23 May 2012
The growing human cost of Niger’s hunger emergency can be seen in the dwindling frame of nine-month-old Karima.
Over the last four months she has lost half her body weight, coinciding with the failed harvest in this southern Dosso region of the country.
In recent weeks her condition has worsened and her mother, 25-year-old Dayaba, has brought Karima to Soukoukoutane health centre after a long journey by foot which began the previous day.
‘I feel weak and I have no breast milk for my baby which makes her cry,’ said Dayaba.
Karima is not the only child crying today.
Accompanied by husband Jada, Dayaba and Karima take their place alongside more than a dozen other women with malnourished young children waiting to see medical staff.
Karima suffered severe weight loss after her parents' crops failed. Photo: Richard Hanson/Tearfund
They gather in the welcome shade provided by a neem tree - known locally as a miracle tree because of its medicinal properties.
It’s a beacon of verdant foliage in a barren landscape scorched by drought, indeed it seems a miracle the tree is there at all given the heat which feels like walking past an open oven on full blast.
Dayaba and Jada tell of how the failure of their millet crop has brought them to the clinic: ‘We didn’t collect any food from the harvest,’ says Dayaba. ‘At the time we planted millet, there was not enough rain.’
Normally their millet plants would reach six foot high but they made to just two foot before succumbing to the drought.
Jada immediately read the danger signs: ‘Straight after I planted the millet I saw the situation was becoming bad. The rain came at the right time but it stopped just after a few days. We didn’t produce anything. So I left for Burkina Faso. This is the worst situation I’ve ever faced.’
He wasn’t the only one from his village to head abroad seeking work and income to send home.
‘My neighbours are facing the same situation, almost all the men in my village - between 60 to 70 men - left at the same time to go abroad. Only five old men stayed in the village.
‘We had to go because we had nothing. We had to find work so we could send back some money; it wasn’t because we liked leaving. Even if we stayed in the village there was nothing we could do for the women. As a man, we’re supposed to find something to eat for our wives and children but we don’t even have a goat to sell to buy food. It was a hard decision but we had to do it.’
Three months ago, the work ran out in Burkina and Jada returned to Niger and an uncertain future.
‘We don’t know how the next harvest will be. Only God knows. The worry is that if the rains don’t come at the right time, I will be forced to leave again.
‘I have fear in my heart because if not for the grace of God I might lose my daughter.’
Experience has taught Jada, pictured below with Dayaba and Karima, that this is not an unrealistic fear. He lost a five-month-old son to malnutrition, born to another wife, six years ago.
Jada said, ‘My prayer is that God will give us a good harvest. It may rain but that might not give us a big harvest. Our strength is fading and we are fearful.’
Eventually it is time for Karima’s tiny body to be weighed by medical centre staff. Her arms are so thin they come up in the red zone on the measurement scale. When they put her into a box to check her height, she starts screaming.
The measurements confirm what our eyes fear; Karima needs urgent help. She is immediately given plumpy nut, a ready-to-use therapeutic food supplement which helps malnourished children put on weight, and slowly she starts eating.
Sani Mahamadou, head of the medical centre, says children like Karima will be brought back weekly to be checked and in most cases after a month they put on good weight. If there isn’t progress within a week or two, children are referred to a bigger district health centre.
Mr Mahamadou says he knows that at least two children have died recently from malnutrition and that new cases are coming in every week not just to his health centre but to two neighbouring ones as well.
Mr Mahamadou said, ‘The impression we have is that the situation is alarming. So many people do not even come at all because they are so far from here and it will take them so long to do so.’
For Dayaba, the long journey has been worth it. Karima is getting treatment and there is finally some hope.
WHAT TEARFUND IS DOING TO HELP
Seven Tearfund partners in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger are responding to the food crisis, helping crop growers and livestock producers with emergency measures.
Depending on the location, they are distributing food, running cash-for-work projects, selling food at reduced prices, supporting grain banks and introducing market gardening.
As so many people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, cash-for-work schemes provide an invaluable income boost when times are hard. People get paid for activities that benefit the wider community, for example, planting trees to protect the soil and building barriers to prevent the encroaching desert.
Market gardening is helping communities diversify their food beyond staple cereal crops, such as millet.
Partners are providing training, tools and seeds so people can produce a variety of vegetables. Growing tomatoes, cabbages, onions, carrots, peppers and aubergines not only boosts people’s diets but provides them with cash crops to supplement their incomes.
Grain banks enable people to buy food at reduced prices in times of shortage. After each harvest, a family will put a sack of grain into the bank, plus extra by way of ‘interest’.
Tearfund partners have been working in vulnerable communities for many years, often alongside local churches, to improve livelihoods and to reduce the risk of disasters.
They have long term plans to strengthen people’s resilience, for example, by diversifying incomes, introducing drought-resistant crops and improving farming techniques and water sources.
Working closely with communities on such solutions ensures such projects are owned locally and therefore have long term viability.
Food distribution in Niger at a grain bank run by Tearfund partner UEEPN. Photo: Richard Hanson/Tearfund