Like much of the Sahel, Chad's Guera region is experiencing another bout of an all too familiar phenomenon: severe drought, food shortages, hunger and chronic malnutrition. Up to 18 million people across the Sahel are facing a severe food crisis and 1 million children could be affected by severe, acute malnutrition.
Droughts are by no means new in this part of the world and have been occurring cyclically since the 17th century but as Professor Marc Bellemare at Duke University in North Carolina points out "food crises rarely, if ever, occur because of an overall lack of food to go around." Instead, "poor infrastructure and conflict combine to create the perfect storm of constraints to food imports and food distribution" and a steep increase in population over the past two decades is exacerbating the problem. When Abbie Trayler-Smith recently went to Chad for the charity Oxfam to document the impending crisis, she was struck by the peculiar landscape of Guera - a flat, arid expanse with boulders jutting out of the landscape. The local driver explained the geological forms with the legend of the Lady of Guera.
From a certain angle, the boulders look like a woman lying down, looking up at the sky and watching over the people. In what is a very male-dominated society, the female character of this mythical persona seems odd but Abbie found much of the determination and courage needed to survive in this harsh climate in the faces of local women who are mainly responsible for feeding their families.
Many of the women she met would walk for miles in the searing heat to dig up an ant heap, looking for grass seeds hidden deep down to give their families something to eat. Few of them had ever seen their own faces as even the better off women would probably share a tiny mirror in a family of 15. As Abbie started to photograph a woman who was receiving help from Oxfam in her home, other women from all over the village suddenly crowded around her, wanting to see the miraculous image on the back of the camera. Very soon, a large gallery of portraits of the Ladies of Guera had developed which gives a human face to the endless statistics of hunger and misery that have become meaningless.