To mark World Food Day, the British Red Cross partnered with the food photographer Yuki Sugiura. She usually shoots with top chefs on the London food scene such as Yotam Ottolenghi and Thomasina Miers (co-founder of Wahaca).

But this year, Yuki turned her lens on a a crisis that is rarely talked about – chronic hunger in the Sahel, a region of Africa that borders the Sahara. Across the Sahel, 7 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from and 1.5 million children are acutely malnourished.

This is already one of the already of the driest regions on earth, and temperatures could rise by several degrees by the end of the century. Climate change, environmental degradation, extreme poverty, conflict and growing populations mean that millions are overwhelmed.

But the British Red Cross, with the support of players from the People’s Postcode Lottery, is helping to break the cycle of hunger in the Sahel.

For World Food Day Yuki brought a new perspective to the issue – comparing the two worlds. Her of portraits  food, cookware and portraits from Niger, a country in the Sahel, tell a very different food story from the one she is used to telling.

Surviving on one meal a day

Assisa, a woman in Niger who was helped by a Red Cross cereal bank, looks away with a resigned expression on her face.

Assisa

In Niger, we met farmers who rely on the rain to grow food for their families. But heavy rain following extreme drought washed their crops away and meant that families go hungry.

Last year’s devastating drought made 65-year-old Aissa Garba’s crop fail, leaving the family with nothing to eat. In the Sahel rainfall has become erratic and the wet seasons that people rely on are shrinking.

“The last rainy season was very bad,” said Aissa.

“People got nothing from it. The children were always following us, crying because of their hunger but we had nothing to feed them.”

Many people we met were surviving on just one meal a day and did not know where the next meal was coming from. Mothers were skipping meals so their children could eat.

Rabi: a struggle to care for her hungry granddaughter

Rami, a grandmother, stands with her baby grandchild in a sling on her back at a Red Cross feeding centre.

Rami and her grandchild at a Red Cross feeding centre

At the Niger Red Cross nutrition centre in the village of Kiéché, mothers queued up to have their infants weighed and their arms measured to check for signs of malnutrition.

In long queue we met Rabi, who was struggling to look after her six-month-old granddaughter Aicka. After the baby’s mother had died, she was struggling to gain weight.

Rabi visiting the centre to and get the nutritional supplement plumpy nut but it is in short supply here..

Rabi said: “I had been feeding her cassava flour but I noticed it didn’t help her much. When she has plumpy nut it helps a lot but sometimes there isn’t any.”

“It has made my life very hard to bear. You can’t take care of a child properly if your own life is not good.”

Cash grants help break the cycle of hunger

Balkisa sits on a chair on dusty ground in Niger holding twin babies on her lap.

Balkisa and her twins

The British Red Cross, with the support of players from the People’s Postcode Lottery, are helping to break the cycle of hunger in the Sahel.

Small cash grants provided by the Niger Red Cross mean that families can decide how to best spend their money – planting the next season’s harvest or on food to eat today.

At nine months’ pregnant with twins, Balkisa Zakow, 25, faced a devastating drought that made her harvests fail, made food prices soar, and then forced her family apart.

Her husband moved away in search of work to earn money to provide for his young family, leaving her heavily pregnant and alone.

But seven-month-old twins Hassan and Ousseni are lucky, they were born the night after Red Cross support came to Tombokiery village where she lives. The Niger Red Cross provided the family with a small cash grant.

“Sometimes if my husband had money he sent it to me so I could eat. Sometimes the money just doesn’t come,” she said. “I was worried I wouldn’t have the energy to give birth.”

“A Niger Red Cross volunteer told me to go first because she saw how exhausted I was. I used the money to buy food, then I went back home to sleep feeling relieved. Before sunrise I had given birth to my twins.”

Drought and inflation are a double burden

In Niger, Hasi Senyi sits on a chair on dry ground with her son in her lap.

Hasi and her son

 

The drought made food prices rise so high even the very basics became unaffordable for Hassi Seyni, 30, and her family.  Her husband was also forced to leave to find work to earn enough money to feed the family.

“We got really fearful because many men fled and left the women on their own,” said Hassi. “When he (her husband) has some money he sends it to us. This is how we lived.”

“With support from the Red Cross we bought some bags of millet and corn. We bought some vegetables and some condiments. When your conscience is free from problems and you get to eat. Then you can think about the future.”

Yuki compares the two worlds

Millet stalks, stripped millet and millet porridge that people would see at a Red Cross feeding centre in Niger, in the Sahel.

Millet in different stages of milling and cooking

“The people and communities I met on my trip will stay with me forever. Mothers coping alone and forced to miss meals so their children’s tummies were full. Children who were malnourished because they were only eating ‘tuwo’ a thick white paste made of ground drought resistant millet which has little nutritional value.

“Looking around where I live in south London, there’s row after row of restaurants, so much choice of different types of food from all around the world. It’s so strikingly different from Niger where people are struggling to find even the very basics to eat and 1.5 million children across the region are acutely malnourished.

“Despite the challenges that people are facing every day, I was amazed by people’s resilience to cope and how every morsel of food that could be was savoured. Some of the families I met left their cooking pots on the roofs of their huts – the remnants of the morning’s porridge drying out in the sun. They told me they were going to use the dried porridge as part of the evening meal. They made sure that absolutely nothing is wasted.”

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A young girl eats from a large spoon as she and a younger boy sit on the ground with adults sitting behind them in Niger.

Children in Niger

Before the trip I read about and was struck by the terrible the figures on malnutrition and hunger in Niger. But only by meeting people who bring them to life can you understand how serious they really are.

That’s ultimately what this project is about. In opening up the homes, the food and the lives of a few people from this part of the world, we hope you, too, will be moved by these stories.

Despite not being in the news, the crisis in the Sahel is real and only set to get worse in the coming years. Together, even if it’s just by learning a little about the region, and sharing these photos and stories, we can help improve the lives of these remarkably resilient people.

Photographs © Yuki Sugiura/British Red Cross