Africa's Women Last and Least in Food Crisis

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The Washington Post

Africa's Women Last and Least in Food Crisis

by
Kevin Sullivan

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso - After she woke in the dark to sweep city streets, after she walked an hour to buy less than $2 worth of food, after she cooked for two hours in the searing noon heat, Fanta Lingani served her family's only meal of the day.0720 04 1

First she set out a bowl of corn mush, seasoned with tree leaves, dried fish and wood ashes, for the 11 smallest children, who tore into it with bare hands.

Then she set out a bowl for her husband. Then two bowls for a dozen older children. Then finally, after everyone else had finished, a bowl for herself. She always eats last.

A year ago, before food prices nearly doubled, Lingani would have had three meals a day of meat, rice and vegetables. Now two mouthfuls of bland mush would have to do her until tomorrow.

Rubbing her red-rimmed eyes, chewing lightly on a twig she picked off the ground, Lingani gave the last of her food to the children.

"I'm not hungry," she said.

Mealtime conspires against women
In poor West African nations such as Burkina Faso, mealtime conspires against women. They grow the food, fetch the water, shop at the market and cook the meals. But when it comes time to eat, men and children eat first, and women eat last and least.

Soaring prices for food and fuel have pushed more than 130 million poor people across vast swaths of Africa, Asia and Latin America deeper into poverty in the past year, according to the U.N. World Food Program. But while millions of men and children are also hungrier, women are the hungriest and skinniest. Aid workers call malnutrition among women one of the most notable hidden consequences of the food crisis.

"It's a cultural thing," said Hervé Kone, director of a group that promotes development, social justice and human rights in Burkina Faso. "When the kids are hungry, they go to their mother, not their father. And when there is less food, women are the first to eat less."

A recent study by the aid group Catholic Relief Services found that many people in Burkina Faso are now spending 75 percent or more of their income on food, leaving little for other basic needs.

Pregnant women and young mothers are forgoing medical care. More women are turning to prostitution to pay for food. And more families are pulling children -- especially girls -- out of school, unable to afford fees and clothes.

But perhaps the most pervasive effect of the growing global crisis is the ache in the stomachs of millions of poor women such as Fanta Lingani.

Sweeping for pennies
Lingani, who sleeps on a concrete floor, began one recent day at 4 a.m. and dressed quietly in the dark. All around her, children slept on the cracked floor under a tin roof, common conditions in a country that ranks 176th out of 177 on the U.N. Human Development Index.

A year ago, Lingani might have started a small fire to boil herself a cup of weak coffee. But even that is now too expensive.

Such sacrifices led to food riots in February in Ouagadougou, the capital, and towns across the country. Hundreds of people were arrested after they set fires and smashed government buildings to protest rising prices. But for Lingani, the struggle is quieter, and harder by the day, and it starts before the sun comes up.

Lingani, who said she is about 50, walked across the dirt courtyard past the two-room hut where her husband was sleeping in his own double bed, with a thick mattress. The dirt street outside was muddy and steamy from an overnight rain shower.

After a half-hour walk on the black-dark streets, she reported for work and pulled on the long green smock of the Green Brigade, a city program that pays poor women the equivalent of about $1.20 a day to sweep streets two mornings a week.

Lingani picked up a pair of small straw brooms and pushed a wheelbarrow onto a wide, deserted avenue. In the orange haze of streetlights, she bent over at the waist, so far that her bottom was higher than her head, and started pushing red dust into little piles.

The "shssssh shssssh" of her sweeping was the only sound, except for the crowing of a few roosters and occasional laughter from men at an all-night bar down the road.

She worked a section of road about 150 yards long, while a dozen others in the all-female brigade swept along. A tanker truck sped down the street, kicking up a cloud of dust into her face and blowing away her little piles. She coughed, pulled her pink head scarf across her face and swept the same dust all over again.

Lingani swept until the sun came up, pushing her piles onto a small metal dish, then dumping them into a wheelbarrow and finally into a pothole on an unpaved side street.

By 7 a.m., she'd finished her section. But she had to wait an hour for a male supervisor to show up and check her work. In two weeks, she would get her monthly pay of less than $10.

'The job of women'
Lingani walked a half hour back to her house, where her huge family was starting to stir. She took off her smock and picked up a green plastic basket about the size of a shoebox.

Market time. She and one of her two "co-wives," Asseta Zagre, do the shopping on alternate days. Their husband's other wife, the senior of the three, is nearly blind and can't do chores anymore.

Polygamy is common in much of Africa. In this household, the patriarch is Hamado Zorome, 68, a retired police officer whose pension is the family's main income -- but he doesn't tell his wives how much he gets.

The pension of a mid-level civil servant is probably modest in Burkina Faso, where the United Nations says nearly 72 percent of the country's 15 million people live on less than $2 a day.

Zorome also collects a "tip" of 60 cents from each of his two working wives when they get their monthly pay, which he uses to buy the kola nuts he likes to chew.

Lingani and Zagre, who also sweeps streets, said Zorome doles out small amounts of money for them to buy staples such as cornmeal. But the bulk of the family's meals are paid for out of the wives' sweeping wages.

As she prepared to leave for the market, Lingani kept bending over and rubbing her ankles and feet. She said they hurt from sweeping for so long. She has never weighed herself, but she said she can feel a significant loss in her weight and strength in the past year.

