At a therapeutic feeding center in a tiny village in the Sahel, Hassan is just two years old. Any child who needs food as much as him, is one too many. There are not a lot of children at this therapeutic feeding center, six to eight at any one time, but that’s what’s worrying aid agencies like the World Food Programme. Just twenty-four kilometers away in a larger village, prospects for an entire generation are measured in centimeters. Some four hundred mothers and children have come to this supplementary feeding center for food being distributed by World Food Programme. Random checks are showing too many severely malnourished children. Fatima is five and the examination indicates that she should be in a hospital. So should two other one year old children who are with her.
The World Health Organization considers a 15% childhood malnutrition rate an emergency. Here in western Chad, it’s typically around 26%. One boy is one year old. The food he has been getting here is not enough and he needs to go to the hospital now. His mother, Fatima, is thirty, so survival for her and her family is a full-time job and her husband is visiting his family for Ramadan, leaving her and her mother to take care of their seven children. It’s no easy task since everyday wood must be gathered for cooking and water fetched from the well at the health center five kilometers away by donkey.
Like most people in the Sahel, the inhabitants are subsistence farmers and the food they grow in the short rainy season must last them the whole year. It’s a race against time, since food from the previous year’s harvest frequently runs out while the new crop is growing.
One woman said, “Last year’s drought caused a poor harvest and we ran out of food. We hope this year will be better.”
It’s the lean season here in the Sahel, but you’d never know it from these lush fields, for nine months of the year it’s desert, up to fifty degrees in the sweltering heat. There are few roads or power lines. Running water is a novelty in rural areas of the Sahel. These nomads are heading south to better pastures as the desert advances from drought. Those who struggle to work the land and tend livestock are finding it harder and harder to survive.
At the therapeutic feeding center, many of the severely malnourished children who have managed to come here from the surrounding villages will become healthy again, but the first two years of life are the most critical. They may never fully recover physically and mentally. The food the tiny boy will receive here will save his life and he has already shown improvement, but the window of opportunity is small. It’s critical that mothers like Fatima bring their malnourished babies here for help.
One man said, “Women come from up to forty kilometers away and must stay here with their babies for several weeks. WFP encourages mothers to come by feeding them too, while their babies are at the center.”
Even charging your cell phone is a challenge here, as the people of the Sahel peer hopefully into the twenty-first century, the challenges of those living on the edge become greater and greater.