(Action Africa Inc and the Amen Foundation collaborated on this report.)
The subject of our phone calls and survey last week was the visible impact of Covid-19 on certain rural populations in West Africa. Calls were made to our contacts in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Although there were expressed concerns about Covid-19 in their responses, those concerns were mostly for those of us living in the United States. They hear on international news about rising death tolls and increasing rates of infection here in the US, and they wonder how it is that the virus is defeating America’s intelligence and medical might. They have also heard that almost 200,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the US already (as of mid-September), and that some of the dead were people known to us. They just wonder why! And they extend their condolences. As is almost always the case talking with our African contacts, they quickly emphasized that we should pray much more fervently so that God would shut the virus down for us. There is a way of their seeing the pandemic as somehow being an act of God. We hear this kind of admonition all the time. But what about the scientific efforts being made to develop vaccines and find lasting cures, we asked them? Or the simpler recommendations that people wear face masks, wash hands often, and keep social distance rules? Many of them still think it all depends on God who would approve or disapprove any human efforts. It is all about religion, and prayers, and expecting miracles. We believe in miracles too, but we humans have a lot to contribute to making it happen. As an African proverb says, “while crying ‘Lord, Lord’, cultivate the land.”
What then are the key effects of Covid-19 among the local populations there? One contact spoke at length about how they have learnt to use their face masks more often and especially wash their hands more frequently. It is harder for them to do social distancing. But at least, they think about it as recommended. He then made an interesting observation: there have been much fewer deaths in the villages than was the case before the pandemic lockdown. No one has been confirmed dead of Covid-19 in their entire region. These are people whose families have been tamed by a lifetime of malaria, and have taken all sorts of drugs to fight it season after season. Do they have some unique immunity against the virus? Has the Covid-19 virus been successfully kept offshore from these villages? They think so. Is it even possible that the face masks and coverings and the regular hand washings have helped to reduce or almost eliminate the transmission of other native killer diseases and infections among the people? People are noticing a difference. Face masks and regular hand-washing practices may be key to the miracles that people there are celebrating. One thing, however, has gotten stronger and most menacing: hunger. Everyone that we spoke with ended their long responses by saying: the real problem now is hunger!
The timing of the Covid-19 outbreak and the lockdown could not have been worse. As the world retreated indoors in March and April 2020 and remained indoors for months more, the planting season for agricultural communities in Africa was passing too. Most of the rural farmers usually planted on their own lands that time of the year from which harvests they would later sell some and then feed their families. During the lockdown, many families ended up eating what they would have planted. After the lockdown, they have nothing to plant, and no harvest to expect. There is desperation in the land. In Nigeria, our contacts reported that many farmers who succeeded in planting a bit on their farms have had those crops eaten up by herds of cattle of the Fulani herdsmen – a fast growing menace of herdsmen migrating from the north to the south of the country. They have been described as terrorists. They profess Islam and attack Christians. Hundreds of deaths have been reported in their tracks. And then of course, there are other many deaths that are attributed to hunger and desperation.
Most African immigrants here in the US have in recent months participated in efforts to send nutritional support and food supplies to relatives and others back in Africa. This has not been an easy call either, knowing fully well that although grocery stores are stacked back full, cash has become scarcer too. So many immigrants are themselves joining the long lines at food distribution locations across the US so as to feed their families here. Many of them, like many other Americans, have remained jobless and may become homeless with time. Try telling this to our contacts in Nigeria or Sierra Leone. First they do not believe that anyone can die of hunger in America. They have heard of “all-you-can-eat” restaurants. Go there, they say! Then they ask why some immigrants like us are still here if we say that things are bad here now. It is a whole lot better in America, they say. Except for the many Covid-19 deaths!
Once again, let us get back to the subject of hunger. We spoke with some parents who sounded very concerned that their children would soon be expected to return to school on empty stomachs. If they find some cassava or cocoyam from their garden, they said, how can they provide the condiments to cook with? Covid-19 lockdown came and took away their regular income flow. Those weeks of lockdown have taken away what most traders had as their business capital. A woman who bought-and-sold a bag of rice on retail, had used up that bag of rice to feed her family during lockdown. Today, she is unable to buy and sell at the local market, and poverty has taken over her family. Those who are better able to cope are families with some members abroad who are able, yes, still able to send back some money to support their relatives. But most families in Africa do not have any members or relatives abroad.
Our mission is anchored on educating the children in order to eventually break the cycle of poverty and dependence. Allied to this core are our programming in the areas of health and economic viability. Food security is part of this. We have reached out to rural farmers who work to provide food that keeps their local communities going. If the children are not fed, they cannot successfully go to school and thrive. And for the religious minded, it is said that a hungry stomach does not listen to the word of God!
Join our organization at this difficult time to assist some rural farmers to regain their rhythm so as to help their communities rise again. Please make your tax-deductible DONATION now.