Sudan: social action in new settlements

Active Citizens in Sudan started life in a refugee camp on the banks of the Nile, just after the river splits in two before snaking south.

The crowded settlement (called Al-Fateh) caters for tens of thousands of displaced people from across the country, all fleeing the conflicts of Sudan’s recent history.

‘Here was a newly formed group, made up of several tribes, each with their own language and traditions and suddenly they had to share land and resources. The potential impact for a community development programme was huge’, said Tilal Salih, Active Citizens Project Manager from British Council, Sudan.

Having established a national strategy (focusing on conflict and community cohesion) Active Citizens began delivery in Al-Fateh. Supported by the British Council, a local organisation called the Environmentalist Society, trained experienced community leaders to deliver the Active Citizens methodology. They in turn took small groups from the settlement through the Active Citizens learning journey, equipping them with the skills and networks to deliver social action projects.

Armed with their new skills and networks, the Active Citizens began initiating small projects which dealt with issues pertinent to their community. One of these initial projects focussed on the problem of the rubbish that was strewn all over the settlement. The group designed and initiated a rubbish collection system; creating a network of bins and litter pickers. This was not just a two or three week project, but a system which continues to keep the camp tidy to this day.

‘Sustainability is an important word in the Active Citizens lexicon’, said Tilal. ‘It’s about making sure that once the support disappears; the local community can keep their projects going well into the future’.

Another example of social action at Al Fateh was a tree planting project initiated by the Active Citizens at the camp. The area around the settlement had become baron and lifeless, as it took the strain of supporting so many people. The Active Citizens planted over 500 trees around the camp, improving the immediate environment for everyone at the settlement. They also created a football pitch, where for the first time, members of the different tribes played together on the same teams.

‘These were the issues that the people of Al Fateh wanted to address, they are all projects which bring the community together’, said Tilal. ‘The programme is designed to be flexible, so it adapts to local issues and then supports a sustainable response’. 

Of course Al Fateh was just the start of Active Citizens in Sudan, now it was time to branch out to other communities.

Cascading learning

A crucial element of Active Citizens is cascading the learning to others and so spreading positive change beyond the immediate community. The Environmentalist Society is now working with 20 other communities in the eastern states Kassala and Gedaref, putting up £2000 of seed funding to support a nominated social action project.

‘I have learned how to build trust with others, how to communicate with others and also about other societies. Women’s culture is also something I have learned about and benefitted from’, said Suliman Mohamed Mohamed, 27, who went through the Active Citizens training.

One project in the front running for the funding was created in a village called Al-Hilal El-Jaedida in Kassala. Most income in the village is generated by farming, but with an unreliable irrigation system and an unfair price for their crops at market, life is hard for the villagers, as local retired farmer Abker Mohamed Tahia, 73, explains:

‘Security is good here but the high cost of living spoils life. They turned off the electricity for the village because we couldn’t pay our debts. We want to do things that bring us money, not keep borrowing’.

Through the Environmentalist Society, 30 Al-Hilal El-Jaedida residents were trained as Active Citizens. They went onto create a social action project focusing on addressing one of the biggest contributors to the high cost of living – the price of fire wood. They formed a co-operative, buying gas butane cylinders and then renting them out to members of the local community. This had the effect of both reducing the cost of fuel for villagers, and creating a sustainable business.

As well as providing them with a cheaper source of fuel, the Active Citizens training had further reaching benefits, breaking down barriers between men and women, and the different tribal groups within the village

Looking to the future

Since launching in 2009, the Active Citizens programme in Sudan has been going from strength to strength. It is being rolled out in communities across the country, with many hundreds of social action projects springing up as a result. These range from well digging projects for a safe, sustainable water supply to a project for buying communal equipment so villages can put on events like weddings, funerals and gatherings.

Links have been formed between the birthplace of Active Citizens in Sudan – Al Fateh – and a rural community in Wales, where there is a small Sudanese community. The Welsh group have visited Al Fateh and have raised money to pay for a health worker for the settlement, as well as micro finance schemes and shared computers. A group of representatives from Active Citizens partner organisations have visited Sudan to learn about the local context, build networks and generate ideas for social action at home and abroad.

Helen from Third Sector Hebrides, a community cohesion charity, gained a fresh outlook from the trip:

‘I realised that decisions are more effective if the community makes them for themselves, rather than me making them for them. It was a significant change in my outlook. I can take a lot of what I learned from the trip to my work in other places around the world, including those in the UK.’