Famines Are a Thing of the Past: Food Security Trends in Northern Burkina Faso

By West, Colin Thor; Somé, Aimé et al. | Human Organization, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Famines Are a Thing of the Past: Food Security Trends in Northern Burkina Faso


West, Colin Thor, Somé, Aimé, Nebié, Elisabeth Kago, Human Organization


Mba-Katré, the hyena, and Mba-Soâmba, the hare, were friends.

There had been such a famine that no one had anything to eat.

So the hare made an offer to the hyena. He proposed that each one of them sell his mother in order to buy some grain. (Sissao 2010:29)

The lines above are from a famous Mossi folktale called "The Hare and the Hyena." No one really knows when this story was first told, but people in northern Burkina Faso are very familiar with its various versions in which the cunning hare tricks his naïve and trusting friend the hyena. Undoubtedly very old and deeply rooted in Mossi cultural history, certain facets of it resonate with the everyday lives of contemporary Mossi people. First of all, it references a "famine" and the northern parts of Burkina Faso lie within the West African Sahel region where food shortages commonly occur. The tale also describes conditions whereby "no one" had "anything" to eat, which suggests a widespread and extreme food deficit. Two recent famines of this magnitude affected this part of the Sahel from 1968 to 1972 and again from 1983 to 1985 (Franke and Chasin 1980; Glantz 1987). Furthermore, the story relates how the animals cope by selling off some of their assets in order to buy grain. These passages graphically illustrate the fundamentals of Amartya Sen's (1981,1999) entitlement approach for understanding famines. For Sen, starvation is not due to the absence of food, it occurs when people do not have access to food through exchange entitlements (Baro and Deubel 2006). Last, it suggests that people can become completely desperate and sell their own "mother" to buy grain. No one, of course, actually sells their mother, but during recent droughts, households of the Sahel have resorted to extreme measures that include permanent migration (McMillan 1995), commercial sex work (Roncoli, Ingram, and Kirshen 2001), and total liquidation of productive assets (Davies 1996).

Like other anthropologists, we use this folktale as a heuristic device for understanding larger processes of social and environmental change within a particular ethnographic context (see Crate 2008). For us, "The Hare and the Hyena" reveals important cultural dimensions of food security for contemporary Mossi rural producers on the semi-arid northern Central Plateau of Burkina Faso. It helps guide our investigation of regional trends in food security by focusing on current causes of food shortages, adaptive strategies, and changes in grain markets. We ask general questions about whether or not food security is improving and then assess these improvements in terms of household sensitivity to agroclimatic shocks and the ability of households to purchase grain following production shortfalls.

Food security assessment is complex, and anthropologists have played a prominent role in developing theory, indicators, and methodologies (Baro and Deubel 2006; Pottier 1999; Shipton 1990). These can be large, formal mixed-methods projects funded by development organizations (Baro 2002; Mazzeo 2011; Woodson 1997). Such assessments entail large teams that survey households across several geographic clusters to identify vulnerable groups and recommend policy interventions. Others consist of smaller case studies that qualitatively investigate changes in food security in the context of changing livelihood diversification over relatively long periods of time (Gezon 2012). Some recent studies were specifically designed to test theoretical models of food insecurity by collecting empirical data across livelihood sectors (Tucker et al. 2010). There are a select few longitudinal case studies that assess changes in food security over several decades (McCabe 2003; McCabe, Leslie, and DeLuca 2010).

All of these examples provide detailed information on important aspects of food security. They involve a great deal of data collection and intensive analyses, which are both time-consuming and expensive. Even within a single country, protocols and questionnaires can vary from one agency to another and complicate the comparison of results (Woodson 1997). …

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