The testimonies from Sudan leave you in no doubt of the devastation brought by desertification. The loss of their animals and dramatic decline in crops has left whole villages dependant on migrant labour.


Sudan’s North Kordofan State is typical of the Sahel region. There are three major ecological zones: arid, semi-arid and low rainfall savannah.

Bara locality, where these interviews took place, is in a region of sandy soil notorious for its lack of fertility; annual grasses and Acacia trees dominate. In the central and southern districts the soil and vegetation are somewhat richer, and most of the wet-season grazing areas are found there.

“We travel in the search for work, and certainly we are affected,” explains El Emam, as he describes how villagers’ lives are dominated by their need to migrate. The collapse of agriculture and livestock farming since the 1984 drought has meant that there is little local employment.

Before then: “people’s situations were good, there were cows, sheep, goats and good agriculture… people took four to five meals daily… when they harvested their crops one might get 50 sacks… when we were young, our fathers slaughtered the sheep and distributed the meat free…”

El-Nour-OT2-right-and-AbbasNow in his late 60s, El Nour has vivid memories of life before the great drought of 1984. Then, wildlife flourished on well-forested land. Now, the gazelle and other animals that people hunted have disappeared, along with the livestock that provided him with a living.”I possessed about 300 head of livestock, and now I have nothing. This is a fact, and I feel shame to say it.”

Although an uncle wanted to support his education, his father needed his only son to help with their cattle. Following the loss of their herds, El Nour became a migrant labourer for other livestock owners. He finds it hard to leave behind his wife and six daughters, and feels their presence”inside my heart.”

Fatima-OT26Fatima 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.

Ismail-OT14For 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.

Madinah-OT15Madinah is 25, and an agricultural extension worker. She believes that slash and burn, forest clearance and over-grazing were carried out in the past because of people’s ignorance of the consequences. Now, she says, they are forced into selling wood and charcoal through poverty.

She has listened closely to her older relatives’ stories of rich pastures and an abundance of animal products. She believes that the future lies in tree nurseries and improved agriculture. With the right technology and financial support, the land could once again become productive.

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”.

Naema-OT9Naema is 88, and fondly remembers when land and livestock were productive and “no one travelled abroad” for work. “Life was very good,” she says. The 1984 drought changed things in her village which, despite receiving aid from a Kuwaiti organisation, could not protect itself from the encroaching sands.

Today, few crops can be cultivated and productivity is low. “The sands will bury them,” she says, “just as they have buried my house”. Lack of pasture means the few remaining livestock depends on feed bought at the market. People left in the village rely on income sent by sons and husbands who migrate for work. Their health has suffered, and malaria has become common.

Osman-OT12Osman grew up with his grandfather who didn’t want him to go to school, but taught him to read and write. He looked after the family’s animals and travelled locally with traders before migrating to Egypt and then Saudi Arabia for work. After more than 10 years away, he returned to Sudan and got married.

Osman describes how sand dunes have encroached onto agricultural land, pests have multiplied, wells have dried up, cattle have died and crop yields have decreased. But he is hopeful that the community will work together and make the land more productive once again. He is less positive about current relief efforts, saying”I don’t think it is good because it doesn’t make an individual work.”

Sayda-OT10Sayda is 22, and does voluntary work as a teacher. She has seven brothers and three sisters, two of whom work while the others are at school. This is an unusual situation in her community, where” most of the boys are expelled from the schools because of the [unpaid] fees… The little ones work as shepherds… The older ones migrate”.

She describes the many impacts of desertification. Most men, young and old, now migrate for work; stress and hard labour mean that people have less time for each other; food production has been dramatically reduced; and women’s workloads have greatly increased. Just to collect fuel, she says “a woman walks about 5km on sand dunes, carrying firewood on her head”.

Widad-OT21-rightSince Widad’s father became sick when she was 14, she and her mother have been the family breadwinners. Her two younger sisters are still at school but her brother, like her, was forced to leave to earn a wage. He was”heartbroken” to give up studying.

Widad and her mother trade in firewood and vegetables, cultivating a small area of land, but they are forced to sell their crops at lower rates because they need the money straightaway. They also do some sewing and craftwork, but the market is very limited. Their food supply is precarious.”We listen to the radio, and we know the type of food we should eat, but we can’t provide it because of lack of money,” she says.


Most narrators talk of desertification as an almost unstoppable force, although there are differing attitudes to whether it can be halted, or even reversed. Some, like Fatima, are pessimistic, while others are more optimistic and determined, such as Ismail and Widad.

The movement of sand since the drought of 1984 – seen by many as the catalyst for the worsening situation – has forced many villagers from their homes in old El Ihemrat. El Nour talks in some detail about the relocation of his village to a new site.