HALFAYA, Sudan - Agence France-Presse
Zakia is a Muslim woman living under Sharia law, stigmatized as a criminal for brewing and selling illicit alcohol to feed the family that her father abandoned outside Sudan's booming capital.
It is a simple recipe and one cooked up by thousands of women in the squalid camps and impoverished neighborhoods of those who fled years of war across southern, western and eastern Sudan.
Put dates and baking powder in water. Cover with a plastic bag to fend off the perennial dust, then bury underground for two to five days depending on the season. Heat over a fire and drip the piping hot liquid through a sieve.
One to two hours later, 23-year-old Zakia has enough bottled aragi to flog to local laborers for a week, earning enough cash to keep her, her mother, brother, niece and seven sisters in food and clothes.
She got married last year. But the relationship failed and they live apart. With a street attitude akin to the Bronx, she slices through the air with a defiant hand when asked if her husband looks after her financially.
"I don't even want to see his face," she says, recoiling in distaste, catching a whiff of aragi as she sits back on a plastic chair while her sisters giggle and plait their hair in the corner.
A gangly customer folds himself onto the bed behind, extending a boney arm along the back of her chair, already a bit drunk in the stifling heat of a leisurely Friday in Halfaya, 15 kilometers north of Khartoum.
"It's just a trade," she says, denying any pang of conscience in profiting from what the Koran forbids.
But it's a dangerous business. Police raids are frequent. Around 90 percent of inmates in the women's prison were arrested on suspicion of selling aragi. They complain of beatings, fines, ransacked homes and confiscated booze.
Community workers say police hide behind the cloak of Islam, running alcohol rackets with what they confiscate to supplement poor pay. They talk about women sinking into prostitution and sexual favors in return for protection.
Chol Sakina, a Christian from the south, has been in Khartoum for more than two years. The poorest of the poor, she does not know how old she is and cannot afford to go home. She is too frightened to talk about alcohol.
She lives with her one-eyed aunt in a mud hut. They say they have not worked since police threw their equipment into the river four months ago.
"Sometimes we only eat flour with salt," says her aunt, Kadose. "This is poor people's food," she says tilting a bucket of grey, watery slop into view.
"We'll die from this food."
Magda Ali, a doctor who lost her government job after the Islamist-backed coup of 1989, helps run a charity that works to lift thousands of alcohol women out of the poverty and ignorance that trapped them into the trade.
"Poverty is everywhere in Sudan. To break the poverty cycle, the best thing is to start skills' training, such as caring for the elderly, bedside nursing. But the problem is the market does not accept them," says Ali.
Her Al Manar organization has success stories. They train women in basic health and provide loans to encourage them into different small businesses.
The biggest country in Africa, Sudan is run by an Arab elite looking to the culture and Islam of the Arab world.
But most Sudanese see themselves as African, from a tribal culture in which fermented, or alcohol drinks, are perfectly acceptable.
Indeed many alcohol sellers list policemen, civil servants and middle class professionals among their customers.
"Fermented dates are a culture all over Sudan. It's not a crime. All over Sudan traditionally people make sherbet, fermented. Boiled dates with herbs. They especially make it for weddings. It is an alcoholic drink," says Ali.
"We have all the culture of Africa but since independence (from Britain in 1956) we have been ruled by a government with an Arab culture. They try to impose things that are not African," she adds.