Mekki is 51 and began work as a cattle herder when he was seven. He came to own 90 head of livestock and talks of the past as a time when”everything was available” . All this changed with the 1984 drought: pests and desertification destroyed the protective vegetation surrounding the village, the land became unproductive and most livestock perished.

Like others in their village, Mekki and his family became dependent on seasonal wage labour, working as cattle herders for the merchants who now own most of the livestock. Sometimes they travel to local towns, but may spend months or even years further afield. The extended family takes turns to migrate, ensuring that several men stay in the village to”solve any problems that the women and children may face”.

Mekki is positive about some of the impacts of migration, including the new ideas and goods that are brought back to the village. He is proud of being able to fund his children’s education, which “I am not willing to neglect”. But he worries a great deal about his family when he is away.

I was born in 1956 in Foja village. Since my childhood my parents, who were farmers and nomads, taught me agriculture. When I reached seven, I started to work in animal husbandry, and knew how to milk and deal with the cows. I was brought up in a good environment, where everything was available – butter, milk, millet – and the meals were nice. At that time, we did not know dura (sorghum) as a food…

When I grew up I owned 90 head of livestock, of which 60 were milking cows. Due to the great quantity of livestock, we honoured our guests by slaughtering cattle for them. I was very happy that my occupation was animal husbandry… and I continued working [in it] until I had children and sent them to school.

Looking back

I sold three oxen annually and from the income I purchased all we needed for the whole year… Women collected three bottles (approx 0.5 litre) of ghee (clarified butter) every two days and rode donkeys to sell it in Bara market. Sometimes travelling traders came to the village and we sold them our butter and bought what we needed from them – onions, sugar and oil…

I [also] worked as a farmer and we grew sesame, millet, cowpea, watermelon and karkaday (Hibiscus sabdariffa) at the khor (seasonal watercourse) which surrounded the village. It was rain-fed agriculture, and we were producing great quantities of these crops.

The soil was red. It was a fertile soil in which many species of grass grew, such as diraisa (fodder grass, Tribulus terrestris)… In the past every one had a ginaina (plantation of acacia trees). In its first production phase this would produce 8-10 sacks (each about 30 mid or 90 kg) [of gum arabic] per year. The income from one ginaina was sufficient for the family for a complete year…

We were…surrounded by thick grassland [like] a shelter belt – its height exceeded that of a man, especially the mesquite (Prosopis chilensis) and hashab (gum arabic, Acacia senegal) trees. It was preventing the sand and dust from blowing into the village… [But] it all died out, especially the hashab, which became infected by an earthworm that arrived with the encroachment of the desert. A tree would dry out within a week – in this way the hashab died out and turned into firewood.

This led to the removal of the tree cover and the land lost its fertility and became unproductive. 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…

Remembering the arrival of drought

The drought came in 1984. The Kharif (autumn; July-October) arrived with the wind and sand, which buried the rakouba (open shelters, made from wood with grass roofs). Nevertheless, we planted, but the winds and the sand continued until the encroaching desert covered the original soil and eradicated the hashab and all other trees…

After the end of the Kharif [in October]…people from all the distant villages came together with their children and animals… The land became dry and bare, without any pasture. By the start of April, the cows started to die. A cow was not able to stand on its legs due to the intensity of its hunger – and if four men gathered together to pick up a cow, they would fail.

To buy 7 lbs of millet rose to 5 Sudanese pounds. This was a great deal at that time, and very difficult to earn. We sold one cow in Bara market for 15 Sudanese pounds… But after a short period we needed to sell one again, and so on, until by April or May 1985 we had lost all the cows – those that we hadn’t sold had died. The government made a camp for the villagers in Bara town, and relief was provided.

People leave in despair

When the drought and the desert creep (encroachment) struck the area, the people suffered greatly. It was demanded that all people be patient and remain in the area, because if we left, our destination would be unknown… Actually the government assisted us, by giving us more than 30 sacks of dura free, and transport to return to the village.

The Kuwaiti Organisation (aid agency), after delivering a written report, provided us with a lorry load of clothes and food stuff: butter, milk, Australian flour and sugar. We remained in the village and did not leave, but the number of the families who did depart the village was about 50, and now they do not return – only for social occasions. There were 102 houses, and the number decreased to 51.

In addition to drought and desertification the year 1984 saw cholera, which led to the death of many people in the villages through lack of money and medicine. People were dying under the trees in El Obied town.

