Archive for the 'Sudan' Category

Continued Fighting in Darfur

Today, December 11, there was an attack by the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) on Kulbus, an area in West Darfur near the Chad border.  Ten staff members of Catholic Relief Service (CRS) are sequestered in their compound, waiting for the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) to evacuate them by helicopter.  Even though El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, is safe, the UN will not evacuate the CRS staff to El Geneina for fear of ground fire on the helicopters.  The ten staff members will be evacuated to El Fasher, where they will stay at the CHF guest house until further plans are made.  (CHF does not have any operations in West Darfur.)

The cell phone networks in Darfur are shut down regularly, whenever the government plans an operation, to prevent communications among the SLA and to prevent leaks.  Mobile and satellite services were shut down on the 6th. and 9th. of December.

A week before Mark and I got to El Fasher, there was an SLA attack in town, with the intention of targeting government officials.  Instead, a bank official was killed, so the government imposed an 8pm curfew on the town, the time the bank official was killed.

The curfew effectively shuts down life in El Fasher starting around 7pm.  Shops and vendors close up and restaurants are nervous to get their last customers out in time so that the staff can get off the roads before 8pm.  The penalty for breaking the curfew is stiff.  You are fined SD 1,500 (around US$6) and your head is shaved.

The curfew was lifted on December 6 to 10pm for the general public, and 9pm for NGOs.  NGO vehicles have been the target of carjackings, and on December 1, a Spanish Red Cross driver was killed at Abu Shouk camp in a carjacking attempt.  The Spanish Red Cross stopped their activities in the camps for a week, and staff members are not going to be using their cars in the camps.  They will use the local taxis.

Mark and I have felt very safe everywhere that we have gone, both in town and in the camps.  We’ve spoken to hundreds of women in the camps, wood merchants in trucks and horse carts, vendors at markets in town and in the camps, and soldiers posing for their photographs.  We’ve been careful not to flash our camera when driving by military areas or barracks, but have made our interpreter and driver nervous at times by taking too long to photograph bushes and weeds, and girls on the road returning from collecting twigs.  (We were told that in Khartoum, a tourist was arrested for taking a photograph of the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers!)

Cooking Demonstrations in North Darfur

Fuel Efficient Stove Demonstration

Mark and I held five cooking demonstrations at different camps in North Darfur using anywhere from three to five different stoves. We always included a three-stone fire (the traditional way most of the IDPs cook their meals), the mud stove that is currently being promoted by several NGOs working on “fuel efficient stove” (FES) programs (originally designed by Intermediate Technology Development Group – ITDG), and a metal stove developed in India (called the Tara). We sometimes included one or two modified mud stoves that Mark and I designed and made (with the help of the CHF FES trainers) to see if we could improve the efficiency of the ITDG model.

Before we began the demonstrations, we asked the participants (anywhere from 20 to 80 women and men) how much wood they used to cook a meal. Most answered: a karba (a bundle, consisting of 3 to 4 meter-long pieces of wood about 2 centimeters in diameter) or more. (On average, a karba weighs around 2 kilograms.) We also taught them how to light and maintain an efficient fire – using small pieces of wood, no more than 3 at a time, evenly spaced; burning only the tips. We then had the women who had volunteered to cook light their stoves at the same time.
Rather than conducting water boiling tests with the women (we did plenty of that on our own at the guest house), we had them cook their staple starch – assida – using the same pot, the same amount of water and flour, and gave them the same amount of wood (usually 600 grams). We bought millet in the market and had it milled because Darfuri prefer millet over any other kind of flour (usually sorgham, and now wheat that the World Food Program has introduced as part of their cereal rations).

Assida is prepared in several steps. First, the water is brought to near boiling – when small bubbles start to appear around the bottom of the pot – at which point you add a couple of handfuls of flour. Then, when the mixture comes to a roiling boil, you add the rest of the flour and stir and mix vigorously with a muswat – a meter-long stick with a quarter-moon shaped piece of wood attached at the end. The assida is ready after a few minutes of mixing and kneading with the muswat. You then smooth it out and scoop it out of the pot with a large piece of coconut shell and place it into a shallow metal serving bowl. The mullah (stew/gravy that is eaten with the assida) is then placed around the assida.

Making AssidaMaking MullahAssida and Mullah

We had a couple of women prepare the mullah separately so that most of the participants could watch the demonstration.

We timed each of the women when they finished cooking the assida, having told everyone earlier that is was a race, but not a race against time. It was a race to see who would use the least amount of wood. We measured the amount of wood each woman had left after she finished cooking, did some quick math, and announced the results of the amount of wood each woman had used. The results usually showed that the woman cooking with the most efficient stove used half the amount of wood used by the woman cooking on the three stone fire. And in general, all the women used much less wood than they normally would by maintaining efficient fires. (Mark and I policed the women to make sure they were not putting too many sticks into the fire, and we precut the wood so that they would be the right size.)

