Published August 11, 2008
Beads of sweat run down Rajaa Tag's face, as she crouches in the dark mud room that serves as her bathroom in a small village in northern Sudan. Her young son is screaming wildly - he hates being washed. She holds the small, malnourished boy in one hand, resting him against her hip, and washes him with the other. "It's ok. It's ok," she insists to him gently.
When I first met Raja'a, I immediately liked her. She had a warm smile and a kind heart. But when I found out she and I were the same age, I was struck by how different our lives were. She is 25 years old and has not left the house once since her one-and-a-half-year-old son was born. Her day consists of taking care of him, cooking, cleaning, serving the guests, and basically running the home in which she lives with her aunt and cousin.
Her husband has never met his son. He has been working in Saudi Arabia since before the boy was born. It's the only way many people in this village survive - through expatriates working abroad. Everyone here complains of the lack of economic opportunities. But for a small shop that sells warm soda, soap and sugar, and a weekly market that lasts a few hours before the vendors give up and go, there is little economic activity here in this quiet village, without electricity or running water. Farming used to keep this village going, but an exodus of its people searching for a better life, combined with the effects of climate change - an advancing Nile river and less agricultural land - have made it simply not enough. Raja'a lives off of the 300 Sudanese pounds (about USD$150) her husband sends her every month.
In a Sudan where the marginalisation of the western Darfur region and a decades-long war (Africa's longest) in the southern region have dominated all discussion, poor villagers like Raja'a in the north feel forgotten.
The few services that do exist here - a near-empty health centre and a school where grade 8 students cannot answer "How old are you?" in English - were built by the people themselves, with little assistance from the government.
"The government concentrates on the troubled areas," says Mahjoub Haroon, an elderly member of the community who has fought for years for increased services. 'Because we are peaceful, they neglect us."
Asked if his people would use violence to get the government's attention, he answers: "It is not in the psyche of the people of Northern State to take up arms... We will ask God for help."