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In a green-brick house, made of a mixture of clay and cow dung in one part and the remainders of sackcloths and mats supported by some feeble sticks in another part, lives Babuya. Babuya fled from the scourge of war in South Kordofan, unable to find shelter anywhere if not here - a place just about able to defend itself from the rain. This is the situation of all the houses here.
A thirty-year-old woman whose daily income does not exceed forty Sudanese pounds (just more than fifty cents) is not able to find a job that might earn her a better wage than this. She is forced to stay home or work inside the neighborhood because her ten-year-old child is completely paralyzed: he is totally immobilized, and thus is in constant need of care. Ever since his condition began three years ago, he has not even been able to sit. He only lies on his bed made of ropes all day.
Nonetheless, Babuya struggles to provide for her son and his siblings, since their father stopped taking care of his family’s needs some time ago, leaving this heavy burden on his wife. In some areas of Western Sudan, it is customary for women to bear the burden of family expenses, regardless of whether a man is present or not. This situation is not necessarily the result of separation or conflict between partners, as in Babuya’s case for example. Her husband is at home, maintaining familial relationships with her and the children, but he is unable to work and earn - or he simply does not want to.
Jabarona… The name reflects reality
Jabarona is located twenty-eight kilometers from the heart of the capital Khartoum. It is one of eleven slum neighborhoods in West Omdurman, where slums are concentrated. In the vicinity of Omdurman’s biggest markets, Suq Libya is constantly bustling. Where the market ends, signs of a completely different life begin immediately, separated from the market by a wide asphalt road.
Jabarona has a population of fifteen thousand people, according to the estimates of a government survey, also bearing in mind that some of Jabarona’s inhabitants arrived after the survey was completed, and so were not included in the estimates. The survey involved the recording of inhabitants’ data in official records, as they are entitled to own land in the future. According to estimates by civil organizations, the real population is close to thirty thousand people.
Jabarona, located 28 kilometers from the heart of the capital Khartoum, is inhabited by people of several religions, most notably Muslims and Christians. The walled cemetery in Jabarona has Muslims and Christians buried side by side, without waiting for a fatwa from a sheikh or a permission from a priest. The view of the cemetery seems logical and consistent with the ideological backgrounds of these groups who descended from the Nuba mountains, and who are known for their religious diversity.
The neighborhood started to grow in 1992, the same year in which a second wave of Sudan’s slum neighborhoods emerged. The wave of migration towards Khartoum rose in the period between 1960-1980, with most of its people arriving from the north and the center, choosing parts of the city to settle in permanently. Sometime after this, the authorities moved them into designated areas inside Khartoum. In the second wave of migration dated between the years 1980-2000, the wars that broke out throughout Sudan were the main cause of displacement, while poverty was the first wave’s only cause.
‘Jabarona’ is a word from the local dialect, meaning ‘we have been forced’ in Modern Standard Arabic. Details of the cruel life here match the name of the neighborhood. Indeed, one would not live here unless one were forced to.
The neighborhood is inhabited by people of several religions, the most notable among them being Muslims and Christians. The walled cemetery in Jabarona has Muslims and Christians buried side by side, naturally without waiting for a fatwa from a sheikh or a permission from a priest. The view of the cemetery seems logical and consistent with the ideological backgrounds of these groups who descended from the Nuba mountains, and who are known for their religious diversity. This means that sometimes members of the same family might belong to different faiths or have secular beliefs while all living under the same roof. The regions of the Nuba Mountains are known for religious tolerance despite the ferocity of the continuing wars there.
Liquor: A main source of income for women
What is remarkable about this neighborhood during the morning hours is that the men frequently sit in the streets and on the outskirts of the neighborhood in the market, while women are strikingly absent. Babuya, who is in charge of family expenses, is not alone in this. Women here do daily jobs more than the men, perhaps because they have better work opportunities. They work particularly in the production of local liquor and in domestic labor. In Jabarona, several families live in a single house which is usually divided into small rooms or “rawākīb”, small shacks made of straw, mats, and discarded sacks. Polygamy is common, but on the other hand, it is the women who provide for the families.
