Long before Bible prophecy books hit the bookstands with dire predictions about coming famines, a major drought and famine was in the making in central west Africa. This year, after five years without appreciable rain and repeated crop failures, a famine of immense proportions has struck at the agriculture-based economies of eight sub-Sahara nations. A death toll of some six million people may result by November, according to one United Nations estimate.

Church and missionary relief agencies have already begun gearing up for what no doubt will be one of the longest emergency relief operations in recent years.

Abandoned villages, children with bloated bellies, and the rotting carcases of millions of head of cattle are mute testimony to the extent of the famine, which affects the nations of Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger Republic, Senegal, Sudan and Upper Volta. The emergency area spreads across 2,600 miles of parched, dust-laden land south of the Sahara desert, stretching across the African continent from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

Sudan Interior Mission (SIM), the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), the World Relief Commission (WRC) of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Assemblies of God, Food for the Hungry (FFH), and Church World Service (CWS) of the National Council of Churches are among the groups engaged in relief work in the affected area.

Said WRC administrative vice-president George Doud: “This is probably the worst disaster we’ve faced. Certainly it’s the most widespread.” He called the current drought and famine “a creeping giant” that rose up through many years of meager rainfall, cattle overgrazing, and poor agricultural planning. Although the area has a long history of drought cycles, authorities on the spot say the current one is the worst ever.

Water holes and rivers have dried up. Dust storms and insects provide what little movement there is on the landscape. Millions of sheep, cattle, and goats—a mainstay of the national economies and the only source of livelihood for many of the nomadic tribesmen of the area—have already died. A South African bush pilot, after flying over parts of Niger and Mali, told Food for the Hungry president Larry Ward that dead cattle dotted the landscape “in multiplied thousands.” Ward, who spent two weeks in Senegal, Mali, and Upper Volta, is now scouring North America for food donations from manufacturers.

More than 25 million people—mostly nomads—are affected by the famine and related diseases. Sanitation facilities are strained to the limit in the few cities in the area as hordes of refugees flee the villages for government food-distribution centers. The number of people who have died is virtually impossible to estimate because of the nomadic way of life of many of the victims.

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In fabled Timbuktu, thousands of nomads are pouring into a Malian government refugee camp. But some authorities say they may have waited too long. Malnutrition and disease have gripped many to the point that food now available may not save them. The camp is one of several government centers located in Mali’s Sixth Region—a desert area twice the size of France. Refugees are entering the camp at a rate of 100 per day, with the current camp population set at over 7,500—all totally dependent on government hand-outs. To date, Mali categorizes some 250,000 as refugees.

The drought also brought a further problem—the Sahara. As formerly productive areas burn up in the searing heat, the desert moves in. In some places, said Doud, the Sahara is moving south and claiming land at a rate of fourteen miles per year. This makes prospects for rehabilitating the land extremely poor, he pointed out. (The affected nations are listed by the U. N. as among the poorest in the world. Money to fight the Sahara will be hard to come by.)

As a result, said Doud, emergency relief—the job of providing food, medicine, and water to keep people alive—may continue for several years and then be followed by long-term redevelopment aid. “There is little or no hope for the 1973 crop,” he said, “so that even a year from now there will be no significant differences in the problem.” Even with normal rainfall, he added, it will take three to five years to get the area back on an even keel. “The evangelical community must be prepared for years of appeals for funds.”

Hitherto, evangelicals have been slow getting behind the agency. By late August, after six weeks of appeals, the agency had netted only $2,000 to send to Africa. It has budgeted, and expects to receive, up to $23,000 more in the immediate future. CWS, meanwhile, has already shipped nearly 250,000 tons of food and medical supplies valued at close to $100,000. Evangelist Billy Graham donated the offering from the final service of his Minneapolis crusade—more than $71,000 (see August 10 issue, page 29). And associate evangelist Howard O. Jones is making an assessment visit to the region.

