Tomorrow I get on a plane to Ougadougou, Burkina Faso. Over the last couple of days, the principle response to this piece of news has been 'Burkina what?'. Which would be quite funny, if it wasn't for the fact that, from Ougadougou, I will travel out to a place called Djibo, 45 kilometres from the Malian border, where thousands of men, women and children are fighting not to die of hunger.
Over 18 million people are affected by the food crisis in the Sahel, a dry sub-Saharan belt running roughly from Chad over to Senegal. Think about it. That's more people than the entire population of the Netherlands who are going hungry, right now. There are currently 61,000 refugees in Burkina; added to thousands in villages along the Malian border who have a 90% deficit in cereals from harvest. At this moment, while you're reading this and checking Facebook and eating your Marks & Spencer's sandwich, wondering what to get for dinner, perhaps, or silently beating yourself up for eating that chocolate croissant for breakfast, there is the equivalent of whole cities of people who are starving hungry.
The thing is that in Burkina Faso and Niger the crisis is a double one - communities are already starving, but the burden on NGO and government response is greater as thousands of hungry refugees are crossing from Mali, so there is even less food to go around. In one month the rainy season will arrive; when that happens, all access is cut off to these communities. The pressure to get some kind of assistance in place is very much on.
This is not happening in some distant land but a few hours' flight from London, Frankfurt, Paris and Madrid; seven hours from New York; a flight north of Cape Town. If you were to fly over Burkina Faso in a plane, say, on your way to Dubai or Cape Town or somewhere infinitely more exotic and important, there wouldn't be much to hold your attention. Flying low above the vast, flat, infinite redness of Africa you would spot, perhaps, the jigsaw of tents. You'd miss the make-shift toilets built by Plan International whose staff stay up nights to try to help; you'd miss the children playing in the dust; the exhausted shadows of people. Nor, from the air-conditioned interior of the plane, as you tucked into your no doubt sub-standard in-flight meal, would you even get an impression of the heat; that viscous forty degree heat that clouds your head like treacle, bringing with it smells of rubbish and the rich, dark onslaught of a thousand unwashed human beings.
In April, some of these boys and girls from villages in northern Mali watched as their fathers had their throats cut. Then they fled for their lives. Amadou, 10, now in Mentao camp near Djibo, says: "I don't do very much here; I don't have anyone to play with. I used to play with my cow but I don't have her anymore. I would like to return to my village, to see my friends again, but at the moment I have no idea where most of them are. I don't know where my family are either." Aisha, from Timbuktu, also in Mentao, says simply: "I saw my husband get shot. And seeing my husband with the blood flowing out of him, I wanted to die too."
Why does it matter, and why does it matter to you? Quite simply, because it keeps on happening; and by necessity, the more we know about it, the less acceptable it will become. Is it, as the foreign editor of the Telegraph recently told me, that "no-one is interested in West Africa, Jane..."?
I don't believe so. I believe that as the media, we have a responsibility to report these situations so that people know about them. I believe we should we reporting this crisis and making people interested; the public, policy makers, other kids. We should be getting people to act. Then and only then will we make the way for change. And part of this is getting the crisis talked about - humanitarian experts believe this is a key part of emergency response in these situations. In the words of Dr Unni Krishnan, head of disaster and response for the children's rights NGO Plan International where I work as a journalist: "Consider the facts: Over 18 million people are affected by hunger and a food crisis. This is more than the total number of people in the Netherlands and it is not in the news!" Hunger doesn't sit well with the media, adds Dr Unni; a scandal or a celebrity does better. For anyone who has seen The Hunger Games recently, I hope this makes you think.
Everyone agrees that Africa must forge its own way into the future, but that doesn't mean that we can't put certain measures in place to help it along the way. And as Paul Collier puts it in 'The Bottom Billion, it matters economically too: "This problem matters, and not just to the billion people who are living and dying in 14th century conditions. It matters to us. The 21st-century world of material comfort, global travel and economic interdependence will become increasingly vulnerable to these large islands of chaos."
It matters because last year, exactly the same thing happened in the Horn of Africa. It was the same story; 13 million people in five countries affected by drought, people who are still vulnerable as they recover into 2012. It is a record on repeat. The question is, why, on a continent where more than half the entire population is engaged in agriculture, does this happen again and again and again?
US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson believes it shouldn't. He said last week, on the eve of the G8 summit: "Africa has enormous promise and potential in the agriculture field, and there is absolutely no reason why Africa should be food deficit and why there should be food insufficiency in the continent and why it cannot, in fact, be a major agro-producer, not only for the continent, but also for export globally and around the world."
Carson believes that President Barack Obama's new initiative, optimistically called Feed the Future, will help create a green agricultural revolution in Africa to end food insufficiency. President Obama pushed the multi-billion dollar food security initiative at the G8, giving us a vision of how we can boost investments in rural Africa in hopes of lifting millions out of poverty.
It is a grand plan and one which, like many, presents an appealing vision which can make us all relax back into our armchairs when we hear it on the news. Phew, we think, it will all be alright then... In the meantime, in the field, as we in the NGO world like to call it, there are people from Plan International mobilising resources to fight the crisis. They are drilling boreholes by hand in three refugee camps. In the Mentao camp, where I am going on Monday, and in the other camps at Gandafabou and Damba, Plan staff are building latrines to help the WASH situation that inevitably gets jeopardised when thousands of people leave their villages in only the clothes they stand up in and gather together in a makeshift camp. There is a good flow of information, people on the ground and funds being raised; but there is a long way to go.
I've long thought that the editors of our international media (and the British media is a particular culprit) needs to start noticing Africa. Not just the coups and the food crises and the droughts, but also the positive stories, the African success stories that are putting, for example, Ghana amid the fast growing nations in the world. If we, and the editors who, whether we like it or not, dictate what we're interested in, are interested, we give Africa a voice, and it is that which will, in the end, mean that 18 million people go home with some food in their bellies.
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