The Sahel – Why It Matters

When I read audiobooks, sometimes a passage goes by and I find myself driving along, thinking “did I really hear what I think I heard?” That was the case in a passage of Dreams of Joy by Lisa See when the protagonists are traveling from Shanghai into the countryside, to rescue a family member from starvation during the Great Chinese Famine. As Pearl drives along, she and her companion discover a field where people are in holes. The people are alive, but they can’t get out of the holes (they have been left to die). At first Pearl sees just one person, and she is starting to think of how she can rescue the person. Then she sees that the field is filled with others in the same situation. She is resigned to the fact that she can help no one as her companion Z.G. reminds her that they are on their way to rescue their own flesh and blood.


Like Pearl, when I learned from OxFam America of the desperate situation in the Sahel, and the need to put this situation back in the minds of people, I wondered what I could say or do that would make a difference to even one person in the Sahel. The difference between Pearl’s situation and mine is that she existed in a work of fiction (although the famine was very real); the people of the Sahel are at the epicenter of a crisis and their situation is very, very “non fiction” and we do not have to leave them behind to die.

Photo credit: Oxfam International
First, the basic facts:
The Sahel is a region of West Africa, spanning the southern border of the Sahara Desert, where drought and rising food prices have put an estimated 18 million people at risk of hunger. This number is very likely to increase in coming weeks.
Harvests were poor last year, and drought this year threatens to exacerbate a situation that is already dire. People forage for wild food and search anthills for bits of grain.
 “The situation is difficult here. There’s a problem of rain. It’s been irregular,” said Founé Danfakha, a 60-year-old grandmother of four from Bembou, Senegal, who grows rice, maize, and groundnuts to feed her entire household. “If there’s not enough rain, there won’t be a harvest. And if there is no seed, there’ll be no harvest.”

1 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition. Parents are forced to sell essential tools and livestock in order to feed their families.What can you and I do to help any of these 18 million people? There are several things.

Donate online via this link. Oxfam America always aims to use your gift to help build lasting solutions to poverty (as opposed to short term fixes).
Spread the word about this issue. Even if you can’t donate right now, you can raise awareness; that can make a difference too. This infographic presents the facts really well. These facts speak for themselves; they go beyond numbers and stats about this crisis; they speak to my heart and emotions.
Support community development When I tweeted on Friday about my plans to blog about the Sahel this weekend, @martinpenner suggested this:


I must admit, I have a lot to learn about what can be done to increase community resiliency. It is mentioned in this informative and compelling article by Nathalie Bonvin as a key strategy to impacting this problem. Gotta say, Martin, learning more is on my to-do list!
Teach your children. Those of you who know me personally know that I am a big believer in “showing” children the issues that exist in our world rather than only “telling” them. I have only been able to travel internationally to see poverty (and the most incredible people) first hand, but that week taught my teenager (and me) more than any book ever could. Show your children what you can; encourage them to care. Few of us can travel; everyone can watch a YouTube video:


Spread the word. In our age of social media connectedness, it is easy to forget that the old fashioned method (conversing) works just as well. That was the case for me yesterday when I was telling people about preparing for this blog. Face to face — mom to mom — friend to friend — sometimes the most elegant way to ignite interest is to invite someone to learn along with you by saying, “I’m learning about the Sahel – have you or your child heard of it?”
There are several graphics here that can be shared via Facebook and Twitter.
Speaking of spreading the word, celebrities are investing their time and fame to help remediate the funding lag that exists. These celebrities include Kristin Davis and Djimon Hounsou.
I agree with Hounsou: “To some of us, this problem is a world away and is easy to ignore, but I implore you to pay attention.”
 Visit Djimon Hounsou’s personal fundraising/awareness page here.



Across Town and Around the World – Celebrating Astounding Women for International Women’s Day

If you are like me, a run-of-the-mill American, you have undoubtedly heard the words “get a job.” You may have heard them muttered by a passerby at a homeless person. You may have thought it when thinking about the pros and cons of public assistance. You may have thought or said it yourself.

