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.
To take advantage of the different ecological zones and make the best of a fragile environment, people have adopted various livelihood patterns and practices, ranging from pure nomadic pastoralism to agriculture – and including combinations of both systems.
Of the state’s total population of 1.5 million (1993 census), some 25 per cent are classed as rural nomadic peoples.
The major tribes are Gawamaa, Dar Hamid, Bederia, Kababish and Hawawir.
The two communities where the narrators live – Foja and El Ihemrat, some distance from Bara town – are mainly inhabited by the first two groups.
They tend to be agro-pastoralists, and the main occupations are shifting cultivation and raising livestock.
Bara has a long dry season (Seif), from April to the end of June, followed by a short rainy season (Kharif) which runs from July to October. The population of approximately 360,000 own more than 1.5 million animals (cows, goats, sheep and camels). Early maturing crops are harvested in October, with the rest of the harvest taking place in November.
The first signs of land degradation were observed and recorded in the early 1960s, but the drought of 1984-85 significantly aggravated conditions. Since then, vast areas of Bara have become like desert. Continuing erratic rainfall, poor fertility, intensive grazing, pests and plant diseases have exacerbated the situation.
Many of the narrators live in a cluster of villages known as El Ihemrat. The oldest of these was badly affected by desertification, the houses and vegetable plots disappearing under encroaching sand dunes. Around 2004 the villagers’ plight was made clear to the Minister of State. As a result, a new site was established, not far away, and improved facilities built. Many people from the worst-affected area have now moved there.
There is a tangible sense in these testimonies of sand everywhere, burying everything in its path including cultivable land, homes, water sources and vegetation.
The narrators leave you in no doubt of the devastation brought by desertification: the almost total loss of their animals and the dramatic decline in their ability to grow crops and harvest resources such as gum arabic has left whole villages dependant on migrant labour.
The prolonged absence of men – young and old – has major implications for women’s workloads and responsibilities. And the poverty which drives their migration has had other social effects: for example, young men and women have to postpone marriage for years on end.
Villagers speak of the great drought of 1984-85 as the time when everything changed: “After the drought,” says Ismail, “people lost everything. There is no resemblance between now and before 1984…”
Mekki describes the months of drought vividly, and the gradually worsening situation. He says people suffered from cholera as well as famine.
The narrators talk of the years before “the great drought” as a time when their animal wealth and good harvests meant that people were largely self-sufficient. Madinah says the animals were so productive that her grandfather poured surplus milk away on the ground, with no thought of selling it.
Osman speaks about the past in detail, travelling with livestock through the desert, and the old forms of irrigation. He also says, “Nobody sold milk. We used to laugh at people who made a living like that – they used to sell it in secret!”
But with recurrent drought and the acceleration of desertification, such abundance is now only a memory.
[A note on currency: although the dinar came into use in Sudan in 1992, most of the narrators express prices in Sudanese Pounds (LS), which in May 2007 was approximately 2000 to US$1]