Seeking Normal Life Routines in a Darfur Camp

Antony Mahony of CAFOD (Caritas England and Wales) shares a story from Darfur.

For two hours, our small plane droned its way south-eastwards from Khartoum towards our destination of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. Straining through the porthole to view the landscape, I could see only a great expanse of sand and scrub, with the occasional wadi or dry river bed. As the rainy season had only ended a few weeks earlier, there was still a trace of water in some places, but not for much longer in the great heat of Sudan.

Then suddenly the tone of the plane’s engines dropped. We were coming down to land. As we drew closer, dull forms materialized before our eyes: a settlement of mud huts with pointed, thatched roofs rushed past, and close by a group of women in brightly colored robes were bending low to tend their crops. A large man in a white billowing jalabiya robe rode away on a small motor bike, leaving a trail of dust behind, perhaps heading for the mosque as this was a Friday morning. In the distance, a herd of goats was foraging for grass, followed at a distance by their goatherd wielding a long stick. These were all welcome signs that in this troubled land people are still going about their normal life.

Sudan
<p class=Girls in class in the Dereig Camp for internally displaced persons. The camp’s schools are supported by ACT-Caritas. Photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT-Caritas

Since my last visit more than a year earlier, I noticed signs of change in Nyala. The potholes on the airport road have gone, and a smooth highway now leads you straight into this busy market town on the fringe of the desert. The first tall buildings have appeared. A Chinese hospital has been completed and is functioning. A number of imposing villa-style buildings have also been constructed for various state ministries and government departments. School uniforms have made a conspicuous come-back. We noticed girls wandering home at lunchtime in groups in spotlessly clean black headscarves, looking quite dignified.

Many people in Nyala live behind yellow-washed walls topped with rows of barbed wire. During the heat of the day, there is little movement around the town. But after sunset the streets come alive with motor bikes and three-wheeled moped-taxis known as “tuk-tuks.” They carry people who leave their compounds to buy provisions before the 10 o’clock curfew. In such an isolated place as Nyala, it is always a surprise that you can buy just about anything in the little corner shop—from computer parts to penicillin—as long as you can afford the prices. I was told there was a weekly freight train from Khartoum and convoys of trucks bringing supplies from the capital.

Fatima Abakir is the proud headmistress of the Girls’ Basic School at Dereig, near Nyala. Dereig is a camp that was set up for people who had been forced to flee from their homes in villages in surrounding rural areas during the violence in 2003 and 2004. Fatima showed us around the building and explained that a local partner Sudanaid recently built the 12-room school to replace a temporary one that, with its straw roof and matted walls, was no match for the rigors of occasional storms. The sturdy steel desks and chairs were made in a workshop in the town and gleamed with a fresh coat of paint.

The girls pay three Sudanese pounds (about $1.25) per term in fees towards operating costs and to transport the teachers from the town a couple of miles away. Not all the students can manage this, but Fatima does not turn them away. Her school serves girls from families living in Dereig Camp, but it also serves the town of Nyala, and so brings together the displaced and local communities. Twenty students have graduated and gone on to further education and training. We asked Fatima about the curriculum; the girls are taught Arabic, Islamic religion, geography, history and science, but their favorite subject is … English language!

As our flight carried us back to Khartoum, we knew that within a few hours we would be back in our comfortable home surroundings again, but I began to ponder how easily we forget the chronic needs in Darfur. Perhaps the world is tired of the narrative of pain and suffering synonymous with this particular part of sub-Saharan Africa. We seem to need a troubling new event to happen in Darfur for it to elbow its way back into our consciousness.

And yet when I recalled the people whose lives I had observed during my short time in Darfur, I began to feel that they did not require sympathy, but instead deserve our respect. The women cultivating their vegetables, the goatherd near the airport, the school children and their headteacher, Fatima, were all confidently going about their daily routine and seeking to restore normality to their lives after the trauma of being chased from their villages and forced to settle in temporary camps where their future is uncertain. From somewhere deep within, they were finding the courage to build anew.

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