As displaced people and refugees start to voluntarily return to northern Mali, the World Food Programme is scaling up its operations to help rebuild livelihoods while also responding to immediate food and nutritional needs. Saouda Salihou, who returned to Gao with her young family, explains why this assistance is vital.
GAO - Sitting in front of her straw hut, Saouda Salihou proudly watches her two-year-old son Souleymane as he plays with his ‘toy cars’ – two tin cans attached to a length of rope. The toddler mischievously teases his older brother as he plays. Salihou, 27, can hardly believe this joyful, healthy child is the same boy she brought to a health clinic just three weeks ago.
During that visit to Gao’s health centre, Souleymane was diagnosed with moderate acute malnutrition. Nurses had weighed him and measured his mid-upper-arm circumference (MUAC) - a quick method to assess nutritional status.
Salihou was given Plumpy’Sup, a ready-to-use nutritional supplement delivered to health centres in Gao by WFP, in partnership with Action Against Hunger.
“After I started giving the product to my child, he quickly gained weight,” said Salihou. “The following week, I was amongst the first people to arrive at the health centre for my child’s medical appointment."
These weekly appointments allow health agents to monitor vulnerable children’s nutritional status. Mothers also receive information on nutrition, and are given cooking demonstrations, using local products like peanuts, millet and maize.
Salihou attended many of these cookery classes, but said she often did not have enough money to cook the nutritious meals she was shown.
She is not alone. In northern Mali, three out of four households are food insecure and heavily reliant on food assistance, according to the results of a joint survey carried out by WFP and the government of Mali in September this year.
Salihou returned to Gao in mid-October after spending around 18 months in the capital Bamako following her family’s flight from the conflict that gripped northern Mali. But her husband was unable to return to Gao with her as they could not afford the transport fees.
He sends a little money to the family, and Salihou uses this to buy and resell condiments in Gao market. But the little she earns is never enough.
This is why WFP’s school meals programme in Gao is so important. One of the reasons Salihou returned was to send her children to school in their home region.
Her 10-year-old daughter Alima is now enrolled, and was delighted to rediscover her old friends in the classroom. She also enjoys a hot meal of enriched porridge every morning and another hot meal at midday.
“I have struggled to feed my children since I returned and it’s a real relief for me that Alima is getting food at school. She is also very motivated to go to school,” said Salihou.
WFP provides school meals to around 120,000 children in 576 schools in northern Mali. As more schools reopen, WFP is expanding this programme. WFP is also extending its malnutrition prevention and treatment in areas where health centres have started to function again.
“WFP is scaling up its operations and requires more funding,” said Sally Haydock, WFP’s Representative in Mali.
“The drought and subsequent food crisis in 2012, combined with the protracted security crisis have made it very difficult for the most vulnerable people to rebuild their lives. They will require food assistance throughout 2013 and into 2014,” she said.