‘COVID-19 changed everything’: Ramadan for IDPs in Burkina Faso

With pandemic disrupting supply chains, thousands displaced by war struggle with lack of food during Muslim holy month.

Ramadan in Burkina Faso [Henry Wilkins/Al Jazeera] - DO NOT USE
The camp for internally displaced people in Barsalogho, a town in Burkina Faso's north [Henry Wilkins/Al Jazeera]

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – At tonight’s iftar, the meal with which Muslims break their fast at sunset during Ramadan, Karim Bamago will have nothing to eat.

Instead, he will only drink water and coffee with his wife and five children.

“I am managing, but it’s difficult to fast knowing there will be nothing at the end of it,” the 30-year-old says.

For Bamago and other internally displaced people (IDPs) in violence-hit Burkina Faso, fasting this year for the Muslim holy month has been blurred by the lack of food, partly due to the coronavirus pandemic disrupting food supplies.

Many times, iftar can mean nothing more than taking a drink. 

The amount of food being distributed by aid agencies, “is not sufficient for everyone, so some don’t get any,” Bamago says from an IDP camp in Barsalogho, a town in Burkina Faso’s north.

“We don’t know what to do here. We really need help … water is an issue, too, and there is no healthcare,” he adds.

The camp’s inhabitants barely have enough water to drink, he says, let alone for wudhu (the ablution Muslims carry out before prayer). It also makes following guidelines around washing hands to prevent the new coronavirus spreading near impossible.

‘We pray to God to keep us safe’

Burkina Faso has in recent years been gripped by an escalating and complex conflict that has spread across the Sahel region to several countries including Niger and Mali.

The deteriorating security situation, which has displaced some 800,000 Burkinabes, is complicating the country’s response to COVID-19, the highly infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus. In particular, people in Burkina Faso’s north and east are faced with the double threat of the pandemic – the country has recorded 652 coronavirus cases and 44 deaths to date – and worsening violence, which killed more than 2,000 last year.

Across the country, more than two million people are in need of food aid.

Ramadan in Burkina Faso [Henry Wilkins/Al Jazeera] - DO NOT USE
The camp for internally displaced people in Barsalogho, a town in Burkina Faso’s north [File: Henry Wilkins/Al Jazeera]

Asked if Ramadan is going to be a joyful experience this year, Bamago replies: “No, it won’t be the same as in the past,” reminiscing about the rice and porridge he would have for iftar in previous years.

“We only pray to God to help keep us safe from this coronavirus,” he adds.

Barsalogho is a relatively safe haven for Bamogo after his nearby village was attacked by masked fighters last year killing some 15 people. Thousands of IDPs have fled to the town from surrounding settlements, which have seen massacres carried out by groups affiliated with the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).

Many of the IDPs in Barsalogho live in tents covered by blue tarpaulins or houses belonging to local people, some with just one or two rooms sheltering as many as 20 people. Although the town is yet to confirm a case of COVID-19, many IDPs say they live in fear the coronavirus will arrive soon.

Health experts say the disease could spread like wildfire in cramped, unsanitary conditions.

The market in Barsalogho has been closed by the government to stop the spread of the virus, making access to food even more difficult for locals and IDPs alike. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) says the pandemic sweeping the globe risks exasperating the already precarious food situation for IDPs.

“The government has had to restrict movement to contain the spread of COVID-19,” says David Bulman, country director and representative of the WFP in Burkina Faso.

“When people can’t move around, in an economy that is heavily dependent on the informal sector, many of them can’t work.

“There are so many people here who earn their money each day and use their earnings to feed their family that night. If people can’t work, a lot more families won’t have much to eat, and will go hungry.” 

Compounding the problem, the price of food at markets in Burkina Faso has begun to rise rapidly since the country reported its first coronavirus case in early March.

In Burkina Faso, approximately 12.5 million Muslims (61.5 percent of the population) are observing Ramadan. And this year, many of them carry out the practice of zakat (charitable giving which becomes especially important during Ramadan) by providing IDPs with food and shelter.

Ramadan in Burkina Faso [Henry Wilkins/Al Jazeera] - DO NOT USE
 IDPs travelling with their possessions along the road from Barsalogho to Kaya [File: Henry Wilkins/Al Jazeera] 

In Kaya, another town in the country’s north where more than 80,000 IDPs have arrived in recent months, many of those displaced by conflict, are living in host communities rather than camps.

“I always have juices and porridge and to (cakes made from millet, sorghum or corn) … A lot of people come,” says Chief Madiega Dianbende, the community leader of Sector 6, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kaya hosting to several hundred IDPs. 

He and other residents of Sector 6 have opened up their homes to IDPs flowing in from the surrounding countryside. IDPs sleep in the locals’ compounds and those unable to hold their own iftar are provided with food by the chief.

Dianbende points out that zakat is an essential part of Ramadan. “It’s important to share, especially at this time of year. It’s just about giving what we can, food money and anything else.” 

He says there is enough food to make do for now, but he adds: “It’s really not enough.

“This disease has changed everything. Those who were bringing us food before are coming less and less.”

Source: Al Jazeera