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Liberia: tools and seeds to survive the hunger season

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Impoverished communities in the rural areas of north-eastern Liberian are hosting tens of thousands of Ivorian refugees. Their reserves of food and seeds are now stretched to the limit. With the rainy season around the corner, an ICRC agricultural programme is helping them replenish these stocks.

Planting rice for survival

Cutlasses at their sides, farmers descend a steep, narrow path through lush vegetation. Half an hour after leaving Zorgowee town in Nimba County, the group finally reaches the swampland.

Encouraged by the head of their group, Moses W. Buomie, they cut away bushes and grass. This is called "side brushing" the field. Moses explains: "After brushing, we’ll burn the field. Then we'll clean the remaining brush. After that, we’ll pull rice from the nursery to transplant."

Here, in a few months, will grow the rice that is so essential to the survival of the community. But there are complications. "In order to feed the refugees, we and they had to eat the rice we’d reserved for planting," says Moses. "Even without the refugees, this time of year is known as the “hunger period.” Helping out the Ivorian guests has severely exacerbated what is a lean season at the best of times.

The ICRC, together with the Liberian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, has launched an agricultural programme to help 3,000 families who are hosting refugees along the Liberia-Côte d'Ivoire border. The cutlasses, axes, rubber boots and machetes Moses' group is using have all been donated by the ICRC. Seed will follow soon, together with food rations to ensure that people are not obliged to eat the new delivery of seed in order to survive.

Here in Zorgowee, refugees and residents are working together, eager to get the field ready before the coming rainy season. It has rained today – two weeks earlier than usual.

Three stories

Zeyieu, Esther and Deborah

Ivorian refugee and teacher Zeyieu Gondo arrived in Zorgowee Town in December 2010 with his wife, five children and elderly mother. He is staying with his Liberian wife's family and his wife Esther is participating in the ICRC agricultural programme.

Joseph

Joseph (not his real name), is an Ivorian traditional nurse. He fled to Liberia after suffering an attack by armed men in his village that left him seriously injured. Joseph owes his life to Alphonso Voker who rescued him and to Alphonso’s father, traditional herbalist Abraham who treated his wounds. The Voker family had themselves spent time as refugees in Côte d’Ivoire during the Liberian civil war.

Adele, Kady and Lazare

Ivorian refugee Adele Zranhoundo has just lost her husband, who died after they fled to Liberia with their daughter Kady and son Lazare. The family has no plans to return to Côte d’Ivoire in the near future.

A long-term approach

"We are in a race against time," says Karin Hofmann, the ICRC head of delegation in Liberia. "Soon, the rains will render the mud tracks very difficult to use. Our engineers will repair bridges so they can take the weight of the trucks bringing in the seed."

Further down the road from Zorgowee, towards other villages hosting refugees, we start to understand the problem. Our vehicle skids off the muddy track as we slalom between huge potholes. The "bridges" are actually makeshift collections of logs laid parallel to each other. Each crossing is something of an adventure.

These issues are nothing new to the ICRC. "We’ve been in Liberia for 20 years, and we know that the food security of the local communities is a chronic problem, even without the Ivorian refugees," adds Karin. "So we take a long-term approach." Improving access to the isolated villages is an important part of this.

Held back by a double fear

"The farming season is one additional reason why the Ivorian refugees show no sign of returning," says Abubakar Yakubu Gombe, a member of the disaster response team of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Nimba County. "The refugees are still not convinced that it’s safe to go back to Côte d'Ivoire. In addition, their houses may have been looted, and they won't have tools and seeds back home." Under these conditions, returning now would mean missing the planting season, with dire consequences.

Back in the Zorgowee swamp, Ivorian teacher Zeyieu Gondo is hard at work, alongside his wife Esther. He is optimistic. "Ever since we arrived in December last year, the population here has been kind to us. I was given this area here to work on and plant rice. We will be able to feed our family."