It is just two days before the Tabaski and there is great bustle in each small town you pass through. Colourful silhouettes queue up to buy food for the family, new clothes for the children. There are sheep everywhere, many standing motionless, as if already resigned to the fate that awaits them.
Noontime arrived, the heat is terrifying. It intensifies every minute, the burning air quivering and undulating.
You stop in a village on the outskirts of Kaedi town. You walk past mudbrick houses; constructions in ruins (the villagers cannot afford to repair them); outdoor terraces (an area covered with thick fabric to block out the sun). People and animals mingle on the path to the school. A group of girls – aged six to 14 – wearing bright dresses with matching scarves gather in the school yard. The summer holiday is not quite over yet, but the girls say that they are eager for the classes to resume.
You ask their names. Kadjima, Ramata, Paulele, Dianouba, roll the answers. Kadijma, 13, reveals later on that she would like to become a midwife/nurse. Asked why, she raises her shoulders. The answer is simple. There are no midwives in the village, and there is a great need for one.
Aisatta, one of the moms gathered in the schoolyard, says that there are more and more girls going to school now, unlike the time when she was a young girl. The principal echoes her words. More than half of the students are girls, and the number of students nearly doubled in the past five-six years.
Do WFP school meals help? It is one of the main reasons children come to school, says another parent. In a country where nearly one in three people do not have enough food to lead a healthy life, the daily hot meals at school are a lifesaver for the school children.
The new school year is to start mid-October, and WFP is getting ready to reach more than 150,000 students like Kadijma and her friends. But without urgent support, WFP will only be able to sustain its school meals programme for two months.
“This will make life more difficult for us, the parents,” says Aisatta. “For many children, the meals they receive at school – breakfast and lunch – are their sole, regular food per day. No school canteen means more expenses for families who are already struggling to feed their children.”
The village of Betieck, about 40 kilometres from Kaedi, is not that different from the previous village, except that it is isolated. When it rains, as it does on the day of the visit, even the four-wheel drive battles to cut across the muddy fields surrounding the village. In view of its insularity, the villagers, not surprisingly, are curious to come and meet you.
Women and young children sit on the floor, outside a small building which serves as a centre for malnutrition treatment. All children between six months to two years (about 80 children) receive fortified nutritional supplements aimed to prevent malnutrition.
So do the pregnant and nursing women (about 110 women). Malnutrition rates are high in this region (Gorgol), with global acute malnutrition rates surpassing WHO’s critical emergency threshold, at 18 percent. Moderately malnourished children also benefit from WFP’s nutritional products so that they can recover.
To help families cope during the lean season, WFP is providing cash to more than half of Betieck’s families so that they can buy food and cover other essential costs. There is food in the market but with little buying power, the villagers are struggling to have enough food.
Tutu, a young expecting mom with five children, benefits from both cash and nutritional support.
“We had little harvest last year,” she says. “Food is scarce both for us and for the animals. We lost some of our cattle because of this. It’s been difficult. This is why my husband went to the capital during the lean season - to work and send money to the family. Even so, I have been having debts at the food store. This is why I was happy when I heard that I would be receiving support. When I got the first cash installment, I went to pay the debts, I bought food and I was able to go to the hospital. I’ve been sick and worried about this as I am pregnant but could not afford to go to the doctor…I am waiting impatiently to receive this month’s distribution as I have nothing left now.”
Tutu is in front of her hut, pouring the nutritious flour she has just received into a boiling pot of water. With every stir, the porridge is getting thicker and soon it is ready to eat.
Sheena, anther villager - elderly widow with 14 children - adds: “I’ve been living in this village since a young girl. Things are getting worse every year. We are getting poorer and poorer, and it is becoming more difficult to survive. The cash that I received enabled me to cover my essential needs – mainly food. We are doing our best to manage the little that we have. God willing.”
The rain sets in. It pours down heavily like a wall – a wall of rain. People run inside for shelter, and as you look around at the muddy pools of water widening and deepening with every minute passed, you cannot help wondering: how will help arrive the following days when the cash distributions are scheduled?
Distances, difficulty in accessing remote places especially during the rainy season are only additional challenges that WFP faces when coming to the aid of communities in need. Yet, you sense a great will, desire to help coming from dedicated, compassionate staff. If only all the financial means were available. In a context where Mauritania continues to bear the brunt of reoccurring food crises, chronic malnutrition, and instability spilling over from neighbouring Mali, lack of funding is severely hampering WFP’s work with drastic consequences on the lives of the most vulnerable.