No sweets please: we want to learn
It started out as a research project into the effects of Lake Nasser on the environments of the Eastern Desert, Egypt. But when the natural curiosity of the children of the Bedouin communities in Wadi Allaqi spilled over to create a literacy project, and the women began to show an interest in agriculture, the ability of these groups to contribute to the household in new ways became welcomed by men in the community, albeit reluctantly at first.
The University of Glasgow has had links with the Unit of Environmental Studies and Development at South Valley University, Aswan since 1987, supporting researchers in a range of disciplines including botany chemistry and geography. Funding has been provided by the Department for International Development and the British Council.
Geographer Dr Jo Sharp explains: ‘Professor John Briggs and I were trying to understand the Bedouin perceptions of their environment and the way they manage it so that this could be incorporated into development practice. It’s not science coming up with the answers but indigenous knowledge working with science to come up with appropriate methods for an area.
‘More that 100 people have benefited from our link with South Valley University. Almost exactly half are Egyptian and half are from Glasgow. Almost exactly half are men and half are women. That’s remarkable - for women from Upper Egypt to travel by themselves. It shows how much trust there was in that link.’ Dr Jo Sharp
‘The women had talked about setting up some small-scale agriculture using irrigation from Lake Nasser. Some of the botanists helped with the choice of plants to do this. When we went to speak to the women, we found that their children turned up too, which could be quite distracting. One day, a member of our team sat down and started drawing with them. That led to showing how to write letters. It came to the stage that the kids would run up when we arrived – they didn’t want sweets – they wanted to learn more writing. The women began to be interested in learning as well - a literacy project was born.
A new perception
‘Initially, the men were very unhappy about this. They thought that if women could read and write, they would petition for divorce. But eventually, the men decided to get involved too – it would help them to be able to read prices when they took their animals to be sold.’ The project has become self-perpetuating with assistance from the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency and the Aswan Governorate to provide basic education.
Initial reluctance towards experiments in agriculture was encountered too. ‘At first there was only one woman, a widow, who was really keen to try,’ Dr Sharp explains. ‘I had always seen her as a bit of an icon, a trailblazer in the community. She produced a fantastic farm and we were incredibly impressed but the other women, rather than respecting her, actually pitied her at first, seeing her need to farm as a result of not having a husband. What’s been really interesting is that perhaps as a sort of demonstration effect, all the families now have farms. We were able to provide some pumps and what the people do now is work together, placing the pumps centrally and having their gardens around them.
From the starting point of being told: “we have animals - Bedouin do not farm,” to get to this stage, is just great.’