This Thursday, March 8, Oxfam America encourages us to think about mothers worldwide, especially in developing countries, who want to feed and provide for their kids but face hardships that make it nearly impossible. They’re among the one in seven people who go to bed hungry every night. This isn’t because there isn’t enough food to go around. It’s because there are deep imbalances in access to resources like fertile lands and water. More than 40 percent of the world’s population – 2.5 billion people – live in poverty, and many of them are women.

Women need equal access to the resources that can help them overcome poverty. They need, when they are not able to manifest it for themselves, a voice. Sometimes we must be that voice for them.

To give you a little more background:

  • Sixty-six percent of the world’s work falls on women’s shoulders, yet they earn only 10% of the world’s income.
  • If women were given the same level of access to resources that men have, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30%.
  • Hunger and poverty are about power and inequality, and women and girls face the biggest inequalities of all. 

This International Women’s Day, Oxfam America encourages us to show women everywhere that we appreciate their contributions to the world. The ways to do this are simple.

1. Send an International Women’s Day eCard to a woman you know, to say thank you for all that she does. I sent eCards to:

Mary McManus, to thank her for her involvement in the Yoga Reaches Out Yogathon, which benefits the Africa Yoga Project.

Suzanne Harrell, owner of Tallahassee’s Journeys in Yoga, to thank her for contributing proceeds from donation yoga classes to America’s Second Harvest of the Big Bend, as part of the studio’s Community Service (Seva) commitment.

Cristina Hentzen, wife of CFCA founder Bob Hentzen, who shares Bob’s vision of helping children, youth, and aging in 22 countries who face poverty. (In this video, Cristina discusses her participation in Walk2gether, a solidarity walk of 8,000 miles through 12 countries.)

The Mothers of Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala, who make candy, ribbon embroidery, and other items to sell in Antigua (a popular tourist destination) in order to support their families. These mothers teach other mothers; they all support each other.

The mothers of Ciudad Vieja shared songs with us when I visited.
July 2011
A sample of the ribbon embroidery created by the Ana Lucrecia of Ciudad Vieja.
(This is an appliance cover.)

Melanie Monroe, who along with her husband Lloyd, runs the Porch de Salomon ministry in Panajachel, Guatemala. The ministry strives to serve “the lost, the least, and the last.” Their ministry has helped countless families in Guatemala by coordinating mission teams who build homes, provide dental care, and serve in many ways.

Robin Dunn-Bryant, who contributed her time to teach an “intention” yoga class this past October as part of my effort to help Carla from Guatemala find a sponsor.

Tenley Kiger (my 15-year-old daughter), because I appreciate her being willing to accompany me to Guatemala last summer, as well as taking Estela into her heart and agreeing to be her sponsor (by providing financial support each month and exchanging letters).

Tenley and Estela meet. July 2011

To send your own eCard (or as many as you’d like!), click here.

2.  Give the Oxfam America International Women’s Day 2012 award to a woman you think has made a difference to the world. She could be a teacher, your mom, a non-profit leader, a woman entrepreneur, the neighbor who always checks up on you when you’re ill…the possibilities are endless.

I chose to give an International Women’s Day 2012 award to Chika Okoro. Chika and I have known each other for a while, but I got to know her better when we were on a Relay for Life team. While I slept, she kept up the trips around the track. I don’t know how many or if she was running the whole time (I was asleep, remember?!) but she never gave up. I know she is the same way about her passion for helping the hungry in our community through America’s Second Harvest of the Big Bend. She combines humility with tenacity; it is a combination worth being recognized and celebrated.

If we come together, we may not be able to remove the imbalances between men and women immediately. But we will show women around the world … and in our own neighborhoods … that we care about them.

That’s not too much to ask for half the world’s population, is it?