In Sudan desert, bicycles help Oxfam deliver aid to refugees in Kalma camp
13 June 2005 Working in a place like Darfur is often challenging, but it can be the simplest things that are the most difficult and frustrating ”“ things like getting around. Darfur is the size of France, but without the auto-routes ”“ tarmac is almost non-existent (and limited to the capital and some patchy hard top for a few kilometers on some major routes), and most roads are rutted sand tracks in the dry season and hellish mud in the wet.
"For Oxfam, trying to bring desperately needed aid to over 600,000 people in 14 far flung locations in this massive region, transport ”“ of staff, supplies, equipment, even a drilling rig ”“ is an equally huge challenge. Thanks to our experienced logisticians and drivers, some extremely solid vehicles and occasional help from others (the World Food Program runs helicopters to some areas which agencies can use if roads become impassable or unsafe, and other agencies provide trucking services) we usually manage to get where we're going.
But sometimes the shorter distances can be even more of a challenge.
Kalma is an IDP camp (camp for Internally Displaced People) about 15 kilometers from Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. Two years ago this site was just a dusty plain next to a dry riverbed. It still is, but now it is home to over 120,000 people who have fled their homes following fighting in the surrounding area.
The site is enormous ”“ seven kilometers long, and up to two kilometers wide ”“ and each family only has a makeshift shelter over a few square metres, but with so many people it is incredibly overcrowded. And the camp has grown up unplanned, and in fits and starts (large numbers of people tend to arrive all at once, following periods of insecurity) so it is slightly chaotic to say the least. There are certainly no roads, and in many places the shelters are too close for a vehicle to pass. When the rains come, parts of the camp will be a quagmire.
Oxfam is providing clean safe water, latrines and public health promotion to about half of the camp ”“ an enormous area to cover and a huge number of people to reach. Each day we send out water engineers, builders, public health promoters, hygiene assistants, and a small army of volunteers from the community to check on construction of latrines, keep up the water supply systems we have installed, fill handwashing points with water, visit homes, women's groups, children's clubs, and water points to pass out vital messages about keeping healthy in these almost impossible conditions.
And to do this we use any means at our disposal ”“ landcruisers, trucks, donkeys (all bearing the Oxfam flag ”“ including the donkeys) and increasingly here in Kalma, bicycles.
There is only one brand of bicycle available to buy in Nyala, the state capital, the trusty ”˜Phoenix'. One-speed, no lights, a suspension system that has to be seen to be believed, some interesting ideas on saddle design and any color so long as it's black. But they have good thick tires for sand, a luggage rack, if you're lucky a bell ”“ and they're very, very sturdy. And if you're an engineer trying to visit water points across more than five square kilometers, or a health promoter trying to visit hundreds of shelters to give out vital messages, they're a godsend.
"People recognize me round the camp now. When they see me cycle past, instead of shouting ”˜okay okay' (the generic shout out from children in Kalma ”“ picked up from aid workers and visitors) they shout out ”˜Ali Ali'. The bike means I can get round to all the water sources and tap stands ”“ make sure everything is working ”“ and it means people know me, can see what I'm doing," Ali, a water engineer in Kalma told me.
The public health promotion team focuses on helping people to learn out to protect themselves from the threat of disease. They work with about 75,000 people across Kalma, passing on simple health messages and keeping an eye on health and hygiene ”“ right now they're going from house to house to talk to people about how to avoid diarrhoea, how to treat children who are suffering, how to reduce the risk of malaria.
The volunteers and assistants are assigned just a small area to cover, but the supervisors, ten of them (IDPs themselves) must cover the whole of Oxfam's area between them every day ”“ each visiting 20 or more families, and travelling up to 20 kilometers. And so seven of the supervisors are given Phoenixes. Our three female supervisors, sadly, are not, as in Sudan it would be unacceptable for a woman to be seen riding a bicycle (we try to work to improve women's rights ”“ but one step at a time”¦). We joke about giving them a donkey instead, but in fact the supervisors just divide up the work between them so that the women don't have to travel to the further parts of the camps, and once in a while, apparently, they'll even give them a backie (which looks a Herculean task to me, but a fair exchange for not having your own wheels I suppose).
A Phoenix costs about 20,000 Sudanese Dinar ”“ around US$80. This seems a lot in a place where people can, if they're lucky, earn 150-300 dinar a day from making mud bricks or doing washing ”“ but for what it allows our staff and volunteers to achieve day in day out in Kalma camp, a very small price to pay.