Tag Archives: Food

Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire keeps Liberians hungry

Liberians living along the border with Côte d’Ivoire have encountered persistent hardships since crossings were closed in June 2012. Travis Lupick photo.

Joseph Tahyor recalled one day last August when he and some 600 other residents of B’hai Jozon were asked to leave their homes. Men, women, and children, set out first-thing in the morning, and travelled from the Liberian side of the border with Côte d’Ivoire to the relative-safety of Toe Town, some 10 kilometers east.

“They all walked on foot,” Tahyor recounted. “We left for three days before we came back here….when it was no-longer serious fighting.”

Tahyor said that soldiers with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) facilitated the move, and that everything went smoothly enough. But he noted that roughly a quarter of those who left have yet to return to B’hai, afraid of another outbreak of violence related to ongoing unrest in Côte d’Ivoire.

Security has returned to the area, residents agreed. But life is more difficult than it was before. It’s the conflict’s impact on trade that is felt most acutely. Even basic staples have become scarce, residents reported. “We have children who are suffering,” one woman complained. “No food.”

The situation is the same in many villages in Liberia’s eastern border region. The Government has stated that it is aware of such complaints. But most crossings have remained closed for more than four months now, since a June 8 attack killed seven UN Peacekeepers and eight civilians.

In November 2010, former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo lost a democratic election but refused to concede defeat. In the ensuing months, clashes between Gbagbo supporters and those of the new President of Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, left more than 1,500 people dead. Gbagbo was eventually captured and sent to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But sporadic violence has continued, with most attacks occurring in Côte d’Ivoire’s east.

On June 9, 2012, the Government of Liberia launched Operation Restore Hope, which aims to secure the porous border that runs for hundreds of kilometers through dense forest. People in B’hai said that they feel safer since the deployment of soldiers to the area. But they also unanimously complained of economic hardships that have come with the military’s deployment.

Women living along the border with Côte d’Ivoire are bearing the brunt of challenges faced by Liberian's affected by the conflict next door. Travis Lupick photo.

Joanna Zeah, a business woman and mother of six, explained that B’hai residents’ primary trading partners were towns in Côte d’Ivoire. When the AFL arrived, they sealed the border, which has remained closed ever since. Links to suppliers and markets were severed.

“From Ivory Coast, we could get food,” Zeah said. “But the border is closed. When they open the border, then our children can eat.”

Grace David, another merchant, said that the situation has forced the town’s women to search for food in the surrounding forest.

“We go in the bush but it is scary,” she added. “You can be in there and people can come and no one will know. Even to be there for just one hour’s time is scary. If something will happen to you, who will know? Nobody.”

The economic situation in B’hai Jozon is just one of many ways that the low-grade conflict in Côte d’Ivoire is spilling over into Liberia, noted Peter Solo, superintendent for Grand Gedeh, one of four Liberian counties that border Côte d’Ivoire.

In the county capital of Zwedru, Solo described how repeated influxes of Ivorian refugees have become a preoccupation for social service providers previously aiding Liberian communities in need. At the same time, he continued, the economic impact caused by the closure of the border means such assistance is in greater demand.

“We think the government in Côte d’Ivoire needs to fast track a sincere reconciliation process there,” Solo said. “We would greatly benefit from that.”

At B’hai’s closed border crossing, residents emphasized that they were grateful for the improved level of security. But everybody stressed the need for economic assistance, and said that fears of further attacks remain.

“It is two times that this has happened,” said Neeinwley Cooper, vice principal for B’hai-Nicko Elementary and Junior High School. He recounted a second incident, when villagers had to run away in the night.

“The rebels started shooting randomly, heavy guns. And so the whole town left,” he said. “Maybe we will have to run away again. Who knows what will happen tomorrow.”

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“Meating” halfway – The growing importance of soy in Malawi

Skewered meat sizzles on kickstand grills along the main M1 highway, a whole pig is slaughtered in an open-air butcher’s market shack, a farmer herds wealth-representative cattle down a maize-sidled byway and a “road runner” free range chicken dodges potholes and traffic – in a culture where cows have long symbolized status, slaughtered to honour guests and in the north traded as a dowry to marry off daughters, making the conscious choice to live a vegetarian lifestyle in Malawi is about as rare as an order of steak tartare.

But a Development Aid from People to People in Malawi (DAPP in Malawi) program is working to change the mindset and the menu.  In 2007, with support from the United States Department of Agriculture, the American Soya Bean Association and the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health, DAPP in Malawi began training Total Control of the Epidemic (TCE) field officers to promote soy in communities affected by HIV/AIDS.  Today over 100 of their HIV/AIDS support groups have been trained to cultivate and cook with soy in the preparation of other local foods.

