Fr. Isidore Ouedraogol, Caritas Burkina Faso general secretary, attended the Toronto premiere of A New Leaf, a documentary on Canadian and Caritas efforts to help those suffering from severe famine and drought in West Africa. Photo by Michael Swan

Canadians aid Caritas Niger in turning A New Leaf for the fight against severe drought

  • March 9, 2013

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 the story of 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. Foodgrains and Development and Peace worked together on helping farmers through the drought. The Catholic development agency 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 co-ordinated effort to get food to small and isolated communities was heroic, said Caritas Burkina Faso general secretary Fr. Isidore Ouedraogol.

“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. This comes at a time when the young nations of the region face serious challenges to their basic institutions.

In Mali the Tuareg people, egged on by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have split the country in a civil war that has involved foreign troops and other supports, including a Canadian transport plane.

“We have 50 years of independence,” said Ouedraogol of the former French colonies of the region. “The countries built in the ‘60s were built on faith in liberty, freedom — freedom from colonization.”

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,” said the 45-year-old priest. “Democracy is good for Africa and Africa can give to democracy. We need a new breath of democracy around the world with what we are as Africans and what we hope as Africans.”

But none of that can happen in isolation. 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.

“We have to give to the local communities a freedom and responsibility — how to live inside the nation. Subsidiarity, yes?”

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.

“The Church first of all is to inform people about what is happening in our region about climate change, about social issues, economic issues, political issues,” Ouedraogol said. “The Church also has to be in a conversion always, at all times, about how to give the good news and how we are living among the people in our region.”

A New Leaf will get its broadcast premiere on Salt and Light Television Thursday, March 7 at 9:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. Eastern time, with a repeat on Sunday, March 10 at 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. Eastern.


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