Talk to the people.
Mahjoub Mohamed Salih, an 88-year-old Sudanese journalist who founded El-Ayam, one of the oldest newspapers in the country, gave me this advice when I met him in his run-down office space in Khartoum.
More than 12 years since the Darfur conflict, Salih posed the question of whether those in the camps are doing enough to change their situation. If anything, camp inhabitants have grown reliant — if not entirely dependent — on external assistance, he said.
Salih has spent more than 60 years fighting for press freedom in Sudan. He’s been jailed and his paper has been shut down numerous times by the government, including during the peak of the Darfur conflict in 2003.
So I took his advice seriously when I traveled to Darfur; I talked to the people. In this case, to Fatouma Adam and Zahara Abaker, two women who may share the same camp, but face their own battles in laying future plans for their families. It’s counterproductive to lump all camp residents together, I quickly learned. Individual decisions, lives and livelihoods inside Diraige Camp in South Darfur are as varied as its inhabitants.
It was a hot Wednesday afternoon. I was visiting Diraige Camp in Nyala, where it’s easy to get lost in the maze of identical huts. Most of the households were empty; children told us their parents were out in the field, working.
But one woman was present. Fatouma Adam was inside her family’s shanty, tending to her 3-month-old child when I entered. She carried the child on her back using a cloth wrapped around her waist. The baby was sick, she said, and would cry if she sat down. Her other two children lingered in the entrance, curious.
The room where she welcomed me is where the family sleeps, a mosquito net draped over the bed. I caught a glimpse of the only other room in the residence containing basic household items — some cooking utensils, a few pots and pans.
Adam told me she’d been living in the camp for nine years. She has five children, and lives with her uncle who owns a milling machine — the one we saw outside, next to the shanty. Her husband has been away for a year and a half.
Adam depends on her uncle for support, and on food rations from the United Nations World Food Program, which she said covers three people in the family.
I, perhaps intrusively, asked if she herself had a source of livelihood, whether she was looking for one, or would take one, given the opportunity.
Adam shared that her husband, who hasn’t sent monetary support since he left more than a year ago, forbids her to work. She couldn’t tell me what her plans are for her family’s future, especially if her current sources of support collapse.
Later that same afternoon, I met Zahara Abaker, a 25-year-old mother of two children. She grew up in a village in Buram locality in South Darfur, but fled to Diraige while she was still in her teens after her village was attacked.
Abaker was soaking chickpeas in a basin full of water in a household not far from Adam’s. She was preparing tamiya, more commonly known as falafel, to sell near the camp entrance where people gather in the late afternoon to watch TV on a big screen. She sells them for a total of 20 Sudanese pounds ($3.29); her income less capital (which she says is a loan from a trader) is 3 Sudanese pounds, she told me.
This is below the new global income threshold of $1.90 that institutions like the World Bank refer to when measuring poverty levels. I asked her if she could increase her price a little to earn more. She said she’d lose to competition.
Her husband, who works on a farm three days a week, has no problem with her business venture, she said, and she’s not receiving food assistance from WFP — at least not for her own immediate family. She left her ration card with her parents when she married a few years ago. Her husband’s ration goes to his first wife and children.
Abaker shared these realities with me, though she didn’t complain. I wondered if it was a portrayal of hopelessness or a show of resilience.
When I asked her how she felt about her current situation, she looked down, concentrated on soaking the chickpeas, and then gave a resigned smile while saying that life is “not good.” She still has a loan to pay.
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