'Buried by night' - hunger stalks children of southern Madagascar

by Joshua Poole | Catholic Relief Services
Monday, 21 November 2016 15:19 GMT

A farmer wearing a t-shirt bearing a picture of Marc Ravalomanana, who was ousted by Madagascar's army-backed new leader Andry Rajoelina, speaks on a mobile next to a rice paddy at Ambohimanambola outside Antananarivo, Madagascar, in this 2009 archive picture. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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"Every single one of us is in terrible shape. It hasn’t rained a drop, and all we’ve eaten for four years is red cactus fruit"

By Joshua Poole

Everyone in Madagascar knows about Anjampaly, a remote village toward the very southern tip of this African island nation, because people are dying here.

I recently made the long drive from the closest main town of Tsihombe to the scattered, thatched huts of Anjampaly. The roads are of sand – some formerly paved ones falling apart in hazardous chunks – hedged in on either side by cactus as far as the eye can see.

Over the last decade working in humanitarian assistance, I had seen severe hunger, and “severe acute malnutrition” as it’s often called by aid workers. But I was starting to think - and hope - that people dying of hunger had become a thing of the past because of robust investments in global food assistance and development programs that are making a difference.

But in Anjampaly, people have died. Eking out a living here could never have been easy; when maize harvests failed, farmers fell back on cassava, another staple which is hardier in extremely dry conditions. But these days, with climate change compounding two years of searing drought brought on by El Nino, it seems almost nothing is growing. Even cassava wilts in the hot sand.

Sitting in a hut -- cool inside despite the 90 degrees blazing outside -- the village chief lowered his head when he told me the story of this community.

It started last year. Four died. Then another three, including a three-year-old girl. Nine have died in total, although the number is probably more. People who don’t even appear in birth registries are likely dying at home, buried unceremoniously at night, because absolute destitution means no funeral. Then there is the deep communal shame that surrounds the hunger.

“We’ve been like this for four years,” the chief told me. “Every single one of us is in terrible shape. It hasn’t rained a drop, and all we’ve eaten for four years is red cactus fruit.”

Hunger in this area is nothing new, but it has become fatal because no one can survive for years on cactus. So the people here barely scrape by, cutting the cactus fruit at night to conserve energy. They eat, then sleep. Cutting extra cactus fruit might earn an infinitesimal income.

I also met Ranomasy, a 20-year-old mother of an infant boy. They had arrived in the town of Tsihombe on an ox-cart a month earlier from another remote village. “Get to town with your boy,” her neighbors told her, “or the baby will die.”

Ranomasy heard about the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, and she found her way to their clinic in Tsihombe. Despite a month of care, the skin on her son’s tiny calves still was folded and wrinkled like an elephant’s leathery hide, without any muscle to fill his little body out.

The clinic gets about half a dozen cases like this every week, I was told. A baby that arrived some ten days earlier died the next day.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, some 1.4 million people are facing hunger across southern Madagascar. More than half of them need urgent humanitarian assistance.

Other countries in southern Africa, including Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho are facing similar plights. Over 40 million people are considered ‘food insecure’ across the region. It’s the worst drought seen here in 35 years.

Meanwhile, the aid that has gone to some countries in this region in past years is paying off. In Malawi, a river that would have been dry in the past is now running year round thanks to watershed and soil management projects.

In Madagascar, thousands of people are weathering the drought because of investments in roads and irrigation infrastructure, the rehabilitation of water sources, introduction of drought-resistant seeds and training farmers on diversifying their income.

But with longer and more intense droughts, more such help is needed, in both short-term assistance to those going hungry and longer-term aid to build resilience to these all-too-frequent climatic events.

In Anjampaly, there will be no new harvest until March, at the earliest. But, if the El Nino weather disruptions continue and the rains fail again, we could be talking about five years of no rain.

Joshua Poole is country representative in Madagascar for the Catholic Relief Services.

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