Life in Mali: Famine on the horizon

Six weeks ago, when I took this picture, the children's black hair was already tinged with copper - a sign of severe malnutrition. Where will they be another six weeks from now?
By Sydney Loney
Two Malian children walking on dirt road

Mali: A West African country just south of the Sahara Desert.
The crisis: Severe drought coupled with a coup in March has sparked food shortages that have international aid agencies pleading for your help.
Hard facts: More than one in five children born in Mali die before they reach their fifth birthday. This number will only rise as the drought continues.

The scenery changes subtly with every mile of narrow tar road from Bamako, Mali's capital city, to San, a small town five hours to the east. The long, flat landscape of muted brown scrub gives way to tall, twisted baobab trees and towering termite mounds. Everywhere the earth is the colour of cinnamon, and over it all, the sun spreads a soft, diffuse light.

Yet it's hard to romanticize the landscape of this landlocked West African country when you know that the soft haze is caused by dust. It's a thick, endless pall that fills the air, tastes of chalk and coats everything from the humpbacked African cattle ambling along the roadside to the robes of the turbaned Fulani shepherds trailing behind them. Even the cracked plastic towel rack in the bathroom of the Tériya Hotal in San is streaked red with it. The dust is caused by a drought that is fast propelling the country into desperate food crisis.

"One drought can destroy the Malian people because they have nothing to fall back on," says Justin Douglass, public-engagement director for World Vision Mali. Douglass is a tall, angular, soft-spoken South African with a solemn expression who has lived in the country for three years. Dressed in khakis with the string of his sun hat fastened securely under his chin, he is leading us (two journalists, two photographers and a food scientist) on a tough, six-day tour of the hardest-hit areas. "Some families have a couple of weeks' worth of grain left, some have only enough for a few days, and some have none at all," he says.

In the first village we visit I meet Maria, a regal 52-year-old woman in an emerald green skirt and head scarf. She leads me through an open doorway into her hut, where the clean-swept mud floor is bare but for a brown bowl made from a calabash gourd and a thick stick for pounding grain. With the help of Mamoutou, my translator, I scribble in a notebook as I try to ignore the trickle of sweat on the back of my neck. The temperature has climbed close to 40 degrees, and the hut is just large enough for the three of us to stand without touching. "The last time I struggled to feed my family, there were bush leaves we could collect and cook," Maria says. "This time, most of the bush has dried up, and now I am worried for my children."

Maria has seven children, and on a good day there is enough food for everyone to share one meal. Called to, it’s a porridge of crushed millet supplemented with tree leaves and baobab-fruit powder. But on a bad day, no one eats—and lately there have been more bad days than good.

Back outside, the village chief is also worried. He shakes his head and scuffs at the dust with his feet. There have been dry years before, he says, yet no one can remember a time like this. Last June, the rainy season started, then suddenly it stopped—and it hasn’t rained since. Crops withered away, harvests failed and food prices in the market shot up. Even the tiny rivers the people need to make the mud bricks for their homes have dried up, and all that remains is empty valleys of cracked earth.

Any glimmer of green is a sign of hope in Mali. It is one of the poorest countries in the world—and that was before the drought and the coup this March, which threatened 20 years of democracy and caused the Canadian government to cut off all its support. Now, it’s up to the aid agencies. And on our fourth day, we see just what they’re able to accomplish. After a tense drive (goats and cows frequently wander across the narrow roads), we find ourselves standing in a patch of green that looks especially lush in contrast to the surrounding desert. It’s a vegetable garden supported by solar-powered underground boreholes, courtesy of donations from abroad. Unlike open wells that dry up in drought and are often contaminated by dirt and animal feces, boreholes are covered and go deeper, tapping into the water table. They, and the garden itself, are a testament to the difference charitable donations can make in a country where 74 percent of people live on less than $2 a day. “Vegetable gardens are invaluable in times of drought, and because of boreholes, you can water every day whether it rains or not,” Douglass says. “We can’t just sit around and wait for the rain. We need a coping mechanism.”

We watch as women and children haul buckets of water between broad-leafed papaya trees as they tend to their tidy rows of eggplants and onions. Kadidia, a 35-year-old mother of six, stands proudly in front of her row of lettuce. She explains that, in addition to providing food and produce to sell in the market, the garden has helped keep families together, her own included. “Before we had the garden, women and children went to the big city to find money, but now we can stay here and work,” she says. Her children accompany her twice a day to help care for their vegetables—even the smallest children help by scooping up any puddles of water spilled near the well, so that none is wasted.

