Women unloading gravel from wheelbarrows. Credit: Oxfam
Women find ways to earn an income even in the most inhospitable conditions.

Sudan: Zeinab’s story - Gravel collecting

“Before Oxfam intervened we used to have to use our hands,” says Zeinab, a gravel collector in Sadagha district. “We scooped up the gravel then collected it in plastic containers, which we carried on our heads. You can only carry one on your head at a time, so we had to make many trips. As a committee we sat down and told Oxfam of our problems. They gave us shovels to gather the gravel and wheelbarrows to carry it. Now things are much easier on our bodies.”

As Port Sudan is one of the hottest parts of an extremely hot country the temperatures can reach over 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, and the heat is far too great for the women to spend the day outside.

“Even the rest of the year it is uncomfortable to work in this heat. But in the summer it is unbearable and dangerous,” says one collector. “At this time we cannot work outside all day, so we have to find other ways of making a living.”

For Zeinab this means selling ice cream from a small portable box filled with ice. With no electricity in the area, keeping food, drinks and bodies cool can be extremely difficult, so there are no shortage of customers for a woman selling ice cream and cool drinks.

“Children in particular are good customers. They all love ice cream,” she says.

Oxfam helps train the women with skills that they can use when the summer arrives and they can no longer collect gravel. Through the women’s associations Oxfam also provides them with loans to start new businesses.

While Zeinab sells ice cream, others sell charcoal door-to-door, or open small tea stalls. During the summer months the children are on holiday from school, so others cook and sell taamia, Sudanese falafel, in large frying pans outside their house, enabling them to keep an eye on the family while they work.

But competition is fierce in this part of Port Sudan, where thousands of women find themselves trying to make ends meet. When the weather cools again – albeit only in the relative terms of East Sudan where winter can mean a “mere” 30 degrees – Zeinab, Nafisa and the others return to the gravel fields.

It’s hard, lonely work – but work that keeps their family going and funds the education of the next generations, who the women hope will have better opportunities to earn an income.

Story by Oxfam GB, January 2008.

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