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.
Some, however, are too poor to make the move. Fatima, a single mother of six, remains in her old home – “leaving needs money,” she explains.
Although many talk of the drought of 1984-85 as the turning point, before which life as an agro-pastoralist was tough but tenable, a few place the blame for environmental deterioration more squarely on human activity.
Madinah cites people’s “uncivilised” practices: cutting down trees, overgrazing, and slash and burn agriculture. Perhaps because of this, she is more optimistic than some about the future. With greater education and awareness, plus outside investment, she feels progress can be made to halt desertification.
But Naema relates how attempts to protect her village with a shelterbelt failed: the combination of sand, wind and pests destroyed the trees and most of the crops it was sheltering.
Whatever their views on the causes of desertification the narrators agree that people’s low incomes compound the situation, forcing some into activities such as charcoal making.
Ismail also highlights the impact on agriculture: before 1984 “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”.
Everyone is affected by the need for men to find work elsewhere. Travelling with animals used to be a way of life for many men. But now they are moving to the cities to work in construction and, in the case of young men, are staying away for long periods.
The latter are motivated by helping their families and earning enough to get married. But today, even married men have to spend three to five months a year away from home, sometimes more, as El Emam and Osman explain.
Despite the anxiety and loneliness suffered by migrant workers, and the increased workload and responsibilities for the women left behind, there are some benefits beyond the economic. Several narrators speak of migrants coming back with new ideas and wider experience.
The scale of migration is huge: Sayda says 75 per cent of her village’s young men are migrants. El Emam describes the work people do, and the different patterns of migration that men adopt: seasonal, extended or semi-permanent. He says many of the men come back for harvesting during Kharif (autumn) but directly after this “no man remains in the village”.
Ismail talks about the reality of migration from a very personal perspective. He explains how tough life is for travelling herdsmen, who often have no relatives in the towns they stay in and nowhere to sleep. “There are difficulties and hardships in migration, in addition to humiliation.”
El Nour, like the other men, talks of the pain of being separated from his family for extended periods. Several narrators mention the anxiety of not knowing how things are at home, and only getting news periodically.
Mekki speaks in detail about different kinds of work and migration – and some of its benefits. Madinah also mentions positive aspects of migration, but she is in no doubt that women’s workloads and responsibilities are increased as a result.
All the narrators talk about education, especially the difficulty of keeping their children in school beyond primary level, because they can’t afford the fees or equipment.
El Emam and Mekki explain that much of the money they earn away from home goes on paying for their children’s education, a responsibility they take very seriously. Mekki has eight children and describes their different educational opportunities and decisions in some detail.
Ismail holds strong opinions on education and its importance: “People have understood now that they can’t develop or progress except through education.” He had to give up his own schooling because of poverty – “If you are poor, you can’t study” – but is dedicated to ensuring his younger brothers complete their education.
Widad also had to give up her education, as did her ‘heartbroken’ younger brother, because their father became ill. Despite this, she has become an agricultural extension worker.
Most narrators talk of a few members in the family being kept in school as long as possible, but single mother Fatima had to take all her six children out of school as there “was nothing for them to eat”.
Naema is in her 80s, but is as fierce in her desire to see the current generation educated as many of the younger narrators. She fought a battle to get their local school registered in the village’s name.
Many narrators comment on how men and women are marrying much later than previous generations, a social change they clearly link to desertification and the poverty it has brought. Almost everyone remarks on this, albeit from different perspectives.
Fatima explains that in the past “you brought your camels, cows and goats to get married”, as the income from animal wealth was sufficient to cover the costs of marriage.
Today, young men have to work away from the village for two to three years in order to accumulate an acceptable amount of money for the dowry; some find it takes much longer. Ismail says: “now we…can’t get money to marry except after many years because we don’t have fixed jobs.”
Sayda and Osman both say part of the problem is that mothers won’t accept lower dowries because of “stubbornness” and fear of “stigma”.
Fatima’s daughters are unmarried or divorced. Having brought up her children on her own, she explains: “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…”
Sayda mentions that the increased workloads of those left in the villages has also had an impact on social relations, leading to a “lack of association” between people.
