Sudan’s soup kitchens offer a lifeline to thousands of famine-stricken civilians

5 min read
26 June, 2024

The intense fighting in Omdurman, Sudan, and the shortage of food and services that ensued pushed Halima Hussein, 53, a mother of four, to flee to the relatively safer Al-Thawra neighbourhood, west of Khartoum.

Although a 15-minute drive, the road was still fraught with dangers, as Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and Sudanese Armed Forces soldiers exchanged fire in a vie for control over the capital.

Hussein and her family narrowly escaped the perilous crossfire, eventually reaching safety.

Hussein arrived in Al-Thawra with nothing but the haunting echoes of her children's empty stomachs, a sound far more painful than the distant crack of gunfire they had just escaped.

"With the war continuing for so long, there is nothing we can do but wait for God's mercy," she told The New Arab.

Hussein found refuge in the local tekkeyah, a community-based cooperative soup kitchen, offering free meals to internally displaced individuals through contributions from locals, businesses, charities, and dedicated young volunteers.

Sudan stands on the precipice of a catastrophic hunger crisis after nearly a year of war.

Hussein is one of 25 million people desperately needing humanitarian aid, with over 18 million more suffering severe food insecurity.

In the face of these dire circumstances, Sudan’s soup kitchens offer a lifeline to the thousands of famine-stricken civilians.

"The UN WFP is working to coordinate efforts with various local soup kitchens and emergency response teams to tackle the hunger crisis in areas where access is relatively safe," says Mohamed Gamal Al-Amin, the national spokesperson for the WFP in Sudan. 

A way out of famine

At least 700 soup kitchens can be found across several neighbourhoods in Khartoum, each serving around 300 families, according to the Emergency Response Rooms (ERRs), a youth-led independent, relief group. 

Over the past year, the organisation established 418 kitchens in the capital, aiding over four million Sudanese. However, as the conflict drags on, it now faces funding shortfalls, forcing most initiatives to limit most kitchens to one meal a day per person.

"We know it is not nearly enough, but it is better than nothing," says Abdullah Mohammed Saleh, EERs programme coordinator.

"Our aim is to ensure that kitchens and shelters across all neighbourhoods are covered so no one dies from malnutrition or hunger, which is the stark reality we face today"

Moez Al-Zein, a member of the Localization Coordination Council, believes that the war has transformed humanitarian efforts in Sudan, and now “locals are taking charge, deciding priorities, organising funding, and implementing solutions for their communities.”

His group mainly works in Sharq Al-Nile, Khartoum, where emergency rooms use small-scale urban farming to supply soup kitchens amid food shortages because, to the volunteers of the council, these kitchens go beyond feeding people, “acting as hubs for community discussions, psychological support, and even informal education for children.”

"Our aim is to ensure that kitchens and shelters across all neighbourhoods are covered so no one dies from malnutrition or hunger, which is the stark reality we face today," Al-Zein tells The New Arab.

"We also strive to keep services uninterrupted, as 90 percent of citizens in conflict zones rely entirely on the food and services provided by the emergency relief efforts."

According to Hisham Al-Jabalabi, a founder of the It’aam kitchen — meaning "feeding" in Arabic — in Al-Thawra, Khartoum, the concept of tekkeyahs, deeply rooted in Sudanese culture, began to spread further following the outbreak of the war between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and RSF forces in April 2023.

In besieged neighbourhoods where access to markets and shops became difficult, this tradition of generosity and solidarity gained greater significance.

"Every family shared their food supplies, and as the fighting continued and savings depleted, tekkeyahs relied on donations and contributions," he says.

"We started It’aam in May 2023, a month after the outbreak of the war, to provide meals for nearly 215 families caught in the crossfire between the army and RSF."

Due to funding shortages, 70 percent of the group’s kitchens serve only one meal daily.

"Other factors have also come into play, such as disrupted water services and the escalating prices of wood used for fuel, coupled with a steep increase in the cost of goods and foodstuffs by as much as 150 percent since the onset of the war," Al-Jabalabi adds.

Hussein, one of the kitchen’s beneficiaries, says that she had to resort to dividing the meal she receives from It’aam into two portions, delaying the family's breakfast and advancing dinner.

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Outside Khartoum

The situation outside of the capital is as dire, with communities facing shortages of essential supplies and ongoing violence. Local organisations and volunteers are working tirelessly to provide support, but resources remain scarce.

"We supervise 13 kitchens that serve daily meals to the shelters harbouring the displaced," says Nuha Youssef, a volunteer at the Emergency Rooms in Sennar State, South Sudan.

"But unfortunately, owing to poor funding and the security forces’ harassment of volunteers, sometimes, we’re forced to operate on Fridays only."

Abuzar Osman, Darfur State’s ERR coordinator, states that there are around 90 communal kitchens across the five states of Darfur.

Their service capacity varies depending on the population density of each area, starting from 250 people and reaching up to 2,200 people in the Zamzam IDP camp.

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"We have recently opened the Sultan Tirab School kitchen in Nyala, which provides over 700 meals daily for students and teachers, but the project faces significant challenges related to funding and ensuring the continuity of kitchen operations," he adds.

"We’re also evacuating civilians from conflict areas and providing health, education, water, and electricity services."

According to Osman, security challenges are affecting the flow of goods and foodstuffs in Al-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, and the scarcity and rising prices of goods in markets across the region.

Unsafe roads, due to the presence of multiple armed groups, further threaten commercial convoys.

"We’ve recently lost eight volunteers in one of the kitchens in Al-Fasher after a shell hit the city, amidst the fierce battles ongoing these days," Osman tells The New Arab.

"Despite this, the kitchen persists, sustained by alone community efforts, in the absence of regional and international organisations."

Mohammed Mustafa is a Sudanese journalist and political analyst with over 16 years of experience. His work focuses on the political, economic, and strategic landscapes in Sudan

This article is published in collaboration with Egab