Mauritania: A story of life or death

Rich Stearns, president of World Vision U.S., recently warned that we must take decisive action now to prevent the hunger crisis in West Africa's Sahel region from devolving into outright famine, similar to what was seen in parts of the Horn of Africa last year.

Today, World Vision's Adel Sarkozi writes from Mauritania, confirming this message: West Africa may not be making headlines in the media, but the humanitarian situation there is dire, and we must act immediately.

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Place yourself in the story of Mauritania -- a country that has been struck by food shortages and inconsistent rainfall. As the situation worsens, it remains to be seen whether the story for many will end in life or death.

In Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, you pass by small, makeshift camps in the desert -- a mix of fluttering tents, thin cattle and camels, and mostly hard-faced men under softly-colored turbans.

The austere sand around them is dotted with buckets, an old bathtub with water for the animals, tin containers, and litter.

By now, you know why they are here. You've heard many answers to this question: Hungry. Fleeing villages where there are no means of coping. No harvest last year. No food for people or animals this year.

All of this means that Mauritania -- which has 700,000 people battling food insecurity out of a population of 3.5 million -- faces a hunger crisis three times worse than the previous one, which struck the West African nation two years ago.

Gori Hogo, 72, says that this is the worst food crisis he has experienced, but fears conditions may continue to get worse. (Photo: Adel Sarkozi/World Vision)

While you know why these people are here, you still find yourself wondering how their story will end.

A day earlier, when you asked the same question of 72-year-old Gori Hogo, he looked you in the eye before answering:

"You can see it in our eyes [and] faces how tired we are, how much we have suffered," he said. "I’ve lived a long life, and have seen people and animals suffering before, but never the two suffering together as much as now. We don’t know how this will end. But we know we don’t want to see what being worse than this could be like."

In his village of approximately 100 people, only the old men, women, and children are still here. The younger men and older boys have left with the remaining cattle in search of pasture in Mali or Senegal. In other areas, the men have settled near the capital with hopes of finding food and work.

Hadi Kouamba Seoudu is among the women whose husband and elder sons have gone to Mali in search of pasture for their cattle. (Photo: Adel Sarkozi/World Vision)

Gori’s son and two of his grandsons left for Mali a few months ago. They walked for one month -- with short rests after every few days -- to reach a place where they could let their animals graze.

Animals and men alike live in the open air with minimal shelter. The only difference, says Gori, is that the men can share their pain; the animals can’t.

Rumor has it that Mauritania is home to about 3 million people and 30 million cattle.

Two days earlier, you saw so many of the latter -- decomposed donkeys, cows, goats, and camels -- lying near the road or in the desert that it became harsh but common to spot yet another dead animal on your way.

You’re told that more than 100,000 died a few weeks ago -- this time, not because of lack of food or drought, but ironically, because of rain. An early rain. The animals were already struggling, weak and tired, and the sudden cold rain following days of high temperatures proved to be the last straw.

You’re bewildered. Everywhere you look, the landscape is a solid embodiment of flesh, bone, life, and death, side by side.

You remember Gori’s equation: The more the animals are affected, the more the people are, too. Often their only source of livelihood, selling the animals is not an option, especially when you would have been forced to sell at a very low price, he says.

In Mauritania and across West Africa, animals suffer as food grows scarce. (Photo: Adel Sarkozi/World Vision)

And so the younger men have left with their herds while their families live in fear that their sons, husbands, fathers, or brothers might not return. They are aware that the situation is dangerous in Mali, but danger is still a better option than allowing your family and animals to go hungry.

That's a very real risk, as evidenced by the words of Gori’s granddaughter, 14-year-old Ramata: "Every day I go to school thinking about this situation," she said. "This year is a very difficult year for us. My father didn’t have to go away with the cattle before…I could eat milk with cereal.

"We used to have a lot of milk, and my mother would make yogurt out of it. Now, we need food the most, especially rice and cereals."

You sit and nod, words piling up in your head.

You catch Gori’s red, tired eyes burning for some hope, for some solution. Then, he smiles sincerely. He thanks you for coming, for leaving your world to visit his, harsh as it is now. He says he can see it in your eyes that you understand his troubles, and he knows you won’t forget him. And thinking about him and his family, not forgetting him, is what counts the most for him right now.

And you realize that while you still don’t know the end of the story for Mauritania and its people, this is where your story should begin -- by telling theirs.

Read related post: Fighting famine is ineffective aid

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