“I can’t explain all the good things the garden has brought to us,” Kadidia says. “Before, my children had big bellies [a], and that has stopped. Now, if they are hungry, I come to get some salad to give them and it is okay.” She uses any extra money from her produce sales to send her children to school. “I like them to go, because I myself didn’t go. If I can succeed to have my children go to school, that is a good thing.”

Life in Mali: Famine on the horizon  

The garden is run entirely by women. They share the workload and look out for one another’s children. Even in villages where there are no boreholes or oases of green, women aren’t just waiting for aid that may arrive too late, if at all—they are banding together to find other solutions to feed their families. In Bamana, a village in the Buwatun region, we’re lured from the main dirt path by the sound of rhythmic clapping. In the shade of a neem tree, a group of about 20 women in vibrantly patterned skirts and head scarves chant a singsong greeting to one another (greetings in Mali tend to be lengthy and elaborate). They are gathering to pool their meagre savings, which they place in a small wooden box at the base of the tree. (Photo: A Peul woman — they colour the area around their mouths blue — feeds her family from a garden created with the help of international aid.)

Bowa, the group’s leader, explains that the women have formed a Saving for Change collective in response to the food crisis. “Men alone are no longer able to support our children,” Bowa says. “Sometimes a child is sent home from school because her pen has run out and the family can’t afford a new one, so we use the money to pay for that. We started the initiative to help feed our children and keep them in school.”

To make money for the group, one of the women sells small bags of peanuts at the roadside; another cooks a mix of millet and beans to sell in the village. Every Sunday, each woman brings 250 Central African francs (about 50 cents) to put in the box. Then, whenever a woman needs a loan, she borrows from the box and returns the money with a small amount of interest. “This way we also have a special awareness of each other,” Bowa says. “If one woman is having trouble in her life, we know of it and can help.”

I was amazed by the generosity of people who have almost nothing to give. Everywhere I went, the disparity, even with our dusty hotel, was endlessly jarring. And when I watched children chasing old tires and girls jumping rope with bits of twine tied together, it was hard not to picture the toy-strewn floors back home. In one hut, I noticed that a cracked calabash bowl had been carefully stitched back together. Yet people kept trying to share what they had with us. One of the women from the Saving for Change group thrust several bags of peanuts into my hands and insisted I take them, rubbing her stomach and smiling to show that they were good. All I could do was smile, shake her hand and repeat I ni ce, I ni ce, or “thank you” in Bambara. (We later doled the peanuts out to the pack of children who followed us through the village.)

Then, in a village near the Burkina Faso border, I met Bessimba, a 46-year-old woman with 11 children who helps support other families, in addition to her own. Sitting among the chickens and goats outside her hut, she rests her elbows on her knees and speaks slowly and deliberately. “When I got married, I was 16 and we didn’t have anything,” she says. “I borrowed a little money from my mother so I could make cakes to sell in the market.” Before long, Bessimba was buying millet and sorghum, grinding them up and selling the grain for profit. She would wake up at 4 a.m., prepare food for her family and leave for the market by 6 a.m. with a baby on her back. "When I started, we hadn't much to eat, but by doing this we had food, and my business helped me send my children to school," she says. "For a long time, my husband didn't have a bike, but by selling my cereal I succeeded in buying one for him, and he was very glad for that."

In 2004, Bessimba heard about World Vision’s micro-financing program, and with the help of loans that she pays back every six months, she has been able to build her business. She replaced the mud hut that housed her cereal with a concrete one that keeps out the rain, and she bought livestock to help her husband farm and a machine to grind grain. Although most of their harvest was destroyed by the drought, Bessimba still feels she is in a position to help other, less fortunate people in the village. With many of her own children grown and gone, she has taken in five children from families who can no longer afford to feed them, and several of them gather around her as she speaks. “I worry because people are coming to me, and some don’t have food to eat, so I give them grain for free.” She also gave money to one of her daughters to help her start her own business. “I taught my children that you must not sit to the side with your hands in your lap, doing nothing. You have to work hard. My hope is for my children and to see them succeed.”

