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Ibrahim El-Salahi Pain Relief at The Saatchi Gallery, London

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Affectionately known as sitaat as-shay or tea ladies, the vendor above is one of millions of Sudanese women supporting their families by working in the cash-based, day-to-day informal economy.

With no savings account, credit cards or online access, in the age of Covid-19, the informal economy in Africa is “a stark reminder of global inequities.”Reliance on the informal sector threatens effective coronavirus lockdowns

How will tea ladies and their families survive under lockdown as offices and businesses shutter up?  See next week’s post on Covid-19 and its impact on Women in Sudan.

See Coffee and Conversation for Salma the tea lady’s story. 


“…..We were motivated by our need to feed and educate our children,” she said, recalling how she initially offered customers a straw mat to squat on while drinking their tea. Later, car batteries served as makeshift stools before she finally obtained colourful plastic garden chairs.

Awadiyah Koko interviewed in Sudan’s tea ladies hope for better life

Founder of a tea and street food sellers association representing 27,000 women, Awadiyah Koko won the International Women of Courage Award in 2016.  Over recent months the tea ladies of Khartoum have seen long fought-for gains in their status and security and have dared to hope for a more stable future. 


See too “With Pots and Pens, Awadiya Abbas works for women’s economic rights”, SIHA Journal, Women in Islam, Issue 02/2015 

And an in-depth interview from an activist perspective in SIHA Awadiyah Coco

If Covid-19 and lockdown threaten the hard-won livelihoods of Khartoum’s tea ladies, how will it impact those eking out an even more precarious living under the shadow of Covid-19 in the capital’s hinterlands and irregular settlements? 

Our Literacy Coordinator, Mrs. Adila Osman spoke to women in Jebel Aulia earlier this week as part of our Covid-19 awareness work: 


“It is terrible. I really feel pity”

The ladies said they have no information. They never see TV and there is no electricity. They even stopped listening to the radio because the battery price is too high. So they lack all information so they cannot protect themselves. They don’t imagine the risk or the danger they face.” 

“They are not ready for lockdown because they don’t understand what’s going on. They depend on day-to-day work. If they fall sick they will not know what to do.  As they say, we have nothing but Allah.”

 See next week’s post on our Covid-19 awareness program in partnership with Sudanese Humanitarian Aid Commission. 

Above, children from the close knit community of Jebel Aulia. They have no running water to wash their hands regularly. 


This is a literacy post for Women’s Education Partnership.  See Facts and Figures to learn more about our mission and impact.

Half our literacy participants are the sole breadwinners in their families and rely on the informal economy for work. Learn more in At a Glance


 We have already funded our Covid-19 awareness and relief work but please consider giving to our life-changing literacy work. It is never more needed than now. Just click on the link below to donate quickly and securely:

 Virgin Money Giving


Prayer cap sellers in Souq al-Arabi, Khartoum 

This is the third of five posts this month dedicated to Covid-19 and its impact on  Sudanese life, economy and society. 

See Coronavirus in Sudan – Stepping Back from the Abyss for the health context, “Realities on the Ground” and “A perfect Storm? for the economic context:

Coronavirus in Sudan Stepping back from the Abyss Part 2 


Above, Sudan’s Ministry of Health Coronavirus prevention campaign poster, reading “Stay at Home”. 


Lockdown – The Costs 

      Economic and Logistical Challenges   Social and Psychological Costs 

Sudan’s revolution began by ordinary people complaining about a lack of bread. Today people queue for hours under the desert sun to buy bread.

