The Women of Koundougou


By Marie-Eve Bertrand

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Koundougou, Mali. Bilta and Hawa have joined their village committe 3 months ago. It is a first for the village. They are thankful for that opportunity to have a voice. This community is affected by the drought and receives CARE food distribution support. Credit: Marie-Eve Bertrand

Here I am, thinking about my life and aspirations – wondering what I will do in two or three weeks, even a month. As for her, she can only think about tomorrow. She needs to have enough milk for her youngest baby, still depending on her breast milk. She must have enough rice for her other children, so they don't cry because of being hungry, and their father. Only if they are all fed, then she will sit and eat, even though she's pregnant and she should go first. But a mother will never let her children go to bed on an empty stomach to fill hers.

That was three months ago, before CARE started giving emergency assistance here in central Mali.

There are about 60 families here, in Koundougou, 44 of which have children under the age of 6. Almost 30 women are pregnant. As a group, they patiently wait for the food distribution to start, as soon as the local committee is ready. Standing next to me is a young lady and her friend. For the past three months they've been working as community mobilizers for the food distribution, carried out by CARE and a local partner organization. To my surprise, there are only two women in a group of ten people. "It's the first time that women have a chance to work with men – the first time that we have a voice. We are happy to be respected and our husbands are proud of us." A surprised man standing nearby says: "Two women is a lot already! We had to work hard to find a place for them." Fifi, the female director of the local organization CARE works with looks at me, smiling, and explains there's still a lot of work to do but, in the long run, things will change.

Cultural shock

A group of young girls offer me a basket filled with wild dates that they just picked up. In this part of the world, that's an offering of friendship. They are between 10 and 12 years old. They are beautiful, looking at me with deep dark eyes, waiting for an answer. Of course! Of course I agree! Thanks to a local translator I ask them a few questions. The older one represents the group and answers briefly. I learn that her dream is to grow a garden, to have a fenced piece of land where she can grow enough fruits and vegetables to feed her family without having to see her grown-up children leave the country to find work.

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Djenné, Mali. Boulker (man standing) is a teacher. He and his wife have 3 kids. His mother, his sister and their kids left their home, because of the violence. IDR. They are 13 living in a 3 rooms house. He is a teacher, without salary for 2 months. Credit: Marie-Eve Bertrand

"Do you go to school?" She smiles and shies away. The closest school and the closest health center are 7 kilometers away. It would be too hard. Sometimes, there's a lucky one who is sent away to live with family members and go to school, but in all other cases, girls' parents can't afford to pay school fees... So these girls spend their life, from childhood to adulthood, looking at the sun rising, shining, burning then hiding for the night. They are able to read the weather and the seasons in the signs of nature, to recognize the wild fruits and herbs they can eat. They help each other. But, here and now, as they are offering me their friendship and a basket filled with food, they are reminding me that oftentimes, generosity is inversely proportional to the breadth of the pocket.

While we talk, the food distribution continues smoothly. CARE is also giving mothers Plumpy Nut, a nutrition supplement for kids between the age of 6 months and 6 years. Families receive different amounts depending on the family size and the children's ages.

Our staff and partners need to find ways to identify each family and track the amount of food delivered. Most of these people are illiterate, which complicates the tracking of the distribution. In some cases, people sign with a fingerprint. For this project, CARE Mali works with a local partner who liaises with the community to ensure no one is forgotten or served twice.

CARE has worked with the most vulnerable in Mali over several decades to give them the tools they need to reach self-reliance. Mali is one of the nine countries in the Sahel region affected by a severe food crisis, where almost 19 million people are without enough to eat. The current emergency assistance is important, yet temporary. It serves as a bridge between two bad seasons. But in this case we should not forget the complexity of the food crisis. The irregular rains, the higher price of food, the political tension, the low level of water of the Niger river… The entire Sahel region is affected. That is why CARE wants to be there before, during and after a crisis: to defend dignity and fight poverty.

Malians are proud and are hoping for one thing: for the rain to fall, for the grass to grow and for the lands to become green, so their family and livestock can eat again.

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