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Ismail: broader horizons

Ismail: 'There is no resemblance between now and before 1984...'

For 25-year-old Ismail, life is clearly divided into the times before and after the drought of 1984. There is, he says, “no resemblance between the two periods”. Before, people lived well off the land. Now their animals have died and relying on agriculture is impossible. Today “our work is to migrate to the cities”.

Ismail has personal experience of the “difficulties and hardships” of migration. Cattle herders working for livestock merchants have to travel for miles overland with no money to stay in hotels or inns.”Even the markets are guarded by policemen,” he says.

Despite this Ismail feels that travel brings advantages, as “many experiences and new notions” can help with ideas for development. He is certain that with investment in irrigation the local area could be productive again. Although his education was interrupted by the need to earn money,”people have understood now that they can’t develop or progress except through education”.

My ancestors lived here in this semi-desert area for [more than] two centuries. The land was used for agriculture and grazing mainly. Nowadays, there is neither agriculture nor grazing land as a result of desertification: any crop we grow fails and there is no pasture. Life is difficult.

The animals that people used to raise and graze have died. Rain-fed agriculture is not successful and you can’t even raise the cost of new seeds as a result…. None of the factors that lead to rainfall exist now… The remaining land can be cultivated with irrigation – not by rain – and such areas are not many, for sand dunes have covered [most of] the arable land.

What is left is good only for cultivation by irrigation… using pumps, and it is successful. However, a person can’t be a farmer on his own unless he is rich or there is a [supportive] bank. The simple person can’t, for he wants money: to dig wells; to buy seeds. It is difficult to set up irrigated farm land from scratch.

Water scarcity

We do suffer from the problem of water. We had a well which was built about five decades ago, during the colonial time. Our ancestors owned it. In 1987, a charitable organization, along with a number of the villages, made [another] well for that irrigated land… it was to water the vegetables.

The first well was for drinking. [But] at a depth of 50 metres, the water changed and it caused the death of many animals and even affected people… it became bitter as if there were a substance in it… It caused many diseases, for example it affected women by causing them to have [enlarged] thyroid glands, for the water lacks many elements such as iodine. This disease caused the death of one of my aunts six months ago…

[People] abandoned it and instead began to drink from the pumped water of the irrigated land, which is owned by certain individuals… So here we suffer from a problem of drinking water for people, let alone for animals. If you want to drink, or water your animals, or even [offer water to] your guests it is a problem…

“The forests…were destroyed”

Before the drought of 1984, people were living in good conditions… They fed themselves from their agriculture and their animals. There were many forests. Even young people hadn’t got the idea of migrating because their time was full of farming and grazing livestock.

There used to be local fruits and trees like dom palm trees (Hyphaene thebiaca), laloub (desert date, fruit of the heglig tree), nabag (fruit of the sider tree, Zizyphus spina-christi) and gum arabic (produce of Acacia senegal). Gum arabic was one of the crops with which people supported themselves – collecting and selling it in the market by the quintal (100 lbs). That can bridge the gaps in daily requirements – these were the benefits of the forest.

Hunting existed. There were deer and small animals and they were also one of the things with which people supported themselves: fresh meat from hunting and sharmoot (dried meat), they ate this in the dry seasons…

But when desertification came, all the animals that were their source of living died – many people were displaced and some of them migrated to the towns. Those who had stayed have no choice other than to live from the trees they cut down… then they sell the wood in the markets. This became their main source of income. The forests, as a result, were destroyed…and the whole area became a desert and [full of] sand dunes.

Life changed beyond recognition

After the drought, people lost everything… They told us that before then, 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. There is no resemblance between now and before 1984… and there is no improvement between today and yesterday – all is the same.

