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Amadou Diko, 70 years old, is bicycling with his pickaxe and shovel to the small gold pits of the Sahel region in Burkina Faso. He scavenges for gold every day because his crops have failed after a severe drought. The drought has forced a growing number of people to become dependent on the gold pits, where they sometimes dig for several days without finding even a trace of gold.Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail

Talk to veteran aid workers, and they'll admit that one of their biggest challenges in the vast drought-stricken Sahel region is simply the task of collecting reliable information.

People here in this impoverished semi-arid region of West Africa are highly mobile and largely illiterate. Borders are porous, roads are poor, cultures are traditional, and the government presence is minimal. To respond to a humanitarian emergency, you need good statistics, but how to gather them?

I noticed the difficulty of this in northern Burkina Faso last week. A group of farmers was toiling on a World Food Program food-for-work project, piling up stones to prevent the scarce rainwater from streaming away from their fields, and I talked to them about their failed harvests and desperate situations.

One farmer was bicycling to an informal gold pit to scrounge for bits of gold, and everyone else acknowledged that they too have turned to the gold pits for income. But when I asked them how much money they make from the pits, nobody would say.

I knew from other sources that the income is minimal – often nothing – yet the farmers were afraid that admitting even a tiny income from a gold pit would endanger their food-for-work earnings. They couldn't guess what the "right" answer might be, so they evaded the question. No information for outsiders.

In a nearby village, a group of men and women were tending a vegetable garden, another WFP food-for-work project. I tried to talk to a young woman with a baby, wondering what she knew about the nutrition lessons that the foreign aid workers were trying to introduce in the Sahel. But whenever I asked her a question, it was immediately answered by the group of men who gathered around.

In the tradition-bound rural culture here, women are supposed to defer to men, and it was unthinkable that a woman would answer for herself – even when the questions were about the woman's personal life and family.

After a while, I managed to shoo away the men, who retreated muttering unhappily. I asked what the woman fed her baby. First she said "milk." After a while, she said she also gave "biscuits" to the infant.

Around about this time, another young woman arrived – and I realized that the first woman was not the baby's mother. It was a basic fact that the woman had not mentioned, because she was so uncommunicative in the presence of outsiders.

I started over again with the second woman, whose name was Fatoumata Diallo. At first, she said she gave milk and biscuits to her eight-month-old daughter. After a few more questions, someone finally showed me a wrapper, and I discovered what the "biscuits" were. They were a therapeutic emergency food called Plumpy'nut, given to malnourished children by humanitarian agencies.

It meant that Fatoumata's daughter was severely malnourished, and Fatoumata was so weak that she could not provide enough breast milk to feed her child. It was a fact that nobody had thought to mention – perhaps because it was so normal these days.

Fatoumata told me that her harvest had failed in the drought. "We worked very hard, but we got nothing," she said.

She was dependent on income from the food-for-work project, which gave her only about $35 last year. She said she ate only one meal a day – a sorghum porridge.

Gathering information from families in the Sahel is a struggle. The most reliable facts are gathered at health clinics, where infants can be weighed and measured. But many parents are so poor that they cannot afford to travel to the clinic in the nearest town – or they cannot leave their older children unattended.

So aid agencies have begun sending workers to visit families at their homes, screening the children for malnutrition by weighing them and measuring the circumference of their upper arms. It's sometimes the only way of knowing the extent of the humanitarian emergency.

Perhaps the best evidence, however, can be seen on the sides of the highways in northern Burkina Faso. Every day, hundreds of women and children trudge along the roads to dusty fields of informal gold pits, carrying buckets of water on their heads to wash the sand for tiny bits of gold. It's a grueling and harsh existence, and nobody would choose it if they had any alternative.