Osman says weddings and funerals have changed for similar reasons: people have much less time to devote to such ceremonies, spending only three days on a funeral instead of the traditional 40.
According to Widad, some of the young men who spend time working elsewhere “try to imitate the people of towns in their clothes and they talk about what they have seen – notably on TV.” However, most say the young men are responsible, and come back with “new notions” that can help the community develop.
Almost all narrators, regardless of their own gender, acknowledge the increase in women’s workloads due to the absence of men for work, and the scarcity of water and fuelwood. Women have to carry wood and water for much longer distances today.
Widad mentions the physical cost: “girls carry [gallons of] water on their heads… in the morning and the same in the evening… most of them complain of severe pain in the neck”.
Fatima says women do most of the cultivation today, too: “Women are exhausted, they only cultivate one or two ropes [1 rope is 3.48 metres wide] for they harvest by hand.”
On a more positive note, Osman, Madinah and others comment that women today have much more autonomy to choose marriage partners or stay in education. However, since educational opportunities and the presence of single men have both been severely diminished by poverty, for many the choice remains somewhat theoretical.
The difficulties everyone has in making ends meet have also undermined traditional support mechanisms. Osman points out that women on their own often have to resort to charcoal making “in order to earn their living. People used to help these women, but now nobody cares for them”.
Older male narrators were usually herd-boys in their childhood. Mekki, like most narrators, says his family had “a great quantity of cattle” in the past; El Nour owned 300 head of cattle. Cattle wealth was closely linked to social occasions – for example, Mekki says his family would honour guests by slaughtering a cow.
However, most people lost all or nearly all their cattle during the 1984/5 drought. El Emam says the majority now just have one or two goats. Their loss has more than economic significance: “Now I have nothing. This is a fact, and I feel shame to say it,” says El Nour.
Most of the cattle in the village today are owned by cattle merchants, and the villagers now work for them as herders, or for livestock merchants and exporters in the towns. Naema explains that those who still have a few cattle have to buy feed from the market. Local fodder is scarce, the grasses having dried out or been covered by sand.
All say that the drastic reduction of milk products and meat in their diets has had an adverse effect on their health.
Mekki says that in the past everyone had a small plantation of acacia trees, producing gum arabic, which earned the family “sufficient” income for a whole year.
Rain-fed agriculture was also a key part of their livelihood. They grew a variety of crops, including sorghum, sesame, millet, cowpea and watermelon. They stored the harvest and it lasted until the following year.
They also had irrigated farmland: Osman talks of one such area where “production ranged from 50 to 60 jerkins (4-gallon containers) of tomatoes per day…”. They took pride in their self-sufficiency: El Emam says: “…we never purchased anything from the market except sugar, tea, oil and onions…”
Now much of the land is covered with sand, and productivity has plummeted. And with the drop in the water table, irrigation is more difficult. The acacia trees have died from the combination of drought and pests. Several narrators, including Naema and Osman, observe that pests have multiplied with desertification.
Mekki describes the change in their circumstances: “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…”
All narrators refer to an abundance of grass and woodland in the past, and the stark contrast with today. Naema, Ismail and Osman describe some of the trees that existed and what they were able to harvest from the forest. According to El Nour, people used to hunt gazelle and other animals, but today “the woods have vanished”.
Several narrators, for example Widad, say that even finding the materials – wood and grasses – to build or repair their homes has become difficult. Ismail mentions attempts to construct homes from mud and concrete, but points out that people need money for labour and materials.
Many narrators say that the increasing poverty is forcing people to rely on selling fuelwood for income, even thought they know this is only a short-term solution.
Because her father is too ill to work, Widad and her mother “have to go to distant areas to get wood, sometimes from eight in the morning until the evening… [then] we prepare the wood to sell it in the morning…in Bara, [going to] house after house…”
Madinah believes that “low incomes” are the primary cause of the destruction of the remaining woodland: “there is no other way” to provide for a family “but by cutting or burning a tree in order to sell wood [or charcoal]”.
