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The rural villages of Darfur are off limits to most visitors. You can see them from the air – clusters of little compounds with sandy roads leading off in every direction into the vast desert landscape. But bandits and militias roam this land, and daily life plays out against a backdrop of deadly possibilities.
Security is the main challenge for everyone who lives here, explains Abubakar Abdelmajeed, who chairs a network of farmers in North Darfur. It’s risky to leave the settlements, he says, “But you can’t farm or raise animals in the village. You have to go out.”
“Before the conflict, we went out to stay at the farm,” explains Gawahir Abdallah, who has come to El Fasher from a nearby village to meet guests from out of town. “We would build a temporary house, stay at the farm throughout the rainy season, and only come back to the village before the harvest. Now we go in and out each day because it’s not safe. We spend less time in the field, and it requires more effort.”
But in the shadow of conflict and danger, a better future is unfolding for farmers like Abdallah.
Boosting productivity, expanding choices
Two Sudanese partners of Oxfam – the Sudan Development Association (SDA) and the Voluntary Network for Rural Helping and Development (VNRHD)– have joined forces to grow a network of small, community-based organizations in farming villages near El Fasher. Network members can qualify for plows, horse and donkey carts, livestock, workshops, and small business loans, as well as new varieties of seed for watermelon, sorghum, cucumbers, and okra. And the organizations are helping farmers build carefully engineered reservoirs to capture the scarce rainwater their crops depend on. The result: great strides in the efficiency and productivity of farms, and the emergence of safer small businesses to supplement rural incomes.
“Before we had high-quality seeds, I grew one and a half sacks of sorghum,” says farmer Gameila Ismail, a member of the network. “Now I’m able to produce four.”
Ibrahim Isa Ibrahim’s gains have been even more impressive. He won a horse in the network lottery, which allows him to cultivate more land than before. The seeds he’s planting are three times as productive as the old varieties, and the network-funded reservoir in his village helps ensure good crops. Now, he says, his harvest is five times what it was.
In the midst of a meeting at the network headquarters, farmer Hawa’a Ismail receives a welcome phone call: her goat has given birth to its first kid. Ismail lives in a village 80 kilometers from El Fasher. In 2009, she received a loan of around $200 from the network to develop a small enterprise. “I bought a sack of sugar and a big can of oil,” she says. “That was the beginning.” After she sold them for a profit, she bought two sacks of sugar and a can and a half of oil. The business progressed, and soon she was able to replace her house of straw with one of mud brick, increase her savings fivefold – and buy a goat kid.
People are listening to women
But the women agree that participating in the network has brought them more than financial gains. Their voices and experience are valued in the organization, and their financial successes have helped build their confidence.
“Previously, I didn’t have the courage to speak in front of people,” says Abdallah. “I felt I didn’t have much to say. Now I have experience and something to tell. People can benefit from that. Now, I can speak loudly; not only that, but people are listening to me.”
“It used to be that in meetings, I only listened - particularly when men talked,” says Gameila Ismail. Now, she says, “I fight for women’s rights.”