Hunger Looms After Flooding in Burkina Faso Destroys Crops

Burkina Faso_Flooding_Kababya
Kababya Akolay (far right) sits with his wife, son and daughter on the remains of a bedroom that collapsed during the recent flooding in Burkina Faso. Photo by Lane Hartill.

Lane Hartill, regional information officer for West Africa, was traveling last week in Burkina Faso, one of several countries in West Africa where widespread flooding has caused severe crop damage. He sends this report from the village of Tambolo in the southern part of the country.

Kababya Akolay looks dapper in his weathered suit coat and red polo shirt. He greets me with a smile, and standing barefoot on part of his collapsed house, begins telling me about the rain that wouldn’t stop.

He lost his crops and a bedroom in his house caved in during the recent flooding. In all his years, he says, he’s never seen anything like it.

He doesn’t believe it was sent from above. God, he says, would never do this. This is much worse.

The rain just kept coming. In past years, it’s always let up for a few days, he says. Not this time. A swelling knot of villagers gathers around and nods in agreement.

In fact, during the last two months the region Kababya lives in got 30 inches of rain in two months, something unheard of in country that usually battles drought.

“I really don’t know how I’m going to manage,” he says. “On the lowlands, all my land was flooded; it destroyed all the crops.”

I am paying a visit to his village – a spray of mud houses scattered off the main road to Ghana – to see how he and his neighbors have fared during the recent floods.

Things, I quickly find out, aren’t too rosy.

The peanuts I see drying in his courtyard aren’t for afternoon snacks. They are some of the last food Kababya has. After that, he says, he and his family will start eating leaves.

Most men with 23 children (9 are his own), a partially collapsed house and who are down to peanuts and corn for dinner would curse and cry. They would howl for cash and compensation. Not Kababya. Here he is, standing under a sun so hot it makes your teeth sweat, hands clasped in front of him, looking every bit like a stately diplomat. He thoughtfully describes his slow descent toward hunger. His graciousness stuns me.

I think of Hurricane Katrina and the people screaming into the television cameras, the outrage and desperation. No one will pay Kababya insurance premiums, no dikes will be built by the river and Anderson Cooper won’t interview him. Kababya will rely heavily on his own ingenuity and the generosity of villagers. As he and his wife and kids sit on what is left of the bedroom – a mess that looks like dissolving graham crackers – I wonder how this 80-year-old man is going to make it.

“I would like to rebuild,” he says, calmly, “but I don’t have the money.”

More than 500,000 West Africans have been hit by floods in recent weeks – more than 40,000 in Burkina Faso. Africans in 12 West African countries are quietly dealing with their predicament as international attention skips over them in favor of the latest earthquake or plane crash.

Not everyone in Tambolo was affected. Those with crops on higher ground were spared. And while people may be scraping by for now – eating peanuts and the last of their corn – in a few weeks, the food situation will likely worsen.

Another problem: Many Burkinabé are wearing out their welcome sleeping in local schools. School is set to resume in two weeks. They will be kicked out.

Catholic Relief Services and its partners have already assessed the damage in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger. Villagers have been interviewed and authorities are being consulted. A response is on the way.

That’s good news for Nyon Ada. The 47-year-old wears a cracked belt and ski jacket and wants to show me his corn field. I hitch up my pants and wade across a stream to get there. Nyon is waiting for me on the other side, snapping off brittle corn stalks, the ones that the sand and flood waters asphyxiated. His cornfield is now a beach. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to use it for another few years. Out of desperation, he’s planted tomatoes, but they aren’t doing well in the sand.

He received some food from the government. But it is dwindling. That’s bad news for his five kids, his wife and his 70-year-old mother who live with him.

“With eight people to feed, it might only last another week,” he says. After that, he will start picking berenga leaves. That’s what people resort to during drought, he says. His wife will make porridge from these. She will boil the leaves several times to reduce the acid taste. Often corn or a type of flour is mixed in to kill the taste.

But Nyon doesn’t have any corn. Just a field of sand. So his porridge will be mostly leaves.

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