Even if agencies can provide immediate relief, however, the conditions for future famines will remain unless the agencies start long-term redevelopment relief. Among proposed projects are livestock feeding stations, breeding programs for livestock, reforestation programs to reclaim overgrazed land, and rehabilitation of Sahara-claimed land.

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“We’re just beginning,” Doud said of WRC’s relief work. “We’ve got to help host nations develop new techniques to break the drought cycle.”

Despite the widespread hunger, mission boards and denominations say their staffs are little affected materially. “Their biggest problem is empathy with those around them,” said Kerry Lovering, editor of SIM’s Africa Now. “They have so much while others have so little. They’re giving away everything they have.”

SIM, which has fifty-three missionaries in Niger, twenty-nine in Upper Volta, and more than 300 in Ethiopia, is operating food-distribution centers in cooperation with the various governments.

At Tahoua and Maradi, in Niger, the mission put several staff members on full-time famine relief. Also, at Maradi, staffers at the mission-run agricultural school are cooperating with government officials on long-range plans to break the drought cycle. Included are new irrigation methods, deep-well digging, and reforestation projects. The mission also opened food centers at Alamata and Mai Chau in the heart of the worst hit areas of Ethiopia. Every day at Alamata, says Lovering, about ten people die from starvation and related causes.

CMA missionaries on the scene appealed to denominational headquarters to supply food rather than money. And, says a CMA spokesman, the denomination is negotiating with American farmers for the food. (However, food shortages in the United States and elsewhere in the world are hampering efforts by all agencies. Several officials whose agencies depend on the availability of government food resources say the situation is “calamitous.”) Cash for CMA grain purchases will come from the more than $5,000 raised by the Alliance Witness in an appeal to denominational supporters.

CMA staff, who operate in Mali and Upper Volta, report too that seed crops failed twice this year, and hopes for a third crop of millet and rice rest on the slender hope that sparse July rains provided enough water. In addition, they report that all available seed grain in the two countries was used up in the aborted plantings and by starving farmers who ate the seed instead of sowing it.

There are evangelistic overtones to the crisis. Muslims and missionaries are working together on relief projects, and missionaries are finding that many of the area’s inhabitants are now more curious about Christianity. Ward reports that national Christians are carrying sacks of food to the neediest families in several villages, telling recipients that the food comes “in the name of Jesus.”

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Not even 5 per cent of the people profess any form of Christianity in the Muslim-dominated region. According to figures compiled by various evangelical agencies, fewer than 5 per cent of Chad’s 3.5 million people are Christians. With eighty-two missionaries in the land-locked country that means one missionary for every 42,000 people. Similar figures hold true for the other affected nations. Mali has forty-five Protestant missionaries serving a Protestant population of 8–10,000 in a nation of more than five million. Catholic followers number roughly 20,000 in this former French colony. Few figures are available on Mauritania, although estimates suggest that less than 0.5 per cent of the population is Christian.

While mission boards and relief agencies rush food to government staging areas (primarily Dakar, the Atlantic seaport capital of Senegal) they are running into severe problems in trying to get supplies to the interior. Poor roads, a lack of trucks, and too few railroads have caused some congestion of supplies in Dakar. And what little rain has fallen recently has fouled up the dirt roads more than it has alleviated the water shortage, one glum missionary told a Western newspaper reporter. On top of this, political complications have caused log jams.

Food airlifts began earlier this year when the U. S. and Belgian air forces started flying supplies from Dakar to devastated areas of Mali and Niger. The U. S. Agency for International Development (AID) supplied 150,000 metric tons of food grains and said another 100,000 tons were on the way. (AID predicted the famine in July, 1972, and began stockpiling supplies, said Doud.)

Meanwhile, agencies are faced with the tough job of financing their relief efforts. Already strained appeal channels may be hard to keep open in the face of the long-term money need ahead. In the five years since the drought began, relief agencies pumped up aid for Biafra, Bangladesh, the Peruvian and Nicaraguan earthquakes, and continuing famine in India.

And those prophecy books say the worst is yet to come.

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