Then, we all ate.

Women Eating AssidaKid Eating Assida

Gamra Bhakar

Gamra Bhakar

Gamra Bhakar was making mullah on a 3-stone fire when we came to interview her.  Mullah is a gravy (usually made with okra, onions, garlic, fresh or dried meat, red chili, fresh dill, and a rock salt called atron) that is eaten with the staple starch, assida (a thick porridge known as ugali in many countries in East Africa), made with flour and water. She cooks for a total of 9 family members, two of whom are under 7 years of age.  She makes two meals a day and tea 3-4 times a day.  She cooks these meals in 3 pots, one medium-sized, almost flat, round-bottom aluminum pot around 24 cm in diameter, a small, round-bottom, cast aluminum pot 17 cm in diameter, and a small flat-bottomed aluminum pot around 17 ВЅ cm in diameter, using a bundle of “wood” for each meal.  She uses plastic and straw as kindling for her fires.

She collects wood from outside the camp, even though it is illegal and “not safe”.  All the land around the camp has legal owners, and if she is caught on the road, she is at risk of being beaten by “some men”, who will also take her wood.  She goes out to collect wood twice a day; an effort that takes her 3 hours each trip for one bundle of wood – a headload.  However, once or twice a week, she has to run away without collecting wood because of some sort of danger.

Actually, what she collects are branches and roots of a noxious weed that is locally known as oushar.  Its stems are hollow, and the leaves contain a milky sap that can cause blindness when touched to the eyes, particularly in children.  It takes twice the amount of oushar to cook a meal compared with “proper” wood, therefore Gamra has to collect every day, twice a day.

“Khawaja Okey”

Khawaja Okey

“Khawaja Okey!”  “Khawaja Okey!”  the children in the camps scream every time they catch a glimpse of us.  This means something like:  “White man – you’re okay.”

Many children have shortened this phrase to just:  “OK!”  And others give you the nonverbal equivalent – an emphatic “thumbs up.”

“OK!” “OK!” “OK!” ring out as we pass.  Some children are content to wave at you if you are driving by, each anxious to make sure that you have seen and acknowledged their wave.  Others will come running perilously close to the car in their excitement.  If we are on foot, we collect a trail of children of all sizes (and adults too), all crowding around to see what you are up to; extending their hands to say hello.  The bold ones will touch you.  Many will comment on Mark’s hair (“he has long hair like a girl”).  Some babies cry in fright at the sight of a white man.

Suprisingly, almost none of the children in the camps beg.  We’ve only run into a couple of boys asking for “chocolate”, which means any type of candy (like in India).  Rather, they will offer you whatever they have if they happen to be eating something.

“Khawaja okey!” because the khawaja has helped them.

Food Distribution in Zam Zam IDP Camp, North Darfur

Food DistributionGirl with Ration CardsSacks of GrainFood Distribution Center

Food distributed per person per month in Zam Zam IDP camp, North Darfur:
15 kg cereal (wheat or sorgham)
1.5 kg peas or other pulses (lentils)
1.5 kg corn-soya blend
0.9 kg vegetable oil
0.75 kg sugar
0.3 kg salt

There is a separate distribution of two and a half bars of soap per person per month.

Non food items (NFIs) that they received when they arrived include shelter materials, plastic sleeping mats, blankets, mosquito nets, plastic buckets with lids, jerry cans (for water), and flat-bottomed, stamped aluminum pots (if the IDPs fled without their pots).

Most IDPs sell a portion of their grain rations (usually wheat, because they are not used to eating it) to buy vegetables, additional sugar, tea, additional soap, firewood, and sometimes meat.

Water in North Darfur

Girl Carrying Water on Head
Donkey with Water BladdersHorse Drawn Water CarrierWater Pump at IDP Camp

The water coming out of the taps at the Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF) guest house in El Fasher is brown. “This is what you shower in”, Mark likes to tell me everyday. “Worse, this is what you use to brush your teeth.”

Whatever… I feel pretty clean showering with sandy and muddy water after a full day at the camps under the sun, and have taken to using bottled water for the final rinse when I brush my teeth, but it is still disconcerting to see the brown water being poured into the cistern, knowing that the water will never have a chance to sit long enough for the sand and silt to sink to the bottom. For a few days, I was under the blissful delusion that the fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and arugula that we have for dinner every night were washed in bottled water, until I walked into the kitchen one day (we haven’t gotten sick)… And the water for the tea that we drink…

So everyday, when we eat, we eat sand. In the bread, in the rice, in the meat, in the vegetables. For that matter, everyday, we sleep on sand in our beds. And, my white and pale blue cotton shirts are now beige.

