In 12 years volunteering for the Red Cross, I have never seen a catastrophe like the current food crisis here in the Sahel region of Mali.

I live in Kayes town, which is in west Mali near the border with Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea, and I’ve been visiting some of the most remote villages in this region, where people are truly in need.

Families have shown me the inside of their granaries and they are bare – not holding even one kilogram of rice. When even the head of the household is crying because they can’t afford to buy food in the market - then you know things are bad.

In this region, people survive by growing their own food, but this year many crops failed completely. The rainy season usually starts in June, which is when people begin planting millet, maize and sorghum. The harvesting is normally finished by November.

But in Fegui village, for example, where the Red Cross is distributing food aid, last year was a disaster. In June, it rained heavily for two weeks and then there were floods. Some people lost their homes and livestock and for a month stagnant water lay everywhere. Many seeds that had been planted were washed away and then afterwards, it didn’t rain again. When the time came to harvest the crops, there was nothing there.

It has now been several months since people have run out of food. Some families have animals – goats and sheep – which are like their savings in the bank. They don’t eat the animals but sell them to buy cereals, which can feed a family for longer.

However the bad rains, failed crops and less fodder available for animals have affected market dynamics. Since November, as families run out of cereal stocks and fodder to feed their animals, they have had no choice but to sell them. But this makes the price drop considerably and now people’s ‘savings’ are not stretching so far.

Previously, you could sell an animal for 15,000 CFA francs, but today you will only get 10,000 CFA. Yet at the same time that the price for animals is decreasing, the reduced harvest across the country means the price of grain is increasing. A month ago 1 kilogram of rice in Kayes cost 375 CFA francs; today it costs 550 CFA.

People here are used to hard times and there is a great sense of solidarity. Those who are selling their animals to buy millet or rice often come to the aid of their neighbors who have nothing. However, no family here has sufficient animals or grain reserves to keep them going till the next harvest in November. In one or two months they will have nothing to eat.

When I talk to people, they tell me they are worried no one will come to help them. They say, “those who must die, will die and those who have to survive, will be saved.”

For me personally, it is also a struggle to feed my family, but I feel very proud and privileged to be a Red Cross volunteer. When we visit communities to find out what they need I often go with something to share – crackers, peanuts or biscuits. We eat together and build trust. When an old person weeps because I have brought something for them to eat – even before beginning to talk – I am truly touched.

But we need to find more long-term solutions so people do not need to depend on aid. For example, investment and training in more modern farming techniques and also diversifying sources of income. Fegui village is not far from a river and encouraging the community to work more on vegetable gardens as opposed to just the traditional cereals could help, particularly in providing food in between harvests. But at the moment, it’s hard because they have absolutely nothing to invest in seeds or water pumps.

I know that Red Cross volunteers like me in other parts of Africa are helping to introduce farming methods that will help them to be prepared the next time drought comes, or prices rise, and we will do that here too.

For now, I am glad that we’ve been able to distribute rice, oil, sugar and salt to 591 families in Fegui, but want to shout out to the world that we need help to protect people’s health and help families survive till the next harvest.

N’faly Traore, 42, Malian Red Cross Society volunteer

(Photo © Sarah Oughton/IFRC Malienne Red Cross food distribution in Fegui village, Kayes region, 28 February 2012)