Voices from the Field: The Delicate Dance of the Hungry Season
Every time I travel to Mali in the fall, I am amazed at how lush everything looks. The contrast between the dry and rainy season is quite dramatic. Between November and May—the long “dry season”—the soil is arid, barren and almost uniformly brown. The rains usually arrive in June and last until the end of September, marking the beginning of the harvest.
Last October, when I visited some of the rural villages where Trickle Up works in northern Mali, participants and their families, many of whom are small-scale farmers, were preparing for the annual harvest.
Tall millet and sorghum grain plants tell the story of a successful and happy time for these women and their families. What they don’t tell is the story of the rest of the year. During my last visit I met with Niamoye Maiga, a Trickle Up participant, in the small town of Djenné. She told me, “The harvest generally lasts us only eight months of the year.” If you do the math, that still leaves four months before the next harvest, a period that Malians and others around the world refer to as the “hungry season”, when families must go with an inadequate supply of food. This means lots of skipped meals, resulting in increased rates of malnourished children.
“This year’s harvest will be bad. We didn’t have enough rain and I don’t think our food supply will last more than six months.” This means a long six months of hunger lies ahead for Niamoye, her three children and husband.
What one almost never expects is the dance that Malian mothers do to support their families during this time.
No, they don’t actually dance, but the intricate steps required by the women to keep their families fed and their businesses growing, always inspires me to call it just that, a dance. Niamoye juggles several activities at the same time, including sheep rearing, vegetable gardening, and petty trading to supplement rice farming, the household’s main livelihood. “My sheep rearing business not only played a major role in increasing and improving the quality of food for my family,” Niamoye explained, “but with the profits generated from selling sheep, I was also able to directly invest in our rice farm, purchasing grains, fertilizers and other equipment to expand production.”
The dance becomes more complex when women build solidarity by syncing their efforts to overcome the hungry season together. Savings groups are one such way Trickle Up facilitates women coming together, enabling them to use credit to buy extra rice to fill gaps in their family’s food supply. It also helps them collectively invest their savings in a granary, to store food during the plentiful months in anticipation of next year’s hungry season.
More often than not, the dance is done with a woman’s husband, who traditionally is the head of the household. For one, while it is generally the husband’s responsibility to provide grain, women in the Trickle Up program most directly improve the quality and nutritional value of food by providing vegetables and protein for family meals.The downside is that traditional gender inequalities are exacerbated during these months. In Bengasi, a participant explained that traditionally men and boys eat first and then the women and girls eat whatever is left. Though this participant plays a major role in supporting her family through her trading activities, she did not feel that she could change this custom. This is especially dangerous to the household’s long-term well-being, as children – especially girls – who if aren’t fed properly in the first 1,000 days of childhood will never be able to catch up. Instead, families will face increased costs due to complications from malnutrition, and girls will grow up more economically and socially disadvantaged.
While this is a far cry from the full-scale famine in the Horn of Africa to the east, the hungry season is a fixture for much of the Sahel. The Sahel is in north-central Africa, south of the Sahara desert, extending from Senegal and Mauritania in the west, to the borders of Sudan in the east. While Mali almost never makes the news, it is often referred to as the “silent tsunami” of Africa’s food crisis. The poor can always expect the hungry season to be waiting for them when their stores of millet, rice and corn run out.
The Trickle Up program focuses on empowering women because we know that women offer one of the most promising solutions to overcoming this deadly trend. Regardless of how many hungry seasons families must endure, mothers will always perform that delicate dance to ensure their families are fed throughout the year.