Issoufa Mahama is worried. To take his livestock out into the pasture beyond the village, he explains, is to roll the dice.
“We can’t take the cattle out into the bush any more,” he says. “It’s because of Boko Haram. If you go out, they will take your herd.”
Mahama, like other farmers in Cameroon’s far north, is one of many unseen victims of Boko Haram, whose jihad in Nigeria has spilled over into neighbouring Cameroon and other countries.
According to a study conducted by Cameroon’s ministry of livestock, between 2012 and 2016, Boko Haram killed at least 135 farmers, forced the closure of 21 cattle markets and stole 48,000 farm animals and around 4,000 chickens.
The group inflicted direct losses of 55 billion CFA francs (83.8 million euros, $97 million), plunging many families who were already living on the edge deeper into poverty.
In recent months, attacks and thefts seem to have have receded, but in many places the jihadists maintain an empire of fear.
Many farmers in the village of Meme keep their cattle within the village boundaries for safety — but fodder is desperately short.
“The animals are hungry. They have nothing to eat,” said Mahama, contemplating two scrawny cattle and a few goats chewing on a handful of millet stalks he has thrown on the ground.
Before Boko Haram started its rampage, he says, he had 30 cattle. Now he has nine. Two have died in the past fortnight, probably due to lack of food and sickness, he says.
– Vigilantes –
Mathieu Dara, a livestock specialist at the Veterinary Zootechnical Centre in Mora, says many farm animals in areas hit by Boko Haram have had no access to medical treatment or vaccines for the past two years because of the security problems, and food is scarce.
“Lots of animals have died because of a lack of (veterinary) care,” he said.
At the entrance to Meme village, members of a local vigilante group, armed with old guns, have taken up position filtering those those who come in.
Three years ago, at least 19 people were killed in a twin suicide bomb attack at Meme’s market. Earlier this month, in the village of Mangave Foya Djalingo about 10 kilometres (six miles) away, Boko Haram killed six civilians.
In the Meme region of the same name as the village, 18,700 of the local population of 88,700 have been displaced by the violence, many of them fleeing with their livestock, according to the Lamido, as the local community chief is known.
Mahama says he has 38 people to care for, if displaced people are added to relatives in his charge.
Previously, everyone was able to have three meals a day, “but now, there are days when there’s nothing to eat,” he said.
– Rainfall –
Thieving and attacks by the jihadists add to the risks of a lifestyle already complicated by the weather.
“It’s not easy to find grass for the cattle because in this part of the world we only have rain for four months of the year,” said fellow cattle farmer Boukar Maloum.
The village’s meagre pastures have already been stripped of green grass. At the entrance to Maloum’s smallholding, two of his cattle go backwards and forwards, searching for something to eat.
Water, too, is scarce — farmers have to go “up to three kilometres” (two miles) for the precious substance, in heat that reaches 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), said Maloum.
Previously, the farmers were allowed by grain growers to cut the stalks of millet for free, using them as cheap fodder, after the cereal had been harvested.
Now, though, the stalks have to be paid for, said Maloum — adding to the pressure on poor households.
Earlier this month, the Cameroonian government and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched a campaign to vaccinate a million sheep and goats against a contagious disease called ovine rinderpest.
The immunisation has been welcomed by the farmers in Meme, although some say there are more pressing needs.
“It’s a good thing to vaccinate our goats and sheep, but if they’ve got nothing to eat, they’ll die,” Mahama says bluntly.