Sudan: Into the East

Journalist Helen Clifton joins the UK Active Citizens as they travel to remote Aroma, near the eastern city of Kassala, to hear how local villagers trained as Active Citizens are already designing practical social enterprises.

After a rugged 11-hour car journey from Khartoum, we collapse in our cabins in the Saray Timintay Resort in Kassala. Built for Indian seasonal workers, the place has a feel of a small Sudanese Butlins.

The group has been separated for the next three days. Claudia and Carina of the Shoreditch Trust and Aimee and Helen of Women Making a Difference are here to meet the Active Citizens of Aroma.

After that, they'll be travelling further east to visit two more communities; at which point I'll leave them and go to Gedaref, where Ravi and Declan of UnLtd and Alasdair and Donald of Third Sector Hebrides will also be visiting three communities.

Aroma is an hour away. First though, we have to do a bit of Sudanese 'pressing the flesh', and meet the Humanitarian Aid Commission. Their representative will be accompanying us throughout our community visits. It turns out commissioner Osman Dafallah learnt English at the British Council, and is due to do an MA in Development Studies at Sussex University. 

On the long, dusty road to Aroma, the flat, orange landscape is dotted with the small, thatched huts and shell-shaped shelters set against the harshness of the Sudanese sun.

Arriving

We arrive in the village of Al-Hilal El-Jaedida, where we meet 24 of the 30 Active Citizens trained there between January and March; most are young women and women aged 30 and under. The UK Active Citizens introduce themselves and their projects.

'In 2010, my best friend's cousin was stabbed; he was killed. He was 15 years old,' explains Carina McFarlane of the Shoreditch Trust. 'Since then I've been very motivated to try and find a way to help young people try and understand that they need to respect life. So the project I will be running in London is to try and teach young people business skills so that they can make their own money. At the moment it's very hard to find a job as a young person in the UK.'

The Sudanese group nod and listen; although initially shy, they gradually open up, then discuss the challenges faced by this rural community. 

The cost of living is high, and the water supply limited to just four hours each day; although educated, many of the Active Citizens face huge challenges finding employment, many are forced to become migrant workers, and the cost of the most basic essentials is becoming unaffordable.

They realise that they have to take collective action to start tackling these huge issues, and say Active Citizens has happened at the right time. 

Their group has designed a rental and refilling scheme for gas butane canisters. The exorbitant price of wood and charcoal is one of the ‘high costs of living’ that is crippling the village. And without being able to afford electricity, being able to collectively buy – and then rent out – gas butane canisters would be a way of easing the financial burden of buying fuel, whilst also creating a sustainable business.

The project has been planned, mapped, and a funding bid for €2,000 written and submitted to the British Council partners the Environmentalist Society, in Khartoum. 

'The profits we make (from our social action projects) can be used to establish another project that is bigger, to cover other needs in the neighbourhood, or in the other villages. Anything we or the others need can be provided by the profits of this project,'explains housewife Suad Ahmed Abdallah, 30.

The future

The training has also increased aspirations for local women, and broken down barriers between different tribal groups.

'I would like to change customs, learn about another society's culture, and learn other peoples' customs. We can change people by having a group of different identities and different cultures sitting together and working together. We have to start by changing ourselves,' says Hussein Adullah Mohamed, 36, labourer and father-of-two.

Although challenging, the meeting has been hugely productive. After a couple of hours, sombre expressions turn into smiles. The UK Active Citizens discuss their ideas for how they can support their Al-Hilal El-Jaedida colleagues – from putting them in touch with Comic Relief to apply for funds, to the provision of case studies they can take inspiration from.

'It's about making those connections,' says Helen Cahil of Women Making A Difference. 'Once they find out that we have all done the same training, they can understand that we are all equal.'

In the evening, we drive to the ancient Khatmiyah Mosque at the base of the Taka mountains that dominate the Kassala horizon.

A little further up, we clamber up the smooth rocks to the stalls selling tea, coffee and snacks, and join the dozens of Sudanese families dressed up to enjoy the cool evening air. We watch as the sinking sun stains the mountains a dusky pink, bathing the city in a golden light before all we can see are the twinkling lamps of the stallholders.