Seeing mothers and babies starving was a shock after working in expensive restaurants
Photographer Yuki Sugiura usually works for top chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi. But when she went to Niger, she saw a world where not a scrap of food is wasted.
Together with the Red Cross in 2019, food photographer Yuki, turned her lens on a crisis that is rarely talked about – chronic hunger in the Sahel, a region of Africa that borders the Sahara Desert.
The situation is getting worse every year, and the number of people living in food insecurity is rising. In 2021, 7.5 million people across the Sahel won’t know where their next meal will come from. In Niger alone, over 2 million people live in a situation of serious food insecurity and 1,773,000 children under five years in Niger are acutely malnourished.
The Sahel is already one of the driest regions on Earth, and since the 1970s, it has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world. Shockingly, temperatures could rise by up to eight degrees by the end of the century. Climate change, environmental degradation, extreme poverty, conflict and growing populations mean that millions are overwhelmed.
At the same time as the weather gets warmer and dryer, the rainy seasons get more violent. During the rainy season in 2020, severe floods hit the region. Niger was one of the hardest hit countries, experiencing the worst floods in recorded history. Over half a million people were affected, thousands of hectares of crops destroyed and many farm animals were killed.
The British Red Cross, with the support of players from the People’s Postcode Lottery, is helping to break the cycle of hunger in the Sahel.
Yuki brought a new perspective to the issue – comparing the two worlds. Her portraits of food, cookware and people from Niger tell a very different food story from the one she is used to telling.
Surviving on one meal a day
During Yuki’s visit in Niger in 2019, we met farmers who rely on the rain to grow food for their families. But increasingly extreme weather means that harvests fail and families go hungry.
Devastating drought made 65-year-old Aissa Garba’s crop fail, leaving the family with nothing to eat.
“The last rainy season was very bad,” said Aissa.
“People got nothing from it. The children were always following us, crying because of their hunger but we had nothing to feed them.”
Many people we met were surviving on just one meal a day and did not know where the next meal was coming from. Mothers were skipping meals so their children could eat.
Rabi: struggling to care for her hungry granddaughter
At the Niger Red Cross nutrition centre in the village of Kiéché, mothers queued up to have their infants weighed and their arms measured to check for signs of malnutrition.
In the long queue we met Rabi, who was struggling to look after her six-month-old granddaughter Aicka. After the baby’s mother had died, she was struggling to gain weight.
Rabi was visiting the centre to get the nutritional supplement “plumpy nut” for her granddaughter, but it is often in short supply here.
“I had been feeding her cassava flour, but I noticed it didn’t help her much,” Rabi said. “When she gets plumpy nut it helps a lot but sometimes there isn’t any.”
“It has made my life very hard to bear. You can’t take care of a child properly if your own life is not good.”
Cash grants help break the cycle of hunger
The British Red Cross, with the support of players from the People’s Postcode Lottery, are helping to break the cycle of hunger in the Sahel.
Small cash grants provided by the Niger Red Cross mean that families can decide how to best spend their money – planting the next season’s harvest or on food to eat today.
At nine months’ pregnant with twins, Balkisa Zakow, 25, faced a devastating drought that made her harvests fail, caused food prices to soar and then forced her family apart.
Her husband moved away in search of work to earn money to provide for his young family, leaving her heavily pregnant.
But baby twins Hassan and Ousseni are lucky. They were born the night after Red Cross support came to Tombokiery village where she lives. The Niger Red Cross provided the family with a small cash grant.
Sometimes if my husband had money, he sent it to me so I could eat. Sometimes the money just doesn’t come,” she said. “I was worried I wouldn’t have the energy to give birth.
“A Niger Red Cross volunteer told me to go first because she saw how exhausted I was. I used the money to buy food, then I went back home to sleep feeling relieved. Before sunrise I had given birth to my twins.”
Hassi Seyni’s husband was also forced to leave to find work. However, it was still difficult for them to earn enough money to feed the family.
“With support from the Red Cross we bought some bags of millet and corn. We bought some vegetables and some condiments. When your conscience is free from problems and you get to eat, then you can think about the future.” Hassi explains.
Yuki compares the two worlds
“The people and communities I met on my trip will stay with me forever. Mothers coping alone and forced to miss meals so their children’s tummies were full. Children who were malnourished because they were only eating ‘tuwo’ a thick white paste made of ground drought resistant millet which has little nutritional value.
“Looking around where I live in south London, there’s row after row of restaurants, so much choice of different types of food from all around the world. It’s so strikingly different from Niger where people are struggling to find even the very basics to eat.
“Despite the challenges that people are facing every day, I was amazed by people’s resilience to cope and how every morsel of food was savoured. Some of the families I met left their cooking pots on the roofs of their huts – the remnants of the morning’s porridge drying out in the sun. They told me they were going to use the dried porridge as part of the evening meal. They made sure that absolutely nothing is wasted.”
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“Before the trip I read about and was struck by the terrible figures on malnutrition and hunger in Niger. But only by meeting people who bring them to life can you understand how serious they really are.” Yuki explains.
That’s ultimately what this project is about. In opening up the homes, the food and the lives of a few people from this part of the world, we hope you, too, will be moved by these stories.
Despite not being in the news, the crisis in the Sahel is real and only set to get worse in the coming years. Together, even if it’s just by learning a little about the region, and sharing these photos and stories, we can help improve the lives of these remarkably resilient people.
- Donate to our Disaster Fund to ensure we can reach people quickly in future crises.
- Find out more about our partnership with the People’s Postcode Lottery.
- How we are supporting people across the Sahel.
- Yuki’s story: In Britain I constantly see food wasted – in Niger I witnessed a silent hunger crisis.
Photographs © Yuki Sugiura/British Red Cross
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