The last rains were in April. For the past two years, the water that planting and harvests depend on has not arrived in October, putting the futures of children including Odile’s in question.
Hers is a sad story and an all too common one across the island nation off the southern coast of Africa, which is struggling with extreme weather linked to climate change – 1.1 million people are suffering from hunger, with nearly 14,000 people in “famine-like conditions” – a figure expected to double by the end of the year.
In the south of Madagascar, many people are subsistence farmers who’ve lost their livelihoods as well as their only source of food due to erratic weather.
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Kisimba Emedi remembers waking to sounds of gunfire edging closer to her home in the southeastern village of Tundwa, in the
“We knew we had no time to lose,” she says as she prepares fish for dinner for her children, whom she “grabbed … and ran into the forest” on that night of terror.
Gunshots rang out and the adults were on edge, fearing that the smaller children might cry out and give away their hiding place. The only option was to flee.
Kisimba’s story is hauntingly familiar across DRC, where protracted violence has uprooted millions from their homes – including hundreds of thousands in the southeastern Tanganyika province. Intercommunal conflicts have grown in intensity in recent years, leaving a trail of burned-out villages and looted crops. The country has Africa’s highest number of internally displaced people.
The unrest has also deepened hunger and malnutrition in the region, forcing families to abandon their farms and other sources of livelihood.
But today, some, like Kisimba, are building back their lives, partly thanks to cash provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) – cash is a form of humanitarian assistance developed to empower people to buy the foods and essentials they need.
“Along with helping us put food on the table, the great thing about cash is that it enabled us to prioritize our needs and build for the future,” says Kisimba. “If we had received food, I may have been tempted to sell some to address our other needs.”
After the attack five years ago, Kisimba and her husband led their family to the relative safety of Kalemie, a port town on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.
During the difficult journey, they ate only the scarce food they could find along the way. In Kalemie, however, the couple quickly realized that without their own plot of land, and the support of relatives, they were going to have a hard time.
“We had been used to feeding the children from the crops we grew,” says Kisimba of her extended family – she is also responsible for nieces and nephews whose parents were unable to feed them. “In Kalemie, the only work we were able to find was manually crushing stones. My husband and I crushed stones from dawn to nightfall, while my eldest daughter looked after the other children.” Small-scale construction sites in the DRC depend on stones crushed manually for aggregate.
Even though they were working all day, every day, they weren’t earning enough to eat.
“We ended up eating just cassava leaves with salt,” says Kisimba – cassava is a popular root vegetable, whose root is consumed for starch and whose leaves are boiled into a sauce. “The children started to look sick all the time”, and still complained of being hungry.
The couple were left with no choice but to return to their village. They arrived in Tundwa exhausted and weak and found their worst fears confirmed.
“The house had been burned down,” says Kisimba. “Everything was gone — the crops, the animals we had, the cooking pots.
“We were again surviving on cassava leave – but at least we were home and we felt more hopeful.”
Neighbours who had also returned helped with food.