Recipes promoted through the DAPP – TCE soya program include banana and soy sausage, masamba a soya (soy vegetables), khofi wa soya (soy coffee), and mkaka wa soya (soy milk), and are made available on print paper with easy-to-follow directions; “Boil 3 cups water, wash (1 cup of) soya in cold water, don’t put the soya into the hot water all at once but little by little like you do with rice,” begins the soy milk instructions.

Goliyati Village resident Mary Bilila serves up a selection of newly-mastered soy recipes during a DAPP - TCE HIV/AIDS support group meeting. Photo by Karissa Gall.

Based on the nutritional value of 1 cup of boiled soybeans, the DAPP – TCE soy milk recipe would provide about 300 calories, 28 grams of protein, 10 grams of fiber, and 20 grams of fat.  The soy milk would also provide essential vitamins and minerals, with 1 cup of boiled soybeans providing 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of iron, 40 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D-balancing phosphorus, and 4 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C.

According to DAPP in Malawi Partnership Officer Nozipho Tembo, the nutritional benefits of soy foods could make a substantial difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  The disease is known for causing micronutrient deficiencies – vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin D, carotenoids, selenium, and iron in the blood – which in turn speed the progress of the infection, and in 2006 a study conducted by Médecins sans Frontières in Malawi found that patients with mild malnutrition were twice as likely to die in the first three months of treatment, and patients with severe malnutrition were six times as likely to die as patients with a healthy body weight.

“Over the years we have learnt that soya is high in proteins which can be substituted for meat, cheese and fish, of which some people in rural areas can’t afford to have on their daily meal,” said Tembo, adding that 1 kg of soya costs MK200 (CAD0.80) compared to MK800 (CAD3.00) for 1 kg of meat.  “The DAPP – TCE project teaches the communities to adhere to a well-balanced diet and this is one way for people in rural areas to get proteins in their meals.”

To support existing programming and expand into other areas of Malawi, Tembo said DAPP in Malawi and TCE will be engaging seed companies for seed donations.

“The demand is high… the people who are (HIV) positive are living a healthier life whenever they adhere to the information given to them about soya and how to prepare it,” she said.  “Now the challenge will be to provide soya seed for the people to plant in their fields.”

Gutter gardens: MH-37’s toxic run-off

Accra’s Military Hospital No. 37, was built during the Second World War and it’s obsolescence is becoming evident. About a year ago, the pipe carrying raw medical waste from the mortuary, maternity and surgical theaters to the treatment tank was damaged. Unable to fix the line, the hospital began dumping bio-hazardous material into the city’s open-gutters. Now, the sewers are overflowing and downstream the stench of contamination and concern is growing thick.

Nuuna, works in one of the vegetable gardens growing in the shadow of Military Hospital No. 37. The tall, bearded, 24 year old is the eldest of five children living in his Mother’s house. He works hard to maintain a balance between family obligations, time in the field and pursuit of an education. He

and his siblings struggle together earning their pay with the cuts and callouses tempering their hands.
Each day, they pick, trim and prepare assorted greens for sale. They pluck crops from the soil, remove the small leaves, sever the stock and bind the individual sprigs together with lashings cut from the discarded end pieces. The bundles are put into corrugated boxes bound for markets both local and international. “Some stays here, but almost everything we pull up gets sent to the UK or Europe,” Nuuna explained, while slicing a fibrous strip from a handful of leaves.

The land is irrigated with water drawn from both a well and a stream fed by run-off from city sewers.He says the property is government owned, but not on the supply grid. “I went to see them (the water and housing commission) about pipes many times. They would never talk to me, always said to go andcome (back later). I think they wanted a bribe or something.” Without fresh water, farmers like Nuuna are forced to grow crops using the sources available.

In the city, clean water is a critical commodity and it doesn’t come cheap.Drinking from  faucets is rarely advised and potable sources are most likely found in a bottle or sachet. Open sewers carry liquid and solid waste material of all sort. When gutters overflow the result can  be devastating.

Last year during the rainy season, Accra was rocked by flooding and the rapid tide of a cholera epidemic. Nearly 6 thousand people fell ill with 80 eventually dying from  the disease. Cholera can be treated with rehydration fluids, but amongst infants, the elderly and the infirm death can occur  within hours. The youngest victim of the outbreak was only eight  days old when her tiny body succumbed to the bacterial infection.