A new Sudan faces corona with little support

Economic and Logistical Challenges of Lockdown 

Awadiyah Koko’s thirty-year struggle and that of so many others to secure the livelihoods and labour rights of millions of Sudanese women stands on a knife-edge as Sudan’s Covid-19 containment policy shifts from phased partial shutdowns to an initial three-week total lockdown of Khartoum, starting from 18th April. The lockdown is set to be extended to other provinces if the pandemic spreads. See Sudan Tribune Khartoum Lockdown

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Omdurman Market, 2018

With the World Bank predicting the first recession in Africa in twenty-five years, The United Nations has warned that “measures taken to combat the pandemic could nullify 30 years of progress in the fight against poverty” – an outcome that can only be mitigated by extensive and longterm international financial support. See possible mitigation measures in Covid-19 and Conflict: 7 Trends to Watch. Radio Dabanga reports the Sudanese pound crashing in parallel foreign currency markets against the dollar as capital flight takes hold and prices of consumer goods skyrocketing throughout a country where workers earn just 645 Sudanese pounds a month.  See too Prices soar across Sudan as Coronavirus measures bite

“The price of subsidised bread doubled in Khartoum. People are now paying two Pounds for a small loaf of bread.…..“In the border town of Um Dukhun in Central Darfur, the price of a loaf of bread jumped to SDG 10. A pound of sugar now costs SDG 60.”

Sudanese Pound Hits New Low


Omdurman Market 2016

An economy based on regular movement of goods to local weekly markets cannot easily sustain lockdown measures and survive.  As reported elsewhere in Africa,  the risk of non-compliance by those wholly dependent on daily income to feed their families is high. Internet provision is patchy, making in-person meetings in trading contexts unavoidable and lengthy lockdowns increase the likelihood of social unrest and violent pushback against measures which will further impoverish the already desperately poor. See Across Africa reliance on the informal sector threatens effective coronavirus lockdowns

“The airport is closed, the borders are closed. I don’t know how to bring my products from China,” he said. “I will finish selling what I have here and then I will have to find another job. A market trader interviewed in For Sudan, Covid-19 Adds Complications


Above, Seller of nuts and biscuits. Most Sudanese do not have the resources to buy bulk food supplies during lockdown.

The scale of the challenge facing the transitional government is vast as it strives to coordinate with international relief bodies in uncharted territory. See UN Covid-19 response Sudan. Recognizing the need to reduce the impact of  isolation measures on those most vulnerable, the government has offered paid leave to some employees and has explored providing liquidity to small and medium-sized businesses, postponing debt repayments, re-configuring markets and staggering their opening times so as to allow greater social distancing. It is also considering making use of mobile communications for both cash transfers (see Markets and Money Transfers) and providing Covid-19 prevention information. Prisoners have been released en masse, poor families have been assessed for immediate support and youth activists and neighborhood committees have undertaken to provide food, disinfectants and information to the homeless and those living on the street.  

See: Khartoum to assess poor families in case of coronavirus lockdown 


Souq al Arabi, Khartoum, 2019 

Civil society organizations, in collaboration with government bodies have launched awareness and prevention campaigns and community health workers, whose front-line knowledge proved key in the Ebola epidemic, have been mobilized.  See Why we should listen to District and Frontline Health Workers. The authorities are implementing recommendations for the installation of safe water points in public spaces such as markets and toilets and on city outskirts as well as in areas without reliable water supply.  Much progress has been made (see Water and the most vulnerable in Khartoum)  but the need is enormous and the acquisition and distribution of medical supplies has been hampered by border closures, disruption of China-Sudan trade and the lockdown. 

“Before, medical masks sold for 80 pounds (1.3 euros) each. Today they sell for 200 pounds (3.30 euros)…”

For Sudan, Covid-19 Adds Complications

Realities on the ground, however, remain grim for many expected to observe lockdown as the women speaking to Mrs. Adila Osman above so powerfully bring home.  

“’How come the government wants us to stay at home while there is no power and water? The weather is too hot and we need to clean ourselves and wash our hands…….We have children and elderly people. How can they bear this?’”

Reported in Sudan imposes lockdown


Jebel Aulia 

If these measures are logistically challenging in the capital and major cities, they are overwhelmingly so in Sudan’s numerous and vast refugee camps and IDP settlements where overcrowding and zero sanitation are the everyday reality for those living there.  More on this in coming posts. 

