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Darfur’s nomads: assisting an overlooked demographic

© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Townsend
Ali Fadah, the future sheik of his clan, on his camel in Darfur.

By Dorn Townsend

FAGOO, North Darfur, Sudan, 17 November 2005 - Shortly after the beginning of the autumn school term, rebels surrounded Ibrahim Abdullah’s nomadic boarding school and set it on fire. Many of Ibrahim’s classmates died. Bleeding from a bullet wound in his right arm, which would later be amputated, the 10-year-old escaped into the back country. He resumed his nomadic lifestyle, wandering up and down Darfur and spending his days looking after his family’s camels and goats. For two years he did not go to school.

Much attention has been paid to the millions of internally displaced persons in Darfur, who lost homes and family members from attacks by government forces backed by Janjaweed militia. Considerably less attention, however, has been paid to Darfur’s large nomad population – over a million people accounting for a quarter of the region’s population. Two years into the civil war most of this group still receives no international assistance. Yet indications exist that members of this demographic are also suffering, hugely.

© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Townsend
Mohammed Said and his sister Eman.

Up to now getting information about the needs in nomads’ areas has been difficult. To be sure, it is something of an oxymoron to refer to nomads as having their own areas. After all, they are already internally displaced, a demographic that is constantly on the move through the countryside. But until the war, Darfur’s nomads did have some stability in their movements, marching columns of their herds along traditional migration routes. Now those accustomed migrations have been disrupted. Thus, to reach Darfur’s remote nomads, one must travel to unexplored areas. Finding these nomads means venturing off roads into bumpy landscapes dotted with abundant quicksand.

The devastating upshot is that nomads – particularly children and women – are deprived of their heretofore traditional access (largely they all did, in now-abandoned villages along their routes) to medicines and education.

“It’s important that we don’t take sides in this conflict,” said Naresh Gurung, UNICEF’s Resident Program Officer for North Darfur. “We’re here to help women and children affected by the war.”

© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Townsend
Before UNICEF provided tents, Darfur’s nomad children attended class under trees.


In collaboration with Al Massar, a Sudanese non-governmental organization (NGO) that works to better nomads’ lives, UNICEF is one of the first international organization to begin assisting Darfur’s nomads. So far that assistance has included efforts such as digging new wells, as well as providing medicine, training, and equipment for health clinics in tents, which are carried in by camel. UNICEF’s largest contribution, though, has been in the realm of education, where a growing number of mobile schools is being funded.

Each afternoon tent classrooms are unpacked from camels and UNICEF-trained teachers conduct classes from grades 1 to 5. These schools teach thousands of nomad children Arabic, mathematics, history, geography and English. Two years after his brush with the rebels Ibrahim Abdullah is again a student at one of these nomadic schools; to complete his homework over the last several months, he has taught himself to write with his left hand.

“When the nomad communities were attacked, they fled into the countryside, not the [refugee] camps,” said Fatima Sad, a teacher at one mobile school. “Students and parents wanted their children to get an education, but until recently there was just no opportunity.”



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