On an empty stomach, there is no day after tomorrow


By Rodrigo Ordóñez

'If we have nothing to eat, after a while we will die." The words of Hasta Abdelkarim, 46, are remarkably strong. A visitor asks her if she is afraid of dying. 'Yes. After that, it's over – there is nothing," she sentences.

The food crisis in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa is affecting more than 18 million people. Hasta is one of the 3.6 million people in Chad who are finding it increasingly difficult to eat this year due to chronic poverty, erratic rains, high food prices, and regional conflict.

For someone who has never experienced chronic hunger, it would be hard to understand what it actually means for a person, and for a family, beyond the physical distress. Hunger is about much more than just food.

Three women from the village of Djiogi, in eastern Chad, shed some light on what it feels like to be hungry, and how they cope with it.

'We don't have anything to eat. We are in the process of dying," indicates Makabahar Abdoulai, 30.

'Children ask often, ’˜Why is this happening'?" accounts Zenaba Abderrahaman-Bahan, 33. 'They are hungry but I have nothing to give them. I play with them for a while until they forget."

'Before, I could at least give my children some breast milk, but not anymore – now I just try to find a way to get by," remarks Makabahar. 'When my children are hungry, I just make some diluted millet porridge."

Under these circumstances, the bland taste of the staple foods is not important. Nutrients might not be a priority either. 'We are hungry, so a good meal is something that fills the stomach – the taste doesn't matter," explains Zenaba.

Only today counts
When filling the stomach is the main concern, having plans for the future is unconceivable. It is difficult to make decisions that extend beyond the next 24 hours. 'We can only focus on our present problems," notes Zenaba. 'It is only the problems we have today that we can think about."

For a mother, it is hard to occupy the mind with something other than her children's wellbeing, especially when hunger is part of daily life. 'Children have nothing to eat – that's our main problem," complains Makabahar. 'I think about it a lot," she admits, 'and I worry."

They don't know what they will do if this year's harvest is also bad. 'We don't know. We can't do anything. We'll wait for god to decide," remarks Hasta. Makabahar and Zenaba nod in agreement.

For these women it is even difficult to express their fears for what the future might bring. Resignation might be an instinctive way to avoid frustration and to make their daily routine more bearable.

Back at home, each mother must take care of five or more children, walk several hours to fetch water, and find a way to feed their families.

'My children are not strong," says Zenaba, showing the thin arm of a boy on her lap. 'Specially the two smallest ones, 1 and 2 years old."

The effects of hunger go beyond discomfort. Not eating bears a negative toll on a child's physical and mental fitness. 'If the child is not full and tries to run and do activities, he feels tired and just wants to sleep," describes Makabahar. 'Children don't grow up," she says. 'If children don't eat enough, even their intelligence doesn't develop."

Dodging hunger
There are different ways to try and cope with the feeling of hunger.

'If it's a big meal, I serve it on a big tray and everyone picks from there," explains Zenaba. 'However, if I don't have much food, I split it and give little amounts to each child, placed separately at the edge of the tray."

Reducing portions and skipping meals are also commonplace. 'Before, we would do three meals; in the morning, at noon and in the evening. Now, only two," declares Hasta. 'We skip meals, but the amount is normal," says Makabahar.

Another indicator that people are going through difficult times is that they are eating unusual foodstuff they would normally refuse in times of relative plenty. In this region, people are now eating a bitter tree fruit known as ’˜desert date.' Hasta explains the process. 'Donkeys eat the fruits, including the seeds, which they can't digest. We pick the excrements and separate the seeds. We cook them with boiling water, four times. They soften up and release the flavor."

In these communities, livestock is a valued commodity, but people are now selling their cattle as a last resort. 'I still have some cows, but there aren't many left," laments Makabahar. 'I'll sell them to have enough money to buy some food."

Hasta, the oldest woman in the group, hadn't experienced these hardships in a long time. 'When I was little, it wasn't like this. My father only had to leave to find work and pasture once, in 1984, but we hadn't seen anything like that since then."

'We used to have camels and animals at home. They grazed around here," she recalls. 'If the weather was better, we could have a vegetable garden, and grow tomatoes, lettuce… but nowadays we can't even find vegetables in the market."

A point of support until the next harvest
Hasta, Makabahar and Zenaba received food rations from CARE, including 50 kilograms of sorghum, 15 kilograms of corn and soy fortified with vitamins, and 8 liters of cooking oil.

This food gives families help at a crucial time so they don't have to sell all their livestock, their most valued possession, ahead of the next harvest.

'We have children and we are hungry. We're very happy of getting this food and your support," expresses Zenaba. 'My children are waiting. I'll go home and cook porridge for them. They will eat well and they will be happy."

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