In the Mbera refugee camp in the southeast of Mauritania, just 60 km from the border with Mali, the bright colors of a garden growing pumpkins, melons, chilies, peppers, beets and eggplants stand out against the stark white of the UN tents and the dry and dusty landscape.
An estimated 75,000 refugees currently reside at Mbera and 300 more arrive every day fleeing war-torn Mali. Representatives of medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres describe the worsening conditions at the camp, especially in terms of food. The mortality rate among children under 2 years of age is above emergency levels. Meanwhile in Mali, the situation doesn't seem to be improving and retaliations and repercussions on the local population are multiplying.
Against this discouraging backdrop, a small project is lifting spirits. Almahdi Alansari - or Himba, as everyone calls him - is a Touareg man who fled from Timbuctu with his family. A long time friend of Slow Food, back in Mali he used to work with the women of the Katta Pasta Presidium. Equipped with just his experience and a few native seeds from Gao in northern Mali, he started a vegetable garden next to his tent, inspiring others to be created.
Slowly Himba involved the women and men of the community, and now around 50 people have started their own small gardens. Collectively the gardens are now part of Slow Food's Thousand Gardens in Africa project, receiving some support to grow their local crops using traditional methods and whatever resources they have available to protect them from birds, wind, sand and water scarcity.
"Of course, there are many problems", Himba wrote to us. "There is little water, sand is constantly blowing in the wind and humidity is extremely high. But the women work very hard and even children - who have little plots to themselves - are proud of their little piece of garden. Every day I work to teach good farming techniques. I never tire of explaining and encouraging the refugees to nurture this project".
"Thanks to the gardens, people have changed their way of thinking," he says. "I can see how much the women love nature and how proud they are to do what they used to do back home. Here, young and old meet and exchange experiences."
The ritual of Katta pasta, the Slow Food Presidium pasta similar to Italian "trofie" made with the flour of an unusual local wheat, also lives on in the refugee camp. The dish is typically prepared by Malian women for special guests and festive occasions. Inside the camp, women work with their daughters and, although their main occupation is looking after their homes, looking for water and going to school, they still make katta for each festivity.
In the face of desperation, traditions, familiar foods and self-sufficiency are a source of comfort and hope. Slow Food is thankful for donations received in support of the Thousands Gardens project that will help strengthen this and many other African food gardens.
You can also help Slow Food create gardens in Africa