A RUGBY charity worker has braved an emergency landing, sand storms and a night in a UN compound during a visit to the troubled Sudanese province of Darfur.
Ella Jolly returned to the UK after travelling to Sudan as part of her job with Rugby-based international development charity Practical Action.
It’s one of the few charities left operating in Darfur after most were asked to leave by the Sudanese government - and the 25-year-old visited the region to help some of the thousands of people whose lives are blighted by civil war and poverty.
The former Rugby High School pupil said: “I had some harrowing conversations with women who had been forced to feed their families tree roots to survive. But Practical Action has helped people create long-term solutions to problems caused by drought and it was so uplifting to hear where they had come from and see what they have now.”
Ella, who lives in Bilton, arrived in Khartoum on June 17. She spent her first three days training staff in the use of social media, interview techniques and explaining how the charity’s technological help for Sudan’s poorest people were vital to fundraising in the UK.
During that time, Ella managed to get a travel permit from the Sudanese government to visit Darfur and left the capital for the town of Al Fashir, 800 miles to the west.
She said: “Khartoum was tough because it was 45 degrees, very dry and dusty and at all times I was very aware of the presence of the government soldiers on the streets. I wasn’t allowed to take photos and had to stay in my hotel room in the evenings as it was too dangerous for me to go out on my own.
“So although it was a long journey to Al Fashir, I instantly fell in love with the place. I got off the plane and was surrounded by a group of women who were singing and greeting me with broad smiles. It was an amazing feeling to be made to feel so welcome.
“On Saturday it was my 25th birthday and I spent the day visiting villages just outside Al Fashir where I saw how Practical Action has worked with the local people to make a borehole to provide access to water and build a haffir, which acts as a reservoir to store the rain water when it comes.
“It was fantastic to see the difference it had made to the community and I spent the day feeling so inspired by people who were working with Practical Action to transform their own lives.”
That night they returned to Al Fashir, where her colleagues had arranged a surprise birthday party for her. “We spent the evening eating cake and dancing Sudanese-style,” said Ella. “It was the most perfect birthday, one which I will never forget. I felt so touched by the generosity and kindness of my colleagues.”
But there was no time to rest. The following day Ella joined a UN helicopter flight to north Darfur and joined a UN convoy to a small village called Tartora.
She said: “Practical Action has worked with people there to improve water storage and also helped grow a community forest, with crop-producing trees which also prevents desertification.
“The villagers also built their own irrigation system to support it. I returned to the UN compound, patrolled by peacekeeping soldiers from Senegal and Rwanda, in a really positive state of mind.”
Ella was due to travel back to Al Fashir the following day, and got on a UN helicopter ready for the 35-minute flight.
“But after just 15 minutes, they landed without explanation.
“We were in the middle of nowhere and I was trying to work out what was happening when the pilot rushed in shouting: ‘Everyone get out! Get out!’
“We all scrambled out and the pilot started to tie up the propellers. Everyone was still very confused about what was going on but suddenly we noticed what looked like a huge brown mountain racing towards us. Around me everyone was running and shouting and trying to find shelter. It was a sandstorm, known locally as the Haboob, and it felt like the apocalypse.
“I have never seen weather like it. Within about ten minutes everything went black, and it was very windy. We went into a small UN-owned cabin and locked the doors and windows, but the room still filled with sand, and we were stuck there for the night with nothing - there was no electricity - while it rained for five hours, heralding the start of the rainy season.”
Ella returned to Al Fashir the following day, before heading back to Khartoum and then the UK. She said: “I was really sad to leave, but so pleased I went. I have stayed in contact with many of the people I met and I feel so happy that I was able to see the work we do in the region.
“People in Darfur have been through hell and back, but for me the whole trip underlined just how vital Practical Action’s work is, and why I do my job.”