The difficulty of getting water – for drinking and domestic use, or for irrigation and livestock needs – dominates everyone’s lives. All narrators, but especially the women, talk of the burden of fetching and carrying water.
Sayda says the water in wells is 14 metres down; Widad talks of using wells so deep that the ropes pulling up the buckets fray and fall apart every few weeks.
Ismail describes how polluted some water supplies have become, and the health implications. Sayda points out how the encroachment of the sand has made everything more difficult about fetching water: women don’t just have to go longer distances to find fuel wood and water but they have to carry heavy loads walking on the sand dunes.
The importance to the community of improved water supplies is underlined by the fact that many narrators are placing their hopes for the future in expanding irrigated agriculture, something they had success with in the past.
Most narrators say people had better health in the past, and ascribe this predominantly to a diet in which milk and meat products featured strongly, as well as a wider variety of grains and vegetables.
Today, says Naema, malnutrition, diarrhoea and malaria are all on the increase. Fatima talks about the sheer exhaustion women suffer as a result of hard labour and poor nutrition.
Widad says the poor nutrition is having an impact, but that they are is powerless to improve the situation: “…the bodies of children are weak, and the newborn are underweight. 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.”
Ismail discusses health issues in some detail, including the prevalence of goitre among women. This enlargement of the thyroid gland, which can be caused by lack of iodine, is also remarked upon by Widad. One improvement in community health that Ismail emphasises is that local traditional midwives are now properly trained.
However, with health problems on the increase, there are major financial implications since access to treatment involves costly transportation. The problem, Ismail says, is that “sickness comes suddenly without any arrangement or calculation”; people do help each other but families still have to find the money for transport and are then left in debt.
Many narrators refer to the healthy diet of the past – from animal products, crops and the fruits of wild plants and trees. According to El Emam and others, they were able to store food when there was a surplus to help them through times of drought.
Several, including Fatima, refer to their dependence on sesame today. In the past people could grow a far wider range of crops.
Before “people took four to five meals daily…,” says El Emam, “when they harvested their crops one might get 50 sacks of dura (cereal crops) and store it… Their favourite food was milk and butter. I remember that when we were young, our fathers slaughtered the sheep and distributed the meat free…”
Today the problem is about quantity of food as well as quality and variety. Every narrator notes that overall food production has drastically reduced. Widad estimates production at about one-tenth of what it was. Mekki says he was “extremely worried” about his family getting enough food when he was working elsewhere.
Although narrators say that the difficulties of daily life, and the absence of men because of migration for work, have weakened people’s ability to help each other, they do mention instances of mutual support.
Mekki talks about young people rallying round and building a new house for someone whose home had collapsed, and about people clubbing together to buy what is needed for a funeral. Ismail mentions nafeer, a form of voluntary community participation.
Several narrators praise migrants for supporting parents and elders, as well as children, and Naema says young people are “good” and look after their parents. But it is clear that support systems have been eroded to some degree. Osman says people used to help women with no family breadwinner “but now nobody cares for them”.
At the institutional level, the Zakat Bureau collects donations from those who can afford to give and distributes the money to the poorest people. El Emam says this is the only assistance for the poor: “the government provides no help or activity.”
Mekki describes the work of the local Zakat Bureau and also mentions the recent establishment of cooperative societies in the village: “this is a very good development.”
Despite the tough conditions of their lives, and the deep sense of loss that many express about the past, these narrators do not lack ideas or hope for the future.
Osman feels positive that with investment things could improve – then there would be no need to migrate away from home. Even Widad, who found that the sheer hard work of meeting basic needs meant she could not invest enough time to develop a vegetable garden, has not lost her determination: “…we want to restore the village to how it was before, and we will work on that.”
The majority of the narrators say irrigation is the way forward; relying on rain-fed agriculture is no longer viable but they have a history of successful irrigation. As Ismail puts it, they need financial and technical support: “We have the workforce and experience…”
Madinah also emphasises that they need technology and training. She feels a positive aspect of migration is that workers sometimes come back with fresh approaches to development, a view endorsed by Mekki and Ismail: “travelling and migration have provided us with many experiences and new notions which can help [development].”