It might be one of the poorest countries in the world but food in Mali is surprisingly good, a part legacy from French colonial days. Chicken, though, we found was best avoided, not only because of the Djenne factor but because the scrawny birds provide bones with precious few titbits of tough meat. The availability of fresh fish (and presumably salted fish for the dry months when few if any can be caught) made me wonder why we saw so many young children in Malian villages with obvious kwashiorkor, characterised by a distended abdomen and swollen ankles and feet. Maybe it was a case of parents not knowing that a carbohydrate dominated diet with little or no protein is the cause; including more fish in their diet appeared to us to be an obvious solution.
Having a bunch of friendly, excited children, all bouncing and smiling, often half covered in sand and wanting to hold a ‘white’ hand while walking through their village is always a lovely experience. But with many of them suffering from kwashiorkor and nasal infections it suggested to me that some of them might not survive even to adolescence.
Nearly a million people depend on the Inner Niger delta for food. Fish are a key part of that resource. So, too, are up to two million cattle that graze its shallower marshes (and even more sheep and goats further inland) for eight months of the year. The aquatic grass that grows naturally in deeper water – known as bourgou or Hippo Grass – is harvested and fed to cattle on dry land. Some is stored for the dry season. And some is planted as a crop to harvest.
Extensive crops of rice are grown too; rice is the staple here. The flooding river deposits nutrient-rich silt that aids the growth of other staples like millet and sorghum. In a good year – and this winter has been a very good year with a huge flood – there might even be a surplus of food to sell at the local markets.
Historically, the various ethnic groups living in the delta derived their food very differently. Today, though, that differentiation is less clear. Traditionally, the Bozo fished in shallows using wooden traps. The Somono fished the main river with nets. The Songhay were mostly farmers and traders living near the river’s edge. The Fulani were cattle herders, historically nomadic, though now mostly settled in villages. Bartering between the different groups shared produce, and Mali has a history of these different groups co-existing peacefully, at least in times of plenty. ‘Since the great droughts in 1974 and 1984, the ancient divisions between fishermen, cattle herders and farmers have disappeared,’ Bakary Cone, Director of Wetlands International’s Mali office told me after I returned from the trip and wanted to investigate the issue further for CNN Traveller magazine. ‘Now many fishermen keep a few cows and also grow rice so each family is better able to provide some food if there is a drought. Today this is the farming system that’s most prevalent in the Delta.’
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A growing issue here is that the natural year-to-year variation in rainfall is compounded by the unpredictability of the impact of climate warming – there have been more drought years in recent decades – and by two reservoirs in the upper part of the Niger: one built for irrigation, the other to supply water to Mali’s capital, Bamako. And there are proposals for more reservoirs. Before 1980, drought years were rare. A severe drought in 2005 left over a million people in need of emergency aid. Much the same again happened in 2012. Drought foments conflict here. Tensions rise between fishermen, between farmers cultivating crops and herders trying to get some grazing for their livestock, and all the result of huge shortages of resources to feed a growing human population. In December 1993, these tensions exploded into violent confrontation, leaving 29 dead and 42 wounded. Part of that confrontation was over bourgou, the only fodder grass that copes with flood inundation by keeping pace with rising water levels, sometimes reaching 3 m in height. Farmers wanted to harvest and store it for animal feed later in the dry season. Transhumance herders weren’t for waiting; they needed to graze it where it grew. Furthermore, because of pollution (sewage entering the river is never treated), because the numbers of fishermen have increased, and because they are using smaller net sizes to catch smaller fish, populations of fish in the Niger Delta have fallen dramatically.