A Sheik's story in the Sudan

News and Press Release
Originally published
Stephanie Zito, World Relief Communications

World Relief is an interagency humanitarian relief effort, providing assistance, training and relief to refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan. CRWRC International Relief is an actively participating agency of World Relief.

Sauntering through his village, staff in hand with his long white "jelabiah" gown blowing in the warm breeze, the gentle presence of Sheik Ali Abdallah Ahmed commands the respect of his people. The grey hairs in his beard confirm his status as elder and tell of his wisdom before he speaks. Sheik Ali is one of the three leaders in Zawea, a village of 540 people on the outskirts of West Darfur's Um Tagouk region where WR/DRC is operating an initiative to improve health and hygiene.

In addition to solving local disputes and allocating land for farming, Sheik Ali is wise in many things and bears the responsibility of a chief to share his knowledge with his community. One area of knowledge that this sheik is currently working to pass along to his people is a realm of understanding that he has recently acquired: the importance of sanitation.

While a toilet and functioning sewage system is something that two-thirds of mankind takes for granted, according to the United Nations more than 2 billion people in the world are living without access to adequate sanitation. In many villages like Zawea in West Darfur, a lack of proper waste disposal pollutes water sources, compounds the problems of poor hygiene and increases the spread of diseases in areas where people already struggle from inadequate medical care. Although the job to improve the need for sanitation in the area of Darfur is big, it is not impossible.

World Relief's current goal to construct 1725 latrines to improve sanitation in West Darfur, however, does not begin with a shovel. Educating people through their respected local leaders like Sheik Ali and community appointed hygiene promoters is the first step to better sanitation.

"It is important to start with someone who has understanding that there is more to sanitation than building a latrine," explains World Relief Sanitation Officer Anania Lagu Murra "Sanitation is connected with cultural traditions, customs and beliefs. To build latrines is one thing, but to get people to use them is another. People need understanding, and improved sanitation requires a change in mindset."

As a result of the understanding gained and shared in the community as well as the hard labor of the people, the village of Zawea is no longer part of this enormous statistic. The people of Zawea have already completed 33 latrines in their village. According to standards for acceptable development, these facilities can adequately serve 660 people, enough to meet the needs of the Zawea population and increase their chances to live longer and healthier lives.

The World Relief sanitation program operates in communities like Zawea in cooperation with supervision of the local sheiks. Households which agree to construct a latrine in their compound use tools provided to the village through the DRC program to dig a three meter deep pit. Upon completion of digging, a task which can take as little as two days in sandy soil and up to several weeks in a rocky area like Um Tagouk, the family gathers wooden beams which will support the plastic slab provided by World Relief to cover the hole. Following a final inspection, the latrine is ready for walls- often constructed of grass mats and surrounded by thorn branches to keep the animals away from devouring the latrine when no one is looking.

"Now that the latrines are finished, do the people in the village use them," Anania inquired of the sheik. There was a short Arabic dialogue and then the group of the distinguished village gentlemen broke out in laughter. Sheik Ali had given an affirmative response to which Anania replied, "But we passed through 3 or 4 of them and we didn't smell anything."

"We really use them," the sheik responded and invited us to come see the latrine in his compound. He was pleased with his construction and smiled like a proud father as he explained that it had only taken 2 days to dig his latrine because his house is on the sandy soil.

As a result of the latrine project as well as the corresponding hygiene program that operates in the Zawea area to continue the promotion of sanitation, the villagers claim that they have a cleaner place to live with less diarrhea and a lack of the epidemics that they used to face.

WR is currently helping to provide access to adequate sanitation to more than 35,000 people in West Darfur, Sudan through its participation in the Darfur Relief Collaboration. To date, 1,319 latrines have been completed in three conflict-affected regions which also benefit from community based health and hygiene promotion, nutrition, water, and food security initiatives.