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Voices, video, and photos from Oxfam's fight against poverty

In Mali, a food crisis weighs heavily

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Dyenaba Traoré and her daughter, Bintou, carry water to their garden. Photo by Charles Bambara
Dyenaba Traoré and her daughter, Bintou, carry water to their garden. Photo by Charles Bambara

A colleague the other day sent a computer file of photos from Mali, one of the countries in West Africa where a new food crisis is now threatening 13 million people with hunger.  Drought is among the problems many are struggling with there.

The photos are from the Kayes region near the borders of Senegal and Mauritania where Oxfam’s  partner, Association des Organisations Profesionnelles Paysannes, is working with women’s cooperatives to help families boost their incomes. Gardens are playing a key role in that effort. The pictures showed small plots of plants green and vibrant—amazingly so—in the parched landscape.

I clicked further into the collection and came to a photo of two women, Dyenaba Traoré and her daughter, Bintou, trudging up a steep, sandy slope, each with a bucket of water on her head and one lugging a second bucket by her side. And that’s when it struck me just how precious these patches of green are: It’s the backbreaking labor of women that has made them possible. With local wells running dry and no fuel for a pump to pull water from the River Senegal , Traoré and Bintou are porting water from the river’s edge to keep their vegetables growing.

Studying that picture, I found myself slipping back nearly 40 years to the summer a friend and I had to walk for our water. We were volunteering for a couple of months as fire lookouts and living on a ridge near Mt. Rainier in Washington. Our only source of water was a small, half-frozen lake about a mile’s hike down a steep trail. We dragged the water back up in awkward five-gallon containers. Full, each was about 42 pounds. We dreaded the chore, and back in our lookout, we used that water as sparingly as possible. Neither of us wanted to have to fetch it a moment sooner than was absolutely necessary.

Now, looking at the blue buckets Traoré and Bintou carried, I thought about the weight of water, how a few scoops together can suddenly become so heavy, and how quickly it vanishes when you’re thirsty, when you have to cook, when you want to wash. But when you’re using it to nourish a garden the weight multiplies exponentially. Bucket by bucket, Traoré and Bintou are pouring the water back into the earth so their family can eat. Bucket by bucket they are keeping their garden alive—and a food crisis at bay.

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