by Antony Mahony, CAFOD (Caritas England and Wales)
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 and we were coming down to land. As we drew closer, those dull forms were materialising before our eyes: a settlement of mud huts with pointed, thatched roofs rushed past, and close by a group of women in brightly coloured robes were bending low to tend their crops. A large man in a white billowing jalabiya 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 nodding 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 were still going about their normal life.
With a screech and a bump we were on the ground and within moments we were outside the aircraft in the searing, dry heat of South Darfur once again. Our driver was there to meet us, no longer the proud custodian of a robust and comfortable 4×4 vehicle, but in a plain inconspicuous saloon car to avoid drawing attention to our assets. Both the UN and NGOs have experienced a lot of car-jackings over the past two years, so it is wise to take these precautions.
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, the Chinese hospital has been completed and is functioning; a number of imposing villa-style buildings have been constructed for various state ministries and government departments. School uniform seems to have made a conspicuous come-back, and we noticed the girls wandering home at lunchtime in groups in their spotlessly clean black headscarves, looking quite dignified, and the boys in an attire that looked surprisingly close to military fatigues. But the ordinary people of Nyala are ensconced behind yellow-washed compound 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 universally as tuk-tuks as people emerge from their compounds to buy their provisions before curfew at ten o’clock. In such an isolated place as Nyala, it is always a surprise that you can but anything in the little corner shops from computer spares to penicillin, as long as you can afford the prices, of course. I was told there was a weekly freight train from Khartoum as well as convoys of lorries 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 the villages during the violence in the rural areas in 2003 and 2004. They moved to camps which were located close to the towns, which were relatively safe, and settled in temporary shelters. Fatima showed us round the building and explained that Sudanaid, a partner member of NCA’s Darfur Programme, recently built the 12-roomed school to replace a temporary one which, with its straw roof and matted walls was no match for the rigors of the tropical storms. The sturdy steel desks and chairs were made in a workshop in the town, and gleamed with a fresh coat of paint, and naturally there was no sign of any graffiti. The girls pay 3 Sudanese pounds per term in fees towards running costs and for the transport for 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 community of Nyala town, and so brings together the displaced and local communities. 20 students have graduated and gone on to further education and training. We asked Fatima about the curriculum; the girls are taught Arabic, Islamic religious knowledge, geography, history, science, but their favourite subject was… English language!
Outside Dereig Camp we drove past a large pool of standing water. On one side a group of ibis and cattle egrets were standing quite still and occasionally dipped their beaks into the muddy pool. On the other side a group of children from the camp were playing exuberantly and launching themselves fully-clothed into the water and emerging with their clothes caked with mud. Who could blame them for having fun when the outside temperature was approaching 40 degrees. It was more enjoyable than foraging for firewood or fetching water for the family from the borehole.
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 humanitarian situation in Darfur. Perhaps the world is tired of the narrative of pain and suffering which is synonymous with that particular part of sub-Saharan Africa. We seem to need a kidnapping or a random act of violence or a new displacement of innocent people for Darfur 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 deserve our sympathy, but 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 by armed bandits, and forced to settle in temporary camps where their future is wholly uncertain. From somewhere deep within, they were finding the courage to build anew.
As Tennyson once wrote: “Tis not too late to build a newer world”.