Africa's Last and Least

In Burkina Faso's capital city, Fanta Lingani begins her day before dawn. Like many women in West Africa, she struggles to afford food for her family but takes little nourishment for herself.
[MAP: Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, Africa]
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 20, 2008


After she woke in the dark to sweep city streets, after she walked an hour to buy less than $2 worth of food, after she cooked for two hours in the searing noon heat, Fanta Lingani served her family's only meal of the day.

First she set out a bowl of corn mush, seasoned with tree leaves, dried fish and wood ashes, for the 11 smallest children, who tore into it with bare hands.

Then she set out a bowl for her husband. Then two bowls for a dozen older children. Then finally, after everyone else had finished, a bowl for herself. She always eats last.

A year ago, before food prices nearly doubled, Lingani would have had three meals a day of meat, rice and vegetables. Now two mouthfuls of bland mush would have to do her until tomorrow.

Rubbing her red-rimmed eyes, chewing lightly on a twig she picked off the ground, Lingani gave the last of her food to the children.

"I'm not hungry," she said.

In poor nations, such as Burkina Faso in the heart of West Africa, mealtime conspires against women. They grow the food, fetch the water, shop at the market and cook the meals. But when it comes time to eat, men and children eat first, and women eat last and least.

Soaring prices for food and fuel have pushed more than 130 million poor people across vast swaths of Africa, Asia and Latin America deeper into poverty in the past year, according to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP). But while millions of men and children are also hungrier, women are often the hungriest and skinniest. Aid workers say malnutrition among women is emerging as a hidden consequence of the food crisis.

"It's a cultural thing," said Herve Kone, director of a group that promotes development, social justice and human rights in Burkina Faso. "When the kids are hungry, they go to their mother, not their father. And when there is less food, women are the first to eat less."

A recent study by the aid group Catholic Relief Services found that many people in Burkina Faso are now spending 75 percent or more of their income on food, leaving little for other basic needs such as medical care, school fees and clothes.

Pregnant women and young mothers are forgoing medical care. More women are turning to prostitution to pay for food. And more families are pulling children -- especially girls -- out of school.

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