There is no municipal water (or consistent supply of electricity) in El Fasher. (One of the many reasons for this conflict in Darfur is the lack of basic infrastructure in the region.) Water is carried from a public source in a variety of ways:

  • In a jerry can on the head of a woman or small child
  • In jerry cans, loaded four to a wheelbarrow pushed by an adolescent boy
  • In jerry cans, sometimes two, sometimes four, tied to the sides of a donkey
  • In bags made from donkey skin, carried on the back of a donkey
  • On a horse cart in two 55-gallon drums welded together
  • In an tanker

At the CHF guest house, the water comes in two ways. If it comes in the 55-gallon drums, the horses are backed into the compound near the cistern, and the young men who drive the horse and cart empty the drums into two jerry cans and pour them into the cistern. If the water comes in a tanker, the tanker pulls up at the back entrance and empties the water using a plastic hose.

Ironically, the water in the camps is better than the water in town because that water comes from wells drilled by the international aid agencies. Half of El Fasher gets their water from young entrepreneurs in the camps who sell water by the jerry can. If your donkey can carry four jerry cans, you can make SD 100 (a little less than US$.50).

Unfortunately, the water at the CHF guest house probably comes from a seasonal pool that is used by everyone in town, particularly entrepreneurs who have set up small pumps to wash cars and trucks. I don’t know how much a donkey skin’s worth of water costs, but each set of 55-gallon drums costs from SD 600 to 800, depending on the distance the horses have to travel.

And collectively, the five of us in the guest house drink a couple of cases of bottled water a day.

The IDP Camps in North Darfur

Mark and I will spend most of our time working in three IDP camps close to El Fasher: Abu Shouk, Al Salaam, and Zam Zam; we will not have time to go to Kabkhabiya, which requires a helicopter flight and a two day minimum stay because flights do not operate on a daily basis. (All NGO travel within Darfur must be done by air because the roads are not secure. The World Food Programme operates flights to all the major towns in Darfur, either by small propeller planes or helicopter, and several small, regional airlines have also started operating commercial flights to the capitals of each Darfur state (North, South, and West). Goods and vehicles that must be transported go in an organized convoy with clearances from the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Government of Sudan (GoS).)

The camps near El Fasher have an NGO coordinator that tries to manage the activities of all the NGOs working in each camp. The manager for Abu Shouk and Zam Zam is the Spanish Red Cross; the manager for Al Salaam is International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Abu Shouk IDP Camp, North DarfurZam Zam IDP Camp, North Darfur

Abu Shouk camp, about a 15 minute drive from El Fasher, has a population of approximately 65,000, mostly of IDPs from Korma and Jebel Si. (The camp population numbers vary widely because the IDPs move in and out, particularly in the planting or harvest season, when many return home or work in farms as hired hands.) The majority of the population is Fur. (Dar – “homeland” or “house” – of the Fur.)

Abu Shouk is divided into East and West, with 28 “blocks” in the East, and 11 in the West. Each block is subdivided by alphabet, with approximately 3-4 households per letter, separated by lanes.

Abu Shouk has a thriving main market, which operates daily, and rivals the souk in El Fasher. There is even a “cinema” – a tent covered in blue tarp that shows videos on a small television for SD 30 (about US$ 0.13) for 2 hours. There are “regional” markets within the camp as well as wood and charcoal vendors wherever there is a supply.

About 25,000 to 30,000 recently arrived IDPs were moved from Abu Shouk to an adjacent camp a few kilometers away called Al Salaam in June of this year to relieve overcrowding in Abu Shouk and to ensure the supply of basic services.

Zam Zam is located 15 km. southwest of El Fasher, a 30 minute drive, mostly on a paved road. The GoS considers this a “rebel” camp and requires security clearance every time you enter and leave the camp. (There is a permanent African Union camp located near the checkpoint.) Zam Zam has a population of between 25 and 30,000 IDPs, mostly from Tawila and other areas south of the camp. The IDPs are divided into seven “centers”, two in the South and the rest in the North. 60 to 70 percent of the population is Zaghawa. The market at Zam Zam operates twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays.

The NGOs operate out of community centers, or diwans, at the camps, utilizing “volunteer” IDP committee members for each activity (the volunteers are paid an “incentive”, but are not considered part of the staff). All of the activities take place with the permission and mobilization of the sheikhs or omdas (an omda oversees many sheikhs) in the community. Before we began any work at the camps, we introduced ourselves to the sheikhs, and received their permission to conduct our activities. (At Abu Shouk, a number of the sheikhs came shopping with us to prepare for our cooking demonstration the next day!)


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