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Into Um Dukhun

Sudan, September 17, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Kristin Griffith/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps distributed shelter materials to hundreds of families who've fled to Um Dukhun, a town in Darfur near Sudan's border with Chad and the Central African Republic. Photo: Kristin Griffith/Mercy Corps

My journey to Um Dukhun began with a 75-minute ride in a U.N. helicopter from Nyala, the capital of South Darfur State. Nyala is where I'm based as program coordinator for Mercy Corps' relief efforts in Darfur.

We covered most of the 240 kilometers at 1,000 feet, giving me and my fellow passengers — UN staffers and other humanitarian aid workers — a truly birds-eye view life in the villages below.

Once on the ground, I began visiting displacement camps in and around town with Abdul Rahim, a Darfurian colleague who leads our livelihoods team. His small team is responsible for running skills trainings that range from sewing and cobblery to carpentry, pasta-making and literacy in both Arabic and English. Many of the participants are women.

We also stopped in on a "Clean-up Campaign" where 270 women were clearing grass and other moisture-harboring growth to combat mosquito-breeding conditions as the rainy season — when the malaria risk skyrockets - continues. Mercy Corps helps organize the groups and provides tools to eliminate mosquito hideouts.

In the center of town, Mercy Corps has established a skills training centre. It's a basic hut with floors of mud and walls of dried grass. Today Abdullah Abdul By, a Mercy Corps volunteer who spent a decade as a woodworker in Chad, was teaching roughly half a dozen men the basics of his trade.

I talked with one of the students, Abdul Noel, who looked to be in his early to mid-20s. He came to Um Dukhun from the Central African Republic, which lies just a few miles to the south. Abdul noted his appreciation for the class. "Before, agencies just gave food," he told me. "Now, we are being offered skills training."

My next stop was at a camp called Kalma — which means new in "Sudanese" Arabic — which is right on the border with Chad. At a sewing center, a handful of men and women were learning how to take apart, clean and maintain the machines. The class was less full than usual; many were out tending their fields because the rainy season has begun. Still, a good number of the usual 16 participants were present, and mothers had their young children in tow.

When I asked why they wanted to take sewing lessons, men generally replied that they wanted to learn a skill they could take to the market, set up a stall and earn an income from; most women said they wanted to be able to make their children's clothes and some money. To see whether the class also had its intended effect of bringing people together, I asked if they'd met any new people in class. Several women responded that they had indeed met many people from their camp communities whom they didn't know before.

It was then on to Baittari Camp, where most of the 240 people living here have arrived from the Central African Republic. Community leaders and local authorities have requested that Mercy Corps Hygiene Promotion teams assist the newly arrived with providing soap and jerry cans to collect water.

In the same camp, women are learning to make fuel-efficient stoves from a mixture of clay and animal dung. The stove's design is meant to focus heat on a cooking pot that rests on a ring of three bricks.

The women were busy rolling the clay-and-dung mixture into long strands, which would later become the walls of their stoves. I noticed they had also made little clay figurines, such as people traveling on camels with saddles. Seven women were training 22 others. The trainers told me they must "get dirty," too, and work directly alongside the trainees.

I spoke with Medina, a 22-year-old woman originally from Chad, about why she wanted to learn to make a fuel-efficient stove. She listed three reasons: the stove uses less wood, so she doesn't need to gather as much; it produces less ash and dust; it decreases the chance of fire starting from the stove.

My final stop was Jeddid camp, which only sprung up at the start of June but is now the largest settlement for refugees from Central African Republic and Chad. I traveled there with another member of our livelihoods team, Gasim, who has been pulled off the Livelihoods team to assist with this new, fast-growing settlement.

To reach Jeddid, we walked through the market to the wadi, a normally dry channel which becomes a river during rainy season. From there, we took a raft made of sticks fastened with rope. After we crossed the wadi, we rode a horse-drawn cart through thick mud, then walked for the last 20-30 minutes before reaching the main part of the camp.

Those displaced only began to arrive in early June, and already the UN estimates Jeddid's population exceeds 9,000.

Here in Jeddid, we're one of three agency providing concrete slabs to cover latrines dug by each family. Mercy Corps manufactures the slabs in Um Dukhun and delivers them to the camps. The slabs are built on the other side of the wadi, and must be transported carefully on the rafts.

The rainy season began in June and continues here until the end of September. The road blockages and supply disruptions that accompany it complicate our efforts to bring relief to residents here. But as long as families who can no longer remain in their homes flee to places like Um Dukhun, Mercy Corps will keep working to make life a little more bearable for them.