CATHOLIC REGISTER PHOTO | MICHAEL SWAN
Fr. Isidore Ouedraogol is general secretary of Caritas in Burkina Faso.
TORONTO – There was severe hardship but no famine in West Africa last year. Crops failed, locusts and other insects consumed farmers' fields and at least 18 million people suffered through a food shortage.
The United Nations warned of more than a million children at risk of malnutrition. But in the end, subsistence farmers in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Senegal and Mauritania got through it. By the end of 2012, those farmers produced a better crop.
Salt and Light TV's newest documentary, A New Leaf, tells how Canadians helped Caritas Niger pull through the Sahel region's second severe drought in a seven-year span.
As a success story, it's a harder story to tell, said the film's director Kris Dmytrenko. Images of starvation can be more compelling than the story of how development agencies bring in emergency food supplies while also training villagers in new agricultural techniques, said the filmmaker at the Toronto premiere of A New Leaf Feb. 28.
The film was financed in part by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The two organizations worked together on helping farmers through the drought.
CCODP raised close to $2 million for its Caritas partners in the region, while Foodgrains mobilized Canadian government funding and agricultural expertise.
Development and Peace is one of 15 churches and Church agencies that sit on the Foodgrains board.
The disaster averted was not small, and the coordinated effort to get food to small and isolated communities was heroic, said Father Isidore Ouedraogol, general secretary of Caritas Burkina Faso.
"Everyone, even the government, told us that our contribution with Development and Peace was an effective contribution for people," said Ouedraogol, while in Toronto for the film premiere.
"We went further in helping people have effective techniques for agriculture and also to have a common strategy of solidarity inside the village to work for food and agriculture together. You see it in the faces of those receiving grains and also food for their children."
There's more to Canada's intervention in the Sahel than just helping people through an isolated crisis, said Ouedraogol.
Droughts and crop failures used to be a once-in-a-generation event, hitting the region every 15-to-20 years. But climate change has made agriculture, which employs 90 per cent of the population, more tenuous, fragile and unpredictable.
Today, countries like Burkina Faso are trying to construct a future with higher, more complex goals than simply leaving behind the age of colonization.
"My hope would be that all the parts of our nation can accept that we have to all sit down around the same table. After this, we can have a good discussion on what ties us and what divides us," he said.
Africa needs the kind of partnerships and solidarity represented by Development and Peace, he said. "The future, we have to share it."
Food comes first. There can be no future of tolerance and hope among desperate, hungry people.
But Ouedraogol wants more than food and agriculture assistance from Canada. He believes Canadians can help his country and region with building up institutions of justice, educating young people for citizenship and local government.
The Church can't do these things for the nation, but through Caritas and Development and Peace, it can create the atmosphere where people begin to demand more of themselves and their government.