Ramadan Without Hilu Murr? A Brief Covid-19 Update
Ramadan Without Hilu Murr?
Above, pouches of freshly made hilu murr gleam like burnished leather on a kitchen tray. Title sketch, spreading wafer-thin layers of hilu murr batter on a hot griddle. Hilu murr flakes, literally “bitter-sweet/ sweet and sour”, are dissolved in water as a refreshing fast-breaking drink during the holy month of Ramadan. Its peppery, spice-laden tanginess envelopes much needed and easily digestible sugars and other nutrients.
Below, sprouting sorghum grains used to make hilu murr and the Sudanese flatbread, kisrah.
For so many Sudanese, Ramadan is inextricably associated with hilu murr. Making the fragrant flakes of malted and un-malted sorghum flour, is hard physical work, undertaken months in advance. Whole communities come together to pool resources and share the work. This year, however, several international press reports note that the Sudanese have been forced to abandon this annual ritual so central to Ramadan observance as a third wave of Covid sweeps across the country coinciding with a deepening economic crisis. Sorghum prices have gone through the roof, putting hilu murr out of reach for millions of Sudanese. “Hilu murr” has often been invoked as a wry encapsulation of the Sudanese experience – the sweetness of its vast and verdant lands and the bitterness of its people’s suffering. This year, more than most, perhaps, the Sudanese experience is proving more bitter than sweet.
”This year, many people are unable to make hilu murr due to the cost. I’ve had to buy it ready made but this is six times last year’s prices and only lasts a week or so. This Ramadan is totally different from any other Ramadan because of the Covid-19 third wave and the devaluation of the Sudanese currency. Before devaluation in February, the official exchange rate for dollar stood at 50 Sudanese pounds. Now it’s 385 pounds. This has impacted badly on the prices of all commodities, school fees, transport, water and electricity bills, communication and internet and everything, really. Salaries have remained largely unchanged.“
Our Country Director, Neimat, pictured left above, commenting on Ramadan this year. Her words are echoed by our literacy coordinator, Adila, right.
Above, village children near Dongola in early 1980s waiting in the late afternoon sun while their mothers pounded sorghum and stooped over griddles to prepare burnt russet-coloured hilu murr and its creamy white sister, “abre”. Scroll down to the end of this post to see how it is made (video with English subtitles). Below, a more detailed description of hilu murr.
Brief Overview; Impact of Covid-19, Ramadan 2021
Sudan’s Ministry of Health Covid prevention campaign poster, urging everyone to stay at home. Sadly economic realities often mean this is impossible for many. Ninety percent of Khartoum inhabitants live and work in overcrowded conditions.
A Covid-19 test costs 9000 Sudanese pounds ($23); more than a doctor’s monthly salary. A disposable single-use mask costs between 50-100 Sudanese pounds. There are only three intensive care specialists in Sudan and fewer than eighty ICU beds for every 43 million inhabitants. Oxygen is unavailable in many hospitals.
As Neimat reports above, this year’s Ramadan is proving harder than usual. Although religious leaders have called for prayers to be conducted at home and social distance maintained in public observance, health experts fear that a health system, already strained to breaking point due to the pandemic, will be overwhelmed by Covid cases linked both to a gathering third wave of infections and forthcoming Eid celebrations. States of Emergency have been declared in several regions. Despite a recent month-long suspension of flights from India and the gathering pace of Sudan’s Ministry of Health vaccination program with the arrival of COVAX vaccines, for many, a sense of weary fatalism, coupled with doses of vaccine hesitancy prevails.
Vaccine rollout comes amidst high death rates among health staff, especially among older medics and nurses, and repeated calls for these workers to be vaccinated as a priority. “The number of nurses who have died is unknown and that’s a huge loss” one health worker is reported as saying. Health workers often find themselves compelled to keep working despite the health risks as they have no other way of supporting their families. Official figures of Covid deaths are believed to be a “mere fraction” of reality with claims that only two percent of actual cases in Khartoum are registered. While Khartoum hospitals have only 150 dedicated Covid beds, many more remain closed because of lack of basic supplies, life saving medicines for other conditions, and staff shortages. A nationwide doctors’ strike remains ongoing in some regions with some medical staff not having received a salary for over a year. Health workers have also been subject to violent attacks.
Coupled with soaring food prices, exceptionally high temperatures, power and fuel shortages, Sudanese in some regions are facing drinking water crises. It is perhaps not surprising then that unrest, agitation and social instability is growing.
Perhaps the experience of many Sudanese in these grim times can be summed up in the words of one speaker recently interviewed by the BBC (link below). She explains that she has lost so many close friends and family that her phone now autocorrects when she’s typing, assuming she’s sending messages of condolence.
Although the news above is sobering, there are glimmers of hope. At Women’s Education Partnership our literacy, orphans and university scholarships programs have weathered the storms of the last fourteen months and proved very resilient. We are working to introduce Covid-robust income generating training for our literacy beneficiaries. More on this in coming posts. See too Latest News
Below, some of the main sources referred to in this blogpost.
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Below, more on hilu murr and a brief video celebrating Ramadan food, including hilu murr.
See too my Sudanese Arabic Transcriptions blog for an Aljazeera documentary on Ramadan in Rural Sudan: