Mekki says that in the past everyone had a small plantation of acacia trees, producing gum arabic, which earned the family “sufficient” income for a whole year.
Rain-fed agriculture was also a key part of their livelihood. They grew a variety of crops, including sorghum, sesame, millet, cowpea and watermelon. They stored the harvest and it lasted until the following year.
They also had irrigated farmland: Osman talks of one such area where “production ranged from 50 to 60 jerkins (4-gallon containers) of tomatoes per day…”. They took pride in their self-sufficiency: El Emam says: “…we never purchased anything from the market except sugar, tea, oil and onions…”
Now much of the land is covered with sand, and productivity has plummeted. And with the drop in the water table, irrigation is more difficult. The acacia trees have died from the combination of drought and pests. Several narrators, including Naema and Osman, observe that pests have multiplied with desertification.
Mekki describes the change in their circumstances: “We could no longer harvest what would make us self-sufficient; what we could store for one year. Although every one of us planted…and did his best…we might only harvest one sack of sesame and another one of millet…”