Sahel food crisis: Waiting for water--and the garden to grow--in Burkina Faso

By Irina Fuhrmann
Members of the Taffoga cooperative work in their garden where they are growing cabbages, aubergines, onions, garlic and a local vegetable called gombo.

In years of drought like this one, when the cereal harvest has been minimal, market-gardening in Taffogo, a community in the north center area of Burkina Faso, has become one of the few solutions available to families to provide them with food to eat and produce to sell. But the lack of water is also creating a challenge with regard to crop irrigation.

On the edge of the Taffoga cooperative, in a clearing among the huge mango trees that populate the community, we are welcomed by about 30 women, who describe the horticultural work they are able to carry out with the support of Oxfam, through its local partner ATAD.  In the vegetable plot they have planted cabbages, aubergines, gombo (a local vegetable), onions, and garlic. These will enable the women to improve the variety of their diet and they will be able to sell any surplus.

Ramata Zore stops for a few minutes to talk to us while her colleagues water and weed the plot.  She is 25 and has 4 children to look after. And at the moment she is on her own, as her husband has gone to the Ivory Coast to look for work.

“The vegetable plot is a help to me, because what I get from it goes somewhere towards feeding my family,” she says. “If I sell some of the vegetables, I can buy millet, which is the staple part of our diet. Also, in these difficult times, we make a recipe based on millet with a few cabbage leaves, which the children love.”

But gardeners here face a daily struggle: Water.

“There isn’t enough water and the wells are drying up,” says Zore.  “We’ve had to organize ourselves into two groups: one group does the watering one day and the other does it the following day. In fact…after a few hours of watering, the well is dry and we have to wait a while before we can fill up the buckets again”.

After we have been talking to her for a few minutes, we notice that the coming and going of the women up and down the rows is starting to slow. The four wells on the perimeter of the garden have dried up and the women are congregating around them with their buckets and watering cans, waiting for the water levels to rise again.

“I live in Taffogo and in spite of our having large fields for growing crops, we’ve only harvested four sacks of millet this year, compared with the 20 we can get in a normal year,” says Zore. “But it’s a long time since we had a normal year.  Last year, the floods destroyed much of the harvest. We go from one catastrophe to another, either because of too much water or too little.”

“Before, when rain wasn’t in short supply, we had 15 small sheep and cattle,” Zore says. “But we’ve had to sell them all and have now only got one small goat left. As I’ve got nothing else, I’ll have to sell her to buy seeds for next season.”

How to feed her children is always on Zore’s mind.

“Often they tell me they’re hungry and all I can offer them is comfort,” she says. “If there’s something to eat, I give it to them, and if not, I ask the neighbors.”

“My dreams?” Zore asks, surprised at my question about her wishes for the future. “To have enough food to feed my family and a house built of bricks, instead of a shack like the one I live in now. I’d also like to keep up the vegetable plot for five years.  Then, if I manage to find something else to do which will enable me to supplement my income, I’ll be able to start a small business. I want to carry on with the vegetable plot and earn money to help my children.”

Oxfam is aiming to help 1.2 million people across seven countries with programs that include cash transfers and cash-for-work initiatives, veterinary care for the livestock on which many families depend, and access to clean water and sanitation. We are also campaigning to change the root causes of this crisis. Find out how you can support our efforts.

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