Photographs by CHRIS DE BODE

June 26, 2017

Not so long ago, Lake Chad was one of the largest bodies of water in Africa. The thick reeds and vital wetlands around its basin provided vast freshwater reserves, breeding grounds for fish, fertile soil for agriculture, and grasslands where farmers grazed their animals. In 1963, it spanned almost 10,000 square miles, an expanse roughly the size of Maryland. But as climate change has taken its toll, the lake has shrunk by 90 percent. Today, only 965 square miles remain. Wetlands have given way to sand dunes. Farmers have abandoned their fields. Those who still live by the lake struggle to survive, beset by chronic drought and the slow onset of ecological catastrophe.

This looming crisis has only worsened with the rise of Boko Haram, which has driven some 74,000 Nigerians into neighboring Cameroon. In response, Cameroon’s government has banned farmers from using some brands of fertilizer, an ingredient used in homemade explosives, and has ordered that staples like maize, millet, and sorghum growing along roadsides be no higher than three feet, to prevent Boko Haram from hiding in planted fields.

More refugees and fewer crops have proven to be a deadly combination in a region already ravaged by climate change. More than seven million people around Lake Chad are now suffering from severe hunger, including 500,000 children wracked by acute malnutrition. Some huddle in makeshift shelters they have erected; others forage in the woods. Those fortunate enough to be granted a spot in a refugee camp often receive no more than one meal a day. Food, even in the most minute quantities, has become scarcer than hope.

We often turn away from images of the starving and hungry, from the skeletal profiles and ­hollowed­­-­out eyes that attest to the misery and suffering. But photographer Chris de Bode has found a way to focus our attention on this forgotten crisis. A single vegetable, a dried fish, a bowl of red maize—sometimes this is all a mother has to divide between her children each day. She may have to choose to feed her two youngest and send the teenagers to a village to beg for food. These images do not ask us to look into their eyes and see ourselves. They ask us to look at the emptiness of their bowls and reflect on the fullness of our own. We see their hunger through what little they have. We measure their suffering in the most universal unit of all: a single meal.

A half-eaten meal of ground red maize, white rice, and crushed mango leaves. This is the only meal Ramata Modou, 58, and her six children will eat today. They gathered the ingredients by begging from house to house in a village near the makeshift camp for women and children where they live.
A stick of red maize. With nearly 200,000 people displaced from their homes in northern Cameroon, farmers are struggling to produce staple crops like millet, sorghum, and maize. The government has forbidden the distribution of some fertilizers, which can be used to make explosives, in an attempt to prevent the conflict with Boko Haram from spilling over from neighboring Nigeria.
A bag of niebe beans. Aché, 80, tucked it into the wall of the small home where she lives with her four daughters and their children. All the men in their family were taken away or killed during a nighttime attack by Boko Haram.
A bowl of super cereal, the emergency food given to refugees as a protein supplement to prevent nutritional deficiencies. A third of Cameroonian children suffer from stunted growth.
A chipped bowl containing a few grains of rice and some dried beans. Grains are in short supply because the government has banned farmers from allowing their crops to grow more than three feet tall along Cameroon's highways. Militants had been hiding in the fields in order to ambush passing convoys.

Vegetables are a rare luxury in northern Cameroon. Most refugees survive on one bland meal a day, seasoning their food with whatever spices they can find.

A tomato from the only stall in Mémé where they are sold.
A battered red onion, sold for about 2 cents in Mémé's market in March. A bowl of peanuts, ground into an oily paste used to flavor bland food. Cameroonian women grind the nuts and mix the paste with their bare hands, leaving it to dry in the midday sun.
A bag of dried potato leaves, a specialty of the region, sold for less than a dime.

Some 74,000 Nigerian refugees have poured into northern Cameroon over the past two years, fleeing Boko Haram with whatever they can carry.

A battered spoon that was given to Amina, a pregnant mother of two, after she fled her village.
Foraged firewood that is burned or bartered for food in the camps.
An old sardine tin that Aichadou, six, and Ibrahim, four, found in a garbage dump. Eating sardines is a distant memory for the siblings; they use the tin as a prop in their pretend kitchen.