Roaming this neighborhood, one notices the smell of garbage and human and animal waste, mixed with the smells of the local liquor produced here throughout the day, which attracts a large number of customers from outside the area. The custom of producing this local liquor has spread throughout slum areas because despite its illegality, it constitutes the main source of income for many women. Producing liquor is far more profitable than domestic work or construction work, as some of these local liquors constitute the daily meal for the inhabitants of this neighborhood. ‘Marisa’ is a liquor made of fermented corn, and it is an authentic part of the culture of the Nuba tribes who descend from South Kordofan and constitute the largest ethnic group in this neighborhood. Alongside the production of liquor, women also work in well-to-do neighborhoods, doing laundry, ironing and cleaning, and those who do this type of work live in better economic conditions than their counterparts in the neighborhood.
Roaming this neighborhood, one notices the smell of garbage and human and animal waste, mixed with the smells of the local liquor produced here throughout the day, which attracts a large number of customers from outside the area. The custom of producing this local liquor has spread throughout slum areas because despite its illegality, it constitutes the main source of income for many women.
Chicken legs are one of the main meals for the neighborhood’s inhabitants. They are displayed on rusty iron tables and cooked in a sauce, or fried in leftover oil. It is also possible to find another cheap, accessible meal here made of fish heads cooked in a sauce, or as a soup.
The men work a little in construction and daily labor, called ‘al-youmia’ in Sudan. But the construction projects that represent one of the main income streams in neighborhoods such as these have declined in recent years, since specialized construction companies are now building large structures. However, the brick-making market, also known as the “brick kiln”, remains the main profession for men, in addition to part time side businesses in the markets.
The market: The face of poverty
In the market, meals are offered at low prices, all accessible to the area’s inhabitants. Flies almost entirely cover the meat exposed on the old tables made out of rusty iron, and they are not sold on scales by the kilogram as is usually done in markets, but instead by ‘handfuls’, after it is cut into small pieces of a price and quantity that suits the inhabitants. It goes without saying that the meat does not meet health and safety standards, but this is the state of the entire neighborhood which is surrounded by all kinds of health and environmental hazards, just like all slum areas.
Chicken legs are one of the main meals for the neighborhood’s inhabitants. They, too, are displayed on rusty iron tables and cooked in a sauce, or fried in leftover oil. “Adasiyyah” is another main food here (small lentil-like peas, Indian in origin and well-known in Sudan. It is especially consumed in the month of Ramadan). It is also possible to find another cheap, accessible meal made of fish heads cooked in a sauce, or in a soup.
Due to a lack of essential services such as water and electricity, people spend a large part of their limited income on purchasing water and electricity, provided by large individually-owned gas-powered generators. The average daily income in Jabarona does not exceed one dollar (approximately seventy Sudanese pounds), while a sum of 150 Sudanese pounds is paid monthly for enough energy for a television and a single lamp, and fifty Sudanese pounds are paid for water brought to the neighborhood by carts known as ‘al-Karu’, which barely covers a household’s daily needs.
Jabarona is surrounded by a huge landfill site filled by waste from distant areas, all to be emptied here. The site is used as a communal toilet for the quarter’s inhabitants, due to a lack of toilets in most households. It is also a source of income for the children who spend their day searching for leftover household or office tools, water bottles or broken devices in order to sell them to ‘scrap metal’ dealers. Despite the educational services provided by two schools, the overwhelming majority of the children are not enrolled because of abject poverty. Even those who are enrolled in the school are often truant, searching for work instead. For girls, marriage interrupts education, its reasons lying in the economic conditions found in places such as Jabarona, and many other areas in Sudan. Previous statistics placed the estimated percentage of truancy in Sudan at one third of all children. They drop out of their studies before finishing primary school, with girls being most likely to drop out. However, the actual truancy at this educational stage reaches 45%, while 43% do not even enroll in the first place. In 2017, the Food Bank Organization announced that 700 thousand students were going to school without breakfast.
One Giga Gang
There is a connection between the crime of poverty and intense killing and looting in Jabarona. Crimes of murder are common in this neighborhood, usually occurring in liquor-producing and consuming areas that serve customers who come from outside the neighborhood. And so, the area represents fertile ground for extortion and looting at the hands of rogue members of the armed forces, exploiting their authority by confiscating locally – and illegally- produced alcohol and then often ‘settling’ the case on the road before reaching police headquarters, with the payment of a sum of money by the women liquor producers in exchange for their release, and the retrieval of their confiscated equipment. Confiscation and raiding powers granted to the police have turned into sources of income for its officers, due to several laws such as the infamous ‘public order law’, which grants police the power to storm and raid.
