Welcome to Mémé

The Lake Chad crisis through the eyes of one village

Ramata Modou © Chris de Bode / British Red Cross

Stories of human desperation and suffering are, unfortunately, not rare. But some are told more often than others.

In a pocket of Africa around Lake Chad, some 10.7 million people desperately need help. Their story is one of conflict, climate change, hunger, disease and displacement.

Yet this story does not make the headlines. It is effectively a silent emergency.

“I cannot hide some of the things I witnessed,” said Ramata Modou.

This 58-year-old woman used to live in a village in Cameroon, on the border of Nigeria. Then the ongoing-conflict that has gripped Nigeria for many years, spilled over borders.

Armed men attacked Ramata’s village in the night, repeatedly. They took whatever they wanted: goats, sheep, a motorbike. It happened as many as ten times. One night things intensified.

“When they arrived, one man was standing at the door with a gun,” Ramata said.

“Another one put his leg on my mattress and the other one was pulling my daughter. My daughter was screaming and I was screaming.”

In the attack, Ramata’s husband suffered a fatal heart attack and the armed men took away her 17-year-old daughter, with her three-month-old baby still attached to her. Ramata’s 30-year-old son also died after falling into a pit while trying to flee the chaos.

With the family she had left, Ramata fled with only the clothes on her back and two broken front teeth — she had fallen on her face while attempting to flee.

© Birom Seck / British Red Cross

The Lake Chad crisis

The conflict in north-east Nigeria has led to huge levels of displacement as people leave their homes in search of safety.

Some have crossed borders into new countries, becoming refugees in the process. Others, like Ramata, have stayed within their country’s borders and are known as ‘internally displaced people’ (IDPs). In total some 2.4 million people have fled their homes.

This criss-crossing of movement has pulled neighbouring Cameroon, Niger and Chad into the crisis, in the areas surrounding Lake Chad. These countries straddle this large, freshwater lake where communities are already reeling from the effects of climate change — the lake is shrinking and crops struggle to grow.

Conflict, climate change and displacement have led to acute food shortages and disease.

The humanitarian response is underfunded and not even close to meeting people’s needs. Some 6.7 million people do not have access to enough nutritious food, and over half a million children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

What is happening here is sometimes referred to as the Lake Chad crisis, recognising it as a crisis that transcends borders.

But there are those doing what they can to help others survive.

Sa Majesté Lougoumana Alhadji © Chris de Bode / British Red Cross

A reputation for hospitality

After three days of walking, Ramata reached the village of Mémé. Situated in the extreme north of Cameroon, the village has welcomed 19,000 people, increasing its population by 30 per cent to around 83,000.

The village, and its leader, Sa Majesté Lougoumana Alhadji, are known for their hospitality. In fact, it is so strong that people fleeing conflict will pass many other villages to reach here.

“The elders told everyone to welcome these people because these people are coming and some of them have witnessed very bad things,” said Sa Majesté.

“These people chose to come here because they know the reputation of this place. It is up to us to live up to the reputation we have and welcome them.”

The people of Mémé have opened up their homes, shared meals, given land and essential items like cooking pots.

But as an already poor community themselves, this hospitality has come at a cost. There is now not enough food, water is scarce, hygiene is poor, and the local clinic is overstretched.

Ramata Modou © Chris de Bode / British Red Cross

Ramata’s life in Mémé

On the outskirts of Mémé, the community has graciously given a plot of land to those who have fled. Some 2,000 people live here in overcrowded, makeshift huts of sticks and thatch. As more arrive, the camp grows.

Closer to the village is another informal camp, specifically for the most vulnerable. Around 80 women and children live here in similar makeshift homes. All of them lost their male relatives in the conflict — husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.

This is where Ramata has settled. When she first arrived, she and her six children slept under trees for two months. Now she heads up the camp.

The women share one water pump but there is no sanitation. The toilet is the desolate landscape that stretches out as far as the eye can see.

Every morning, they wake up hungry. Food is in short supply. Ramata sells the firewood she collects to buy food for her and her children, but it is not enough. She has to send her children into the village, holding empty plates and begging for food.