Family is everything in Mali, and in every village the common theme is one of worry—and hope—for the children. On a morning visit to a health clinic in a village near San, we see a handful of pregnant mothers lined up outside a dingy yellow building distinguished only by a red cross painted on the wall. Inside, the doctor inoculates children on the dusty floor beside his desk. Like a Western doctor, he wears a white coat with a stethoscope tucked neatly into his pocket, but there are no rows of clean instruments or shelves of medicine, only a cracked metal bowl on a grubby white counter.

One of the women waiting on the grey metal benches outside is Semité. She isn’t sure of her age (she guesses she’s around 30) and is eight months pregnant with her seventh child. She says this pregnancy has made her more tired than usual, and she doesn’t have much energy because food is scarce and she is always the last to eat. But she isn’t complaining. No one in Mali does. “At this time, we try to be content with what little we have,” she says. “If there’s enough, we share it all together, and if not, it goes to the children first.”

In past years, the arrival of a new baby in the village prompted a celebration and a naming ceremony, but that hasn’t happened in a long time. Semité explains that you can’t very well invite people to a ceremony if you have no food to share. “But we do not feel despair,” she says. “In our community, those who still have something support each other and we are happy to welcome a new baby. We have hope that we will have healthy children to raise. So no matter what it is that will happen, I feel joy that my new baby is coming."

Fighting poverty with education

On our third day in Mali, we visit Benjamin, the headmaster of a primary school in a tiny village, who is worried about the effect the food crisis is having on children. Attendance has been slipping since the drought began. Education is one of the best ways to fight poverty, and if girls can stay in school, they're less likely to be married at 13 or 14. Benjamin, who has taught in Mali for 33 years, is skinny and shirtless under and ancient brown suit. "Education is the key for us," he says. "Nowadays, illiterate people are not considered—it is the educated ones who make things move forward. But we are seeing more and more children leaving our school.” The boys work as shepherds while the girls are at home, caring for younger siblings. “Many parents simply can’t afford to pay the school fees,” he says. “And besides, when children are not properly fed, how can they come to school? The answer is, they cannot. A hungry belly has no ears.”

Benjamin’s school consists of a few buildings with rough wooden tables, benches and a blackboard, although in other villages children sit on mud bricks in buildings made of grass. (I feel glad that I crammed so many pencils and notebooks into my suitcase—Benjamin beams when we give him our bag of school supplies.) Here, children share a handful of tattered textbooks and two balls, which they play with in the yard during breaks, dodging cow and goat droppings in their bare feet. Benjamin dreams of having enough money to build a fenced-in schoolyard where the livestock can’t roam. But, despite the odds, some of the children from the school have made it to university. “It is my greatest hope to see my students getting a higher education so they can become the future leaders of the community.”

Life in Mali: Famine on the horizon   Call to action

It costs only $1 a day to protect a child from malnutrition but $80 a day to treat a malnourished child. The United Nations discovered this sobering fact after the world failed to heed the warning signs in Niger in 2005. The same signs are in Mali. Desperate women are digging around anthills to find grain and seeds the insects may have carried there, and people have begun abandoning their villages in search of food in the city slums. "We can't wait until our newscasts are filled with images of starving infants," says Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada. "If we act early we can help people rebuild their lives." (Photo: Sydney with a family in a garden supported by World Vision.)

Aid agencies are trying to prevent a crisis like the last one that devastated East Africa last year (at least 29,000 children under the age of five died from May to July alone). They're prioritizing the hardest-hit communities as well as creating long-term solutions like drilling boreholes, building gardens and launching nutrition programs.

"We are at the stage where we can no longer prevent a full-blown crisis," says Patricia Erb, president and CEO of Save the Children. "The question now is, can we prevent a disaster?"

Sustainable solutions: Often when you donate to an aid agency, a portion of the money goes toward development programs, like micro-financing. Some agencies (like Kiva) allow you to connect directly with an entrepreneur anywhere in the world, donate $25 to the business—and watch it grow.

Choosing a charity:
Look for registered charities (Canada Revenue Agency has an online database) and evidence of what the charity has accomplished. Choose organizations that send you updates of how your money is being spent.

Aid agencies in Mali:
World Vision, Oxfam, Plan Canada, Save the Children, UNICEF and the Red Cross.

To see more photos and to find out how to help the women in Mali, click here.


Subscribe to our newsletters for our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers.

By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.