Henry Makiwa

Our journey starts outside the beige ceramic walls of a Burkinabe hotel. It is 6:30am and most housewives in Ouagadougou have long finished sweeping their yards, leaving thin curtains of misty-brown dust to hang in the air. We troop into two 4×4 Toyota Land Cruisers to take on the interminable and rugged, mostly-gravel road that leads to Fererio Refugee camp, some 400 kilometres Northwest of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou.

The brief cool of the morning doesn’t take long to wilt away as the pitiless weather brings in temperatures of up 40 degrees celsius by mid-morning.

This ceaseless heat has meted out a string of adverse effects on Burkina Faso and at least six other countries in the Sahel region of west Africa. Coupled with erratic rainfall and insect infestations, the drought here has led to poor harvests and difficult conditions for livestock across the region.

Aid agencies say the drought is putting over 15 million people at risk, over 2 million of them in Burkina Faso. This figure includes the 8,500 people at Old Fererio camp – a makeshift settlement where a multitude of goats, dromedary camels, sheep and cattle herds swarm around watering holes dotted across a drainage basin next to the camp. It’s evident that the proximity to a water source – for both animals and humans – was a deciding factor in the settlement’s location.

Scarce resources

Dr. Mohammed Agbala, a veterinary doctor and one of the community leaders at Fererio, knows the importance of maintaining a good relationship between the local Burkinabe community and the Malian refugees now that pressure on already scarce resources has increased due to the drought.

“We are working hard to keep some harmony between ourselves and our hosts here in Burkina Faso. Both our people value livestock. So we try to share what little water and pastures there are,” he says. “A man is defined by the number of cattle and goats he owns, they are also a source of income and a currency. With your animals, you have a source of meat; you can sell them at the market and buy grain; you use them to marry a wife, and to till the land.”

“But we worry about human life first. What we eat, what we drink and where we put our heads to sleep,” he adds.

For shelter, Dr. Agbala and the thousands of other refugees at Old Fererio are being supported by the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, who are building a camp of at least 1,200 tents about mile away from the current site. These tents at New Fererio will each house at least nine people.

More than 56,000 Malian refugees have crossed into Burkina Faso since fighting erupted in mid-January between government forces and various separatist groups in Mali. The continuing instability, in particular in the north of the country, has increased the number of people leaving that country.

A normal life

Christian Kabore, a 27-year-old Red Cross volunteer who is helping to put up the tents at New Fererio, explains: “A lot has been considered in putting the camp here: space, security, pastures and availability of water. “The Red Cross is here to provide housing for these Malian refugees and give them something closer to normal life,” he says. A “normal life” is what Safiatou Maiga, a Malian refugee and mother-of-three, yearns for. Her husband Omar has had to leave her at the camp alone because his father needed hospital treatment.

The 19-year-old mother says: “It’s a very difficult life. There is nothing to do here and no work. There is nothing to eat and the water is running out. I am very worried about the health of my children and they have already started to be ill. As in most crises, us women and children bear the brunt of the food crisis we are going through.”

Helping protect vulnerable children

According to the UN, at least 1 million children are at risk of the most severe form of malnutrition across the Sahel. Almost twice as many are at risk of malnutrition if strong action is not taken now.

This situation in Burkina Faso is most critical along the border areas that separate Burkina Faso and Mali. “We have an ongoing problem with malnutrition in this part of the country,” Dr. Kdonia Anicet, a paediatrician at Djibo hospital, a twenty-minute drive from the border with Mali, says. “Mothers are not well educated about how to provide the right nutrition for their babies, especially when they don’t eat well themselves. We’re working with the Red Cross to teach women, particularly in remote communities, but the drought will only make things worse. I expect to see a lot more malnutrition cases here soon.”

In a tiny mud walled room in the remote village of Kamkamfogou, 250 kilometres from Djibo, Red Cross volunteers are working to prevent that. Every Friday mothers bring their babies for nutrition screening. They are weighed and their upper arm circumference is measured to check if they are healthy. A green reading is good news, orange raises concerns and red means a referral to the nearest clinic for immediate intensive treatment.

Mothers helping mothers

Salamata Ali, a mother of two children, volunteers at the Red Cross clinic each week. “I weigh the babies and distribute food supplements to those who need it,” she said. As a member of the community she is known and trusted by fellow mothers and can give advice on keeping their babies healthy.

“I like to be helping people during this difficult time,” she adds, proud but modest about her vital volunteer work.

The drought in Burkina Faso is just starting to take its toll on the population. Families knew they would run out of food as the lack of rain destroyed their crops. Many are subsistence farmers often with no other sources of income. Most people cut down to eating just one meal a day several months ago. But for some, even that needs to be further reduced now.

The British Red Cross has launched the West Africa Food Crisis Appeal in support of Red Cross programmes, providing food aid, food vouchers, support to livelihoods, and health and sanitation in the Sahel region. The Red Cross urgently needs more funds so it can take action to avoid the situation in Mali and other countries deteriorating as it did in the Horn of Africa last year.                        –Independent