El Niño: “Our family needs to be stronger than the drought”

By: 
Johanna Mitscherlich
Rosina with one of her seven children

Rosina met Alejandro nearly 20 years ago, at a disco in a village near Funhalouro, in the south of Mozambique. “I saw him and fell in love at first sight,” Rosina says with a big smile on her face.

We wanted to start our own family and live a good life together.

The couple has since raised seven children – the eldest, Alejandro Junior, is 15, and their youngest, Nelson, is just one. Alejandro and Rosina are both farmers, and during their first years of marriage could live well off maize, beans and other vegetables they harvested in their field.

In more recent years, however, the couple has struggled. Alejandro explains:

There was not enough rain and the weather changed constantly. We could harvest enough to survive, but could not sell anything to buy clothes or other things we need.

Last year, Mozambique was hit by the worst drought in 35 years, which has made an already difficult situation even worse. An unusually strong El Niño caused rains and harvests to fail for the second time, and prices in local markets have skyrocketed. Like two million people in Mozambique, Rosina and Alejandro are now without a secure food supply and receive food assistance from CARE and other organisations. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that 500,000 farmers are currently affected by the drought.

Alejandro started a small business, building and selling baskets made out of wood. He now gets up as early as 2am to braid the thin pieces of bark. During the day, he searches for new material and tries to sell his product. His day usually ends at 8 pm. Most weeks, he is only able to sell 1-2 baskets for around 40 Meticais, approximately 60 cents, hardly enough to buy food for a family of nine. Rosina says:

We receive food assistance from CARE. I don’t know what we would do without it.

A few months ago, they also received seeds to plant in their fields. Rosina says:

We were so hungry, we ate the seeds as they were. Ideally we would have been able to plant them, but with no other options we simply couldn’t wait any longer. At that time, we had not eaten for days.

The family lives in a tiny house made from wooden sticks with a straw roof. They have no running water, no toilet and no electricity. The school, health post and nearest shops are three and a half hours walking distance away. None of the children have ever seen a school from the inside. The family does not have enough money to pay for transportation and school material.

Sometimes, they meet up with the neighbours for support, and once a week a CARE volunteer visits them. More than 300 volunteers, themselves struggling with the drought and food insecurity, counsel and advise families in their communities and assess children’s nutritional status.

Joaquina with a health manual

Joaquina (pictured above) – who does not know her exact age, but estimates she is in her late 40s – has been a so-called “masungukate” for two years. She has learnt about hygiene, maternal health, nutrition, and child development in various CARE workshops. Ever since she has visited families in her village on a weekly basis to pass on her knowledge. Neither she nor any of the other women can read or write, but she uses a book with pictures to explain the different topics.

“Volunteering is like a calling for me,” explains Joaquina. “I have helped many families set up a latrine for the first time, and many are now using mosquito nets to protect themselves and their children from malaria.”

It was rewarding to see how, step by step, life in our community has improved.

“Right now though,” she says, “I am very worried that many of these achievements risk being unraveled in the current drought.”

Joaquina measuring a child's arm for signs of malnutrition

At the end of last year, as drought worsened following El Niño, Joaquina took part in another CARE workshop to deal with the current emergency. She says: “We learnt how to measure children’s mid-upper arm circumference with coloured plastic strips to determine whether or not they are malnourished.”

Many families can only prepare one or two meals for their children each day and cases of malnourishment are increasing.

Even before the drought, over 40 percent of children under five in Mozambique were too short for their age and chronically malnourished. According to UNICEF, around 100,000 children will suffer acute malnutrition over the next six months because of the current drought. Joaquina says:

We have lived through many dry periods. But a drought like this one I cannot remember. I have not seen a single drop of rain for months.

CARE volunteers like Joaquina provide vital information on health care and hygiene to families like Alejandro and Rosina’s. “I am very grateful for this support,” says Rosina. “The volunteer taught us about nutritious wild leaves and fruits we can eat, that are especially healthy for small children like Nelson.

“For me it is important to be able to learn more about nutrition and health, and how we can improve our diet despite the drought.

“We are a strong family and we work together to make it through this drought. But it is difficult.”

I would never have imagined that life could get as hard as it is for us now.

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Johanna Mitscherlich's picture

Johanna Mitscherlich is Media and Communications Officer for CARE Germany-Luxembourg.