Struggling to feed children in the Sahel

Publié: 24 février 2012 12:05 CET

By Sarah Oughton in Ouagadougou

The Sahel is a stretch of sandy, arid scrub land on the edge of the Sahara that creeps across the north of the African continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. This year more than 13 million people in the region are already suffering a food crisis, several months before the ‘hungry season’ usually begins.

Alwilayat Mohamed, 23, comes from a small village called Tin Akoff in the Sahel region of northern Burkina Faso, where people are predominantly agro-pastoralists. Surviving in the scorching heat is no easy feat in a year when the rainy season is good. But, the last rainy season was significantly worse than normal.

As a result, most crops failed. There is little pasture for animals to graze on this year and the price of food in the local markets has risen dramatically. A bag of millet, which is the most resilient of local crops and the staple diet of people in the region, has more than doubled in Alwilyat’s local market recently.

Alwilayat has two sons aged five years and nine months, but raising children in this harsh environment can be heart-wrenching. She has already lost two daughters under the age of five. For parents there is always a heavy load of worries, but for Alwilayat the struggle to feed her sons this year is more daunting than she’s ever known. “My husband went to Cote d’Ivoire to look for work at the end of the rainy season, last October,” she said. “But he hasn’t sent any money back yet. I’m now living with my parents. We’re a big family and we have no stocks of cereal left. My father has had to sell some of his lambs to feed us.”

For agro-pastoralists, their animals are like savings in the bank; selling them is a last resort and depletes their resources. Many families will not have enough to keep them going till the next harvest, especially because the increased number of people who are on the brink and having to sell their animals has brought down the market value of livestock.

Alwilayat has just received a second round of food vouchers from the Burkinabe Red Cross and with these she can procure food from local traders, including millet, rice, sugar, salt and oil. “When the harvest is good we have enough millet to feed ourselves till the arrival of the rainy season in June or July. Then we can eat three times a day and also have sorghum, rice, beans, sometimes fish and meat,” she said. “But now we just have millet, which we eat twice a day. The assistance from the Red Cross is very important for us because without it we would have to sell more cattle. The vouchers help us avoid that for a little while.”

The fact that so many people are already struggling to get enough to eat, so many months before the next harvest begins in June, is extremely worrying as their access to food will only deteriorate over the coming months. It is a huge red flag that action needs to take place now to avoid a major malnutrition catastrophe, which could lead to a significant increase in mortality rates, particularly in children under the age of five, and further erode already precarious livelihoods.