This blog post was written by Douglas Steinberg, HKI’s Regional Director of West Africa.
TIMBUKTU, JULY 1: Our short trip to Timbuktu today has brought back memories from when I worked in Mali in the early 1990s. I spent much time in the Timbuktu region, plying the Niger River in large canoes to visit communities located on the banks of the Niger River. Timbuktu is a mythical place for people in the West, who think of it as the end of the world, and in many respects it is about as remote as you can get. But it has also been for centuries a center of learning and trade on the edge of the Sahara. While much of Timbuktu’s heritage was destroyed during the Islamist occupation last year, the area surrounding Timbuktu remains constant. It is a land that depends on the annual floods of the river for rice farming, where large herds gather in lush pastures when the waters recede, and where a rich catch of fish can be taken year round. Life moves at the slow pace of the Niger River current, but all together the local diet is rich and diverse. Were it not for the political crisis, the region would be relatively well-nourished.
This is in contrast to the more humid southern regions of Mali – places considered to be Mali’s breadbasket, such as Sikasso region. While harvests are more reliable in the south, the level of malnutrition is alarmingly high. A casual observer would expect the people of the south to be well-nourished when visiting during the rainy season, with lush fields of millet or sorghum everywhere. But the higher population density and dependence on subsistence farming mean that individual households harvest too little to get by – both in quantity and diversity. Even before Mali’s political crisis, there has long been a chronic crisis of malnutrition in the south. This is mainly where HKI works.
In southern Mali – where 90% of the population lives – HKI is working to promote better nutrition and hygiene. We support health facilities to reach out to communities to screen and treat acute malnutrition, and to provide behavior change communication to promote better nutrition practices to prevent nutrition in the first place. HKI has also begun working with communities, targeting women farmers to produce more diverse and micronutrient-rich foods as another strategy to prevent malnutrition. We are also cooperating with partners, such as the Malian institute for rural economy to promote zinc- and iron-biofortified sorghum, ensuring that the main staple crop provides even more nutritional value without having to change eating habits. Finally, we promote household and community hygiene, such as hand washing and safe handling of water, to ensure that what children eat is more fully absorbed by their digestive tracks.
For many Malians, the contrast between the north and south is what makes their country great. In this time of crisis, the north and south are also united by the grim specter of malnutrition. It doesn’t have to be this way; the solutions exist and HKI is working to apply them.