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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 August 2005, 07:05 GMT 08:05 UK
Burkina Faso's hungry herders
By James Knight and Katrina Manson
Burkina Faso

Balki Sa Mohamadou is two months old. His mother died because of complications during childbirth, near the village of Touka Bayel in the drought-ravaged north of Burkina Faso.

Balki Sa Mohamadou
Balki Sa Mohamadou faces a bleak future
A young victim of the food crisis that grips West Africa, he lives on goat's milk but has not had any for two days, because the women now looking after him are too poor to buy it regularly.

Wrapped tightly to the back of his mother's younger sister, Tana Fatimata Hama, 24, as she goes to get some medicine, he is a wide-eyed, foetal shadow of infancy.

A lethal combination of drought and locusts has savaged crops in the north of Burkina Faso, as it has done in neighbouring Niger, Mali and Mauritania.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), 1m Burkinabe are in need of food assistance.

Double whammy

Burkina's farmers rank among the poorest in the world, but this year has seen them lose up to 90% of their harvest.

As a result they have had no crops to survive on, and have sold up to 75% of their cattle to raise enough money to buy grain at inflated prices.


The lack of food is turning an already difficult existence into a desperate battle for life.

"It's much harder for the villagers," says Issa Dicko Hama, 21, a trader in the market of Dori, the nearest town.

"There're really facing difficulties. Millet prices [per 100kg bag] have shot up from 10,000 CFA francs ($18) to 25,000 CFA francs ($45) and animal prices have collapsed."

This double whammy has hit the Fulani herders of the region hard. They are fast running out of animals to sell.

Herds of 300 have dwindled to 20, either dead from hunger, or sold for a pittance in the struggle to raise money for millet, the staple crop.

The food doesn't last long, with three cows buying enough grain to last a family three days.

Rainy season

"People are ill; they can't eat," says Boukoum Hama Ousmane, 62, the senior elder of Touka Bayel. "Husbands have fled."

He says many men have left for war-torn Ivory Coast, where an estimated 3m Burkinabe earn their crust, to look for work and food on cocoa and cotton plantations.

People don't come here anymore - people die in their homes
Claris Zongo, nurse
"There's war there but if you want to eat you can. We've been given a little only. It's not been enough."

The WFP in Burkina Faso has requested an additional $1.4m to deal with the crisis. But money won't stop the same thing from happening again.

"Somebody has got to resolve the problem of mounting food prices and falling animal prices in the long term," says Ali Ouattara, who runs the WFP's regional office in Dori.

"They have to bring them together to create a balance."

The wet season brings its own problems. Like other villages in the region, Touka Bayel is remote, hidden at the end of rutted dirt tracks that twist to nothing.

Heavy rains turn the roads of the Sahel into quagmires that hold trucks fast, hampering the relief effort and prompting the WFP to distribute six months' emergency rations to health centres, instead of three.

The normally sandy streets of Dori are still awash with last week's thunderous downpour.

Illness

The hospital and other buildings in the town have become islands amid lakes of stagnant water, breeding grounds for malaria.

Although the rains have sent millet stalks thrusting skywards, the harvest will not be ready for another month.

Child carrying a pile of grass
There is not enough fodder for the remaining cattle
In the meantime, Touka Bayel, and other villages across northern Burkina Faso, must hang on.

Villagers are surviving on a diet of wild grass and milk from the few animals that remain.

Many are too tired to work in the fields, at a vital time in the cultivating season.

Illness has soared, but the health centre stays empty.

"People don't come here anymore," says Claris Zongo, a nurse there.

"People have malaria but they have no money and nothing to eat. People die in their homes."

Balki's surrogate mother, Tana, begins the long walk home, without the medicine that she cannot afford.


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