by Hler Gudjonsson, Icelandic Red Cross delegate
“I worry constantly about my children’s future,” says Mariama Barrow, a 40-year-old widow. “I cannot afford their school fees, or even to put proper food on the table. I don’t even think about buying shoes and clothes anymore, not to speak of milk for the youngest ones.”
Mariama is raising her seven children by herself. Because of the food shortages, the children have had to leave school to try to support the family by foraging for firewood to sell. The family‘s village, Jifarong, in Kiang West district, Lower River Region is among the areas of Gambia most affected by food insecurity. Miriama‘s neighbours are also dealing with almost complete crop failure.
Severe crop failure leaves families without livelihood
Not all farmer households have been affected equally by the crop failures, but the drought has had a devastating impact on most common types of crops. The rice harvest in Gambia has fallen by 79 per cent on average, and the early millet harvest fell by 53 per cent. Most serious for the economy of farmer households was a 67 per cent drop in the groundnut, which is the only source of cash income for most families. In a normal year a typical farmer family’s own rice production covers its cereal needs for three to six months, and for the rest of the year it relies mainly on the cash income from the sale of groundnuts.
Tens of thousands of Gambian families are now without food and income for the first time in 15 years, forcing them to sell assets and livestock or survive on charity and foraging. All of these factors are strong indicators of a severe and still deepening food crisis. In response to the numerous indicators predicting a serious food crisis, the Gambian Red Cross has launched an emergency appeal asking for international assistance in dealing with the situation.
“Many days we are unable to raise enough money to afford even one proper meal, and the portions are only half of what we are used to eating in a normal year,” says Mariama who is desperately trying to keep her four chickens, the only livestock she has not yet sold or eaten.
“If there is no food on the table the only thing I can do is to send the children out to collect mango so at least they can fill their bellies with something. Unfortunately the mango season will be finished soon, and then it will be hard to find anything at all,” says Mariama. “I am putting all my hopes on my oldest son. I sent him to Kombo at the beginning of the year to find work. In the beginning he was able to earn some money and send it to us, but for the last four months I have received nothing from him.”
Lack of seeds threatens to prolong the disaster
In a normal year, the rice grown by self-subsistence farmers lasts for a few months, and they put aside enough seeds to be able to plant the rice again next year. Groundnuts are the most important crop, which they sell to purchase more rice and other types of food. About half of the rice consumed in Gambia is imported from other countries. What makes this year’s crop failure particularly severe is that both the groundnuts and the rice failed disastrously, meaning that they have no homegrown rice for consumption and no money to buy food.
Many families were unable to set aside seeds for the planting season, which occurs during the first two weeks of June. Some were even forced to eat their seeds as a means of survival. This makes it impossible for a large proportion of the poorest families to plant in the coming season, which will inevitably result in another year of severe hardship. Recognizing that this is the most serious long-term aspect of the crisis, the Gambian Red Cross will distribute seeds and fertilizer as a part of its efforts.
Young children are the most vulnerable
The youngest children are usually the first victims of severe food shortages. Fortunately Gambia has not experienced serious crop failures for more than a decade, and malnutrition rates are lower than in other countries of the Sahel region. However, the severity of the present food shortage is putting young children at great risk. If the most vulnerable do not receive timely food support, and if the livelihood of farmers in the coming years is not secured, malnutrition rates among children under five are likely to multiply in the coming months.
Mariama worries constantly about the health of her youngest girls, Jamba who is five years old and Jainaba, who is only three. “When we have food, I always make sure that the little ones get enough, but sometimes I am just unable to put anything on the table. On such days I cannot hold back my tears, because I know they are still at a vulnerable age and they must have enough good food to stay healthy.”