They used to cultivate millet and fitrarita (variety of sorghum widely used in Sudan for its high nourishment value) besides other crops such as cucumber, watermelon, cowpea, okra. They didn’t have cash crops. They had sesame but it wasn’t enough for them, but now people cultivate it and rely on it more than any other crop…

People used to store grain in the ground in big holes, until they harvested the new crop, for they just consumed their harvest; they didn’t need to sell it – and if they did, they would only sell a little…[Today] our work is to migrate to the cities to some manual labour…

The reality of migration: “difficulties, hardships, humiliation”

We migrate there in summer – it’s seasonal work. We do not have fixed jobs. [We do] manual labour jobs: in the markets; [looking after] livestock for export…

I didn’t migrate outside Sudan, but within it. I tried many kinds of work – in the markets, in agriculture, labouring in agriculture for others, transferring livestock for export. We bring the animals from the west of Sudan and we go for two months overland till we reach El Obeid, where we can use vehicles to transfer them for five days. We stay with them in the veterinary quarantine enclosure until they are shipped.

Each job has difficulties – you are far from your family and you want to send them something, but you can’t find the means to do so. It is very difficult to travel by land, and even being in the towns [is hard] – you don’t have relatives in them [and] you have no money to sleep in hotels or inns – even the markets are guarded by policemen. There are difficulties and hardships in migration, in addition to humiliation.

Poverty postpones marriage

Marriage, often, is the main reason [behind migration]: some youths stopped their education and migrated in order to help the family and to get married. Marriage here is a big problem, for it is costly…

Both [men and women wait longer to marry], but it depends on the young man – for whenever he becomes ready he can get married. There are some women whose ages reached 30, 35 and 37 and they became Aawanis (old maids) And even the boys too – we live in the countryside, we married young men when they reached 19 or 20 – now you find the age of our older brothers is almost the same as our fathers.

In our era, we struggled for years, and were engaged to a woman for three or four years because it is so difficult to save money… Our forefathers used to marry their sons using the wealth they inherited from their ancestors – they married at younger ages – but we lost that wealth. [And] now we…can’t get money to marry except after many years because we don’t have fixed jobs – you work here and there – and even the money that you collect, you lose.

This is one of the things that has negatively affected young men and women: non-marriage due to lack of money…caused by desertification. No person or organization has helped us in this problem…All these disasters came to us after 1984.

No progress without education

Before the 1990s, the number [of secondary students] wasn’t big – four or five – but in the 2000s there are many of them – girls and boys – who are in secondary school…

The real obstacle is how to transfer from the basic level to the secondary level. Some of the students think of their family – their parents, their sisters and brothers, for these people lack the basic necessities of life – so they [leave school and] work in order to bridge these gaps and try to cover the household requirements.

[I left for] for the same reasons. I migrated to the capital to complete my studies, but the distance between me and my family was far and meeting our daily requirements in the capital is more difficult than in the countryside… If you are poor, you can’t study. I reached secondary level and we reached an impasse.

Now, we assist our family to cover the household requirements and we try to ensure our younger brothers continue their education…There is no difference between us and this generation, but we were the victims… we try to do our utmost to educate everyone. People have understood now that they can’t develop or progress except through education. Parents, sisters, brothers – all are assisting the student to continue his learning…

Today girls and boys are the same. You find four or five girls at one house studying and also the boys. But the situation does become difficult. The boy is not like the girl for boys can work during the school holiday to save or prepare for his requirements in the coming year. The girl…also has dreams and aspirations and the family helps her – but it is somehow [more] difficult.

New school but old hardships

We have a new school: four classes… [but] people don’t support it either financially or materially. Everyone is absorbed in providing for the household and the students’ requirements, in addition to daily hardships. Up to now, the school has three rooms and the fourth “room” is under the shadow of a tree – there are no benches… Pupils sit on the ground…

There are two teachers… The school…is not complete. So [after the fourth class] our children go to Milaha School to continue their learning… 6 or 7 kms from here… They go in the morning and come back in the evening about 5 o’clock – they take with them their breakfast or buy it there and they live on it till the evening. They go there…to complete the basic level… Then they move to Bara, which is 8 or 9 kms from here, to study at secondary level.

If some organisations would assist us by providing our requirements – completing the staff of the school and the rest of the classrooms – we have the pupils for these classes [up to eighth class]. There were applications [made] but we received nothing back and no organisations came here, but people are trying – and struggling collectively or individually to secure a future for this village and its people…

“Sickness comes suddenly”

We lack a health centre, dispensary, clinic… We rent a car to take the patient to Bara hospital, which deals with simple cases. And people also go to El Obeid. You try every means possible in order to get your patient there – the hardships and difficulties are many in the area of health. We suffer a lot.

