With Ramadan just around the corner, Sudan’s 44 million population has very little to celebrate as the country grapples with one of the worst economic and political crisis in the turbulent decades since independence in 1956.
The scale of Sudan’s predicament was highlighted last week when the United Nations said the number of people facing extreme hunger would more than double to 18 million by September because of poor harvests, deteriorating security and political deadlock.
On Monday, UN special envoy Volker Perthes told the Security Council that Sudan faces “an economic and security collapse, and significant humanitarian suffering”, unless the political crisis that has paralysed the country since a military takeover last year is addressed.
In the five months since the takeover led by army chief Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, Sudan has been beset by almost daily street protests demanding an end to military rule and the restoration of the transition to democracy that followed the April 2019 removal of dictator Omar Al Bashir.
More than 90 people have been killed in the protests and about 3,000 injured despite pleas from world powers to the Sudanese military to stop the use of deadly force against the unarmed protesters.
The political uncertainty and the suspension of vital western economic aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars has devastated the economy and increased the hardship faced daily by most Sudanese.
Subsidised bread, a staple for millions, has disappeared from bakeries, leaving only the expensive, free-market variety. The prices of essential foodstuffs such as sugar and rice have risen significantly, along with fuel. The local currency has plummeted by as much as 40 per cent against the US dollar since last year, accelerating the rise in prices of a wide range of goods.
The arrival of Ramadan, traditionally a time of worship and family gatherings, against this backdrop takes much away from the joy and spirituality associated with the Islamic holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting.
Sudan has a long list of dishes and drinks unique to the country which are routinely included in the two daily meals Muslims enjoy during Ramadan; iftar, the sunset meal to break their fast, and suhoor, eaten just before the call for dawn prayers.
Among the first Ramadan traditions to be skipped by most Sudanese this year is buying new pots and pans for the kitchen and new furniture, or reupholstering what they already have. Replacing curtains is another Ramadan tradition in Sudan, where people consider the month a time to cheerfully renew aspects of their life.
The second tradition to be abandoned this year buy most is buying nuts, raisins and other dried fruit — imported items whose prices have soared because of the weakening of the local currency.
“My salary barely covers our living expenses at the best of times,” said Osman Awali, a government employee and father of two. “Usually, Ramadan miraculously brings with it unforeseen riches, but the current economic conditions are so tough it’s hard to imagine this will happen. We will have to do without so many things.
“With my salary, I used to be able to buy, say, around 30 per cent of the Ramadan extras, but this will not exceed 10 per cent this year,” he lamented.
Mariam Hassan’s four daughters and son moved out after they married, but that does not mean the homemaker is worrying less about Ramadan this year.
Mrs Hassan helps to run a charity that gives out meals to the poor during Ramadan. The charity depends largely on donations from Sudanese expatriates, mostly in the Gulf region, but has been receiving significantly smaller amounts this year.
“They send us less money. For example, those in Saudi Arabia are sending us 500 riyals [$133] this year; they used to send 2,000,” she said.
For Mrs Hassan and relatives — three families in all sharing a large multi-storey house — the soaring prices are a problem.
“There are some items in the market that remain relatively cheap, like cucumbers and tomatoes; not fruits, lemons or meat. But generally we will try hard to keep porridge, salads and soup on the iftar and suhoor table,” she said.
Mrs Hassan said she will not be buying new kitchen utensils or furniture this Ramadan.
“I will change the furniture around and wash the curtains and hang them back up.”