At this point, no solid connection between hospital waste and the outbreak has been established. However, many living nearMH-37 have complained of general poor health and the World Health Organization (WHO) advises that epidemics become virulent when water caches are contaminated.

The Globe newspaper and CIti-fm, developed and broke the medical waste story near the end of January. The news sparked public outrage and in response the AMA (Accra Metropolitan Assembly) formed an emergency fact-finding committee. The investigation found deplorable conditions at the hospital and authored a series of recommendations.The list includes an overhaul of the drainage system, repairs to deteriorating hospital infrastructure and opened the door to charges of criminal negligence.

Hospital administrators were unavailable or unwilling to comment on the situation. The AMA’s official report states the target is to prevent future dumping and endangerment of public health. However, the committee failed to acknowledge the residual realities faced by farmers in the fields of Accra.

Nuuna says, without access to a consistent water supply he has no choice but to continue with current practices. Nearby reservoirs have a high probability of contamination, making crops suspect and continuing to place the public at-risk.

At the market, boxes overflow with produce grown locally, as well as, on farms worldwide. Vesta buys her fruit and vegetables at a well-established stand a few kilometers from MH-37. She picks through each item looking for bumps, bruises or other tell-tale signs of corruption. Her inspection is thorough, but danger is not always visible. “I think they inspect everything before it gets here. The standards boards should be held accountable. I mean, they must test for those kinds of things,right?” She asked, while market girls stayed silent and loaded bags of cabbage, tomatoes and bundled greens into the trunk of her idling jaguar.

Malawi’s national addiction

No fertile ground is left unturned during Malawi’s annual maize harvest. Fields like this one are a common sight in Malawi’s cities and towns.

“There’s no food if there’s no nsima.”

Or so I learned from a former colleague as he stared disapprovingly at my grilled cheese sandwich over lunch one day. The heavy white porridge of maize flour is Malawi’s staple food and is produced and consumed across the country—uniting all income, class, religious, and tribal divides. It’s also an object of national pride; criticizing the dish is a surefire way to get on a Malawian’s bad side.

“It is part of our culture. Our parents and grandparents all ate nsima,” says Felix Minjale, Programs Officer with the Hunger Project in Malawi.

Nsima’s main ingredient is critical to the country’s food security—2.4 million tons of maize is needed every year to feed Malawi’s 15 million people.

Reaching this goal draws on the country’s collective energy. The most recent Malawi census found that 80 per cent of Malawians are subsistence farmers consumed by the yearly process of planting, fertilizing, weeding, harvesting and milling maize.

While visiting a rural area just outside Blantyre’s city centre, I asked resident Linnah Matanya how many people there farmed maize. She looked surprised by the apparent naiveté of the question before answering. “Everyone,” she said. “Without maize, we die. Full stop.”

And maize isn’t just a rural preoccupation; 15 per cent of urbanites are subsistence farmers. Just about everyone I talk to in the city supports their extended family’s maize field.

Jessey Kachule is a business owner in Blantyre. As a child, her parents would regularly haul her to her grandparents’ village to work in their field.

In her large office with a highway view, Kachule reminisces about those days. “The best part was when we ate the maize straight from the field . . . But the part I hated most was removing the seeds from the cob and your thumb would get all swollen,” she says with a laugh before turning serious.

“It taught us children how to be responsible,” she says, “and to appreciate what we had in town.”

While she no longer has time to work in the field, she is still expected to help her grandparents’ village by sending fertilizer and money.

Maize shortages caused famine in Malawi in 1991, 2002, and 2005, so this rural-urban collaboration seems to be an important part of fending off the too familiar spectre of hunger.

But the country is technically riding a wave of food security. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a global organization that predicts food shortages, reported that Malawi’s national grains stock is stable. Andrew Daudi, secretary for Malawi’s agriculture ministry, recently said that 3.9 million tons of maize is expected to be harvested this year.

Matanya, however, doesn’t want to feel complacent since rains have been sparse lately and harvesting season is still three months away. “We don’t know God’s mind. He can do anything to us.”

And no fertile ground is left unturned in Malawi’s yearly quest for sustenance. Maize stalks can appear anywhere—whether they’re by the side of a gas station or sandwiched between a plastics factory and a highway.

It’s a national dependence that may be hard to understand for those from industrialized countries where incomes are disposable and cheap imported foods flood the shelves.

“Countries like South Africa don’t need a staple food because they have so much,” says Matanya.

But even Kachule, who can access imported food, sticks close to corn. Before a busy workday, she’ll eat a bowl of maize porridge using cobs from her grandparent’s garden. According to her, “It just sustains you better than anything else.”