The food crisis occurring in the Sahel region of West Africa has gone relatively unseen in the media, but on a recent episode of Perspectives Weekly, which airs on Salt + Light Television, it was featured as the main topic of discussion.
Over 18 million people are suffering from food shortages in the Sahel region of West Africa and Development and Peace is helping. To learn more about our response with our partners in the region, watch On the Brink: Hunger in the Sahel, a new video produced in collaboration with Salt+Light TV.
On my last day in Mali, I went to visit a centre in Bamako that is hosting 16 displaced families (98 people) who have fled the North of the country due to conflict there. Rebel groups have taken over several cities and have declared independence of this northern region, which stretches out towards the desert. In addition, some of the rebel groups are transforming the territory into an Islamic fundamentalist state by imposing sharia law. They have desecrated churches and even destroyed ancient mosques that they view as idolatrous.
In the early morning Malian sun, members of Caritas Mali are getting organized for the first food distribution to take place in the Diocese of Sikasso. They are setting up rows of chairs, scales to measure out the beans, maize and oil that will be distributed to 93 households in the region and even some speakers to play music. Already, people are beginning to arrive with their carts pulled by donkeys, parking them one next to the other. Even the mayor has come to help launch the distribution.
The Sikasso region in the South of Mali is dominated by the wide berth of the Niger River, making it favourable for the cultivation of rice. After a few days of rain here, the river is full and ready to irrigate the rectangular rice paddies nestled at its banks. But for rice to grow, there need to be seeds to plant. And this year, many farmers simply don’t have any because as a last resort to stave off hunger, they went through their reserves.
Karya Sagare’s granddaughter is sticking close to the skirt of her grandmother. Despite the heat, she is wearing a sweater with a hood that covers her head. Her eyes are listless as she quietly follows her grandmother through a church courtyard Karya explains that her granddaughter is not feeling well. She brought her to the doctor once, but can’t afford to bring her again. The trip to the doctor also ate into what little money Karya had put aside to purchase food for her family, which includes four children and two grandchildren.
Last year, when the rains didn’t come for the harvest in Mali, it could already be foretold that a potential food crisis was on the horizon. What was less predictable, however, was that the country was on the brink of a political crisis.
One of the main questions I had when I left for Niger, was why the country has been experiencing food crises more frequently. After a near famine in 2005, serious peaks in food insecurity have occurred in 2008, 2010 and now 2012. Professor Alpha Gado, a specialist in food crises in the Sahel at the University of Niamey, helped me to understand the complexities of a food crisis in a country like Niger.
In Niger, where 80% of the population depends on subsistence farming for its livelihood, getting the land to produce is essential. To see stretches of earth that are rocky and caked dry, languishing with little purpose, feels like an enormous waste, especially at a time when there is not enough food to feed the population.
Niger, like most of the countries in the Sahel, only has one rainy season, which means that the harvest that is cultivated from that rain is crucial to survive through the coming year. The time to plant the harvest, however, comes at a time when last year’s crop is nearly depleted and there is little, if anything, left to eat. It is a time when there is not enough food when it is needed most. To plant a field and work the soil requires energy, energy that is hard to find when there is nothing to eat.