In focus: a food photographer explores chronic hunger in the Sahel

By Matthew Carter

Today is World Food day – a day of action dedicated to tackling global hunger.

To mark the day, the Red Cross teamed up with the renowned food photographer Yuki Sugiura. She usually photographs food and cooking for companies such as Waitrose, House & Gardens magazine and The Guardian.

But for us, Yuki turned her lens on a huge issue that is seldom talked about in the news – chronic hunger in the Sahel, a region of Africa that borders the Sahara. Across the Sahel, 7 million people don’t have enough food and 1.5 million children are acutely malnourished.

The result is a collection of photography mixing food, cookware and portraits from Niger, a country in the Sahel. Together they combine to tell a very different food story from the high-end gastronomy Yuki is used to.

Surviving on one meal a day

Many people we met were surviving on one meal a day and did not know where the next meal is coming from.

We went to a Red Cross centre where mothers queued up to have their babies weighed and their arms measured to determine whether they were malnourished.

There I met grandmother Rabi, who was looking after her grandchild following the death of her daughter – the child’s mother. Rabi was letting the child nurse on her breast, despite having no milk.

She was visiting the centre to try and get the nutritional supplement plumpy nut but it is in short supply and she left empty handed.

“It made my life very hard to bear,” said Rabi, of the loss of her daughter.

“But if I just let it ruin my life, my grandchild would not have much of a chance. So I look after her.”

Mothers skip meals so their children can eat

Everywhere we went, we found mother’s skipping meals so their children wouldn’t go hungry.

Mother of nine children Aboutaye Magongi lived in the same village as Rabi. When we arrived at her home she was feeding her youngest a sour porridge made from millet flour.

“It weighs down on me. It’s a real problem,” she said of the struggle to find enough food.

“It’s not nice. Even an adult would suffer if they don’t eat, let alone a child. That’s not how it should be.”

Cereal bank and mill makes it easier to feed families

Despite the suffering, there is reason for hope. One project, supported by the Red Cross, was a cereal bank and mill managed by a group of women from the village.

The bank is managed by a women’s cooperative who set the price of the cereals. It has allowed the women to avoid the long walk to market and the worst of the price inflation that inevitably hits during lean season.

“A measure of corn at the market would cost 500,” said Samou Issa, the head of the cooperative. “But here we buy it for 465.”

While this may not sound like much, 500 West African Francs – about 70 pence – is the little that many people live on each day in this part of the world

Millet is harvested from the fields before being brought to a Red Cross funded mill and cereal bank.

Stems are stripped by hand and the grain pounded into flour. Water is then added and a dough made for eating with sauces. Alternatively, water is added to flour to make porridge.

The mill and cereal bank have freed up the village women’s time.

Some of them used to leave their homes at 4:00 am and walk for miles to market.

The mill has drastically cut the hard hours of labour pounding grain to make flour in this village.

“We raise our hands to you”

“It was difficult I tell you,” said the every-smiling Tabou. “We were so tired of walking.

“Do you see these legs? And you carry everything on your head. All the way to Keiché.

“We raise our hands to you. We’re really happy with it. You’ve solved a big problem for us.”

Cash grants from the Red Cross also help communities buy what they need. That could be seeds to plant the next season’s harvest or food to eat today.

“The last rainy season was very bad,” said Aissa, another woman.

“People got nothing from it. We were preparing to leave this place.”

“The children were always following us, crying because of their hunger but we had nothing to feed them.

“When we got the money we bought some millet and rice. And with that we chased the hunger away.

“We are still using the little that remains to cope with this new season. We tried to make use of it by doing some small businesses.”

Before the trip I read about and was struck by the terrible the figures on malnutrition and hunger in Niger. But only by meeting people who bring them to life can you understand how serious they really are.

That’s ultimately what this project is about. In opening up the homes, the food and the lives of a few people from this part of the world, we hope you, too, will be moved by these stories.

Despite not being in the news, the crisis in the Sahel is real and only set to get worse in the coming years. Together, even if it’s just by learning a little about the region, and sharing these photos, we can help improve the lives of these remarkably resilient people.