Portraits from Mauritania

Emergencies, In the field article written on the 23 Apr 2012

Earlier this month, photographer Pablo Tosco visited Mauritania for our Spanish affiliate Intermón Oxfam.  One of several West and Central African countries currently experiencing severe drought and food shortages, Mauritania is also one of the world’s poorest nations.

Our response in Mauritania is currently focused on supporting pastoralist communities with activities such as food for cattle, cash transfers and the rehabilitation of wells. We’ve also started a ‘co-op’ vegetable gardens program for 1,300 women by pumping water from a river.

Besides taking some unforgettable photos, Pablo spoke to several of the locals about how their lives have been affected by the drought.

Below are their stories:

Assid Mint Mana, mother of 10, Natriguel community

Assid Mint Mana. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Intermón Oxfam

I have a very large family and one of my daughters is malnourished. She spent a month in hospital and is still receiving treatment. I have no money to buy food for myself, and I try to leave whatever food I get to the children, but that’s not even enough.

My husband has a cart, and sometimes uses it to collect and sell firewood. With the money, he buys a bit of rice, oil and fish for the family. Selling firewood is all we can do during the coming months, until the rains arrive and we can harvest.

Mohammed Would Barma, Natriguel community

Mohammed Would Barma. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Intermón Oxfam

We only have one well for both villages here and it dries up two or three times a day. There isn’t enough water for everyone, and people have to draw water at night to have a little water. We’ve seen some villagers drinking water from the river, but it’s polluted.

We’re grateful to the Oxfam team, whose support has enabled us to buy some of our necessities. You’ve also come to rehabilitate the second well, which will be a great help to the community.

Dieymba Samba, widow and mother of six, repatriated from Senegal

Dieymba Samba. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Intermón Oxfam

It’s really difficult this year because it hasn’t rained … and as a result we haven’t been able to grow anything.  The only source of survival we have left is the animals, the livestock. And we haven’t been able to keep all of them; we’ve had to send some to Mali. The animals remaining here will be exchanged for food. And this year, everything is very expensive. A sack of rice costs 10,000UM (AUD $33), and a 20-litre container of oil costs a fortune!  So what small animals are still here will serve to feed the family. But that won’t be enough.

At night, I can’t sleep because my mind is going in circles, worrying about how to get ahead. And I’m not the only one. All the women in the village are worried because they’re aware of the situation and are trying to find a way to cope. I’ve had the courage to leave for the city, Nouakchott, with my children, trying to earn some money to feed my family and stay there until it rains again. This is the only solution this year.

The Oxfam team has come here and asked us to identify the 20 most vulnerable families. But they’ve left the decision in the hands of the village’s men. And really, as heads of the family, we women are the ones who know the true situation. It should be us deciding who the most vulnerable families are. Actually, just before you came, we were discussing this very matter.

Abdullah Ali, cattle-farmer who lends cows to a dairy supported by Intermón Oxfam, community of Ari Hara

Abdullah Ali. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Intermón Oxfam

I was born in 1932, the same year this village was founded. I’m a cattle-farmer and the son of a cattle-farmer – I inherited my father’s livestock. So our main activities are cattle and agriculture.

This year hasn’t been particularly rainy, and the crops haven’t yielded much. Furthermore, we’ve had to take most of our animals to Senegal [to graze]. The few remaining here are milk cows, which we milk for commercial purposes and for consumption by my family.

We’re selling some animals so as to be able to buy basic necessities like oil and tea … Also for health – if you want hospital treatment, you have to sell livestock.

With the six head of cattle that I sold, I was able to buy straw for the animals. I was also able to buy basics like sugar and clothes for the children. Similarly, we had to vaccinate the animals that we took to Senegal so they didn’t catch anything … By selling their animals, people can eat, pay the breeders in Senegal [to look after the other livestock], pay for water … all this, through selling livestock.

Ouma Ali, Abdullah’s wife, works in the Ari Hara dairy

Ouma Ali. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Intermón Oxfam

I’m 43 and have eight children. I work in the dairy. At the end of each month, I get some money, around 10,000 ouguiyas (AUD $33), that I bring home and spend on the basic necessities … Last month, I bought oil, rice, sugar and milk, as well as school material for my kids … My husband and I make our living from agriculture, cattle grazing and my work at the dairy.

In this village, the residents have a strong sense of solidarity. Every morning, someone brings you something or other … every morning, at least one neighbor will come by to check you’re okay. They’ll see how the family is, and if they notice you’re lacking sugar, rice or oil to make a meal, they’ll offer you some.

The children can’t handle not having breakfast. I’m used to it, I know how to deal with it, but my kids need to eat every morning. If I manage to get enough money, I’ll buy three slices of bread to relieve their hunger. Sometimes in the morning, I eat dry tea and it gives me a stomach ache; eating a piece of bread alleviates it.

My husband doesn’t own any land … He cultivates, but the plots belong to others. The landowner lets you grow all you want, but you’re obliged to share it with him.

Find out more

Read about Oxfam’s response in West and Central Africa

You can make a difference by donating to our Africa Food Crisis Appeal