I arrived in Khartoum on April 15, nine days after the coup, as soon as the borders opened. In Cairo, I had watched film clips of the noisy, jubilant crowds that had brought down Numairi, but Khartoum was eerily silent now. The high of the revolution” had given way to the sense of crisis that once again grips this country. While political skirmishes went on concerning who would be in the civilian cabinet, the abiding, bedrock realities that pervaded the country were the civil war in the south and the drought and famine in the west and northeast.

The reporters, relief workers and diplomats staying at the little whitewashed pensione where I got a room in the center of Khartoum had no further to go than their front door to see the victims of the drought disaster. The children were the most painful to confront. As soon as you hit the dirt road in front of the hotel, they were there; they glided alongside you like small shadows. If you glanced at them, you sometimes saw a startling beauty, but you soon learned not to do that too much. If you met their eyes for a second, they emphatically attached themselves to you, not to be shaken.

The politics of food and famine helped trigger the coup against Ja‘far Numairi’s regime. Earlier in the year, 45,000 starving farmers had set up a tent city in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city across the Nile. Numairi crammed them into trucks and carted them back to Kordofan, from where they had come in late 1984. Early in March, leaders of the country’s sole party, the Sudanese Socialist Union (SSU), complained about price increases on food and other staples. Numairi rejoined that the people’s “destructive consumptive habits” were to blame. Too many families owned three cars, he said. They should stop drinking Coke, eat kisra (a local sorghum bread), and cut back to one meal a day.

Such willful blindness to the consequences of his own excesses was one cause of Numairi’s demise. As his regime tottered, even Washington seemed to rethink its support for him. Vice President George Bush had visited the country just a month earlier. Emblazoned across one side of a cement arch spanning an avenue behind my pensione was the commemorative message: “Welcome to the Vice President and Mrs. Bush.” And on the other side: “Long live Sudanese-American Friendship.”

Across from this after-image was the out-of-control present—a vast dirt lot, by day the bus depot, by night a dormitory for some 300 starving people. They slept nestled next to each other like puppies huddled together for comfort on cardboard and ragged straw matting. They were a fraction of the masses of farmers who had streamed into Khartoum last year from Kordofan and Darfur, the far-western provinces bordering on Chad where sand had swallowed up their farms.

At a press conference April 20, General Siwar al-Dhahab, the country’s new leader, acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. Over five million Sudanese had been made destitute by the drought. A million and a half had already fled their villages. One in six Sudanese children faced starvation. It would have been superfluous to declare a national emergency.

In late April I flew on a plane chartered by UNICEF to el-Obeid, capital of Kordofan. A Ford Foundation official in Cairo, describing the catastrophe there, said that if I flew west I would be able to see the red fingers of the desert actually encroaching into the green of arable land. When I got there, I could see no green at all.

The next morning we set off into the wasteland north of el-Obeid. Some 20 kilometers up was a peasant village, Kharta. From a distance its houses with their conical roofs rose prettily, serenely above sunbaked mud walls. But this charming architecture was a skeleton of the life that used to be. Kharta was foundering, semi-abandoned, swallowed up by the reddish sand that buried the plots where crops flourished only four years ago.

This plight was typical of villages all over Kordofan and Darfur. Only the weak—children, women and aged—remained here. Everyone else had fled to Khartoum or to wretched camps like one called Ghaba (the word means “forest”) which sheltered 47,000 drought victims at el-Obeid’s northern edge.

“I used to grow enough sorghum and millet to feed my relatives, 14 people,” said Ismail Muhammad, a tall, gaunt, grizzled old man who greeted us here. “Now there is nothing left.” Just the previous week, he said, six children here had died of hunger. Weekly figures were much higher for other villages, according to Asha Mustafa, a sociology lecturer at Khartoum University who is working here on an agricultural self-help project for women in the area.

Explanations of the disaster here usually begin with descriptions of the excesses of subsistence farmers like Ismail Muhammad. To clear land for expanded planting, the farmers cut down the trees that used to stay the soil. The grass savannahs have been nibbled bald by goats and cattle, whose numbers have steadily increased over the decade until the full impact of the drought this past year began to kill them.

But the villager and cattle herder form only the innermost ring of circles that widens from Sudan outward to the international market. Sudan’s own Mechanized Farming Corporation, which boomed during Numairi’s reign, literally stripped fertile regions in the east and west. Bulldozing trees, planting a while, then moving on, the MFC and its absentee landlords ground the fragile Sahelian soil to dust.

Between 1983 and 1985 in Kordofan alone, the price of sorghum—as basic to the Sudanese diet as the potato was to the Irish—leaped 100 percent. The price of cattle sold to purchase the grain plummeted to a quarter of its former value. Sorghum is a cash crop here; almost as much gets exported for declining international prices as gets sent in these days as emergency relief from the US and Europe.

The high price of oil has helped keep the country dependent on charcoal to fuel everything from the kilns used for baking bricks to the humblest blackened grates villagers use as stoves. The charcoal market is the single most important incentive for tree-cutting. Another factor is that the West has substituted synthetics for gum arabic, which Sudan’s acacia senegal trees used to supply for everything from stamp backing to envelope flaps. There is no longer a strong market incentive to conserve and cultivate these trees.

