Appearances in Mali are deceptive. The country is in the grip of a food crisis, yet fields either side of the road heading north from the capital, Bamako, are lush with newly grown crops of maize, millet and okra.
Mango trees abound, alongside baobabs, valued for their fruit pulp, which makes a porridge high in vitamin C, as well as karite trees – called shea in English – which bear nuts providing cooking oil. Roadside stalls boast bananas, guavas and aubergines, while, at intervals, fisherman in pirogues can be seen at work on the broad, dun-coloured waters of the River Niger or on one of its major tributaries, the Bani. But the further one journeys towards the front line with the north of the country, largely desert and now in the hands of Islamist rebels and Tuareg secessionists, the sparser the vegetation, and the hungrier the people.
Lack of rains last year across the Sahel, that part of West Africa lying just south of the Sahara, resulted in poor harvests, which sparked higher prices for staples such as millet. This left some 19 million people across the region dependent on food aid. The situation was already perilous when the rains failed. A food crisis in 2010 had left more than 10 million already facing shortages.
In Mali, some 4.6 million people are in need, with the poor harvest just part of the problem. The rebellion in the north earlier this year, following an army coup in the capital, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, disrupting food supplies and agricultural production. Many fled across Mali's borders with Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, adding to the food crisis those countries were already experiencing, while the UN estimates that more than 175,000 made their way south into government-held territory, many descending on relatives or friends already facing shortages of their own.
Agricultural resources are in short supply – tilling the land by hand is still commonplace – and many subsistence farmers have flocked to towns trying to find work, leading to a labour shortage in the fields. Some of the best farms beside the Niger are now in the hands of major foreign concerns, including the governments of China and, until recently, Libya, growing food for their own people. Locusts are another threat. Conflict in the north has disrupted eradication programmes, giving new swarms a chance to breed.
In Konna, one of the northernmost towns in Mali still in government hands, several families a day continue to cross from the rebel area, often with nothing but the clothes they stand up in. Some have been forced out by insurgents, others have left through fear. Sexual abuse of women has reportedly been widespread, while men suspected of being members of the military have been taken away and not seen again.
Christian Aid's country manager, Yacouba Kone, says it is too early to tell whether this year's rains will produce a harvest plentiful enough to fill the grain stores. "The fields may look as if they are full of food – the rains so far this year have been good – but the harvest is still months away, and, meanwhile, the granaries are bare, and people are struggling," he said. "A 100kg sack of rice last year cost 30,000 West African francs. Now the price is 50,000. Poverty here is entrenched and only a few can afford the fruit and vegetables you see for sale. In recent years, the level of the Niger has also fallen, badly hitting fish stocks." He reels off a litany of other factors affecting food supplies. These include the fact that, when the rains come, they are more intense than they used to be, leading to flooding, which washes away valuable soil.
Aid in Mali provided by Christian Aid's partners GRAT (Groupe de Recherche et d'Applications Techniques) and APH (Actions de Promotion Humaine) has so far reached some 50,000 people. It takes the form of rice and cereal distribution, cash transfers, cash-for-work programmes, and the provision of seed for market gardening.
Working through Norwegian Church Aid, Christian Aid has also provided £50,000 for the supply of food to people in remote villages in the region around the northern town of Gao, which is in the hands of an Islamist faction. GRAT is focusing distribution on the most vulnerable, with some 50 tons of rice and cereal, and 10 tons of seed going to the internally displaced, and to host families.
Adiarorkoye Habra Toure, a 30-year-old mother of four from Douentza, 100km beyond Konna, was at home with her family when the rebels came, demanding the key to her brother-in-law's motorcycle. "When he didn't hand it over, he was beaten in front of us. My children were terrified," she said. Leaving her schoolteacher husband behind, she and her children fled by bus, running the gauntlet of a series of rebel checkpoints where the bus and the belongings of the passengers were picked through for valuables.
Mohamdou Coulibaly, a logistics specialist with a non-governmental organisation from Gao, said rebels who took the town after a fierce fight with soldiers at a military base there quickly established a strict Islamic code. Women had to wear the veil and could not be seen out in the company of men. They were forbidden to drive cars, and watching TV was banned. Identity documents were checked as rebels hunted down members of the military, and every bus and car leaving the town was stopped and searched for valuables.
Aboubacrin Sada, a Koranic master from Gao, left behind his library which contained a number of ancient Korans. He fled because "it was impossible to tell the Islamists from other rebels". Although he is now considering returning home, he remains horrified at the destruction of Islamic shrines by hardliners, saying those who carried out the attacks were not acting from true Islamic conviction. "God will judge them," he said. "True Islamists do not humiliate other followers."
A few kilometres south, in Socoura, a suburb of the town of Sévaré, which straddles the highway north, Mayor Zeine Diallo said: "Many people are facing real starvation here." Rice and seed had been distributed to the most needy, but another 800 tons of rice are needed. The area's 40,000-strong population, many of whom already required food aid, has been swollen by more than 2,000 people fleeing from the north.
Timbuktu businessman Idrussa Ahha, a father of six, escaped with his family by boat. Members of the Tuareg secessionist group, the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA), had visited his construction company and demanded all his building materials, and five million West African francs in cash, saying if he failed to deliver he would be killed. "I went to see an Islamist group and told them of the threat, but although they offered to protect me they did nothing," he said. "I can't find words to describe what the rebels have done to the town. All the government buildings and banks are in ruins, but the destruction of the mosques was worse."
Fatma Walet, 35, a schoolteacher from the town of Kidal, north of Gao, said: "As the rebels entered our town, some of us tried to leave by bus. The women all had their faces covered. Islamists stopped us at a checkpoint before we got very far and ordered everyone off. I had my two-year-old child with me. They separated the men from the women. The women were not touched – they said we were other men's wives. They interrogated the men about Islam, asking how they prayed and how often.
"They were looking for military men. Any who didn't have papers or identification was immediately suspect. One young man who tried to take pictures was beaten in front of us. My husband is still in hiding there – he worked for the government – and my brother who was a soldier is missing. Other members of my family I have contacted by phone told me he had been taken – I pray he is still alive."
In villages close to the front line, life was hard enough before the conflict. At one, Goroulie, flash floods destroyed a number of homes and food stores. The 63-year-old village chief, Antongoule Guindo, a father of six who in better times farms millet and soya bean, said: "Physically, we are alive, but inside we are dead. The children go to sleep hungry."