By Rodrigo Ordóñez
Last year, I was working in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa, in charge of communications for the humanitarian organization CARE.
The food crisis affecting the Sahel in 2012 was a result of several causes including drought, high food prices and regional instability. Every region, every village and every house in Niger attributed their situation to a different combination of reasons, but the result was invariably the same: people didn’t have enough to eat.
I had the opportunity to talk to families in several regions of Niger, while traveling on my own or when taking journalists to the field. Despite the variety of personal circumstances, certain elements appeared often in people’s stories.
Life has never been easy for these people. They’ve increasingly got used to enduring what others would consider unbearable. Their ability to eat has been highly dependent on weather and rains since they can remember. Most families have lost children because they couldn’t feed them and they fell ill easily.
This cycle of poverty has become the ‘new normal’ for them.
This is also the case for the people I talked to in Saran Maradi, a village in the region of Maradi, southern Niger.
Last year was harsher than usual, and crops were insufficient to feed their families. They couldn’t afford to buy food in the markets, either, because of the high prices. Only a few people in the village had grain left, but only for planting. Many sold their goats or sheep to buy food, but the prices were low, up to half of the standard price.
At the time of my visit, CARE was providing income to 61 families in Saran Maradi so they could buy food during what is commonly known as the ‘lean season,’ the gap between the time people run out of food stocks and the next harvest.
I was interested in knowing more about the impact of this project in the homes, so I talked to women; they are generally the ones who face directly the difficulties to feed their families in times of hardship. I wanted to know what they were eating before and after this project started.
I also wanted to give this story a different visual approach and try to make viewers across the world relate to these people at a human level. Therefore, I took photographs up close, focusing on details and expressions, and composed family portraits with three elements: mothers or grandmothers, their children or grandchildren, and the food they consume at home.
Delou, Halima, Maka, Mariama, Sahara and Sakina are mothers and grandmothers between the ages of 25 and 80.
All combined, they have 41 children, although their families could have been larger. Through the years, these six women have suffered the loss of 24 sons and daughters in total. Sahara Mahama, 40, lost four children; one of them was only 14 days old. “I lost the youngest one during the rains, in the lean season. I didn’t have enough to eat,” she lamented.
All of them emphasized that this year there wasn’t enough rain, and little to eat. “Two years ago at least there were people who harvested spikes of millet, but this year the crops have been worse because of the drought and the leaf miners,” said Delou Ibrahim, 70.
Humanitarian support allowed them to feed their families at a critical time.
“Before this support, I couldn’t; I was eating leaves,” explained Maka Ali, an 80-year-old widow. “Not only can we buy millet and sorghum now, but also corn and condiments,” told Mariama Oumarou, 55.
“With this support, we get to eat abundantly,” said Halima Abdou, 25. She and the other women I talked to are now able to give their children two daily meals; porridge in the morning and sorghum paste in the evening.
Clockwise from left: Delou Ibrahim, 70. Her granddaughter Latifa, 8. Delou’s hands hold sorrel leaves, used as a condiment, and grains of sorghum at her home in Saran Maradi, Niger.
Delou Ibrahim has four children and suffered the loss of nine. She has about 40 grandchildren, 16 of which live with her. “I’ve seen several crises. The famine in 1984 was the hardest. Rains were very weak. The stems of millet came out but the spikes gave no grain — nothing,” she recalls. “Two years ago at least there were people who harvested millet, but this year the crops have been worse because of the drought and the leaf miners.” Delou’s last crop was 30kg, which only provided food for about two days. (Photo: Rodrigo Ordonez)
Clockwise from left: Sakina Moudi (left), 30, and Halima Abdou, 25. Their children Kassoumou (right), 4, and Massaoudou, 10 months. Sakina takes sorghum out of a sack at her home in Saran Maradi, Niger.
Halima Abdou has five children. Sakina Moudi has six children and suffered the loss of one. Last year they harvested 40kg of cereal. “It only lasted for five days,” says Sakina. This year they didn’t get any crops. In the periods without food, their husband collects and sells wood to buy yam flour. (Photo: Rodrigo Ordonez)
Clockwise from left: Maka Ali, 80. Her granddaughter Maria, 10. Maka’s hands hold sorghum at her home in Saran Maradi, Niger.
Maka Ali has been a widow for twenty years. She has eight children and about twenty grandchildren. She has experienced the loss of six children, four of them at an early age. “I was alone taking care of them, so I cannot say their deaths weren’t related to lack of food,” Maka recalls. (Photo: Rodrigo Ordonez)
Clockwise from left: Sahara Mahama, 40. Her daughter Mariama, 4. A bucket of millet at Sahara’s home in Saran Maradi, Niger.
Sahara Mahama has seven sons and a daughter. She lost four other children; one of them was only 14 days old. “I lost the youngest one during the rains, in the lean season. I didn’t have enough to eat.” Eating has become increasingly harder through the years, recalls Sahara. “When I was a kid, we used to have three meals: in the morning, at noon, and in the evening.” However, one meal a day has now become the norm. “It’s never guaranteed, but we try.” (Photo: Rodrigo Ordonez)
Clockwise from left: Mariama Oumarou, 55. Her granddaughter Rakia, 4. A hand holds grains of corn in Mariama’s home in Saran Maradi, Niger.
Mariama Oumarou has ten children and three grandchildren. Through the years she has lost four children and two grandchildren. (Photo: Rodrigo Ordonez)
About the Photographer: Rodrigo Ordóñez, Niger.
Rodrigo Ordóñez is an independent photographer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. He produces professional-quality images and multimedia in Indonesia, Asia and the world.
Through his images, Rodrigo seeks to shed light on underreported issues. He applies his field experience and academic training to deliver world-class documentary and editorial stories. His work benefits from his diverse international background in journalism, international affairs, public relations, development and humanitarian aid.
Rodrigo has worked as a studio assistant for war photographer James Nachtwey (TIME magazine) in New York. In 2006, he attended a workshop with Gary Knight (VII Photo) in Argentina, which resulted in the publication of a book (“Argentina: From the Ruins of a Dirty War”). He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism (Bilbao, Spain and Worcester, UK) and a master’s degree in international relations from The Fletcher School (Tufts University, USA). Through his career, he has lived in four continents.
His work has been published in Cambio (Mexico), EFE (Spain), GlobalPost (USA), The Huffington Post (USA), Transit (Japan) and Vice Magazine (USA), among others. His list of NGO clients includes CARE, Mercy Corps, Save the Children and UNICEF.
Rodrigo is a member of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA).
Rodrigo is trilingual in English, French, and Spanish. He speaks and writes intermediate Bahasa Indonesia.
For more about information about Rodrigo Ordóñez’s photography, visit www.rodrigo-ordonez.com.