in firewood, but he can travel and work as a herd-boy. The money helps us, but it is not enough.
My father was trading in livestock between Egypt and Sudan. Fourteen years ago, he suddenly became ill. We spent all we had on his treatment. Our house burnt down and, after our father’s illness, we couldn’t build a new one. The people of the village built this house for us…
In the past, building materials were easy to find, and close by, but now if you just want to build a small bit of fence, you spend the whole day searching for materials – and you don’t find them… The whole village helped us, but building the new house took a month and a half. During that time we were living with our grandfather…
Farming declines so “people rely on the forests”
We have [farm land]. Our father hired some people to cultivate the land, but since his illness we have cultivated part of it ourselves… We sell the crop…the same season that we harvest…because we need the money, though the prices become higher in [another] season.
Desertification has affected the agricultural land. It covered the whole area and the [more fertile] depressions or gullies. It has affected the animals, the pasture and the degree of aridness. You can’t raise your children or your animals. This gully was producing about 100 sacks but now it produces only five or 10 sacks (each about 30 mid or 90 kg). All this is due to desertification. So people rely on the forests to provide their basic needs and earn money.
There are no trees in the village and people have to go to distant areas to get wood, sometimes from 8.00 in the morning until the evening, with just one bottle of water. In the evening we prepare the wood to sell it in the morning, and in the morning we search for a donkey to carry the wood. Then we go to Bara to sell the wood by calling on every home – house after house. A big bundle of wood is sold for 250 Sudanese pounds. This is what we do in the village.
The burden of collecting water
If the land is muddy and there are trees, the level of water will be close [to the surface]. But desertification has covered the land with sand and made the water table very low… There is great suffering in the seif (dry season; April-June). The well is not far but the water is deep down. This well consumes ropes – every two weeks you need another rope costing 7-8 Sudanese pounds [because they fray and break due to constant use].
And you can’t collect much water: 4 jerkins (plastic container holding 4 gallons) in the morning and the same in the evening. The girls carry the water on their heads; most of them complain of severe pain in the neck and they get thyroid disease as a result. In order to draw the bucket up [from the well], two women should do it, for you can’t manage that alone.
Nutrition: “the newborn are underweight”
In the past, people were comfortable and used to slaughter livestock every two days. You could give your neighbour milk, vegetables, everything. Now there is nothing; no vegetables, no animals, no irrigated farm land and even hardly any eggs. If you find three or four eggs, you don’t eat them. Instead, you sell them to buy waika (dried okra) or sugar – something for the whole household.
In the past, we had three meals a day, in addition to an extra meal for the children. Now, we have two meals and they are not a proper diet to nourish the body, only asida (thick sorghum porridge). Everyone is running after making their own living but there is no income.
Older people, who are accustomed to a certain type of nutrition, have been affected; they ask for the old kind of meals. There are no diseases, but the bodies of children are weak, and the newborn are underweight. We listen to the radio, and we know the type of food we should eat, but we can’t provide it because of lack of money.
All the children are dropping out because the school is far away from here – at Milaha. Some parents can’t pay the school fees and so the school expels their children. You can find two, three or four children who are wishing to study, sitting at home because their parents can’t provide their school needs and fees.
Both boys and girls drop out of school, but mostly boys. Even the younger children – those under 12 – think they are old enough and leave school to help the family. Girls work with their mothers collecting firewood.
Some people migrate in order to meet their families’ needs, and those who don’t migrate depend on agriculture. Most of the youth migrate to the towns, some of them graze animals and others trade in livestock. They try to imitate the people of towns in their clothes and they talk about what they have seen – notably on TV.
Taking the initiative
We made a jubraka (small home garden) for vegetables and after we had been trained in nutrition, the project was a success. But then it stopped because the water supply was so distant. We moved the jubraka near the well, but it failed again because we are so busy fetching water and providing for the other basic needs of the family.
We have trained 40 people. Each pair owns three plots (4 x 5 metres) of vegetables. One waters them in the morning and the other in the evening.
[Alternative work?] We all do handicraft, but there is no market for such work. Even when there is a market, payment is made on credit as there is no cash, so [you can get into] debt buying the materials.
Efforts to halt desertification
In the past we cut down [only] the big trees and used those that have fallen down – but when we have nothing to eat we cut down any trees in order to provide for our basic needs…
They have cultivated hashab trees (Acacia senegal) and pasture, but all these things failed because the villagers are preoccupied with earning a living. [Still,] we want to restore the village to how it was before, and we will work on that – because we have cultivated hashab trees before.
I want to say that this has not just been a speech, but it is the truth…
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.