06/26/2012 10:49 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

Amid Crisis, a Warm Burkina Faso Welcome

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

What struck me first on arriving in Burkina Faso wasn't the dust, the heat or the poverty. It was the welcome. 'The Country of Men of Integrity,' as Burkina is known, might be one of the poorest countries in the world -- ranked 181st out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index last year -- but it prides itself on making the stranger feel at home. As one of my Catholic Relief Services colleagues explained, "We imagine how we'd feel as a foreigner in a strange land." And so on a starry night in Ouagadougou (the splendidly named capital) I was welcomed into the country with laughter and music and dancing.

Driving north the next day though, it was plain to see that this year things are particularly tough for Burkina. The rains failed last season so harvests were bad or non-existent. Food prices have been pushed up and instability in the region has meant less chance of finding work elsewhere. As our tires spun up the dust on the bush roads, we passed slow moving lines of cattle with their ribs showing; carcasses and their attendant vultures; riverbeds dried up, waiting for the next rain. But we also met donkeys trotting about their daily business, long eared goats standing with hooves aloft to nibble the low-lying leaves off the thorn trees and startlingly blue birds that would flit from time to time, a streak of color in the desert.

At a pit stop in Kaya, a couple of hours north of Ouaga, we visit a CRS-supported center for vulnerable girls, many fleeing forced marriages, run by the inimitable Sister Georgette. Three old women are lying on mats in the courtyard, painfully thin. The sister tells us they've walked over 12 miles from their village to see if there was any food here. They haven't eaten for five days.

We drive until the tarmac stops, onto the laterite roads... and finally the roads stop altogether. A nausea-inducing hour of "dancing in the sand" (as our spirited driver liked to call it) and we arrive at Fererio, roughly 30 miles from the Malian border, and home to around a third of the 62,000 refugees who have fled to Burkina to escape the violence in Mali.

Fererio is no stranger to extending the Burkinabé welcome: some of the same Malians fled here in the early 1990s when once again tensions mired their country in conflict. I look around, as I try to adjust to the 114 degree heat and the sand, gritty between my teeth. We've come to the temporary camp where make-shift shelters are fashioned from sticks and cloth and sacking. The next few hours are filled with smiles and stares, handshakes and questions. Unforgettable faces and unforgettable stories. The young woman who shed tears for the law degree she had to leave behind; the Bellah herder bewailing his lost animals; the Tuareg woman whose husband was killed in the violence and feels she's no use to anyone. There are the inquisitive kids, pestering to have their photo taken... and the peals of laughter when they see the result. The little girl who likes to touch my hair and insists on walking hand-in-hand with me. There's talk of David Beckham (ah, the international language of soccer) and a Tuareg sword dancing display, put on for the visitors and to keep spirits up.

Under the scant shade of a thorn tree, the camp chiefs thank CRS for the help they've received: food, water, hygiene and sanitation supplies. I feel a rush of pride for my colleagues. But also the sense that if I really "let in" what these people are going through, it would be almost too much to bear.

We spend the night a couple of hours south in Gorom Gorom (which means in Tamachek "come here and let's sit together"). Around the dinner table, the nuns who are lodging us tell us about the twins brought to their health center that week, 1 year old but weighing just 4 and a half pounds.

As I washed the desert off my face that night, I realized just how many more stories Burkina holds. I can't wait to tell them.