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Niger food crisis: children too weakened to cry

A health worker in Niger measures the arm circumference of young boy suffering from malnutrition.
A health worker in Niger measures the arm circumference of young boy suffering from malnutrition.
May 2, 2012

By Mary Matheson, Plan International's Multimedia Producer

As the tears tumble down teenage mother Hadija’s cheeks, I remember vividly how I felt as a first-time mother with a crying baby – inadequate, helpless, with an overwhelming feeling of responsibility.

But 18-month-old Ibrahim isn’t even crying, he’s bleating. No tears fall. He doesn’t have the energy. He is a bundle of skin and bones in his mother’s arms. His eyes barely open. Severely malnourished, Ibrahim is now in the Intensive Therapeutic Feeding Center, Tillaberi, Niger and should recover.

Hadija is humiliated, blaming herself for taking her baby to the brink of death by not feeding him adequately. She’s unaware that there are hundreds of thousands of mothers like her in Niger – last year 300,000 children were treated for severe malnutrition here – a shocking 15% of all children treated for malnutrition worldwide.


The 'hungry season' occurs again

I am here in Niger making a film for Plan International – like many other agencies Plan is asking governments to act now, rather than wait for the all-familiar TV images of famine to spur them into action.

Every year Niger has a “hungry season” beginning in June. An over-reliance on three months of rainfall to grow one crop – millet - has been compounded by years of drought and pest infestations. But this year all the signs are pointing towards a more brutal scenario as people are already finding it hard to feed themselves.

The clinic in Tillaberi is receiving 15 more severely malnourished children each month compared to the same period last year. And the Nigerien Government warns that soon more than a third of the population – six million people – will only have enough food to last six weeks.


"One too many failed harvests"

One question is gnawing at me since we started filming – if Niger has a food crisis every year, why haven’t the government and aid agencies been able to prepare people for it? Hassane Mahamadou, Plan’s head of Tillaberi office, explains to me that last year’s drought was just “one too many failed harvests” for Nigeriens to bear – they have no reserves to fall back on.

“This year we’re coming out of several crises, so people have accumulated debts,” he says. “Since 2005 people have kept on borrowing in order to pay back their debts so people’s purchasing power has fallen.”

Unlike the food crisis in 2005, sacks of millet, rice and maize are piled high in the markets. But it’s all imported from Nigeria and Benin, and locals have no income to buy. As a last resort, villagers are selling their livestock. “I had ten goats but only have two left because I had to sell them to feed my family,” says local farmer Yacouba Ibrahim. Skinny sheep and bony goats are selling at 60-70% of last year’s value.

“You can’t compare this year with previous years because if we had a good harvest, we’d be buying animals not selling them.”


Heading to neighboring countries to survive

In desperation, villagers are heading abroad in search of work. In Ibrahim’s village Sona Balla, 300 out of 1000 people have left with promises of sending money to those left behind. Halima Younoussa’s husband joined the exodus to Nigeria but has yet to send money home. So she is left trying to feed her four children, all under five. She pounds millet for other families, when she sieves the powder, she is left with the residue as her payment. Normally reserved for animals, Halima and her four children are living off this twice a day.

But they don’t care – the children are so hungry as soon as she takes the bowl away from the fire, they stretch out their cupped hands as if begging for the food. “I’m scared we won’t be able to find other food and we’ll just eat millet residue and one of my children will die,” she said.


Mali refugees stretch already scant resources

Compounding this desperate situation is the influx of an estimated 20,000 Malian refugees to this dry, arid region of Niger. In the village of Gaodel near the Malian border, the 800 inhabitants were already having food problems. In the last three months the population has more than quadrupled with refugees. Many are living under a blanket or sheet, hooked up to four sticks driven into the ground.

Azahara Naziou, fled her home last week, with just her three children and a sheet. During the day they shelter from the relentless 35-degree heat in the shade provided by the sheet. At night they sleep on the sandy, rocky ground with the sheet doubling as a mosquito net.

She goes from family to family begging for food for her children. I am humbled by the kindness of the local villagers, who don’t think twice about sharing their scant resources. When we leave, I feel guilty that I am relieved to be in my air-conditioned 4X4 with a drink of cold water. Mostly I feel guilty that I can leave, while they are stuck in the hell of heat and hunger. On the road back to Tillaberi, we stop to interview Plan’s Mahamadou. He talks about the work Plan is doing in the short-term – food banks with subsidised grains, school feeding programmes and targeted food distribution for vulnerable families.


A reason for optimism

Feeling burdened by shocking stories we have heard on our visit to Niger, we ask Mahamadou if he has any reason for optimism. Smiling broadly, and patient as always, he explains that the longer-term work of Plan is beginning to bear fruit. Plan has set up small gardens, encouraging villagers to diversify their crops and use irrigation for watering rather than rely on rainfall. The results have been encouraging. Not only are they providing enough to eat, but a surplus to sell on the market. In Dessa school garden, the children planted potatoes in November last year.

By January they harvested 600kg of potatoes, enough to feed the entire school twice and send each of the 200 pupils home with 1.5kg each. They sold the rest at the market an earned about $290.

“When the rest of the village saw what the children had done, they were really motivated – if children can do this much, can you imagine what adults could do?!” said the beaming headmaster Diallo Soumana. His enthusiasm is infectious, and I leave feeling that Mahamadou was right – there is room for optimism in Niger.

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