© Chris de Bode / British Red Cross

This plate of ground red maize, white rice and crushed mango leaves was gathered from going door-to-door in the village. It is the only meal Ramata and her six children will eat that day.

While Ramata has found safety, life is about survival. Without identification papers, she cannot leave. This is her life now.

Amina Malloum with her four-year-old son Ibrahim and six-year-old daughter Aichadou. © Chris de Bode / British Red Cross

Going hungry

Amina Malloum is a Nigerian refugee who lives in the same camp as Ramata. She is heavily pregnant and lives with her young daughter Aichadou, and son Ibrahim. She also fled her village when it was attacked by armed men — but did not have time to find her husband before leaving. Amina has not heard from him since.

Like Ramata, Amina also collects firewood to sell in order to buy food. What her family eats depends on how much wood she sells. There are three, all rather dismal, scenarios.

“If I don’t have any firewood, I don’t eat any food in the day,” she said.

“If I don’t have money, I go to the other people here and ask them if they can help, at least food for my children. I may not eat, but not my children, they have to eat at least once a day.

“And if we don’t have anything, I go to the forest and take some leaves and eat those.”

Amina’s six-year-old daughter would love to be in school. Aichadou uses the chalk on the wall of her home to study, practising things like the French days of the week. But without identification papers, neither her nor her brother Ibrahim can go to school.

© Chris de Bode / British Red Cross

Tell-tale signs of a crisis

Food is ultimately the issue on everybody’s mind and hunger the most immediate pain felt by Mémé inhabitants.

“If we had food things would be much better. People would be able to feed themselves and their families,” said Sa Majesté.

The tell-tale signs of a food crisis are evident in Mémé’s market. Food prices have risen, fruit and vegetables are in short supply, and those that are on sale are of questionable quality.

© Chris de Bode / British Red Cross

Despite being onion season, those for sale are dishevelled. Only one small stall sells tomatoes; it is divided into three sections based on quality with the best being knobbly and greenish red.

The fish are small, brittle and dried with almost no meat on their bones. They are used to season bland staple food such as maize, not as a main part of a meal.

An unvaried diet without fresh fruit and vegetables can cause health problems in the long term. Children are particularly at risk of developing chronic malnutrition, which often results in physical stunting and delayed mental development. This is already happening in Mémé.

Mahamat Blama, volunteer for the Cameroon Red Cross. © Chris de Bode / British Red Cross

When hunger turns into malnutrition

In the middle of the village is a health clinic, supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Cameroon Red Cross. Malnutrition cases are becoming a prominent issue.

“I have seen a lot of children suffering from malnutrition,” said Mahamat Blama, a volunteer for the Cameroon Red Cross.

“When we see them we take them to the health centre. But the problem is that sometimes there is no Plumpy’nut.”

Plumpy’nut is a peanut-based paste in a plastic wrapper given to those with severe acute malnutrition.

“I feel for them, but even the villagers here are affected because of the extra people in the community. I myself have four families living in my house,” Mahamat said.

“The little there is now we are sharing with the displaced people. There is no food. I am scared about food in the future.”

Access to health care is a huge issue across the Lake Chad region. Many health workers have fled and health centres have been damaged. Where they still exist, they are often staffed only during the day, as night shifts are considered too dangerous.

Mémé’s clinic is more fortunate and open day and night. But the team here still feel insecure and cannot sleep.

Last year a suicide bomb attack on the market in Mémé injured 112 people and killed 24. It is peaceful now but the worry is still there. A high wall has been built around the hospital to protect staff and patients.

© Chris de Bode / British Red Cross

Help end the silence

What is happening in Mémé is just a snapshot of the wider human suffering across the Lake Chad region. Considering the scale, it is abhorrent that it can even be deemed a ‘silent emergency’.

“Unless we have an intervention, I don’t see a bright future for Mémé,” said Sa Majesté

He means help from the international community.

The Red Cross is one of the few organisations that can operate in the region. We have already reached thousands with food, health care, clean water and other essential items. But it is simply not enough.

Help us save lives and end the silence. #SilentEmergency

A British Red Cross exhibition entitled, ‘One Meal A Day: The Lake Chad crisis in pictures’, will be on show at the Courtyard, St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, between 22 May — 12 June 2017.