Last month's sweeping money was already gone. So she went to her husband, who handed her about $2.50 for groceries. He told her to spend no more than about 75 cents and save the rest for another day.

"Women are born with this job" of feeding the family, Lingani said, as she walked around puddles and past goats tied to trees. "The man has to have his share. And we have to make sure the kids have their share. So we eat less."

Lingani said none of the older boys in the family has a steady job, since work is hard to come by in this poor city. So, she said, the boys mostly spend their days doing odd jobs or playing soccer. What little money they earn they tend to spend on food and beer for themselves.

"A man can never sit at home. They are always out somewhere," Lingani said. "They don't do anything. They don't help."

Lingani walked past small stands where women were selling fruit or water, assisted by small girls. A few men sold bags or charcoal, but most were sitting in the shade and talking.

"Men and women should fight together for the children," Lingani said. "But if the men won't do that, the women have to fight alone."

Zorome, Lingani's husband, said that men don't help with shopping and cooking because "that is the job of women." Like many men interviewed here, he said African culture clearly defines roles for men, who work outside the house, and women, who manage children and meals.

He said that men are willing to work but that jobs are scarce. He would prefer it if his wives didn't have to sweep streets, but "life is much more expensive now."

"Last year, we could eat well, but now, forget it," he said. "My sons don't work, so it's up to me to feed 25 people. That's why the women sweep. We don't have anything, so they have to work. That's life."

Ugly math
On her way to the market, Lingani explained the ugly math: A year ago, she could feed her entire family a nutritious meal of meat and vegetables and peanut sauce for about 75 cents. But now the family gets much lower-quality food for twice the price.

She said the cost of six pounds of cornmeal has risen from 75 cents to $1.50. A kilogram -- 2.2 pounds -- of rice cost 60 cents last year and costs a little more than $1 now. Other basics such as salt and cooking oil have also doubled in price.

Fuel costs have more than doubled for trucks that haul food to landlocked Burkina Faso, helping keep food prices high.

Beef or goat meat is now so expensive -- about $1.20 for a tiny portion -- that the family has given up meat completely, eating cheap dried fish instead. Rather than seasoning their sauces with vegetables and peanuts, they now use the tough leaves of baobab trees, the gnarly giants that flourish here in the dry lands south of the Sahara.

To soften the sour taste of the leaves, Lingani mixes in potash, a paste made by boiling down water strained through ashes from wood fires.

"In the past, our money would last the whole month. We might even have some left over," Lingani said. "But now as soon as it arrives, we spend it."

Dinner happens only if there is a bit of food left over from lunch. Even then, she said, there is rarely enough left for women.

"When the children ask for food, we have to give it to them," she said. "We're mothers."

Never enough
"Are you sure you don't want more?" the vegetable vendor asked Lingani. "Is that enough for your family?"

Lingani, standing in a crowded neighborhood market, had just asked the woman for 30 cents worth of baobab leaves.

"No, it's fine," Lingani said, handing over a few coins.

The vendor shrugged and stashed the coins under a burlap sack of tomatoes covered with a beard of small flies. She handed Lingani back some change, which she counted carefully.

At the next stall, Lingani bought four small onions. As she turned to leave, the seller tossed in a fifth with an understanding smile. Lingani caught her eye and thanked her.

Moving through the churning mass of people, Lingani bought a bag of dried fish, a small plastic bag of salt, two small cubes of beef bouillon and a bag of potash, the paste made from ashes.

In 10 minutes, her shopping was done. She had spent double her budget of 75 cents.

After the half-hour walk home, with the temperature already above 90, Lingani and Zagre started plucking the baobab she bought at the market, saving the leaves and throwing away the thick stems.

For an hour, the two women methodically pounded the rough leaves in a wooden bowl, then dumped them into a pot boiling over a wood fire. Then Lingani added the dried fish and some of the ash flavoring.

"Of course we would prefer something else," she said. "But it's the cheapest thing we can buy, and we can afford enough to feed everybody."

Two hours after she started cooking, Lingani scooped out six bowls of flavorless food. The first was for Zorome, delivered to his hut. He ate it alone, then said he felt as though he needed a nap.

Others were set aside to be shared by the children.

The last bowl, slightly larger than Zorome's, was to be shared by 10 people: Lingani, Zagre and eight small grandchildren. Lingani took two bites before letting five hungry toddlers finish her food.

Near the front gate, half a dozen of the children sat in a circle, playing a game. They had built a play fire out of pieces of bark. On top of it they had placed a little plastic cup, overflowing with street garbage: onion skins and bits of rotting leaves.

They were pretending to cook.

"We're cooking rice with meat!" said a beaming Ousmane, 6, the head chef.

His father, Zorome, watched the game and laughed. He was asked if he would eat again today. Yes, he said, Lingani would make him a little rice or porridge for dinner that night.

Nearby, his daughters and granddaughters heard him and exploded. "What are you talking about?" they said. "Why are you saying that? We have no food."

Zorome smiled sadly and admitted his lie.

"When we have food one day, we have to tighten our belt the next," he said. "But it is very hard for a man to admit when things are not good."

Lingani was still sitting next to her empty food bowl. She had stopped the children from finishing one last lump of corn mush, about the size of her fist.

"The small children will be crying in a couple of hours, so we have to save it," she said. Her voice was small and soft, and she didn't look up from the red dirt. She said she felt "very sad."

"I'm thinking too much," she said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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