For further analysis of lockdown impact in Africa, see Alex de Waal’s excellent Know your Epidemic, Act on its Politics

“Currently, experts do not know what alternatives to a comprehensive lockdown may exist, or what local variants of isolation, movement restriction, contact tracing and quarantine might be viable. That’s because they haven’t asked. There is no time to lose: community consultations should begin now. Communities may well find creative ways of protecting the most at risk. The widespread lockdowns across Africa are not just an opportunity to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but equally importantly, to design the kind of community-owned measures for epidemic control that are the continent’s best chance for mitigating COVID-19 and its secondary impacts. (source above)


Social and Psychological Costs

“In times of tragedy / Things appear real. / Eyes became real. / The hand that greets its neighbor is real. / The moon is no longer a distant fantasy. / It is real.” Ebola 76 by Amir Tag ElSir in Literary Sudan, An Anthology of Literature from Sudan and South Sudan p 63 

“When this is over, may we never again take for granted A handshake with a stranger ..Laura Kelly Fanucci, When This is Over 


“Our lifestyle is deeply communal, with extended families traditionally sharing the burdens and bounties of life together, eating meals from the same plate.  

Ethiopian leader, Abiy Ahmed  in If Covid-19 isn’t beaten in Africa

A video circulating widely on Sudanese social media shows a market stall holder, with the punchy aplomb and perfect timing of a born salesman, plunge his head into a sack of chili peppers in a theatrical bid to back up his claims that they were a cure for coronavirus as “they draw out poisons”.

Sudan like everywhere else in the Covid-19 crisis has seen a proliferation of myths and false claims surrounding both the propagation and prevention of the virus as fear and desperation grows  “Many are anxious from hearing daily fatality reports from better-resourced countries and are concerned that their communities will be next.” (Quartz Africa). 

The government’s Covid-19 containment campaign also faces resistance and rejection from political and religious quarters; see Sudan censures mosques.

The Aljazeera clip below reports on similar false cures and denial campaigns, some of which are politically motivated, plaguing Minister of Information, Faisal Mohammad’s war on misinformation.

Lack of access to accurate Covid-19 guidance, so painfully highlighted by our coordinator while visiting Jebel Aulia and myths surrounding the virus hamper prevention campaigns.  But Sudanese are also being asked to make profound changes in their social interaction. Refusing to shake hands in greeting is a mark of profound discourtesy in Sudan or viewed by many as excessive religiosity.  Yet this culturally embedded gesture of welcome can now be deadly.  

Sudanese generosity dictates that meals are shared with the stranger as a matter of course and weddings, funerals and circumcisions are events all family members and friends are honour-bound to attend.  It will take time and determined media campaigns for these deeply engrained and solidarity-centred customs to be suspended, if only temporarily. Read more on the cultural impact of not holding a mass funeral for Defence Minister,  Lt. General Jamal Omar in Death of Defence Minister. International health workers in Sudan have noted though, that even last week large funerals and weddings were still being held (personal communication).

As lockdown measures take hold and those in the most precarious of circumstances are hardest hit, as elsewhere in the world, the impact these measures will have on mental health – especially depression and anxiety, as well as levels of domestic violence and irreversible loss of educational opportunity will all be magnified as poor children whose schooling is interrupted often never return to education.  And all this without any of the technological consolations, home comforts or support networks available to those enduring lockdown in Europe. 

See next week’s post on the impact of Covid-19 on women and girls in Sudan. 


Khartoum outskirts 


This is a literacy post for Women’s Education Partnership.  See Facts and Figures to learn more about our mission and impact.

Half our literacy participants are the sole breadwinners in their families and rely on the informal economy for work. Learn more in At a Glance


 We have already funded  our Covid-19 awareness and relief work but please consider giving to our life-changing literacy work. It is never more needed than now. Just click on the link below to donate quickly and securely:

 Virgin Money Giving

One comment on “Coronavirus Sudan Stepping Back from the Abyss 3 – Lockdown

  1. Many thanks, Simon. Have emailed my reply.


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