Working in development, there are some faces you never forget because they come back to you at the end of a long day, time and again. As we recognize International Day of Action for Women, I’ve been thinking about some of these faces from a recent trip to Sudan. Faces of young women who are doing community work that is so important, it is really in a league of its own. I’d like to dedicate this “day” to these women of action, the young graduates of village midwife schools in eastern Sudan.
The doorway to the midwives school in Kassala, a town close to the Red Sea, leads you into a small courtyard crowded with beds, belongings, and cooking utensils gently baking under the desert sun. Passing through this open air dormitory, another door opens into a classroom, in which a group of about twenty young women dressed in soft white are listening to a lecture that involves plenty of gesticulating and a plastic model lying on a bed. These students have already qualified as midwives and are now in town to learn more advanced skills that they can take back to their villages in a few months.
One of the young women, Nora, aged 23, has a million-dollar smile. She is eager to show off her work, and, later that afternoon, takes us back to her home village of Tagher. Driving through the desert with Nora and a few of my colleagues, I marvel at the flatness of the desert and the tire-tracks that mark the road. After many wrong turns we arrive and Nora leads us to the women’s tent, where after some negotiation, we are allowed to enter. The air is thick with the afternoon heat and strong odors from cattle tails hanging from the sticks that criss-cross overhead to form makeshift rafters. A girl sits in a corner, she is introduced as Hadiya. She cradles a healthy baby in her arms, a little girl named Fatmeh.
Nora sits by Hadiya’s side, beaming proprietarily at the young mother and the child she helped deliver, and telling us enthusiastically about how she handled the case.
I cannot quite see Ayesha, another midwife, because her face is covered behind her traditional veil. At 35, she is the mother of four children, and she comes forward to tell me about harmful practices in the villages that she has been working to prevent. “I tell people about the bad effects of female genital mutilation,” she says, listing for me the immense physical and psychological damage that can be done to girls who are offered money and a celebration to undergo this ritual. In her voice, muffled as it is behind layers of fabric, I hear pure steel. This is a quiet woman, determined to bring change to her world.
But perhaps the face that stays with me the most memorably is that of Tohaj, a 22-year-old from Tadaiyet village. In her short life, she has seen civil war, resettlement, mutilation, marriage, childbirth and divorce. Her face bears the deep marks of her people, the Hadandya, and her eyes are a hundred years old. But whatever the trauma of the past, she has an identity and a trade now, and a much-needed income. It is the first time she has ever earned anything and she feels hopeful about life.
It was a real privilege to meet these young women and learn about their lives and work. They are not just memorable faces; they represent the future of post-conflict countries in Africa.