Two weeks in Senegal and I can tell the temperature and time of day by the ratio of my skin to sweat. With the exception of one night in the capital city of Dakar I haven’t had working toilets, air conditioner, showers or reliable electricity. Thankfully memories of MacGyver reruns have allowed me to temporarily fix some of the more basic amenities when desperate.
I’m hot and dirty. I’m growing tired from the early starts and late evenings. Mentally, I’m exhausted from interviewing people in French, which is then translated into the local language. I am frustrated and unsure if the story I will tell is going to help the people in Senegal.
I interviewed a young mother Awa (not her real name), a girl really at 17, with a malnourished baby. Initially I only noticed how beautiful she was and how adorable her child. As we started the interview I learnt the baby was 15 months old. The shock was probably visible on my face. She was so tiny; I had assumed she was only a few weeks old. I remember looking at Awa and seeing how much she loved her child. She held her so tenderly, tried to feed her, and brushed the flies and dirt away from her face. She cared so much for her child I couldn’t quite make sense of it. This area of Senegal is affected by the West Africa Food Crisis and they have not had good rains for five years. Without the rains and good crops, food is scarce and many families are struggling to find food. The elder women in the village kept telling me that when they were young it was easy to survive but now it is just so hard.
At the emergency communications training I attended two weeks ago they talked about slow and rapid onset emergencies. Rapid onsets, like your tsunamis and earthquakes are devastating and demand the world’s attention; slow onsets like droughts are much harder to respond to. We know they are coming and we can see the potential and there are some amazing things being done to help prevent them escalating, but these stories are not likely to make front page news.
I thought it would be easy to gather stories and take photos that would make people want to do more to help. I had expected to and was prepared to see obvious distress and desperation. Instead I have seen loving families smiling for the camera. I see their hope and thankfulness that there are international aid agencies helping them. The cynical part of me thinks I won’t be able to get people interested in this story.
I grew up in northwest regional Victoria. The surrounding lands of this community with its sparse horizon and low lying scrub reminded me so much of home. I couldn’t help but remember the pain and frustration my home town went through during the recent decade of drought. I remember farmers selling off their land and water rights just to make it through the month, families moving to the city for work and I remember the brave faces and jokes about the weather. Behind those jokes I remember the silence that emanates from someone who has given up hope for their future. These memories haunted me as I looked at the welcoming faces crowding around me in this remote part of Senegal.
It was only when I asked, ‘what is the last thing you think about before you go to sleep?’ that their smiles faded and they trusted me with their fears. Fathers remain anxious the rains won’t come and they won’t be able to provide for their families. Mother’s are worried they won’t be able to feed their children. Awa is scared her baby will not survive the night.
I would love to add a joke in here to lighten the mood of this piece but I honestly can’t think of one. I am distracted by the sweat running down my face on to the keyboard. But if you feel the need to laugh feel free to picture me as I spend the next hour with my arm down the toilet cistern trying to make it flush.