Do people facing starvation have time for fun and laughter? If you didn’t know where your next meal or cup of water were coming from, would you feel like dancing?
For the inhabitants of the mostly arid region of Matam in northeast Senegal, the answer is a resounding yes.
Around a thousand of them – including children and the elderly – turned up at a square in the village of Wodobere, more than 800km from the capital Dakar, for an outdoor concert by the celebrated Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and his group “La Voix du Peuple” (The People’s Voice).
The crowd went into a frenzy when Maal appeared on stage in a flowing white tribal gown. It was nearly 3 am when he joined his dancers to the frenetic beat of Senegal’s popular Mbalaax rhythm, but no one seemed to care.
I couldn’t help wondering if these were really the people we had travelled to see.
I had come to the area with other journalists to report on the unfolding hunger crisis in Senegal, where 810,000 people are facing food insecurity. The problem is part of a wider emergency in West Africa’s Sahel region, where the United Nations says more than 15 million people face hunger this year.
Maal, a humanitarian advocate and ambassador for the international aid group Oxfam, was performing in Wodobere to highlight the people’s plight.
Were these dancing and singing folk the same hungry, destitute people reported on by the media? If so, many families were eating barely one meal a day, with malnourished children and livestock - their main livelihood - decimated by lack of water and grazing.
‘TONIGHT WE ARE HAPPY’
“Baaba (Maal) sings about love, happiness and the things we live everyday in our language, but he is also talking about the food crisis,” said Fatouma Sow, a young woman who attended the concert.
“We need help because many families, including mine, lost our harvest. Food prices are going up, including that of the rice grown around here, but tonight we are happy to see Baaba,” she added.
As we had travelled to Wodobere in the dark (from half past midnight) on a bumpy dirt track, we could only grasp the extent of the crisis the following day. There were cattle carcasses along the way and dry land with little or no greenery.
In the hamlet of Mbelogne near Wodobere, the earth was parched. Women said they had to wait for two days to collect water from the wells which were drying up. Men complained that their livestock were hungry and thirsty, while kids had turned animal carcasses into toys.
Yet the women and children sang joyfully as Baaba Maal toured their village.
“Singing and dancing to welcome visitors in your condition (of hunger and poverty) shows your dignity, courage and humanity,” Maal told the villagers who had gathered in a low straw hut to escape the burning sun.
“But we should not forget that what is happening to you is terrible, and the government and international community need to come to your assistance before it gets worse,” the singer said.
Would those of us living in cities even offer a smile to a visitor if we had gone hungry and thirsty for a day, not to mention months? I reflected on this as we drove out of the village in a cloud of dust, leaving a crowd of waving women and children behind.
All pictures by George Fominyen/AlertNet