A stereotypical photo depicting hunger in sub-Saharan Africa might show a gaunt victim. When photographer Chris de Bode traveled to Cameroon–in an area where conflict, drought, and a swelling population of refugees have led to ongoing food shortages–he focused on the food instead.
On one plate, with rice, mango leaves, and maize, we see the half-eaten meal of a family that fled from a village on the border with Nigeria when armed men attacked. They now live in a makeshift refugee camp, but there isn’t enough food; after begging, they’ve managed to gather one meal for the day for seven people.
Another photo shows a bowl of “super cereal,” a milky white porridge used as an emergency supplement. Another plate, with ground maize and a green sauce made from mango leaves, shows the daily meal for a mother and her two youngest children. Her two older children, ages 12 and 15, will have to go to a nearby village to beg for their own food.
At a market, de Bode photographed items like a stunted yellow pepper, a battered onion, and a bruised, split tomato–all luxuries, though an onion costs about a penny–and maize husks, which also find their way into many meals, despite their toughness and lack of nutrition.
Cameroon has been at war with Boko Haram since 2014. The northern part of the country, already the poorest region before the conflict began, has been especially hard hit. Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds of people and forced them to work as farmers for the group; in some places, militants have issued death threats to farmers who don’t want to give up part of their harvest. The group has also stolen at least $6 million worth of livestock. When some farmers have fled from their homes because of attacks, even if they’ve later returned, they’ve often missed crucial timing for planting or tending to their crops.
Near the border with Nigeria, the government has forced farmers to cut down tall crops, like maize, because of the risk that enemy soldiers might be hiding in the field. Border closures have also decimated the local economy. To add to the challenges, the region is struggling with drought. Lake Chad–which spanned an area almost the size of Maryland in 1963–has shrunk by 90%, making it harder to irrigate crops. Some brands of fertilizer have been banned because they can also be used in explosives. Traders sometimes can’t deliver food to markets because of violence. And tens of thousands of Nigerians fleeing violence have come to Cameroon, further straining limited food supplies (the government has been criticized for forcibly sending some refugees back).
Earlier this year, the UN reported that only a tiny fraction of the aid money needed in the region had been received. “We call it a silent emergency, where there’s not enough awareness and response and funding to support the needs at the scale that they are,” says Alex Carle, director of programs and partnerships at the British Red Cross.
The branches of the Red Cross working in the region provide cash to support some people in the area (giving them the option to spend it on food, when food is available, or on whatever else is needed, like repairing homes damaged in fighting), and work to bring in food when it runs out at markets–though the conflict and treacherous roads make that difficult. The organization reached out to Chris de Bode to create the photo series.
“One of the most important decisions I [made] was to kind of stay away from the stereotypical image we have from these hunger-torn areas where people suffer, and make these images which we all know,” says de Bode, who visited Cameroon in 2017 to take the pictures. “I felt by doing the same, which I’ve done a lot over the years, it wouldn’t add anything. Images of someone suffering can be exploitative, he believes. And if they’re commonplace, they’re also easier to ignore. Looking at a plate of food–not unlike the parade of meals depicted on Instagram–makes it easier for someone thousands of miles away to begin to imagine themselves in the same situation.