Donkeys, soap and life-saving messages in a West Darfur camp for the displaced
By Steinar Sveinsson, UNICEF Sudan.
Ardamata camp, West Darfur, June 2009. Amongst the group of people gathered in the shade of the tree, there seems to be a lot of talk about a donkey.
There are plenty of donkeys close by. Donkeys are loyal servants of the local population here in Darfur, used as a mean of transport for people, for carrying basic building material as well as water in jerry cans. But it’s unclear why this common animal should be such a heated topic for debate.
The conversation is taking place in Ardamata camp for displaced persons in West Darfur, where more than 27,000 people who have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict struggle to survive.
It’s early morning but the heat is already above 30 degrees Celsius and this is a weekly meeting of the camp’s water committee. Amongst those present are community leaders and teachers, as well as hygiene promoters who regularly visit households to follow up on good hygiene and sanitation practices.
The donkey issue is soon explained. In the local vernacular, the word “donkey” has another meaning – to describe the places where water is collected for humans and animals; the water yard. And this meeting is discussing the general situation regarding water, hygiene and sanitation, construction and repair of latrines and household visits to promote better hygiene practices.
One woman, dressed in a blue robe and with the air of a mother and grandmother, speaks loudly and decisively, with confidence and commanding attention.
When the wells start to run dry
“Water and water provision is on the top of the agenda on this meeting today,” explains UNICEF’s Widad Suliman. “It’s still the dry season and in many places in Darfur there has been a big drop in the yield from wells, resulting in a shortage of water supply in many camps.”
This scenario is also the case in Ardamata, underlined by a hollow “clonk” sound coming regularly from a nearby hand pump where a teenage girl dressed in a red and white robe with a yellow scarf energetically works the pump with little results. Only a small amount of water is flowing from the pump and it It will take the young girl, who has already queued for some time, yet more time and energy to fill one jerry can for her familywill take the young girl, who has already queued for some time, yet more time and energy to fill one jerry can for her family. The growing shortages in clean water are forcing some people to the local “wadi”, or riverbed to dig for poor quality water.
There are an estimated 725,000 people displaced in West Darfur because of conflict, most living in camps scattered across the state. A further 200,000 have fled to neighbouring Chad. Camps quickly become overcrowded, and water shortages and water-borne diseases caused by poor sanitation threaten lives. Children are always the most vulnerable.
Managing a life-saving service in the aftermath of the NGO expulsions
In March 2009, the Government of Sudan expelled 13 international NGOs, many of whom were actively supporting the displaced populations in Darfur. Over 420,000 people in West Darfur were affected by the expulsions, the highest number in all three Darfur states.
In the field of hygiene promotion UNICEF has supported the State Water Corporation – a government body managing water and sanitation programmes – to try and fill some of the most immediate gaps.
But even with the efforts of the government technical teams and UNICEF together, not every need can be met. This is especially true of hygiene education, which was traditionally led by NGO partners working in the heart of the camps. In the short-term, the role of the local water committees has become even more important, not least in ensuring adequate monitoring of water supply was maintainedIn the short-term, the role of the local water committees has become even more important, not least in ensuring adequate monitoring of water supply was maintained. After the expulsion of the NGOs, a downward trend in water quality was noted in areas where they formerly worked.
To take on the immediate needs in the hygiene sector, UNICEF has been working with hygiene promoters in all camps to arrange community sessions focusing on proper handling of water and giving advice to community members on general hygiene and sanitation practices. These hygiene promoters regularly visit households to discuss issues directly with families. In Ardamata such visits range from a few hundred to more than a thousand every week.
Howa is one of the hygiene promoters attending the gathering under the big tree. When it finishes, she goes on to undertake her regular household visits.
“I am responsible for a certain sector in the camp and this is my full time job. I simply invite myself into the small household yard and talk to the family members about the importance of washing hands, cleaning the jerry cans, washing dishes, using latrines and sometimes distributing soap,” she explains.
One woman, wise words, but the real test is still ahead
One can imagine this smiling, friendly woman being a welcome guest wherever she moves in the camp – and this is proved to be true as she enters a yard in front of a small home made of sand bricks with a thatched roof. This is the home of Muna, an elderly woman, and head of the household, surrounded by children.
There are no formalities involving a household visit of a hygiene promoter in Ardamata camp. The two women simply start talking together while the children curiously follow the conversation.
This particular household looks neat and tidy and in the corner there are clay jars for water which keep it surprisingly cold despite the heat. Muna understands and appreciates the messages Howa brings her, but after having lived for so long in one of the world’s most hostile regions experience has taught her that nothing is granted.
“I try my best to ensure that we handle the water in a safe way, washing our hands, cleaning cooking utensils and following good hygiene and sanitation practices. But we live in an overcrowded camp and if other people don’t do the same and don’t listen to what Howa has to say the diseases will spread and we still risk becoming sick.”
If Howa’s work is not to be in vain, then this community-led response is going to have to continue, throughout the approaching rainy season, and without the management of the expelled NGOs. The true test for Darfur’s displaced population has yet to come.