Imagine yourself in a dry, hot, dusty landscape, where water sources are scarce, and where parents don't know whether they have enough food for their children for the day -- or where tomorrow's food will even come from. This is a glimpse into the West African country of Mali, where the regional drought and food crisis is intensifying quickly.
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Baobab trees dot the parched landscape in Mali. Severe drought is tightening its grip here and across West Africa.
You travel through the countryside in Mali, taking in the world unfolding around you -- the baobab trees with tortured branches; the mango trees, leaves heavy under the dust, guarding the roads; the empty, yellow, or grayish fields, thirsty for water.
"If we only had water, we could grow vegetables, crops here…but in places like this, you would have to dig 12-13 meters to get to some. And even then, you might not find any," comments Abraham, the driver, as if reading your thoughts.
You pass by market stalls. Near Bamako, Mali's capital city, you can see a palette of vegetables and fruits -- melons, bananas, tomatoes, lettuce, oranges, apples, peanuts, and baobab fruits. But as you drive deeper into the countryside, they become scarce -- mainly baobab fruits or powder, and peanuts.
Occasionally, you catch glimpses of a butcher, with one slab of goat meat hanging in the dusty, hot air. You can almost feel the dust in your eyes and your throat.
You ask Abraham what life is like where he lives and works. "Lots of the families there have nothing to eat," he says, adding that you can now only find women and children in many villages; the men have left, desperate to find work somewhere else to help their families.
Parents in Mali and across West Africa are telling stories of their children being so hungry that they have no energy to go to school or study.
How do people cope in the meantime? you ask. "Solidarity," he answers simply. "People help each other in these times. And as things get worse, we start selling our animals. The small ones go first -- chickens, for example. Then, gradually the larger ones -- the oxen, the donkeys."
"In these times" refers to the drought and food crisis engulfing Mali and other countries in West Africa. Some 3 million people are affected in Mali alone, of which 1.1 million are in need of immediate food assistance, according to World Food Program.
You look out the window again to distract yourself. You smile for just a few seconds as you pass a little girl stretched out on her belly on a bench, her playmate tickling and massaging her feet, which are lifted in the air. They are both laughing. No matter the place, kids are kids, you think to yourself.
But are they? You pass a desolate-looking school amid the surrounding barren landscape, and you wonder: What it would be like to grow up in a place like this? To go to school here?
You find answers as you reach your destination. A mother tells you she can’t send her children to school anymore, because they're hungry, and, as a result, too tired to study or walk to the school in the first place. A father explains that he has sold most of his harvest to pay for school fees for his oldest son, as he really believes in the value of schooling. But he was still behind on the payments and didn't know what to do. Worse, he had had to pull his second son out of school; education for two children was simply unaffordable.
Maria, mother of 11, shows what she has left to feed all of her children for the rest of the day.
The situation is bad and getting worse. Village elders say the last time they faced such a dire situation was in 1973-74. They talk about how last year’s harvest has either already run out, or is about to be gone. Prices of grains in some places are more than double last year's prices. In some communities, prices can go up 10 to 30 percent in a single week.
And the next harvest is not for at least eight months.
"If we are left to cope on our own, we are hopeless," says 65-year-old Zaniba. "Without your help, we are hopeless."
Another mother, 46-year-old Bessimba, echoes Zaniba's sentiments. "We only wish that God would bless us with rain so everyone has something to eat," she says.
Maria, a mother of 11 children, holds up a bowl of millet paste. "This is what we have left from this morning, and I am not sure this will be enough for all of us for dinner," she says.
"When we sleep at night, we worry about the next day," adds her husband, Sikiam.
The stories come in many forms, but the message is the same: People don't know how they will cope, or what they will do.
Which begs the question: What will we do?
Make a one-time gift to help provide life-saving food and care to places affected by extreme hunger, like West Africa. Your donation will help deliver emergency food aid, agricultural assistance, clean water, nutritional support, and more.
Also, consider sponsoring a child in Mali. Your love and support for a boy or girl in need will help deliver life-giving essentials, as well as long-term care that becomes a safety net against disasters like the current drought and food crisis.