"We travelled for days to get here," says Alaka. "We had heard that things were better in Sangrava. The past two harvests in our home village had been very poor and we just didn't have enough to eat. We used to own animals, but when the last one died we knew we had to move."
Alaka and her family are amongst the poorest in this very poor part of the country. They travelled to Sangrava, in the Aftout region, with only the clothes they were wearing and the mixture of cloth blankets which now provide a tent-like shelter under which they sleep. Alaka's sons and daughters all work in the houses of richer land-owners in order to earn a little money to provide food for themselves and their ten children.
One meal a day is being provided by means of a UN World Food Programme distribution of maize but, as is evident from the children, this is not enough. Early signs of malnutrition are evident: children's bellies sticking out because the muscles of the abdomen are wasted and weak, their faces showing signs of an age their bodies may never reach, a tearful lethargy in bodies which should be filled with a child's youthful exuberance.
The single piece of hope Alaka and many others like her have had since she came here is provided by a women's cooperative operating in Aftout.
The Nissa Bank was set up by Unicef in 1998 and is now funded by Oxfam. The poorer families in Aftout were forced to go into debt to get through the 'hunger gap' period, normally between May and June each year, when food and money have run out but the rainy season has not yet started. These loans had to be taken, at high rates of interest, from shopkeepers in the bigger towns.
The Nissa Bank is currently providing over 6,000 women with loans of up to 150,000 Ouguiya (=A335). This loan facility, together with the local shops members have opened with income from the bank, have meant that crops and animals have stayed within the Aftout community and, during the more difficult years, have been used to raise extra money for these families.
In previous years the women's cooperative has helped the families of Aftout get through some lean periods. But, even by Mauritanian standards, this year's has been extreme. This is the worst in 15 years, with an almost complete crop failure and no hope of a further harvest before September 2003. With the price of sorghum having more than doubled due to the lack of supply and with the sale price of livestock less than half due to over-supply as people are forced to sell their only assets, the limited resources people have are stretched beyond breaking point.
Aichatou Mint Demba, President of the Nissa Bank, explains: "we are able to give loans to women to help them get through the month or two before the next harvest. But this year people have to get through 9 months before the rains come in September. In addition, there are far more families in need of loans than during a normal year. We just don't have the money for them."
Women in the villages of Aftout have started making handicrafts, like the mats used for sleeping on, in order to gain extra income. But their need has gone beyond the little income they can earn from such work.
"Most of the men have left their villages to try and earn money in the capital, Nouakchott, or across into Mali," says Aichatou, "so the women are having to look after their children, their health and education, their animals and to provide food."
The people of southern Mauritania are very resilient and self reliant. They have adapted to life in this harsh environment and have developed different ways of coping in times of poor rains. But a total failure of crops has pushed even these people beyond their ability to cope.
Following an in-depth assessment of the situation in September, which identified the Aftout and Affolè regions as being in need of immediate food aid, Oxfam distributed seeds in December. Timed to coincide with the second cropping period and planted in time, these seeds have not prospered due to the continuing lack of water, normally held in dams to allow for an extension of the planting period, and attack by insects and birds, themselves fighting over the very limited available food.
With few international organisations working in Mauritania, Oxfam is now calling for funding, both for its own response and of the UN World Food Programme appeal, which will import food to the country and ensure that it is distributed to those most in need.
Communications Adviser, Humanitarian Department