In a remote, sandy 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 15 km away.
Hadjatou, 37, has had nine children, although she’s already lost four – three died before they were six months old and one reached age four.
Malnutrition rates are generally high in the Sahel region of west and central Africa, particularly affecting children under two, however Red Cross 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 acutely malnourished children.”
Food prices are rising
Hadjatou lives in Peguense village in Yagha province, one of the areas hit hard by this year’s food crisis. Erratic rains have caused crops in many communities to fail and there is little pasture for animals to graze on.
Hadjatou says: “It’s a problem trying to feed my family and 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 or 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 [c. £31] and normally it’s CFA 15,000 [c. £19].”
Hadjatou’s family, like most in this region, usually survive by growing their own crops and have little alternative means of income with which to feed their families until the next harvest.
At the moment, there is food available in the market, but most 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.
Red Cross support
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 own community.
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, when the nurse weighs him and 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.
The hungry season
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. Malnutrition rates will continue to rise until the peak in August. Unless action is taken now the situation could become catastrophic with more than one million children under the age of five likely to suffer from acute malnutrition.
The Red Cross will provide emergency food supplies where needed and support health centres in caring for severely malnourished children. But it will also help communities maintain an income through establishing small businesses or improving irrigation and farming techniques. These efforts will make the communities more resilient, helping people survive future droughts.
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