Fatima is in her early 60s and is separated from her husband. She has been the main earner in her family and now looks after her grandchildren. She says that she is worn out from hard labour in the fields, poor nutrition and the extra work of gathering wood for fuel and water.”Women are exhausted,” she says.
Before desertification, she “used to go to the market, look after the animals and cultivate. I was busy all the day”. Now she suffers from rheumatism and finds labouring in the fields very hard. Her three daughters still live with her. She thinks that men are reluctant to marry, as”they have nothing and they can’t take on the responsibility of a woman and children”. But this is taking its toll on women like Fatima. “I am carrying their burden and am so tired,” she says.
Little is left in her village except for some scattered houses, almost buried by sand. Fatima says that she can’t move to the new village site provided by the government because “leaving needs money… What income we find, we spend it on food and clothes for our children”.
I live at old El Ihemrat village… The sand dunes are west of us but we haven’t left [for the new village] yet. We can’t, for leaving needs money and life has become difficult. What income we find, we spend it on food and clothes for our children… What shall we do? If the sand buries us, we will leave and if not, we will remain because leaving or moving requires money – which we don’t have. The trees that we cultivated failed to control the sand because the wind swept them away.
“Before…I was busy; now I have nothing”
Before desertification, I used to go to the market, look after the animals and cultivate. I was busy all the day. There is no market at the village, so we go to Bara… In the past, I had money and animals, but now I have nothing and desertification is surrounding us from everywhere. The boys go to work in the town and bring some 30,000 or 20,000 or 50,000 Sudanese pounds which are mainly spent on the house.
Before desertification, I used to get up early and go to cultivate and harvest the vegetables, if it was the season of cultivation. If it was not [that season], I collected wood, then I cooked the food. Now, if I have wood I go to Bara to sell it there, and if I haven’t, I sit in the house.
I milk the animals and make yogurt and ghee (clarified butter) and sell it in the market. But the lambs and sheep died and the situation deteriorated. We can’t work – labouring work has become hard for us because we don’t eat enough food.
Forced to buy milk
[We eat] milk, ghee, and meat and we go to the market to get the vegetables. Our food was good [before desertification]. Now we eat kisra (local bread), asida (thick sorghum porridge) and mullah (sauce/broth). I go to the market to buy meat and sweet potatoes and we eat them.
We bring the vegetables from an irrigated farm. We buy tomatoes, gir gier (herb eaten with salad), onion and sweet potatoes with a sum of 5,000 Sudanese pounds, which now can’t fill one hallah (cooking pot). In the past, a sum of 10 piasters (100 piaster = 1 Sudanese pound) would do this.
We do eat [three meals a day]. But the quality and type of food is very poor. And the milk which we used to drink and feed to our children – and sell some – now we buy it with our own money.
I had entered my children in school but later on I took them out of it. There was nothing for them to eat. My husband is a shepherd, but he is married to another woman away from here. He only visits to see his children. [He doesn’t bring money]; he only comes to greet them.
We, the women, work – and the sons have their own families and divide their money between us and their families. I have four sons. They live in the nearby village and in this village at the house of my son-in-law…
The men work far away from the village and fetching water is a woman’s chore. [We drink] from that well there. We pull water up by using a rope, as you see, which is difficult work for us, as women, and requires great effort…
Women fetch water, cultivate, gather wood and then do their household chores…Life was easy [in the past], but now it is difficult.
Rheumatism, inflammatory infections, coughs, and colds [are common now]. In the past we did not know feet problems, kidney pain or infections, but after desertification diseases have prevailed… We had [help] in the past, but now no one has come. The government gave us bread, sugar and milk but they haven’t come for a long time. They used to give us the”faster’s package” (to help people fast) before Ramadan but in this village nothing has arrived from outside.
Infections are common. The problem is that if you have a child who gets infected with a disease at night, you have to go to Bara for there is no health centre at the village… We don’t have vomiting or diarrhea here, we just suffer from coughs as a result of the wind. I can’t walk because I suffer from rheumatism…
Pests and problems
We used to cultivate cereal crops; watermelon and cowpea and all were successful. But now the watermelon is destroyed or eaten by bugs – insects and locusts make that entire field a total failure. The government doesn’t help with in this problem despite the fact that it has gone on for many years…
[People] didn’t stop cultivating, but only women do that now. They cultivate a small area so as to make [full] use of it. The boys stopped cultivating completely, and women are exhausted, they only cultivate one or two ropes (1 rope is 3.48m wide) for they harvest by hand.
Our need for assistance has many aspects. They can build a shelter belt of trees so as to protect the village; they can make a market at the village where we, the elder women and men, can buy and sell; they can provide piped water…
Economics affects marriage plans
[Young people] manage [to marry], but after a long time. They buy the bag of clothes piece by piece, by collecting and saving money over a long time. Then they save money for the dowry, and then the money for the celebration. It is completely different from the past.
In the past, you brought your camels, cows and goats to get married. But nowadays, you have to go to the town so as to earn the same money in small amounts. And after the marriage, you have to go once more to the town in order [to find work] to save money for your livelihood. It is a vicious circle. In the past, the yield of gum arabic or from cultivation was enough to get married – but going to the town is just wasting of time, age and youth…
I have two daughters who haven’t married yet and a third one who married but divorced. They all depend on their sisters, on themselves and on Allah… They cultivate, fetch water and bring wood. Wood is not collected by a woman who has children, or a young girl. They are collected by elder women. If this situation changes, [my daughters] can marry. But the men have nothing and they can’t take on the responsibility of a woman and children. I am carrying their burden and am so tired….
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.