Growing up in British Columbia, I have a very close and personal relationship with rain.
It is something that accompanied me all year long while my apprehension regarding grey skies, rain boots and coats peaked in April, when the prospect of summer sun seemed tantalizingly close.
Working for ten years in Africa changed all that. I saw parched landscapes gobble up precious drops, saw shoots of green appear almost instantly and learned to share the joy of African farmers at the start of the rainy season.
Last month while I was in the Central African Republic, one of Africa’s most forgotten countries where I am the Emergency Coordinator for the UN World Food Programme, the rains began but the joy was missing. The Central African Republic is bang smack in the centre of the continent and in recent months a vicious political conflict has taken a sharp swerve into what many are calling ethno-religious cleansing.
In a makeshift camp at the international airport in the capital Bangui, where up to 100,000 people have fled from the conflict, I spoke to mothers who were cooking food rations for their children under appalling conditions. Though I have worked in countries like Afghanistan and Somalia, I was shocked by what I saw. People sleeping next to one another, some with no shelter and no toilets or drinkable water. Many had lost loved ones, some had even seen them killed. Others bore machete wounds.
The rainy season that begins in April will bring hope to the farmers but mud, malaria and misery to others. The WFP is in a race against the clock to deliver food assistance to get people through the next few months before the roads are completely blocked. And with our sister agency UNICEF, we are trying to cushion the youngest children against malnutrition. Already there has been a surge in admissions of malnourished children at the main pediatric clinic in the capital and we fear that this will only increase.
The agency I work for, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), is providing specialized nutritious foods to the most vulnerable – particularly young children – who risk paying the price of the conflict which escalated late last year.
If the minds and bodies of young children don’t get the nutrients they need under the age of two, the damage cannot be undone.
More than a million people have fled their homes as communities have been torn apart by violence. Some have been living in the bush out of fear of attacks by armed groups, many others in temporary camps schools or shelters.
Many have lost their income or livelihood, food crops and crops sold for cash have been destroyed, families have sold off their animals and small businesses have shut down. As a result, about 1.6 million people directly affected by the crisis urgently need food assistance.
In a landlocked country slightly smaller than the province of Alberta, the road network is incredibly poor. Huge swathes of the country will soon not be able to be reached by our food trucks as the roads will become impassable and communities will be cut off. Then the only option for life saving food supplies will be air transport, which escalates the costs of this emergency operation.
Truck drivers carrying food and humanitarian supplies already face risks on the road, from roadblocks, armed gangs and a breakdown of law and order. The situation is volatile and we seize windows of opportunity as they come. One day our staff and partner NGOs can reach a town to distribute family ration packs of rice oil and lentils; the next day that same route is out of bounds. Despite this, WFP is providing food assistance to those affected across the country – irrespective of religion or ethnicity.
The rainy season can bring new life but only when farmers are there to sow their crops and have seeds to plant. Agriculture – the backbone of the Central African Republic economy – has been the hardest-hit sector as many farming families left their fields to escape the conflict.
WFP is working with our sister UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, distributing food rations when they provide seeds tools and fertiliser. If we don’t do this together, some of the desperate may eat rather than plant the seeds they are given.
This Easter, as Canadians connect with their families, enjoy special foods and complain about the weather, people in a country that is disappearing need outside help just to survive.
The Central African Republic must not move from a crisis to a catastrophe simply because the rest of the world has not paid enough attention. As the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon pointed out, we must learn the lessons to prevent another Rwanda.
Something as simple as sharing a photo from the CARCan’tWait campaign on Facebook or Twitter will help ensure that the women and children who have suffered so much are not forgotten.
*Written by Denise Brown, UN World Food Programme’s Emergency Coordinator in Central African Republic…