By Sarah Oughton, in Mali
Life expectancy for women in Mali is 56 years, so Habi Camara, aged 80, is clearly a survivor. However, the current food crisis in the Sahel is taking its toll.
Habi looks frail and her wedding ring hangs loose on her finger. “I remember other bad years but never as bad as this,” Habi says. “The situation is very difficult, we cultivated the fields but there was no harvest.”
It’s not even mid-day and already 43 degrees celsius in Fegui village, Kayes, in west Mali. Habi waits in the shade while Malian Red Cross volunteers run around preparing rice, oil, salt and sugar for distribution in this community where erratic rains caused the crops to fail completely.
Malian Red Cross volunteer Ramata Diakite says: “Last June for a short time there was a lot of rain. Floods destroyed around 40 houses in Fegui and a lot of people lost livestock. You couldn’t move because of the water and the ground became waterlogged. Then it didn’t rain again for the rest of the rainy season and when the time came, there was nothing to harvest.
“I came here one month ago to help evaluate the situation and I felt bad for the people because they thought I was going to do something for them right then and there, but I couldn’t. People don’t know how they will cope till the next harvest. They are looking for wild fruit and using some trees to make soap or cutting wood to make charcoal to sell, but it’s not enough.
“I’m glad I’ve been able to come back today and work on distributing the food. I know how grateful people are, as this is the first time they’ve received any help.”
Although the crops completely failed in Habi’s village, there is food available in nearby markets, such as rice which has been imported from overseas via Senegal. But the problem for families, such as Habi’s, who rely on subsistence farming, is they can’t afford to buy it. And the situation has been made worse by the impact of rising global food prices.
As a result many families have been pushed to the brink. They are only just surviving by searching for wild food, reducing the quantity and quality of meals they eat, depending on their friends and neighbours, and sending family members away to look for work in the cities. But these coping strategies are unlikely to sustain them until the next harvest in October.
“In the past we could easily get the fruit from the Baobab, but this year more and more people are searching for food and it’s getting harder to find,” Habi says. “And my family doesn’t have any animals to sell. We’re all so thankful to receive this food because we have no cereal stocks left and the food in the market is so expensive. I wish many years of life for the Red Cross people and ask for them to have strength to continue their work.”
More than 14 million people in countries across the Sahel, including Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Senegal, who normally rely on growing their own food are struggling to survive since their crops failed.
Malnutrition rates are generally high in the region, particularly affecting children under two. But this year could lead to a dramatic increase in malnutrition and mortality without urgent action and significant funding to scale up the international emergency response.
Habi has six grandchildren, four of whom are still babies and the other two are aged three and five. Having previously lost four of her six children, Habi knows the daunting task her family faces to protect the health and nutritional status of their precious young.
Their situation is critical, but not hopeless. And there is still time to make a difference.