People in Mali line up for relief supplies at a World Vision distribution point. Photo: Maria Frio.
Until recently, Mali was seen as a beacon of stability and peace in a very volatile region.
The capital Bamako sits on the Niger River and you can hear hippos calling to one another as the sun sets each evening. Children play on the shores as their mothers wash brightly coloured clothes with babies strapped to their backs. In the rural areas you can find spectacular baobab trees, amazing mud brick mosques and the biggest mangoes (and most delicious!) I’ve ever seen. Children wave as you drive past with big smiles on their faces.
While these things I love about Mali still exist, in the past year things have changed.
Mali, along with other countries in West Africa including Niger, Mauritania, Senegal and Chad, has been seriously impacted by a food and nutrition crisis. In Mali alone, the UN says over 4 million people have been affected. Now, on top of that, a conflict and security crisis have compounded the problem.
I spent June and July last year in Mali as part of World Vision’s response team. By the time I arrived, there had already been a coup d’etat and counter coup earlier in the year. You could still see smashed windows in the buildings of the Government compound. Islamists had seized control of the northern region of the country and thousands of citizens (who we define as internally displaced people) were heading south to safety.
Rumours of horrific human rights abuses circled in the capital, Bamako. One night at dinner a local friend from another charity got a call from his friend in Gao in the north, asking if he could please send his daughters to stay with him as the armed groups were committing abuses against women and forcing them into marriages.
World Vision already had a response in place, aimed at meeting immediate food needs of families whose stocks had been depleted due to severe drought and increased food prices. We were also working with local health centres to provide much-needed emergency nutrition assistance to malnourished children.
What our field staff were finding however, was that these already vulnerable households were being stretched even further, as many of them were now hosting displaced people from the north and they were struggling to make ends meet.
And food was just one concern. Families had been separated, children’s education interrupted and many had also witnessed violence in their home communities. They had no indication of when they could go home. We had to adapt our response to support these additional concerns.
It was an incredibly busy and chaotic two months, but it was with a heavy heart that I left Mali. I could see the context shifting before my eyes and I had talked with community members about their concerns and fears.
Regional leaders were starting to talk of military intervention. Neighbouring countries were already seeing thousands of refugees spilling over their borders seeking safety. All eyes were turned to the international community to see what would happen next and I wanted to stay and support our team, but it was time to come home. Here’s a final picture I got with one of the many baobab trees:
Since my return, I’ve been watching the situation closely and supporting our office there remotely. In January this year, the Islamist rebels made a shift towards the south moving into areas of Mali still under Government control. France and the Malian government commenced military action pushing back the rebels but displacing thousands more in the process. The conflict has left a lot of devastation and destruction. Some people are trickling back home but the north is still very insecure.
World Vision is working hard to meet the needs of vulnerable people in Mali, including those displaced by the conflict and those still facing severe food insecurity. For some, Mali might appear like another war-torn African country, but it truly is a beautiful place.
Erin Joyce works in Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs for World Vision Australia.
Find out more about our West Africa Food Crisis Appeal, which assists the most vulnerable communities in Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania and Senegal.