Women belonging to tribes in the mountainous region of Kassala, east Sudan, have begun to explore the world of words, thanks to a WFP-organised literacy programme. WFP's Mohamed Amasha looks at how these women are determined to improve themselves and the lives of their families and communities.
Covered from head to foot in a deep blue Sudanese toub dress, 29-year-old Gamela Musa looks like any other of the modestly dressed women of the eastern Sudanese Beni Amir tribe, which is part of the Beja ethnic group.
Every time I go to the literacy class, my knowledge is enriched because I learn how to express myself
But Gamela is different - she is one of only a handful of women who can read and write.
Challenging traditional views that education is only for boys and men, she is part of a small but growing number of determined Beni Amir women who are quietly studying to improve their literacy.
Women the mainstay
Women are the backbone of many of the families in Kassala, which borders with Eritrea.
Two decades of drought and the effects of displacement within the region and to nearby Eritrea and Ethiopia due to conflict, have meant that men have often left to look for work.
In their absence, women have shouldered the burden of feeding and looking after their families alone.
Bound by tradition
A married mother of two, Gamela is one of hundreds of women who have begun to study literacy and other skills on courses organised by WFP and non-governmental organisations.
“I wanted an education so I could take care of my family and serve my village,” says Gamela.
Women's roles in the wide variety of tribes which live in Kassala differ according to each group’s traditions.
Some of these traditions force women to stay at home to look after their families.
Other tribes allow women to work and train other women in areas that are considered suitable, such as sewing and cooking.
Acquiring skills for life
WFP’s training programme helps target vulnerable women in east Sudan with a view to equipping them with skills that will help them increase their family income.
They learn to cook, sew clothes, carpets and bags as well as taking classes on hygiene and violence against women. They also take cooking lessons, where they develop different recipes that use the WFP food rations they receive each month.
Gamela goes to reading and writing classes four times a week in a school made of wood with mud and cow dung plaster walls.
A richness of knowledge
“Every time I go to the literacy class, my knowledge is improved because I learn how to express myself,” says Gamela.
In the afternoons, when class is over, Gamela goes to see her neighbours, and tells them about the letters she’s studied that day.
For Gamela, the classes are a dream come true.
“I have been dreaming all my life to receive a good education, but I could not achieve that because of our tribal traditions that favour the education of boys rather than girls,” she says.
The stuff of dreams
“I want to serve my community. I’m now learning first-aid because the nearest clinic unit is nearly 30 kilometres away from my village.”
“Education is the key to all my dreams. My husband and I are keen to have our children well-educated too so they can serve their community as much as they can,” says Gamela.
The programme that Gamela is taking part in aims to raise women’s awareness of the importance of education and help them learn home and childcare skills.
Women who attend the classes receive a monthly food ration that spurs them on in their studies.
“It’s an incentive”, explains the officer-in-charge of WFP’s sub-office in Kassala, Ahmed Lummumba.
“It helps women and their families make up for the work that the women would otherwise be doing in the fields, or in the home. The time that the women spend in the training programme is a long-term investment in their own future, and their families’ future.”
Chronic poverty rife
Alternative income sources are vital in eastern Sudan which is one of the poorest and least developed regions in a country where a large proportion of households suffer chronic poverty – meaning they are unable to produce or buy enough food to meet their needs for most or all of the year.
A study carried out in eastern Sudan for WFP last year found that the rate of severe stunting among children in Kassala state was 19 percent, indicating chronic malnutrition.
While WFP is already working with Red Sea and Kassala state health ministries and NGOs to expand supplementary and therapeutic feeding programmes to combat malnutrition, in the longer term, more partners and funding are needed to run programmes like the one in Kassala.
“The women in Kassala learn skills like sewing to help them earn extra income. They are very talented – they are already adept at making carpets which are of high quality in Kassala,” Lummumba says.
Joining the workforce
Gamela has been on the training programme for seven months, and already has clear plans for the future.
Once literacy classes and skills training are completed, she intends to set up a small service company with other women in her neighbourhood to sew clothes and make carpets to be sold in local markets.
When Gamela has achieved her dream of a good education, her desire to join the workforce and serve her family and community will have a chance of becoming reality.