A text message can help Swaziland in the middle of a drought

Emil Helotie
Emil Helotie
Emil Helotie

The drought has destroyed entire crops in parts of Swaziland. A cash donation helps people get through the worst times.

“I have never seen a year like this! In the past, we have been able to grow some vegetables, but this year, nothing is growing,” says Ntombile Dlamini, 77, shaking her fist at the sky. It has barely rained lately.

The people in Swaziland and elsewhere in Southern Africa region have been waiting for rain for a long time. One of the reasons for the drought is the strengthened El Niño phenomenon. Last year, the drought destroyed approximately half of the crops, and this year, almost all of the crops were ruined.

The corn fields are completely dry, and only small streams persist within the riverbeds.

Normally, Ntombile Dlamini and her neighbors grow spinach, nuts, and various vegetables in their gardens.

“For the first time in my life, I had to plant the seeds three times, yet nothing started to grow,” says Msane Magagula, 67.

“There were days when we had nothing to eat, and we could only drink a little water. I was scared I would die and my children and grandchildren would have nothing to eat,” adds their neighbor, Bettena Sihlongonyane, 73.

The neighbors have come to receive cash grants from the Baphalali Swaziland Red Cross, Finnish Red Cross and the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, ECHO.

”At first, we were scared we’d drop the phone”

At the moment, approximately 31.6 million people in Southern Africa lack food due to the drought. This number is estimated to reach 49 million by the end of the year.

The Red Cross and ECHO cash transfer program distributed cash grants to 4,200 households in Swaziland during April, May and June. Nearly everyone receives their grant via a text message.

“At first, we didn’t know what mobile money was. When the text message about the cash grant arrived, we would clutch the phone tightly. We were scared we’d drop the phone, and something would happen to the message,” Bettena Sihlongonyane reminisces, and the neighbors laugh.

“Now we know what is going on, and we usually go and get the grant the very next day.”

With their personal SIM card, the recipient of the cash grant can claim their grant either from the office of the local phone operator, MTN, or from a Red Cross distribution centre.

According to the survey conducted by the Baphalali Swaziland Red Cross, 96 per cent of the recipients use the cash grant to buy food.

”We couldn’t plant anything this season”

The drought is hardest on those who had a difficult time even before the drought. In Swaziland, more than 27 per cent of the adult population is infected with HIV or AIDS.

Nkhosingphile Mhlanga, 78, is one of the cash grant recipients. She lives with her ten grandchildren who are all school-aged. All of her children, meaning the parents of the grandchildren, have died of AIDS.

“It has been terribly dry this year. We couldn’t plant anything this season,” Nkhosingphile Mhlanga says.

“The children have done some household chores for the neighbors to get a little food as a reward. Before the cash grant, we had no other way of getting through this.”

With the grant of approximately 30 euros, she buys a 15-kilogram bag of mealie-meal, the rough corn flour eaten commonly in Swaziland, as well as beans, potatoes and soap.

“We are very grateful for the grant.”