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Sahel food crisis update: Lifting a heavy load

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Saliou Diallo works in his maize field. He used some cash from Oxfam to buy food for his family during the lean time while he was growing his crop. Photo by Holly Pickett/Oxfam America.
Saliou Diallo works in his maize field. He used some cash from Oxfam to buy food for his family during the lean time while he was growing his crop. Photo by Holly Pickett/Oxfam America.

Before completely turning my back on 2012, I am reflecting on Oxfam’s work in the Sahel over the last year. After a season of poor or erratic rains across the region in 2011, Oxfam and many other humanitarian groups feared that another bad harvest in 2012 would push millions into starvation. I visited farmers in far eastern Senegal in April of 2012 to see what they recommended: They wanted seeds so they could plant, and food so they could work. They also said they needed rain, never guaranteed in the Sahel.

Oxfam responded to the crisis in seven countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, The Gambia, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal. We assisted more than 1 million people with a variety of programs tailored to the specific location: We helped people fleeing violence and instability in Mali get the food and clean water they needed to survive. Oxfam repaired wells, and provided fodder for animals, and paid people to work on erosion control and soil improvement projects. We distributed soap so people could keep clean, and the means to treat water, to reduce vulnerability to waterborne diseases. We distributed food in places where none was available, and money to buy it where it was.

Thankfully, there was decent rain across the region in 2012. Harvests were up; many farmers with the seeds, tools, traction, fertilizer, labor, and other key inputs were able to grow something. However many farmers had to sell what they grew to pay back debts. Others could not grow much, if anything, for the simple reason that they are impoverished. When I went back to the same area in October, one farmer told me he could not farm an area large enough to feed his family. “I don’t have any equipment,” he said. “I don’t own a plow, any machines for processing groundnuts or rice, or a horse. I can only carry heavy loads on my head. It’s not easy. “

So the crisis is far from over, even if we did avert the worst possible outcome. There will be dry years in the future, so Oxfam and others are recommending governments invest in stockpiling food to help in times of shortage, and increasing agricultural and entrepreneurial training for small-scale farmers (especially women) to help them grow more food, and process it to make more money when they sell it.

In the Kédougou region in eastern Senegal there was ample (but expensive) food available in local markets, so Oxfam distributed cash to the most impoverished farmers. Those I spoke with in October reported that they got three payments of 43,000 francs (about $90) in August and September, when households are short on food as their crops mature. Most of them, like Saliou Diallo, a 45-year-old married father of three, said he used the first payment to buy a month’s worth of food: rice, spices, onions, and some sugar.  Diallo had planted about half an acre of maize (corn), a short distance from his home in a village called Namel. “Without the money I would not be able to work on this farm,” he says, standing in his field of six-foot plants. “Before we were starving, and I was working on an empty stomach. So now I can work without worrying about where I am going to find food for my family.”

Boulata Diallo shows visitors her groundnut field. Photo by Holly Pickett/Oxfam America.

One of his neighbors is Boulata Diallo (no relation). She’s a stocky, vivacious one-eyed 60-year old widow who grows maize and groundnuts. She says money from Oxfam helped her to buy food for her entire extended family. “We bought maize, rice, salt, oil, peanut butter, spices, milk powder, and kola nuts,” Boulata Diallo says, sitting in her tiny thatched-roof house. “I even bought a pair of sandals,” she says holding up one foot, shod in a bright yellow flip-flop, and added “I gave five kilos of rice to my neighbor.”

She says she paid about 3,000 francs (about $6) to a neighbor to help her work in her groundnut field. “It’s hard to work in the fields when you are hungry, but with the cash I got some help,” she says, walking near the perimeter of her field. She’s was looking forward to a decent groundnut yield later in the fall, but did not hold out a lot of hope for her maize, which she says had not been growing well.

It was a hot afternoon, and as the light got lower we shot some photos. Boulata Diallo’s smile was radiant.

“If someone helps you to fight starvation, it makes people happy,” she says. “God knows we can’t pay it back, but it is a heavy load that was lifted from us.”

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