“Look at my child – please help us! The woman shouts.
She hastily undresses the five-year-old, revealing lean arms and ribs that are painfully visible under the skin.
The child lets himself be pulled before starting to tremble.
The mother and daughter live in the famine-stricken Anosy region in the far south of Madagascar.
Penniless, they still have 10 kilometers on foot from the village of Fenoaivo to the nearest health center.
Further down the road, a family is holding a silent vigil outside the hut where their father has rested since he died of hunger four days ago.
“We can’t bury it because we don’t have a zebu (cow). We won’t have a meal to serve, which is the most important thing for us,” says the daughter of the dead Rahovatae by the low-combustion Fire.
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The family dug for roots, the only food available until help arrives.
“There is nothing more here where we have dug,” says mother of nine Rahovatae, a spade in hand in the little wood outside the village.
She tears off a piece of one of the cacti they ate for lack of anything better.
“I cut the thorns with a knife. It’s horrible, it’s bitter and sticks to the palate. Even when you cook it, it doesn’t taste any good. It weakens us,” she complains.
The deserted hamlet where the family lives is one known to aid workers as “zombie villages” – home to only a small number of the lost who appear to await death.
Rahovatae and her family are among more than one million Malagasy people in need of food in a vast area spanning 110,000 square kilometers (42,000 square miles) – roughly the size of Virginia or the island. from northern New Zealand.
Years with little rain have made farming impossible, while sandstorms have left huge swaths of arable land barren – effects the UN has linked to climate change.
“We planted but there was no rain. Everything that was planted dies. We have nothing left. Part of what we have has been sold, the rest has been stolen by bandits.” , explains Sinazy, mother of eight children in Mahaly.
Her 17-year-old son Havanay breaks wild nuts in their small mud and straw hut.
“We eat the inside, that white core,” he says.
“I break them from morning to dusk. But fat can make you sick. I tremble after eating it,” Havanay says.
World Food Program (WFP) chief David Beasley compared the plight of the hungry in Madagascar to a “horror movie”, saying it was enough to make even the most hardened humanitarians cry.
About 14,000 people have already reached a stage that WFP defines as level five, a “disaster when people have absolutely nothing to eat,” said the organization’s Malagasy leader, Moumini Ouedraogo.
The UN estimates that it will need $ 78.6 million to provide vital food aid during the next lean season which begins in October.
Several humanitarian organizations have been distributing hundreds of tonnes of food and nutritional supplements for months with government assistance.
But it’s not enough.
In Ambovombe, the main town in the hard-hit region of Androy, hundreds of people have survived without help for months.
They beg and eat leftover food from the market – even scraps of leather given to them by sandal makers.
Boiled with a little salt to soften it or toasted, leather “tears our stomachs apart, but it’s because we have nothing.” We suffer a lot, ”says Clarisse.
President Andry Rajoelina has launched “several actions” since his election in 2019 aimed at “real transformation in the south,” said his chief of staff Lova Hasinirina Ranoromaro, adding that there is “strong political will”.
The president himself announced via Twitter that “140 big projects” will be launched in the fields of agriculture, water supply, public works and health.
Madagascar has gone through 16 food crises recorded since 1896.
Researcher Paubert Mahatante says that besides climate change, other factors, including “the population explosion combined with the depletion of natural resources”, are to blame.
Neither the government nor the WFP publicly track the number of people who have died of hunger, but AFP has recorded at least 340 deaths of local government figures in recent months.