Beyond such economics lie thousands of kilometers of hostile landscape. North of el-Obeid a long stretch of barbed wire snakes for kilometers through the reddish sand. It used to contain the forest preserve that once gave meaning to the refugee camp’s name. Goats graze here and there among the thorn bushes, their ribs standing out like barrel staves. Everywhere lonely figures trudge, bent against the desert winds, bearing jerry cans for fetching water from far-off wells and axes for cutting down what wood remains for sale on the charcoal market.

The problems inherent in this disaster have been complicated by local scandals. Relief workers in el-Obeid told us that Kordofan officials had ordered 60,000 bags of grain withheld at the Ghaba camp, to be given only to those who agreed to return to their villages. The old man in Kharta, Ismail Muhammad, had confirmed that no American grain had reached his village for 50 days. When I pressed the new military governor of Kordofan on this point, he waffled: “People are coming to the camp all the time…many are not registered.” Bob Brown, head of the US Agency for International Development in Khartoum, dismissed the report. “There are always rumors,” he said.

Local officials bear only a part of the blame for snafus and delays in food relief. At the time I visited el-Obeid, 82,000 tons of emergency grain from AID had already reached Kordofan. Another 250,000 tons sat wasting in Port Sudan. For six weeks, no food aid reached the province, reportedly because the American-Sudanese trucking company contracted by AID was dickering over the ratio of dollars to Sudanese pounds in its payment. (US and Sudanese officials denied this account.)

When I left Sudan the last week of May, 1.3 million tons of emergency grain were “in the pipeline,” a phrase that tiptoed around another national horror. The Sudanese infrastructure is a slapstick tragicomedy: airplane engines, truck axles, telephones and, most important, the national east-west railroad, fall apart at every turn. The undersides of local and international politicking around food relief have changed not at all since the coup. Local political infrastructures, often with the same officials who served under Numairi, are still intact. So are their inefficiencies.

Yet the worst political excesses of the Numairi era had clearly ended by mid-April. While shari‘a law remained on the books, it was more honored in the breach than in the observance. More important was the absence of the security police from the daily lives of men and women in the streets. During last year’s state of emergency, couples travelling together in cars used to be stopped and asked if they were married to each other. If they were not, they risked being whisked off to one of Numairi’s “courts of prompt justice” and publicly flogged and fined. This practice had ended. So had imprisonment for liquor offenses. Sudan once had one of the continent’s most oppressive regimes. Now, suddenly, it had one of the freest.

There were large rallies everywhere. In late April I attended a Muslim Brotherhood rally. A sea of billowing white cloth—thousands of Muslim sisters dressed in white tobes and headscarves—surrounded me. To our left, an equally large number of brothers. Hassan Turabi thundered from the stage against the evils of international communism to this audience of 10,000 to 15,000. Two weeks later, the Communist Party of Sudan had its own rally, attended by 20,000. Unlike the Brotherhood, which enjoyed Numairi’s favor until he imprisoned Turabi and others shortly before the coup, the Communists had been underground for 15 years. Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the Ansar sect, addressed several thousand followers daily at his mosque in Omdurman.

By mid-May, the unions and professional associations that organized last April’s demonstrations were meeting nightly in angry discussion and complaints that their “revolution” had been waylaid. Their main grievances concerned the weight of the military in the new government, the slowness in dealing with the drought and famine, and the continuing civil war in the south.

The best indicator of the severity of the continuing crisis, though the unions were not talking about it, was the status of Sudanese women. More often than not, women are the lonely figures one sees trudging across the sand for water, bearing axes for cutting trees. The women have gotten left behind in Kordofan and Darfur. And the women have traditionally done most of the agricultural labor in these two provinces. (Prior to the Numairi period, there was a large Sudan Women’s Association which was close to the Communist Party. It was the only mass organization active in rural areas, stressing literacy and child-care programs. The Numairi regime refused to recognize the Association and set up a rival Sudan Women’s Union, attached to the single party, the SSU. Most of the Association’s leaders went underground.)

Sudan’s female illiteracy rate today is at least 90 percent. Besides being subject to the diseases endemic in the region, women suffer from gynecological problems exacerbated or caused by the widespread practice of “circumcision,” a mutilation of the vagina usually performed on young girls around seven years of age. According to local anti-circumcision movement leaders, this custom yields only to massive literacy campaigns and economic programs aimed at raising the general standard of living. It is not affected a jot by Western feminist outrage, however well-intended. Neither do rational explanations of professionals, like gynecologists, help much. In Sudan, Islamic clergy have proven most effective in halting circumcision, once they have been convinced to join the campaign. (Female circumcision is in fact an African practice rather than an Islamic one.)

Virtually none of the Sudanese intellectuals with whom I spoke felt that raising the economic and educational status of the country’s female majority was part of the solution to its desperate poverty. If they considered the issue at all, they felt at most that it was quite secondary. At a United Nations Development Project conference in Khartoum last May on the drought and famine in Darfur, all but one of the speakers were men. When one Sudanese woman rose from the audience to complain that the conference was ignoring the population that ought to be central in its plans for agricultural reforms, she was acknowledged by only two of the speakers. The rest smilingly waited for her to finish so the proceedings could continue.

How to cite this article:

Ellen Cantarow "Letter from a Devastated Land," Middle East Report 135 (September/ October 1985).
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