In northern Burkina Faso, women gathered on a sandy plain with their children. They were queuing for food. As the rain began to fall, a child cried, but everything was orderly. When they reached the head of the queue, the children received a portion of nutritious peanut porridge. This inexpensive paste is often what stands between these families and chronic malnutrition.
In early 2012, the food crisis in the Sahel - a band of countries spanning the north of Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea - was compounded by the already high rates of malnutrition in the region. The previousyear's harvest failed due to erratic rain, and this was the third time in ten years. Combined with chronic poverty, high food prices and political instability, many communities were unable to cope.
According to the United Nations in April 2012, more than 18 million people faced food insecurity, particularly in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Gambia, Niger and Chad.
Marie-Christine Cormier, working for the Belgian Red Cross in Burkina Faso, emphasized the strong link between food insecurity and malnutrition. "Vulnerable families who cannot buy food or have meagre harvests won't be able to feed themselves," she said. "Therefore, children under the age of five are at higher risk of malnutrition."
Minadawo Darawos was desperate; her baby's incessant crying was, she suspected, due to hunger. The tiny 11 month old was sick and suffering.
"I took my child to the screening centre where she was diagnosed as malnourished," Minadawo said. "I was desperate when my child got sick but as soon as she received care, I knew she would survive."
The Burkinabe Red Cross started community nutrition committees to ease pressure on the health centres by screening for malnutrition and providing education to ensure mothers know the best way to use the resources that are available. They also follow-up on confirmed cases.
While food was scarce, mothers participating in the programme have learned how to make the most of what is available.
Wodrawo Sanata, who has nine children, said the advice and support has made a real difference to her families lives. "We used to be able to bring food on the table, but during the current food crisis it's been difficult to feed a large family," she said. "Thanks to the nutritional education, I can manage. Now I know how to feed my youngest child. The older children are not in a critical situation."
Burkina Faso is among the ten poorest countries in the world according to the UN Human Development Index. Life-expectancy is mere 52 years and almost a third of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition. Ten per cent suffer from acute malnutrition.
The Belgian Red Cross has been working with the Burkinabe Red Cross since 2007 with support from the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) to help nearly 62,000 people hit by this recurrent crisis. The programme supported people in 210 isolated villages in nine provinces most affected by malnutrition. In these villages, 25 per cent of children and 30 per cent of pregnant women were acutely malnourished.
Over the last few years, malnutrition rates among the children and pregnant and lactating women participating in the project have reduced significantly. To ensure the long-term sustainability of the Red Cross programme, more than 1,200 volunteers have also been trained in communities across the country in an effort to continue fighting this silent disaster.