BAMAKO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the Malian village of Gwelekoro, 53-year-old widow Kadia Samake worries that she will have real difficulty feeding her 15-member family when the “lean season” - an annual time of food shortages - arrives in July.
“I grew sorghum on this farm, but the harvest totally failed; no grain was found (on the plants)”, she said, pointing out to a few dried-out sorghum stalks in the field near her home.
In an annual update issued in December after harvest time, Mali’s government said around 812,000 people would need food aid this year, partly due to irregular rains, especially in the central and northern regions of the country.
A further 2.36 million people were classified as food-stressed, and would benefit from measures to protect their livelihoods and reduce disaster risks, the government said.
In January, Bouaré Fily Sissoko, Mali’s finance and economy minister, underlined the vulnerability of the West African nation’s prosperity to climate instability. “Mali’s economic growth depends on agriculture, whose performance is linked to climate. When it rains well, economic growth will increase,” she told journalists in Bamako.
Kadia’s village is located in the south, around 50 km from the capital, where the official tally of people in need of food aid is less alarming than in the conflict-torn north.
According to the government’s early warning system, most of the 166 municipalities judged to be food-stressed are in the centre and north - parts of the country that have also been badly hit by the 2012-2013 conflict with Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups. The food security situation there is being exacerbated by the return of people who were displaced by the violence.
Earlier this month, the United Nations appealed for $2 billion to feed and care for a record 20 million people across Africa's Sahel belt, which includes Mali, urging donors to tackle a deteriorating humanitarian situation in a region where food insecurity has almost doubled in a year. Last year, they met just 63 percent of a similar appeal for $1.7 billion.
NO MONEY TO BUY CHEAP
At this time of year, Malian farmers produce little as they work in the fields mainly between June and September when it rains. The government’s early warning system alerts the authorities of the need for food aid distribution and assistance to farmers ahead of the next planting season, which also coincides with the hunger period.
The combination of the two is a nightmare for Kadia because it’s a time when the grain price rises. People don’t have money to buy enough food just when they need energy for tough manual labour in the fields.
“Though it’s possible to buy grain at a low price now, I’m doing nothing to prevent hunger (later in the year) because I don’t have the money to buy large quantities of cereals,” she said.
Kaida’s two sons have left the village, trying to make money in far-off parts of the country, while their spouses and children stay at home.
“One of my sons - the one who is working in an artisanal gold mine – hasn’t come back since he left the village more than two years ago. He sometimes sends me money, but I have to find much more myself to feed my grandchildren,” she said. Her other son is in Bamako but she doesn’t know what he is doing.
Less than five months before the hunger period, many other families in Gwelekoro are having to buy food because their harvests failed in September and October.
“In this village, I know only one family that might not buy food in the hungry season – they had a good harvest. But if we are buying cereals now, it doesn’t mean we are lazy people. It’s due to the lack of rains,” 60-year-old Binta Samake said with a hollow laugh.
Binta, who said her husband died 20 years ago, is also the head of her family. Her sons have left to find ways of earning money in other parts of the country.
“Men who are stronger lead most of the families in the village, but many got a bad harvest like me, due to the bad distribution of the rains. The few families who sowed in the early days of the rainy season are in a better situation, as their crops were maturing when it stopped raining,” Binta said.
Some communities do manage to purchase cereals when prices are lower on local markets ahead of the hungry season.
“We already bought millet and rice which are being stocked in the village cereal bank,” said Sidi Coulibaly, a 46-year-old inhabitant of Gwelekoro. “They will be sold to the villagers at a lower price in the rainy season when middlemen raise prices.”
Community stores are mostly subsidised by the government, but they may not provide a sustainable answer for millions of rural people whose incomes are linked to the rains.
“The cereal banks are limited solutions,” said Coulibaly. “Even if their grain is cheaper, you have to get the money to buy it. They don’t give credit,” he added.
For now, many families are surviving on their wits, making money from micro-businesses or selling small cattle they rear.
“I have just a sheep that I don’t want to sell, but I sell shea butter, and sometimes the kernels when I’m in a hurry, because butter processing is tiresome and time-consuming,” Kadia said. I also go to fetch firewood in the bush and sell it to people who come from Bamako to buy it.”
Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.