Jabarona is surrounded by a huge landfill site filled by waste from distant areas, all to be emptied here. The site is used as a communal toilet for the quarter’s inhabitants, due to a lack of toilets in most households. It is also a source of income for the children who spend their day searching for scrap to sell.
“One Giga” is a well-known gang in the quarter, with some of its members coming from the armed forces - both active and past personnel. The gang perpetrates acts of looting, theft, and rape under threat of armed violence. After sundown, they enter the neighborhood secretly after its public transportation stops at 11 p.m. Then arrive the alcohol sellers and consumers, who turn the neighborhood into an unsafe area. Curiously, the gang’s activities stopped completely following the fall of President al-Bashir, according to several residents of the area.
Civil Authority: A window of mutual consent
Jabarona’s inhabitants turn to the so-called ‘Sultan’ in the event of a dispute. The ‘Sultan’ is a civil administrator approved by the members of a tribe. In some areas he is called ‘Sultan’, while in other areas of Sudan he is called ‘Mayor’, ‘Supervisor’ or ‘Shartay’. The official authorities have no role in choosing or naming this figure; rather, he is the most senior member of his tribe. Usually civil authority moves from one ‘Sultan’ to another by inheritance, and sometimes you can find both old and young men occupying this role. The tribes of the Nuba mountains that make up the ethnic majority of Jabarona consider the ‘Sultan’ the civil authority - there are others like them in this respect from regions of the country, distant from cities or lacking basic education. The ‘Sultan’, who lives among the people, mediates all disputes, but this does not prevent people from turning to official authorities in cases of murder, with the Sultan’s role coming into play when a pardon is needed. Throughout recent years, civil administrations have entered the realm of politics, and the authorities have benefited greatly from their influence in their relative circles, especially in electoral campaigns and in providing political support.
Slums’ inhabitants look out for each other, providing mutual aid as much as possible, both materially and morally. Moral support is always available, and the residents share the good times and the bad. Many residents of this area believe that cohesion and solidarity are very natural given the unforgiving economic situation. The intimate nature of these relationships is a catalyst for survival here; however, the solidarity does not go beyond this humanitarian level, and does not develop into organized bodies that could provide support allowing for solutions to problems faced by the slums’ residents.
The end of humanitarian support
In official reports, slums are not defined as “residential areas lacking in essential services”. The authorities justify this exclusion by arguing that these areas are not officially designated as residential, but are turned into residential areas by the de facto presence of residents. As a result, already limited government support does not extend to the inhabitants of these areas. Government support here is made up by the Zakat Bureau, responsible for helping poor groups in the Muslim community, according to criteria outlined by dedicated official institutions. In the past, humanitarian organizations that came to Jabarona and other neighborhoods provided material support such as consumer goods and regular health services, with a focus on children who often suffered health problems, such as diarrhea and dehydration. However, a government order issued by the now ousted Omar al-Bashir in 2009 (after an arrest warrant was issued against him by the International Criminal Court), ordered the expulsion all international organizations operating in Sudan. This, in conjunction with the end of church-provided aid, directly affected the quarter’s inhabitants. After the secession of South Sudan, more official voices called for an Islamic Sudanese state. Consequently, the activities of the Church, which has always been accused of attempting to Christianize the country, have diminished.
Khartoum attracts migrants from the countryside and the cities
Unlike other Sudanese cities, Khartoum sees continuously increasing waves of displacement from the countryside, with official statistics estimating that one hundred families move to the capital every day. The same statistics indicate that more than 40% of those migrants seek jobs in Khartoum. The fact that official Sudanese institutions lack precise and updated statistics, together with the continued daily influx of migrants into these area, make it difficult to reach definitive numbers regarding the number of residents in the slums. On the other hand, parts of these neighborhoods are undergoing urban planning.
This decision lies with the authorities, who determine potential sites for development according to how accessible the area is, or because a certain area suffers from severe environmental problems which cause the rise of complaints from neighboring areas, in which case, the residents are evicted and transferred to new areas. Before the services are connected to these regions, their condition is no different from the slum dwellings, though the authorities do not call them “slums”. The authorities make eviction decisions without providing any justifications, because inhabiting these areas is illegal in the first place. Urban planning is also decided by the government, just like what happened in Jabarona where electricity poles were erected in one part of the slum in preparation for connecting it to this vital service.
