Families preparing for the hungry season across the Sahel

Published: 2 March 2012 14:51 CET
  • Mother and child in Penguese – a remote village in Yagha province, in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso – attending the Burkinabe Red Cross community-based nutrition project to assess the baby for malnutrition. Sarah Oughton/IFRC
  • Children in Penguese – a remote village in Yagha province, in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso – waiting for a bowl of porridge provided by the Burkinabe Red Cross community-based nutrition project. Sarah Oughton/IFRC
  • Children in Penguese – a remote village in Yagha province, in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso – with a bowl of porridge provided by the Burkinabe Red Cross community-based nutrition project. Sarah Oughton/IFRC
Mother and child in Penguese – a remote village in Yagha province, in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso – attending the Burkinabe Red Cross community-based nutrition project to assess the baby for malnutrition. Sarah Oughton/IFRC

by Sarah Oughton in Burkina Faso

In a remote, dusty village in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso, Hadjatou Diko is cradling Issa, her six-month-old son. She has just learned from a Red Cross nurse that Issa is acutely malnourished and his life depends on getting to a health centre 15km away.

Hadjatou, 37, has had nine children, although she’s already lost four – three died before they were six months old, one reached the age of four.
Malnutrition rates are generally high in the Sahel region of west and central Africa, particularly among children under two. However, nurse Moussa Amadoum, says:  “Due to the current food crisis, we’re expecting a rush of malnourished children in the coming months. Last year in the same period, we screened two malnourished children in one of our health posts and yesterday in the same place we found more than 45.”

Hadjatou lives in Peguense village in Yagha province, one of the areas hit hard by this year’s food crisis. Families in this region are agro-pastoralists; they rely on crops and livestock to feed their families and see them through the long dry spells. This year, though, erratic rains have caused crops in many communities to fail and there is little pasture on which to graze animals. There is food available in the market, but most people can’t afford it, and eventually traders will stop coming to the local market as they know the villagers are increasingly unable to purchase their daily staples.

Hadjatou says: “It’s a problem trying to feed my family. There’s not enough to cook porridge for the baby. If we have some money we go to the market and try to buy millet or rice, but if we don’t have money there are many people, including my husband, who go to look for work at the gold mine, and  some go to the Ivory Coast.

“We’ve had this situation before but this year’s much worse because of the rain, and also it’s the first time we’ve had a cricket infestation. The price of one sack of millet is now really high, it’s CFA 25,000 and normally it’s CFA 15,000.” (500CFA, a West African Franc is roughly $1US)
Hadjatou’s village is one of 23 with a health post run by the Burkinabe Red Cross, supported by the Belgian Red Cross. The staff and volunteers play a vital role in these communities which are always some distance from the nearest health centre. It makes a huge difference to mothers to have access for their children to be screened and treated for malnutrition in their community as they have so many tasks to do and time is precious.

However, for the most severe cases and when there are complications such as diarrhoea, the Red Cross refers children to the health centre for more intensive treatment.

Hadjatou has brought Issa to the Red Cross health post for the first time, and unfortunately when the nurse weighs him, measures his height and the width of his arm, it becomes clear that Issa is already so acutely malnourished he needs to go straight to the health centre.  But at least Hadjatou knows there is hope. A couple of years ago her three-year old son was suffering from acute malnutrition, the Red Cross referred him to the clinic and he made a full recovery.

Although there is always a ‘hungry season’ between harvests in the Sahel, this year it has started much earlier than normal, as families’ cereal stocks have already started running out. The peak of malnutrition rates will start to be seen from April. Unless action is taken now the situation could become catastrophic, with more than one million children under five likely to suffer from acute malnutrition.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has already launched emergency appeals for Mauritania, Niger and Chad. It is also increasing its response to help save lives and protect livelihoods in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal.

This means providing emergency food supplies where needed, and supporting health centres to care for severely malnourished children. But it also means helping communities maintain an income through establishing small businesses or improving irrigation and farming techniques. These efforts will help build community resilience and minimise the impact of future droughts.

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