The path that runs through Gara Farjawya has the feel of a thoroughfare—if there can be such a thing in a small rural village in Darfur, Sudan. It’s wide. The community’s most important establishments—a new brick mosque still under construction, a grain-grinding mill, and a bunker-like store that sells sugar and other necessities—claim places along its edge. Family compounds stretch one after the other on both sides.
Down the middle of this bramble-lined path stream the people and animals of Gara Farjawya: elders in their long white robes and small caps; women balancing bundles of wood on their heads; donkeys with their carts; girls toting water—and visitors, followed by a throng of children amused that these white-faced people with their cameras and notepads click and scribble but can’t seem to say anything other than “salaam.”
We’re in Gara Farjawya with members of the Oxfam team based in Kebkabiya. They have launched a program to bring water and sanitation improvements to 11 small villages around Kebkabiya and to help the people in these remote places recover from the conflict that has plagued this region for more than three years. Their villages are still intact—spared the smashing and burning that has left others so ghostly—but their survival has come at a price. In many villages, people are being forced to pay protection money and provide food—including fully cooked meals—to the militias in exchange for a guarantee that the villages will be kept safe. Villagers have already suffered at the hands of armed groups that have looted animals and many of their belongings. With a new planting season about to begin, the people in these 11 villages need a new beginning, too.
A total of 2,500 households are part of this initiative, which includes rehabilitating wells and drilling deep new boreholes to tap into a fresh supply of water; the construction of latrines; and the distribution of farming essentials such as hoes, sickles, axes, and the most critical of all: donkeys—the sturdy porters and plowers upon which all of Darfur depends.
“We have two types of donkeys,” says Adam Ismail Adam, an Oxfam livelihoods officer in Kebkabiya. “One goes fast and one goes slow.”
In this case, 1,250 of the strong, slow variety—the hard workers that tote the heavy water jugs back from the wells, trudge along under towers of firewood, and plod through the fields harnessed to donkey plows—make up the distribution.
The goal is to enable families in the region to grow enough food to feed themselves adequately and to encourage good sanitation practices that will guarantee their health. In the village of Morlong, where 1,348 people live, huge strides have been made toward that latter objective.
“In the past there were almost no latrines—just five,” says Alfaidal Abdullah Ahmed, leader of the local committee on health that Oxfam helped organize. Now, the village has 120 pit toilets.
“Before we started here, all these villages were full of rubbish and not organized,” says Omer Idriss, a public health promotion officer for Oxfam, calling to mind the shreds of filmy plastic bags I have seen all over Sudan and Ethiopia--piled up against compound walls, ground into the dirt roads, and snagged on bushes and trees like fake leaves of black, blue, orange, and white. “During the cleaning campaign, people collected (the rubbish). After hygiene training, everybody knows how to keep the water clean and wash hands.”
Water sources, too, have seen major improvements.
On the edge of Morlong, I hear the steady sound of a hand pump—cachunk, cachunk, cachunk—as Fadna Ibrahim works the handle. She is drawing water from the new borehole to fill the three large plastic jugs she and her donkey have hauled to the site. She makes the trip four times a day.
“It’s not hard,” she says, pumping. “The water is clear and good.” That’s especially true compared to where Fadna used to get her water: right from the wadi, a seasonal river near the village that fills with water during the rainy season, but then dries to sand and dust. Shallow wells they dug into the river bed allowed locals to continue drawing a little water.
“This is better than that,” says Fadna.
At Gara Farjawya, there is still some masonry work to do on the skirt that surrounds the new well, dug about 50 feet from an existing one. The new one tunnels more than eighteen feet into the ground.
The well is one of numerous projects underway in the village—most of them part of the daily rhythm of rural life in a place where people know how to make do with the materials around them. A small brick-making operation sits just outside the family compounds, the small pits from which the dirt is dug puddled with water from the rain the night before. A couple hundred yards away, under a thatch-topped awning, Bishara Toka hammers hard on a piece of hot metal. A blacksmith, he’s making hoes. His son, Adam Bishara, keeps the coals red hot with a pair of goat skin bellows. Further down the path, bricklayers scramble over the roof of the new mosque.
“From the early morning till the end of the day, they are working. This is normal for them,” says Ala Eldeen Mohamed, Oxfam’s water and sanitation officer in Kebkabiya, when I marvel at a woman who has stopped to watch the blacksmith. On her head is an enormous sack. Instead of giving herself a break, and plopping the sack down, she stands straight-backed and firm, the load on her head part of her everyday burden.
Gara Farjawya spreads across a slight rise, the dry, prickly bush stretching quietly around it. In the distance, through the bush, I see occasional flashes of color—women in their bright wraps tending to their chores, children darting. There is a peaceful, purposeful feel in this village at this moment, and I think that this is how all of Darfur must have been before the conflict wrecked so much of it.
But I know there is still tension, uncertainty, and want in Gara Farjawya. Women who leave the safety of the village and its surrounds to collect wood for their cooking fires still face the threat of attack. Many people forced from other villages have fled to this one where relatives share what they have, including land to farm. But perhaps the simple work of living—washing, fetching water, planting—offers a veneer of normalcy that people can take some comfort in.
The rhythms I see in Gara Farjawya stand in sharp contrast to the emptiness and ruin of other villages we pass around Kebkabiya—villages where the mud-brick walls of abandoned homes crumble back to the earth; where the thatch of roofs and compound fences have completely disappeared, lost to fire and then rain and harsh sun; where there are no donkeys braying, babies crying, people chatting.
We slow down when we drive by these abandoned places, struck by the silence that fills them. Eva-Lotta Jansson, the photographer we are traveling with, asks to jump out to take a few pictures. But quickly she climbs back into the truck when one of the Oxfam staffers warns her that we could arouse suspicion by hanging around too long. I get the keen sense we are being watched—as is everyone who is trying to live in these rural areas prowled by men with guns.
I think about the question we ask displaced people in Darfur over and over. Do you want to go home? The answer is always the same: only if there is peace. Real peace. Around Gara Farjawya, it hasn’t come yet.