In a Chad camp, gluey porridge sustains the Aboubakars

By Oxfam America

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Meal after meal, day after day, the Aboubakar family eats the same thing: aiysh, a congealed porridge made of the simplest ingredients. A pound of millet flour, two quarts of water, and just enough vegetable oil to coat the concoction is all it takes. But eliciting the recipe from this Sudanese refugee family in Chad is anything but simple.

What is a recipe? And a cookbook full of them?

In the camps for displaced people that stretch along Chad's border and across conflict-torn Darfur in western Sudan, the concept is hard to explain. In a world of want—where violence has forced more than two million people from their homes—how do you describe an abundance so great that it needs a cookbook loaded with directions to keep it all straight?

That experience helped define just one of the jarring truths about the global distribution of food that Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio explore in their new book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. A grand photo essay 288 pages long, the book took the couple on a journey to 24 countries where they got to know 30 families and the intricacies of each family's weekly food consumption. Family recipes accompany every profile.

Brand names and plastic packaging proliferate on some of the pages, testament to the global reach of processed foods and beverages. But on other pages, seeds and raw grains sit in burlap sacks—some more empty than full. A few of those limp sacks belong to the Aboubakars: D'jimia Ishakh Souleymane, who is a widow, and her five children.

The lessons Menzel and D'Aluisio learned from their visits with the Aboubakars are hard to forget, and they hope that readers who consume the stories and pictures in their book won't forget them either.

"What we really wanted to do was help people who didn't have a clue understand what was going on in the rest of the world," said D'Aluisio. "It's important—especially for Americans."

Limits on water and food

For starters, consider the water situation at the Breidjing camp in Chad where the Aboubakars have now lived for more than a year and a half. Their home is a small tent on a sandy plain crowded with countless others just like it. Oxfam has been providing water to thousands of people in the camp. The minimum provision in emergency situations such as this is just shy of 4 gallons per person a day.

"Water is one of the biggest problems," said Menzel. "Thirty thousand people use a lot of water. There's a big difference between having a faucet and carrying water and standing in line for water."

When the Oxfam water truck arrives to fill an empty bladder—a storage device that looks like a giant water bed—the relief that ripples through the blocks of tents is palpable, added D'Aulisio.

"The water is so precious," she said. "I do not turn a faucet on without thinking of all those people."

D'Aulisio's relationship with her garden has also changed since visiting the Aboubakars. Now, she wastes nothing from it, preferring to invest whatever time it takes to can the extra fruits and vegetables it produces.

D'jimia works hard for the little bit of extra food she buys for her family. She earns about $1.35 a day toiling in the fields of nearby villagers—when she can get the work. She uses the money to buy fresh tomatoes or dried okra. But the bulk of her family's diet—three meals a day—consists of the aiysh she stirs up in a big black pot over a fire outside her tent.

Aid groups provide the rations for the roughly 30,000 people in the camp. The allotments are far from lavish, and amount to about 2,100 calories per day per person in the form of a cereal, such as sorghum or millet, and small scoops of pulses and a corn-soy blend. The rations also include small amounts of sugar and salt.

"Most of everyone looks like they're on the minimum amount of calories needed," said Menzel. The rationing system takes into account only the numbers of people in a family, not the size of their appetites or where they fall on the growth charts.

"If you've got a lot of teen-age boys, you've got some difficulty," added D'Aluisio, speaking from her own experience mothering hungry boys.

An Oxfam sojourn

D'Aluisio and Menzel learned about some of the ins and outs of camp management during their three-night sojourn in a tent at the Oxfam compound outside of Breidjing.

"Staying in the compound was great," said D'Aluisio. "We got to hang out with the people who were there."

One of the things that became clear to the couple during their stay at Breidjing is how complex the business is of feeding, sheltering, and providing water and sanitation for tens of thousands of people in a remote, arid place.

"Most people who see it from the outside don't see the difficulty," said D'Aluisio of the logistics in just getting enough food to people. "Sometimes there is a disconnect between the giving and the getting, and that disconnect is infrastructure."

For example, the camp was giving  food out every 15 days instead of every 30 days—which would have been half the work—because it didn't have enough on hand. Food reserves were far away, and there was no guarantee when new supplies would arrive.

The difficulty in stocking Breidjing—or any of the camps in Chad and Darfur where hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese have lived in limbo since early 2003—is just the tip of a problem that affects millions of people around the world every day.

"Most hunger in the world is politics based," said D'Aluisio. "There is more than enough food on the planet to feed everybody. It's just warped in terms of who's getting the food and who already has the food. There needs to be more equality than there is."