Rebuilding lives in Darfur

By Alun McDonald

Share this story:

In the two tumultuous decades that Oxfam has been working in Darfur, one factor has remained constant: Mohammed Ibrahim Mohammed has been a member of the Oxfam team. He started working for Oxfam when the agency began operations in Sudan in response to the drought of 1984.

Born and raised in Kutum, one of the last small towns on the edge of the hundreds of miles of vast desert that sweeps north toward Libya and Egypt, Mohammed Ibrahim has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the dozens of different tribes and communities scattered across the region. Today he heads the agency's livelihoods program in northern Darfur, and visitors to Oxfam and the many international staff working on the program regularly turn to him for information on intricate local customs and history. Such local knowledge has helped shape Oxfam's work there over the past 20 years.

Oxfam has traditionally worked in partnership with rural communities throughout Darfur, building local capacity and providing technical know-how to help improve water supplies, sanitation, and agriculture in what has always been one of the poorest and most isolated parts of Sudan. When the current conflict escalated in 2003, up to two million people were uprooted from their villages and crowded into towns or settled into camps for displaced people. The emergency needs of the people of Darfur were clear and Oxfam responded by providing water and sanitation to around 400,000 displaced people.

But many hundreds of thousands more remain in their villages, often in highly volatile rural areas where various groups still vie for control. Many have seen their crops burned, their animals stolen, and their villages looted of assets like irrigation pumps, engines and cooking pots. The violence has prevented villagers from trading in local markets or from going out to harvest their fields. The traditional livelihoods with which they previously sustained themselves have been destroyed.

The local knowledge Oxfam has accumulated over the last two decades is essential in helping such communities. As Mohammed Ibrahim points out: "Oxfam has a long and successful history of working with communities in Darfur. In the current conflict, which continues to devastate the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, these villages have lost everything. Together we can help them along the path to recovery, to strengthen their food security and to rebuild their livelihoods."

Many villagers have had virtually everything they owned taken from them. So the Oxfam livelihoods team is first focusing on helping to replace what has been lost. Working initially in villages to the west of North Darfur in the areas of Kebkabiya, Saraf Omra, and Birka Seira, Oxfam is providing around 30,000 people with a wide range of goods and resources.

Grain and vegetable seeds have been distributed and villages will be carefully restocked with donkeys and other animals. Livestock are an important source of milk and meat and can also be sold to buy grain. Donkeys in particular are integral to the livelihoods of rural Darfur, being used for transport water, firewood, and other essentials.

Before the conflict, many villages had communal mills, which provided an income for the village and also reduced household expenditures, since families did not need to take grain to a private mill. Most such mills have now been destroyed, so Oxfam is working to replace them. Community health committees from each village have planned for the income obtained from these new mills to then be plowed back into rehabilitating schools and health centers that have also been destroyed in the conflict.

Mohammed Ibrahim and the rest of the team consult such community-based committees, women's groups, and other vulnerable sectors of Darfur society at every step to discuss the needs and concerns of each village. "These public forums have enabled Oxfam to tailor our projects to meet villagers' precise needs," he says. Such needs include not only food and farming but also protection and security. With the security situation in Darfur showing no sign of improving, it remains an extremely dangerous place, and communities expressed concern that being re-equipped with relatively valuable tools would only increase their vulnerability to looting and attack. So the livelihoods project is working in tandem with Oxfam's protection team to ensure that communities are not exposed to additional risk. The agency is providing only what is most urgently needed, including blankets, cooking utensils and tools such as donkey plows—relatively low-cost items that should not attract the attention of bandits.

Even the animals' gender can affect a village's security. Only female donkeys are distributed: They can haul firewood, food, and water every bit as well as males, but have significantly less market value and so are less likely to be stolen.

After restocking it is essential to ensure that the animals are kept healthy. Selected local villagers are to be trained as "paravets," assistant veterinarians who will be equipped with toolkits and drugs to ensure that animals are vaccinated against disease.

Mohammed Ibrahim and the team are also spearheading a new initiative to conduct research at key regional markets in North Darfur, mapping out the different production and food security patterns in different areas. Prices of animals, cash crops, and sorghum and millet (the staple grains of the region) are being compared, as well as prices of non-food items such as charcoal and firewood, which, in addition to their practical uses, provide a vital source of income for rural communities. The information gathered will be passed on to other NGOs working in the area to help shape other livelihood and food security programs.