In Africa, One Family's Struggle With the Global Food Crisis

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 20, 2008 6:23 PM

LOUDA, Burkina Faso -- All day, Ruth Bamogo hacked at the ground with an iron hoe, trying to coax sorghum out of the hard, red dirt.

Finally exhausted, with the temperature still over 90 degrees in the dying afternoon light, Bamogo strapped her 4-year-old son onto her back with a bright pink cloth and started the one-mile walk home.

But at the edge of the field, she suddenly started grabbing at low-hanging tree leaves. She stripped branches bare, collecting the coarse leaves with her bare hands.

A year ago, this tree was shade. But now, with even basic foods suddenly too expensive to feed her six children, it is food. The leaves taste awful, she said, but they are free -- one small advantage of living in the countryside.

Bamogo carried the leaves home on foot; her husband rode a bike.

She looked older than her 42 years. Her face and arms seemed far too thin; she said she's lost 10 to 20 pounds in the last year, because there isn't enough food for everyone, and she eats last.

"I don't want my children to cry," she said. "So I take care of them first."

Women are suffering disproportionately in the world's worst food crisis in a generation, according to aid workers studying impacts in developing nations.

In this poor West African nation, as in much of the developing world, women are responsible for feeding their families. They grow, buy and cook food. But at mealtime, men and children eat first and women eat whatever is left.

But when food suddenly becomes more expensive and scarcer, there is less leftover. And aid workers said they are seeing that women are the first to suffer.

Life for women in the capital, Ouagadougou, is harsher lately because all their food comes from markets, where prices have risen sharply. But in rural villages like this one, 60 miles north in the countryside, the problem is also acute, but different.

Here, there are virtually no jobs, and women must feed their families -- and themselves -- with whatever the ground gives them.

After she stripped the tree, Bamogo walked home through the fields, her son on her back, and a couple of goats on a rope lead.

Bamogo was tending the goats for a neighbor; her family's only animals are five skinny chickens. With food so scarce, Bamogo treats the chickens as something like a savings account -- they can be eaten if things get desperate.

She arrived at her small home 45 minutes later and allowed herself to sit for a moment. Her home is three small mud-brick huts with tin roofs, surrounding a dirt courtyard. One leaks so badly that it's abandoned. One is just a kitchen, its walls thick with black soot from an open cooking fire.

The mud walls are so worn down by pounding rains and relentless sun that they look like eroded sand castles.

The family sleeps in a two-room hut with a concrete floor. It is virtually empty except for a few bits of clothes, a New Testament and an old kerosene lamp.

The only decoration is a cartoon torn from a magazine that Bamogo's young boys stuck to the wall. It shows candy, tomato paste, powdered sugar and salted fish -- like a wish list of goodies the children have never seen.

"The situation is tougher than it has ever been," Bamogo said. "We cannot eat and be full like last year."

It was after 6 p.m. and the family had not eaten since breakfast -- and that was just a few bits of to, a bland cornmeal mush seasoned with wild leaves. Bamogo said she held back at breakfast, leaving more for the children, especially Jacob, the 4-year-old.

"The mother has to fight for everything," Bamogo said. "You don't want people to know your children are hungry, so you have to fight."

Things have never been bountiful in this village, but a year ago Bamogo said her family had three meals a day, and those regularly included rice and meat, with tomatoes and onions and other fresh vegetables.

A drought and then severe flooding devastated harvests across the country last year. Then on top of that, international market factors far beyond their control have pushed up the price of everything.

A recent study by the aid group Catholic Relief Services found that many people in Burkina Faso are now spending 75 percent of their income on food; in Bamogo's house, it is closer to 100 percent.

Some outside aid reaches this village: food from the U.N. World Food Program is distributed to children in schools, and Catholic Relief will soon start distribution of fertilizer -- mainly to women farmers -- to help improve their yields.

But still Bamogo struggles. That morning, she treated herself to a cup of weak powdered coffee, which she would not do again for a couple of days. "I don't even think about milk anymore," she said.

For lunch, the family ate a few wild grapes collected in the fields by the older children, who are 8, 11, 14 and 17. The grapes were more like raisins, small and flavorless, just a bit of fruity flesh around a large pit.

"It's not enough, but what can we do?" Bamogo said, pulling herself up with a little groan from her chair in the shade to begin her evening routine.

Bamogo picked up an ax and chopped an old stump into firewood. She gathered straw and carried it to her house to start a fire. She set a blackened pot on the flames and poured in water, which she had fetched from a pump a half-mile away that morning.

Standing in the dirt, she started washing pots and dishes.

Her husband, Pierre Sibra, 50, lay in the shade nearby, watching her work. He was also tired after a long day in the field -- one of the few men working in fields dominated by women.

"I am sad that I am not feeding my family well," Sibra said. "And I am sad to see the way my wife is suffering. When you look at her, you see she is losing strength."

As he spoke, one of his young sons brought him a cup of water.

"It is tougher for the ladies," he said. "We do the same work in the field. But now I am just sitting, and she is still working."

Sibra was asked why he did not help his wife with the chores. He looked shocked. In cultures like this one, roles for men and women are clearly defined. Men do manual labor outside the home, but women are responsible for caring for children and all housework and cooking.

"That's how it works," he said. "Field work we do together. But this is absolutely different. She has to do it. It is her job, and I will not do it."

As darkness fell over the still-hot fields, Jacob managed to get himself covered with ashes and dirt. So Bamogo filled a basin with warm water and gave him a bath.

Sibra watched from a distance.

Later, Bamogo prepared a few bites of cornmeal for her family. Her brother had given the family a sack of it. There was just enough left for one more meal, and Bamogo decided to go to bed hungry, and cook it in the morning to give her strength for the fields.

The family turned in.

At 5:30 a.m. Sibra started the new day by banging on an old metal tire rim hanging from a tree. He was calling the neighborhood to morning prayers at the small Assembly of God evangelical church across from his house.

All of his children have middle names in the local language that reflect their Christian faith: "Will of God," "Praise God," "Strength of God," "Thanks be to God."

In the soft pre-dawn light, Bamogo walked into the darkened church and knelt. She said she comes here each day to pray for her children's future.

"What gives me courage is that I think one day all this suffering will be over," she said. "That helps me keep fighting. I know one day my kids will grow up and help feed our family."

Their oldest child, a 20-year-old daughter, is in school in Kaya, a large town nearby. The younger boys are still in school, too. But the parents pulled Amelie, their 17-year-old daughter, out of school to help her mother around the home.

"I believe is it just as important for girls to go to school," Bamogo said. "The problem is we don't have the means."

Bamogo watched Amelie, sitting in the dirt in jeans, listening to the radio, looking like a typical teenager dreaming of being somewhere else.

"If she get a husband who has more means, a job, she will have a better life," Bamogo said. "I hope she is lucky and life is easier for her."

Amelie, who has shiny skin not yet wrinkled by harsh village life, said she'd like to be in school. She'd like to be a nurse one day. But for the moment, she said, she just feels "hungry, very hungry, all the time."

"I want my life to be different," she said, "so I can help my mother."

A thunderous downpour began, quickly flooding the courtyard. Bamogo walked through the rain to the little kitchen, where she boiled water and mixed in the last of the cornmeal.

She brought the food back into her dark house, where the family would spend the day waiting out the rain. Bamogo dished out food for her husband, and then her children.

Then she sat, waiting her turn.

With no food or money left in the house, and three months until harvest time, how would she feed her family?

"It's very hard," she said, staring out into the slashing rain. "I'm scared."

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