Livelihoods today

We were practising rain-fed agriculture and animal husbandry, but now we are construction labourers or harvest workers in Omdurman, Sinnar and El Hawata, and spend four or five months there before returning to the village. Others travel to Abu Gibaiha and Kadogli areas to work in the agricultural schemes, with the aim of getting two to three sacks of crops to bring back for their children…

The cattle you see in the village [today] are owned by the cattle merchants and grazed by some herders from the village. The majority of the locals are working as cattle herders, and if they do not find animal husbandry work here, they migrate to the town and work with cattle owners there, preparing for Greater Bairam (celebration 70 days after the end of Ramadan).

[They work] for a monthly wage of between 80,000 and 120,000 Sudanese Pounds. The cattle owner covers the herder’s expenses and gives him flour and sugar, because it is very long journey to Omdurman. After the cattle reach Omdurman, the cattle herder receives his wage and returns to the village.

Work in the towns

There are currently about 30 young men living in the village, but all go to El Obied or Bara towns in the morning to look for work… and come back at 4pm or 5pm in the evening… They do construction work for a daily wage, and some of them go to the wholesale traders in the market and buy goods from them to sell in retail – like dura, onions or peanuts… They come back with the money for their children.

Another 20-25 migrate [further]… They work in the building works in Omdurman, and in the Northern State they harvest dates and, after that, they work clearing the farm and planting vegetables, like soya beans, tomato and cucumbers. Then they return, because construction labouring is difficult, and an exhausting occupation. They spend the Greater Bairam period with us, and leave 15 days [later]. They don’t return again until the start of Kharif, the agricultural season… The married ones send money to their wives, and the single ones send money to their parents…

Migrants “return blooming”

[When they return] we notice that their culture differs from ours, their knowledge has increased. They dress in beautiful clothes, like Congolese trousers and modern shoes, and have bought modern radios. They get their knowledge from town people and follow their ways… They move to the towns, feeling isolated from modern life, and return blooming after all they’ve seen… They bring new things with them, like chairs. One may purchase three chairs, mattresses, and beautiful new tables for the reception of his guests in the village, on the occasion of his return from the town.

If a father of a resident youth in the village becomes ill, the young man goes to the shop and buys him Panadol tablets. But the returnee will rent a car and take his father to town to see a doctor and have medical examinations, and buy him medicine. And if a special diet is prescribed for him, his son will also purchase it. These are positive impacts. Also the migrating youth cover the family living expenses, and when they want to migrate again, they purchase goats or sheep with their remaining money, to provide milk, and then they migrate again.

Cooperatives and mutual support

They started cooperative societies within the village – this is a very good development… we opened a cooperative shop [for farm produce]. I was the finance secretary, and the cooperative succeeded in achieving a surplus of LS 3 million. Our animals were profitable and diverse – cows, sheep, goats and camels – and if a citizen owned a camel, it was as if he possessed a shop!..

In the event of a death, about 30 to 40 people gather together and provide all the requirements for consolation of the bereaved, and even the price of the shroud. Then the relatives of the deceased complete the requirements. Also, if a house collapses, about 15 to 20 young people will gather together and ride camels to the woods to collect building materials, grasses and branches, and build the house in one day.

The Zakat Bureau

The Sheikh (community elder and head of village administration) exerts efforts to solve problems, and submits applications to those people in the locality responsible for helping its citizens: provision of relief and finance, school building and digging wells. If a problem occurs between individuals, the locals hold a meeting and try to agree a reconciliation between the claimants.

There is a committee which assists him, registers the poor and asks the Zakat Bureau (local body responsible for distribution of Zakat, charitable donations expected of Muslims who can afford them) for its help… It delivered assistance in the past by giving some poor people 10 sheep, and another poor man one donkey, and a camel to another person, and sacks of dura to others.

Marriage and fertility

The annual birth rate [in the village] is usually between seven and eight births… The stable person differs from the migrant… When the absentees return after two years, they find those who remained have given birth twice…

There haven’t been any divorces, because a husband shall never divorce his wife whatever ever the conditions. But some divorces have happened in some other villages.

