By Francesca Reinhardt, Program Support Officer, Chad
At 6:30 am on the dot the rain begins to fall in Goré, southern Chad. It sounds like an avalanche clattering down on the tin roof overhead. This is the sound everyone’s been waiting for with bated breath, because it’s already mid-May and the rains should have started a few weeks ago. But after twenty minutes it stops. Is it a false alarm? There’s no more rain, but the air is thick and heavy and clouds still hover in the distance, promising more. So after a long, hot dry season, the farmers swing into gear.
When to plant is a serious gamble for farmers. If the rains don’t start in earnest, the soil will dry up and precious seeds will get blown away. If they wait too long, it might be too late, and food stores from the year before will have to last even longer. For many subsistence farmers, the months between the end of the harsh dry season and the first harvest are known as the “hunger gap,” when they have to survive on the last of the cereal crop, foraging, and loans.
There is an added danger that if families get too hungry, they will eat the seeds they need to plant for the next harvest, thus threatening their food supply for the following year. Some families hide their seeds in trees, or anywhere else that will keep them out of reach of hungry children. This is obviously a difficult choice for families to make: to have their children go hungry now, or risk starvation the following year.
Timing is everything. Concern has been pre-positioning seeds and tools to get ready for the planting season. The area around Goré gets cut off during the rainy season as the roads become impassable, so everything has to be ready to go as soon as the rains start. However, if seeds get distributed too early, they might be eaten or sold before the rains come. Working with refugee and host communities, Concern has built seed banks and stocked them with certified seeds for improved crop varieties. This ensures a reliable and affordable supply of seeds, and a safety net against bad harvests. Participants can borrow seeds for planting, and if the harvest is a success, deposit them again for the following year.
As soon as the first rains come, it’s time for the seed banks to organize distributions. Peanut and sesame seeds come first, followed by sorghum — which needs more water – a few weeks later. Eventually the seed bank committees will take over the entire process, but for now they work closely with Concern. This year there are 2,000 beneficiaries in three refugee camps and seven villages. As with regular borrowers applying for a bank loan, the beneficiaries have to show that they are practicing farmers and likely to return the loan.
A special effort is made to ensure that the poorest families participate.Alice Dero is treasurer of the seed bank committee in Dosseye Refugee Camp, near Goré. The committees are elected by the community, and Alice is the only woman on the executive. She has a formidable presence it would be hard to ignore. I have a feeling if she told me to do something I would comply pretty quickly.
Hundreds of people are milling around the seed bank, a weather-proof brick warehouse, trying to find a scrap of shade where they can wait their turn. Alice wastes no time putting people to work and doing crowd control. She herself measures out the 6kg of sesame seeds that everyone receives. Despite the commotion, the crowds of farmers and onlookers are good for transparency. As a public event, everyone can see what’s going on and who’s getting what. I ask her if it’s a lot of work, on top of her usual responsibilities as head of a big family. “Everything is work,” she says, “everything is work. But if the job’s done right, it’s worth it. Here I can see with my own eyes if it’s done right.”
Dosseye Refugee Camp looks like a sprawling village, and dwarfs many towns in the region. It is home to 10,000 refugees from the Kabba and Fula ethnic groups fleeing violence and instability in the Central African Republic (CAR). Kabbas, like Alice, are traditionally farmers who share ethnicity with some of the host population in Chad. The Fula are pastoralists who are rapidly learning to farm, now that their herds are gone and animal migration routes cut off. Putting farming and refugees together might seem unusual, but the 76,000 CAR refugees in Chad could be here for the long term. Some have been here for almost ten years, and the future in CAR is uncertain.
Uncertainty is a part of life here. No one knows ifthe refugees will be staying here another two years, five years, or forever. Year to year and month to month, subsistence farmers depend on numerous factors beyond their control. Will the rains come? Will there be floods? Will waves of locusts and birds devour the crops? Will mysterious blights and molds ravage them? Will animal migrations trample them? After the back-breaking harvest, will weevils and rats get into the grain stores? What happens when there’s not enough land? Will there be land-title disputes? You would think that just getting up in the morning is not for the faint of heart.
Better inputs, farming techniques, and management can make a big difference, but mastering all these variables at once is a remarkable feat for those who achieve it. There are definitely some bigger farmers making a go of it, usually by relying on several different sources of income to spread the risk. But the refugees of Dosseye and other nearby camps are living much closer to the edge, farming smaller plots, waiting for the clouds to burst. For them, just feeding their families is an amazing achievement.
Concern is working with 2,000 refugee families living in the three camps of Amboko, Gondjé, and Dosseye along the Pende river in Southern Chad. As long-term refugees, Concern is helping them to raise food production through seeds, training, and community management. Chad is host to 76,000 refugees from CAR, 250,000 refugees from Sudan, as well as having 100,000 internally displaced people. Concern also works with communities in Eastern Chad affected by the conflict in West Sudan.