Conflicting official statistics
An official study released in 2017 revealed that Sudan's poverty rate had fallen to 28 percent. Many statisticians have questioned this number since, as the official poverty estimate for 2009 was 64 percent. Official figures in Sudan do not inspire much confidence, especially on issues such as poverty and crime. Over the past 20 years, health and education services have deteriorated in various Sudanese cities, in addition to the exacerbated unemployment, lack of job opportunities and production in the country’s states, which has compounded the exodus from rural and urban areas to the densely populated capital. This is due to the State's policies which concentrated essential services in Khartoum, pushing inhabitants of the provinces or states to migrate. During the al-Bashir government (1989-2019), Sudan's territories were subjected to incessant impoverishment, as their resources were channeled into the state treasury, with complete disregard for the equitable division of these resources. The reality of these slums reflects the dysfunctional situation suffered by the vast majority of the Sudanese population. The problems of power and wealth distribution that have prevailed in Sudanese politics in recent decades are the immediate cause of the outbreak of armed conflict in some regions of Sudan, creating waves of displacement in the years that followed.
The fact that official Sudanese institutions lack precise and updated statistics, together with the continued daily influx of migrants into these area, make it difficult to reach definitive numbers regarding the number of residents in the slums.
Urban planning strategies are completely absent. Recent years have witnessed increasing displacement to the capital, and the government’s plans have failed to accommodate migrants, while the capital Khartoum suffers from disproportionate overpopulation and degraded infrastructure, most notably its sewage systems.
For example, a study indicates that the number of displaced persons in the city of al-Genina in the Darfur region, which has been in a volatile state of war since 2003, represents 50% of the city's population. These displaced people fled wars in villages near al-Genina. Research indicates that 50% of city-to-city displacement is towards Khartoum.
Widespread poverty due to war-time conditions in a number of regions of Sudan have displaced large groups of people to other cities. The authorities have consistently faced these people with eviction or forced deportation to different areas. Sometimes deportations are made to designated areas after the population is counted, and sometimes eviction orders cannot be appealed, and therefore, the population finds itself obliged to move to other slum areas in the outskirts of the capital. This has created unending confrontations and hostility between the slum residents and the authorities. Urban planning strategies are completely absent. Recent years have witnessed displacement to the capital, and the government’s plans have failed, while the capital Khartoum suffers from disproportionate overpopulation and degraded infrastructure, most notably its sewage systems.
An old crisis and a new hope
Jabarona is one of many neighborhoods founded in the early 1990s. Outside Khartoum there are cities such as Wad Madani and Sennar that contain slums. There are no significant differences between Khartoum's slums or the slums of other cities, because the conditions that led to the emergence of slums in Sudan are similar. However, Jabarona includes a specific ethnicity that has been displaced from Southern Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains since the 1980s owing to the ongoing wars that successive governments have failed to resolve.
On the other hand, the Fatimia neighborhood in western Omdurman, which was also established in the early 1990s, represents a small-scale Sudan. Residents here are from the West, North and Center of the country, with an estimated population of more than five thousand people. Common factors here are poverty and the constant search for services that do not exist in Sudan's various cities, with the exception of large ones. Even in recent years, large cities have experienced displacement to the capital in search of better essential services. As is the case in Jabarona, the local liquor industry in Fatimia is a major business. After sunset, the neighborhood bursts into life, with the relentless movement of customers, merchants and liquor dealers who come to get their supply of goods to sell elsewhere.
Slums, in the popular imagination, are not only linked to poverty, even though poverty was the main factor leading to their emergence. They are also characterized by specific lifestyles and patterns of behavior which make them “different” from the city. The term "slum" has created a discriminatory perception of this group. However, life in these slums is a constant battle for survival, requiring the ability to adapt to incredibly difficult living conditions. What unites the residents of these slums is their constant sense of injustice, although hope has emerged in their lives after the revolution that overthrew the Bashir regime which had ruled the country for 30 years. Today, here they are waiting for a change to come…
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Translated from Arabic by Jean Franco
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 19/09/2019