Guns and plowshares in Darfur: helping farmers succeed in the midst of conflict

By Elizabeth Stevens
As part of the agriculture project, Oxfam’s partner has provided farmers with high-quality peanut, millet, and sorghum seeds to improve their crops and also the next generation of locally harvested seeds. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

Farming is always a gamble, and in war-torn Darfur the odds are daunting, but knowledge and networks can help offset the risks.

From above, North Darfur looks like a vast desert plain. The little mountain ranges that come into view from time to time are sharp and bare and jumbled like twisted vertebrae, and in the dry season, the riverbeds just look like faint etchings in the sand. Clusters of conical straw roofs mark the villages, and sometimes you can make out a brown mosaic nearby—the agricultural fields that must wait for the rainy season to show signs of life.

Heat, drought, isolation, and the sands drifting in from the north pose a host of problems for farmers in Darfur, but nothing compares to the impact of war. In the conflict between rebels and the government that has lasted more than twelve years, thousands of villages have been burned to the ground, and millions of people have been forced to abandon their farms and migrate to towns and camps.

Community extension worker Azos Adam on a donkey provided by Oxfam to help her travel from farm to farm. “I want to help my people, and I am willing to work.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

Azos Adam is one farmer who has managed to stay on the land. It hasn’t been easy.

“When there is fighting in the area, people stay home. They don’t dare go out to their fields—even if it wasn’t their own village that was attacked,” she says.  “People in my community lost their millet crop this way.”  

Like many in her town, Adam grows millet, okra, tomatoes, sorghum, hibiscus, sesame, peanuts, and tobacco. To boost their chances of success, she is also growing a network.

Sharing knowledge, peer to peer

Oxfam and a local partner are helping farmers in 50 towns and villages in rural Darfur attend a series of five-day trainings in farming techniques. Adam was selected by her community to take the courses, where she is learning about mulching, harvesting rainwater, intercropping, integrated pest management, and more. She has been sharing the information with ten farmers, each of whom has shared with ten more—creating a network of peers who can not only disseminate information but also support each other’s efforts.

Farmer Fatma Ibrahim is going to the workshops, too, and is playing the same role in a nearby town.

A display of grains and vegetables in rural Darfur. “If I learn good farming techniques, I can have a good harvest,” says farmer Fatma Ibrahim. But, she says, “You can’t achieve food security by yourself. Every family needs to have enough.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

“We learned to examine our plants every day so we can catch pest infestations early. We didn’t use to do this, and sometimes we’d suddenly discover that half the crop was gone.” Crop rotation was another topic:  “if you have been growing sorghum in one place every year, try planting okra there, instead, or leaving it fallow.  And it’s important to select good seeds. We didn’t examine our seeds in the past, so we ended up planting the good and bad ones together. Now we feed the bad seeds to the animals.”

A camp for displaced people sits on land her community once farmed and grazed. But, she says, people were forced to settle there. “They have no choice and no land of their own, so we don’t blame them. Residents like me at least have some land.”

The strength of Ibrahim’s ethic of sharing may be one reason her community selected her for this role. “You can’t achieve food security by yourself,” she says. “I want everyone around me to have enough to eat, and enough money to send their children to school.”

She feels hopeful that informing her network about the techniques she’s learned will make a difference, and the early results have been promising: a good harvest of peanuts and corn.

There is a Sudanese adage about the transformative power of sharing knowledge, and she invokes it with a smile: “Education is brilliant.”

The conflict in Darfur has endangered not only lives but also the means to make a living. Help Oxfam support communities in need.

Donate now

Related content Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+