Only one per cent can afford [transport]. The rest…get help from other people and repay them later, for example for renting a car. For sickness comes suddenly without any arrangement or calculation… But the people here depend upon and help each other – the problem is that this remains as a debt and you have to repay it [while being] in the same economic situation.

There are local alternatives, from trees and herbs. [To treat illnesses] such as flu and primary infections – and before they become complicated – we create incense by burning [herbs and fruits] in fire – or do simple things like applying oil. Beyond that, there is no alternative other than going to a hospital and seeing a doctor, and this is difficult.

The risks with untrained midwives

During the last period – from the late 1990s and to the beginning of the 2000s – we have had no midwife. When there is a woman about to give birth, we bring a midwife from the nearby villages, like Milaha, or seek the help of traditional midwives. We did not have a trained midwife till the year 2000, when IFAD came and trained one…

[Before 2000] the local traditional midwife had no health background… She couldn’t specify the time of delivery or if the pain level of delivery is natural or not. Does the mother have high blood pressure or not? [She did not] even have the first aid resources that help in delivering a baby. She only had local tools. [She was] like a person who does a job and has no idea or background…about that job…

In the past, we used an Egyptian blade, not a knife, which was not sterilised – they sharpened it on a stone… And the baby or the mother could die – [sometimes] the injury wouldn’t heal. Is this baby OK or does she need first aid? Is he underweight or not? All these things she had no medical background about.

New experiences generate development ideas

Although we didn’t complete our education, travelling and migration have provided us with many experiences and new notions which can help. You know that if you have a development project, it will help you in your life – but there is no money. Our lands still exist and we lack nothing but wells and machinery and people here have experience in irrigated agriculture – historically the area used to be irrigated. All the crops have been cultivated [before] and were successful in these lands.

We have a trench 10-12 miles long which can be cultivated also. If there is an organisation that could help us and take us step by step through a project of investment in agriculture and grazing, it will succeed also. The labour force and the experience are available but we do lack money.

Now some of the irrigated lands are cultivated and production is good and our crops have no competitor! We have two irrigated plots…we cultivate potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, legumes, vegetables and even fruits…and they are about to yield produce. There are not huge quantities…The small quantities that exist are marketed…mainly in Bara – and if the quantities are large, we transfer some of them to El Obeid. Our crops are the first [to arrive], whether in Bara or El Obeid… We are pioneers in the Malaga (wholesale vegetable market)…

Fighting environmental decline

There was a relative improvement when people stopped cutting down trees, like merikh (shrub, Leptadenia pyrotechnica), hashab, laloub and sayal (Acacia tortilis, tree used for building poles and fuelwood; pods used for animal fodder) and the land became more stable.

If people could find another way to provide their daily needs instead of cutting down trees, especially in the rainy season, this could be an effective factor in stopping desertification.

[Building homes from mud or clay] is a new notion. Some of the villagers who are well-off began using mud instead of straw or thatch – mud is available at the trench and you can call people to do the work in form of nafeer (voluntary community participation), or by hiring them. They can make the mud bricks…They can bring sand [for cement pillars] and the mason.

But this idea is hard to realise because you [often] have to hire people to do that work and it needs many materials, such as wire, nails, cement and so on. People want to do that but conditions here are difficult. So we still brought straw or thatch, using difficult ways and means. And these huts need to be renewed annually…

There are no alternatives [for energy]. We have charcoal and wood – gas is new and we only use it in illumination and on special occasions.

“We have the workforce and experience”

Some of the solutions are to introduce irrigation, animal grazing, livestock – because people didn’t continue their education and they don’t have university certificates. We have the workforce and experience alongside the arable land, and also the pastures – and the areas of marketing are close…

What we dream of is that a lot of [development] organisations come here… people here are looking forward to such assistance so as to feel these promises and projects are tangible, and to push them forward.

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.


Ismail: broader horizons 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