A taste of Mauritania during the lean season
One could say the small village of Fioum Gleita, in Mauritania’s southern region of Gorgol is a ‘kingdom of women.’ Along with children, women make up most of the population and take most major decisions: they control household finances, take care of the children, work in the fields (when the skies are benevolent) and run small businesses.
Working-age men have either left for seasonal labor or have left for good. Punishing weather, insufficient harvest, and lack of opportunities mean they can no longer make a living from agriculture and herding, pushing them to seek employment in the capital Nouakchott, or in neighbouring Senegal.
Gorgol is among the regions most affected by droughts, and a cycle of hunger that stretches across the neighbouring regions. This is also the hungriest time of the year — the ‘lean season’ between harvests, which usually lasts from May to October, when food reserves are low and market prices soar.
Elsewhere in Mauritania, lack of livelihood opportunities and recurring climate shocks exacerbate an already fragile nutrition situation, encouraging seasonal migration within the country or to Senegal and Mali — and leaving families behind without a reliable source of income or food.
But in Fioum Gleita and in many other villages in Mauritania, women-run families are prepared for the lean season this year, thanks to the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) support.
WFP is distributing cash assistance today to some 25 households to tide them through the lean season. Nattes (rugs) are set inside colorful khaimas (tents), where staff check the list of names. As a member of the village committee, Khadij knows everyone here and invites the villagers to sit on the natte with a friendly nudge.
Across the country, WFP expects to reach approximately 77,000 vulnerable Mauritanians with food or cash assistance, representing just over half of those targeted for assistance this year. Families with children under 2 also receive distributions of a fortified blend of soya and corn flour to fight malnutrition. The more serious cases — children under 5 being treated at rehabilitation centres — receive specialized nutritious foods.
The women present their identity cards to receive the monthly rations, which amount to about $95 per family. The cash, along with the nutrition products, guarantee that families like those of Khadij, Aissata and Zeinabou have enough to eat during this difficult period.
After the distribution is over, the women scatter across the village and head to their trusted boutiquiers to do some grocery shopping.
There is plenty to choose from. Outdoor vendors sell flat bread and baguettes , while small shops lining the main road are bursting with canned goods, tools, vegetables and meat. The butcher grins as he cuts meat for Zeinabou.
Both she and Aissata are in their late forties and have five mouths to feed, including their own. Their purchases — 25 kg of rice, five liters each of oil and canned UHT milk — will only last 20 days. After that, they will have to depend on remittances sent back from their partners — or the solidarity of family and neighbours.
Vegetables and meat sizzle in a pan of vegetable oil. Inside Zeinabou’s khaima, she sprinkles salt and other seasonings on the mix. Rice is added and it quickly turns brown and crunchy.
“This is the first time in three months that I can buy meat,” Zeinabou says.
“My older son sends us money from Nouakchott,” she says, speaking about how she got along without WFP’s assistance. “Some of it is invested in my daughter’s sandwich trade, that earns us a little income. The rest is used to pay for food and the water we fetch from the nearby pump,” Zeinabou adds.
Fish, meat and vegetables are widely available in the area — for those who can afford them. But in a region with no formal jobs, that’s not always easy. And Zeinabou, for one, doesn’t have any livestock.
In Aissata’s house — a shack made of wood, iron poles and a khaima on top — she has just finished preparing mint tea. Aissata participated in a government land rehabilitation programme that provided her seeds and tools to grow vegetables in a women-led garden cooperative. After the initial pilot phase, the women are now on their own — but they lack good seeds and tools to produce a decent harvest. And the dry weather isn’t helping.
“This is the rainy season, I should be out in the field planting my vegetables — but it’s not raining and we don’t have a direct water source close to the community garden,” Aissata says. “We have to transport the water ourselves under this heat”.
“Sometimes the garden produces some eggplants, onions and tomatoes, but it’s never in big quantities,” she replies, pointing to the small mound of vegetables on a makeshift table nearby. “I also sell and buy packaged food, like sweets and bouillon.”
“I have very little,” she adds, “but I thank God for it.”