I married in 1970 and have eight children – four sons and four daughters. All are educated…

“A good son”

My eldest son is named Fadul and was born in 1972. He migrated to Omdurman for one year and worked as a building labourer. After he collected the sum of 1.5-2 million Sudanese pounds, he got a visa and sent us a letter from Saudi Arabia. He is a good son, and was carrying the family burden on his shoulders – he sent us all our living expenses. Now he is in Riyadh…

Another son, Ahmed, is about 26. He studied up to the sixth grade, before working with one of the cattle merchants as a herder for two years. Then, convinced that animal grazing was not a feasible occupation, he returned to school… I encouraged him… He was admitted to Kordofan University last year.

Gareeb is 22. He sat for the Sudanese Schools Certificate, and we thought I would have to collect 1 million Sudanese pounds in university fees for him, but he migrated. He communicated with me 10 days ago from Juba [where] he is working as a butcher.

My fourth son, Abd Alhameed, is 17 and is studying in the village school. He wanted to study in the religious college of El Maseed (advanced Quranic studies)… I asked him to return to the village after the introduction of the Khalwa (Quranic school), so as to develop both his religious and everyday life – I’m diligent about that.

I also have four daughters. Two of them were at school until they sat for the Primary School Certificate. At that time, I travelled to the Northern State to search for paid work in order to enable them to complete their education. When I returned, I found that they had married with the assistance of my brothers. One of them married my nephew from El Obeid. She has been trained in Primary Health Care by the Red Crescent.

The two younger daughters are still studying in primary school… Their elder sister took them to El Obeid to study, and we visit them monthly, or every two weeks. Their mother is visiting them now…

“Nothing takes education away from someone”

I migrated last year to Abu Gibaiha area, then to Malakal in Kaddow Province for gum tapping work. I spent four months there, returned after the Greater Bairam (celebration 70 days after the end of Ramadan), and found that my son Ahmed had asked me to pay LS 500,000 as university fees. I paid so he could continue his studies. Then I migrated to Omdurman and worked as a mason in the Military Academy for three months… I sent my family 700,000 Sudanese pounds to buy a camel.

I’ve [also] travelled to the Northern State, where I spent two years before returning to the village with enough money to buy all home requirements, repay all loans, and enable my sons to go ahead with their education. Nothing takes education away from someone – only death. But money can be lost, so I am not willing to neglect their education.

Migrants take turn to leave

I left [my family] with their paternal uncles in the village. Usually, we do not all travel away together. If the number of the men in the village was only five, we would agree that only three should travel, and two would remain to solve any problems that the women and children may face – to look after their needs, treat the ill, provide money or borrow from a shop until the head of household returns. After the return of the migrants, it is possible for those who remained to travel, and the returnees will be in charge of managing village affairs.

I was extremely worried about the provision of food during the whole period of my absence… I was always in touch with [my family], continuously by telephone, directing them to go to the trader and borrow what they need.

Women working

The mother takes care of the children and provides for all of their needs until the return of their father… She goes out to collect firewood in order to cook food. The breakfast meal is composed of asida (thick sorghum porridge) with mullah tagalia (meat and okra sauce/broth) and curdled milk or yoghurt. Then she starts to prepare the dinner. She also cleans her children’s clothes, encourages them to go over their lessons, and then starts to make mats…

[During the harvest season the women work in agriculture.] After the crops are harvested, she purchases saaf (palm leaves) to make mats and uses the fibre to make thread to bind up bundles of vegetables. Then she sells her manufactured goods to the traders in Bara market, and makes a profit of 15,000 to 20,000 Sudanese pounds, and purchases more raw materials.

Choosing to stay or go

During the long Seif period (the dry season; April-June), there are those who migrate with their children to the town. When they find all that they want in the town, they never come back to the village… their financial conditions were much improved. Some of them built clay houses, others acquired karro (carts drawn by donkeys or horses, used to transport goods). Others worked as vegetable sellers and opened shops, so can’t come back again… They communicate with us during social occasions such as funerals and marriages.

I’ve thought about migrating with the companionship of my family to El Obeid, because my son was asked to pay university fees of LS 200,000 and we were suffering with the cost of living. I told my brothers about this idea, because the village was losing many [people]. They rejected the idea and collected the fees and sent it to my son Ahmed, at the university…

[We cope] by going to the agricultural schemes and the farms in the neighbouring villages, where we spend the agricultural season and the Kharif in harvesting and winnowing… We focus on farming, which is a partnership between men and women. We return [to the village] when fodder is cheap and it is possible to save some money to purchase sheep or goats. This is what makes us stable in the village.

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.