Fatumata, 28, knocks the leaves of a thorny tree with a long metal pole and picks them up off the dry and dusty ground one by one. “We normally only feed these leaves to our animals,” she explains, “but the situation is so difficult now that we are eating them ourselves.”
When asked if there is any nutrition in them she shrugs. “No, but we don’t have any choice. It’s an obligation. It’s all there is.”
Fatumata is from Tinakoff in northern Burkina Faso, a village like hundreds of others across the region that have experienced zero harvests. The latest humanitarian reports state that 1.6 million people in the country are in need of food aid.
The rains came late last year and when they arrived they were pitiful. Months of toil in the searing Sahelian heat came to nothing. “There are no crops and no pasture for the animals,” explains Elmamoune eg Fereby Baye, the village chief. “This is the worst experience we have had since I was village chief. It’s the worst experience I have lived through.”
“The animals are hungry and skinny so we can’t sell them, so we don’t have any money to buy any food. It’s all about animals here. If the animals are not in good health, then neither are we.”
Elmamoune fears for the well-being of his villagers: “It’s very, very difficult, very worrying, to such an extent that I can’t sleep.”
Tahya Wellet Etawantaw, 30, is also having sleepless nights. “We used to have 50 animals and now we have nothing,” she explains wearily. “I have to rely on my neighbours to feed my children. If they have nothing, they don’t eat. Or I go out to beg for food that I can come home and cook.”
Tahya’s eight-year old daughter Sohat is suffering from small pox, but she can’t take her to the health centre as she has no money to pay for any treatment. Her husband lingers outside the house listening to the conversation, but he refuses to come and speak with us. “He is a Peulh herdsman,” says Aisseta Kabré, resilience officer for Christian Aid, a member of ACT Alliance. “it is very difficult for him to admit to anyone that he no longer has any animals.”
The current situation in northern Burkina Faso represents a perfect storm for an acute food crisis. People were still recovering from the drought in 2010 when the rains failed last year. And the poor harvest has contributed to exhorbitant food prices. A cereal trader in the northern town of Gorom Gorom explained how a 100kg bag of millet (a staple crop in Burkina) had almost doubled in price from 14,500 cfa (£18) this time last year to 27,500 cfa (£34).
The conflicts in neighbouring Ivory Coast and Libya have also had a profound effect. “After animals, people here depend on the Ivory Coast to earn a living,” explained Elmamoune. According to a World Bank report, remittances from Ivory Coast go to a third of households in Burkina Faso, especially the poorest, and are the most significant migration flows in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. As a result of both conflicts 420,000 migrants have returned to Burkina Faso.
Akmoudou, Fatumata’s husband was one of them. He went to work in the Ivory Coast to earn money for his family and was doing well with fishing and building activities but that all changed when civil war broke out in 2010.
“During those times we went five days without eating, we couldn’t go out of the house,” he explains. “Many of my friends died. I managed to escape and came back here.” Someone paid for him to get from Abidjan to Ouagadougou but he had to sell a cow to pay for him to travel the 280 km home from the capital.
He adds: “I’m a poor person here now. There is no work. There is nothing. In the dry season we plant and there’s no rain, there’s nothing, it’s poverty.”
The village chief explained how it was so bad in Tinakoff (6km from the Malian border) that herders started to leave for Mali to find pasture, but because of the violence there involving the Touaregs, Malians were fleeing to come to Burkina Faso.
People in northern Burkina are welcoming their troubled visitors, but it is becoming more and more difficult, especially as people are coming with their cattle, putting extra pressure on the already scarce or non-existent pasture. Fearing conflict, the Burkinabé government has deployed helicopters to monitor the situation on the border.
All of these contributing factors means that this current crisis in Burkina Faso is much worse than the one in 2010 and is perhaps one of the worst in history.
Cristina Ruiz of Christian Aid who is currently overseeing an emergency food distribution in the north of the country said: “It’s not unusual for people to experience malnutrition in Burkina Faso and to use coping mechanisms like eating one meal a day or food that is usually only meant for animals, but that normally happens a lot later.”
She concluded that: “If we don’t react soon there could well be a famine situation all over northern Burkina Faso in April. People cannot stand more than two months in this situation.”
Days later, The Alliance for Technology Development Assistance, supported by Christian Aid, started distributing emergency food, seeds and cash for work to over 54,000 people in the north of the country. And Akmoudou, Fatumata, Tahya and their children will be among the first to benefit.