Mali Food Crisis Blog #3: Visiting Swala


By Marie-Eve Bertrand, CARE Canada

Mali Food Crisis Blog #3: Visiting Swala image 1
Although they are hungry and in the midst of a food crisis, the Malians welcomed CARE with calabas filled with baobab leaves, wild grapes and other native fruits and herbs. Later, CARE distributed food aid to the village. © 2012 CARE/Marie-Eve Bertrand

Visiting Swala

Mali, a country in the Sahel. The Sahel, or Sahil in Arabic, is the border between the Sahara and more fertile and green lands. It is a dividing zone, a mixture of cultures, odours, tastes. Here in Mali, the number of ethnic groups and tribes are too numerous to be counted. Here, they talk to me about tolerance, love and sharing. Actually, they live it before they talk about it.

In this region of the world right now, there is a food crisis, caused by a combination of events: a poor rainy season last year which causes the water level of the Niger River to stay very low and crops to wither, chronic poverty, environmental degradation, all resulting in poor harvests and a sharp increase in prices. A crisis hitting a region that already experiences chronic malnutrition and food insecurity. According to the Malian Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries, the situation of pastoral communities is at high risk, with even the livestock losing weight because of the lack of grass and water.

Follow me as I meet with the inhabitants of the Swala village in the Djenné region, an hour and a half from Mopti, a town in the middle of Mali.

There were eight of us in the vehicle, including the driver, three colleagues from CARE, the A.A.D.I (our local NGO partner). coordinator and, as well as its president, her grandson and me. And of course, since Malians are very generous, I had the honor of having the front seat to myself. When we turned the corner around the village wall, I heard the percussion instruments, a warm and joyful melody. Then songs. And then I saw them. There were hundreds of women, men and children waiting for our arrival for the second food distribution in their village in two months. The women were dancing, the men were playing tambourines. It was a party in our honour. A wave of tenderness rose within me, a wave of solidarity... a wave of humility. They are the ones who should be celebrated for their courage, their strength. They surrounded me with their warmth, their joy for life. Behind my sunglasses, tears flowed. Like when you feel unworthy of such an honour, or too small for all the love.

They danced all the way to the village chief”s hut. It is an ancient village, very old. A village with walls of mud, thatched roofs, holes for windows. And everyone was squeezed into this small space. Us, the dignitaries, on mats. Them, directly on the ground. They were all so beautiful, smiling, proud.

The village chief”s representative spoke, taking the time to greet us, to thank us. His name is Dramane Coulibaly. "We thank you for this gift of food and your visit that is so precious to us. Before you came, we had no hope, and we didn”t know what to do to continue, to be able to feed our families. The first CARE food distribution eased our empty stomachs, but it wasn”t enough. More than half of us weren”t helped. All of our village suffers from hunger," he said. "Because the women are the ones who can best tell you about the challenges we face." Dramane told me.

Then Pointou Coulibaly, the president of the women spoke. "We are so happy that you are visiting us. Our storehouses have been empty for a long time, because the rains weren”t good for us last season. Our harvests were insufficient last year, and we are suffering from it. Our people farm the land to live, and we usually sell our products. But last year, there wasn”t even enough to feed our families, so selling was impossible. Our only concern is to feed ourselves. Because without food, our children are sick. They cannot go to school because they don”t have the strength," she told us while sitting among her loved ones.

"It is true that hunger pangs make us suffer, when we are used to eating three meals per day, we become rather inefficient... now we have a meal with a little meat and potatoes in the evening and some millet or rice if we are lucky at noon," she continues.

"Half of the families couldn”t have food because of criteria and limits set by the World Food Program. But you know, we are people who stick together. Malian solidarity. It is out of the question for us to let our neighbour go hungry and suffer. So we all share what little we have. We prefer to have less, but to have peace of mind, because we helped those around us."

Generosity, solidarity. That puts the focus back where it should be, when you realise that to share, you don”t need a lot, you just need a big heart. It was the whole village that gathered to thank us, because it is the entire community who benefits from CARE”s assistance.

Their economy rests on three main thrusts in the region: agriculture, livestock and tourism. Rain didn”t fall from the skies last year, and the storehouses are still empty. And even though it has been raining recently, no one knows what tomorrow holds, and there are still four months to wait before the next harvest. The price of rice is ever-increasing. People are hungry. Thirsty. But they are proud and hard-working. Plus there is the livestock that have fallen. The animals were too hungry and thirsty too. Some died; the remaining ones are very thin. Too thin. So the sale of livestock has suffered, as well as the demand, because people don”t have much money, since tourism has fallen off. The tourists who also ate the meat are no longer coming, because they are afraid of the political insecurity in the northern region of the country. The region here, like the famous town of Timbuktu, is classified as a world heritage. Here, you find the history of centuries and centuries of hard work, majestic sites, vestiges of the past. Places that are so old, so different. But that no longer have as many tourists as before.

The oldest person in the village, as they call him, spoke, "Ma”am, I would like to make a request for our survival. Give us efficient tools to farm, seeds that will grow and knowledge to improve our harvest. We are farmers and we want to work to fill our storehouses."

And that is when I understood that these proud and courageous people in front of me had, themselves, understood the essence of development. They know that food distribution is temporary and aspire to becoming self-sufficient once again. They are capable of working; we have the resources to help them prepare for the future and build resiliency plans.

As the meeting was ending, the village chief motioned me to come forward so he could give me a packet with nuts. Kola nuts in fact. A gift that is reserved for great occasions, great celebrations. A rare gift.

I left with a heart full of hope, love and pride. I left with my hands full of a gift that touched me. But also with a full stomach. Because from the little they had, the villagers made us a meal. Malian solidarity.

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