In villages of Niger, hunger weakens people and animals

By Kirsty Hughes
Issa Gumarou has come to market to sell some of his cows to get money for food. Photo: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam

Oxfam’s Kirsty Hughes, a policy and advocacy expert, reports from West Africa where a severe food crisis has gripped the Sahel. Across Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and northern Nigeria as many as 10 million people are now hungry or unable to get sufficient food. This is Hughes' account of what she saw in Niger, where more than half the people in the country are struggling.

We know some aid, including from Oxfam, has been getting through in recent weeks and months. But we also know the international aid effort has been too slow – funds from donors have been committed late, and aid on the ground isn’t coming through fast enough. As the people here face their toughest three months until harvest time in October, there’s a desperate need for international political engagement to ramp up the speed and the scale of the response.

In Niger’s capital Niamey, a gentle-seeming city of  sandy-mud colored low houses and a population of around 800,000 people, there are few immediate signs of the food crisis. There are small food stalls along many of the tree-lined, dusty streets and the  “petit marche” – or small market – is crammed with stalls selling food and other items. But even in the capital, many people are too poor to pay for sufficient food and the picture in the countryside is much much worse.

Hunger in the countryside

We  drove two hours from Niamey, along a rough dirt track through the semi-arid, mostly flat and desolate landscape. It’s stony and sandy with a few short dry-looking trees and bushes, though some are turning green where a bit of rain has started to fall. We see painfully thin cattle, goats and donkeys, their ribs visible as we drive by. Men, women and children are hard at work in some patches of land, planting seeds by hand to take advantage of any rain that has fallen.  It’s hard work, and often undone again by sudden harsh desert winds.

We stop briefly in the main town in the area, Ouallam, and talk to a serious, welcoming official there, who explains that more than 200 of the 300 or so villages in this area are facing severe food shortages. Due to the drought, thousands of animals have died or are too thin to be sold for a decent price or even to provide a good meal for the herders.

The situation is as bad as the deep crisis of 2005, our host tells us—and worse, even, because people have less money now than they did then. But at least speculators have not managed to drive the prices as high as they did five years ago. And, importantly, this time around the new Nigerien government has recognized the crisis and invited donors and aid organizations like Oxfam to support them in tackling the problem. Now, some aid has arrived – but much more will be needed in the coming months.

Rains bring relief and new problems

Driving on to the nearby village of Tondi Kiwindi, we find a small muddy river flooding the road into the village. Our driver wades across to make sure our vehicle won’t get stuck and we plow through. Tondi Kiwindi is a small community of mud-brick rectangular houses, quiet in the midday heat. The local village leader welcomes us and tells us about the difficulties here and in the surrounding villages.

He talks about how many animals have died, about how little food villagers have, about the difficulties of surviving the next three months until the harvest. The rains here are a month late, though further north they have started.

The village leader thanks us for the work we’ve done with a local aid group to buy sick and thin animals at better prices than villagers can get in the markets, and to provide animal feed and other support such as cash for work programs. He tells us that the women, especially,  have taken advantage of the opportunity to earn some income through the programs as many of the men have migrated away to towns to look for work. They’ll return to till and plant the fields when the rains start.

But when the rain really comes, says our host, the river we crossed to get into the village will rise and there will be no access to the community. Can we help, he asks us.
 
It’s a story across a lot of the region:  rains are desperately needed to ensure a good harvest this year, but until October when the crops are ripe, rains can block access and make delivery of aid much harder or impossible. And the rains lower the temperature a little—bringing death to thousands of weakened animals.

‘We are weak and dying like our animals’

In a five-mile ride across the desert from Tondi Kiwindi, we come to a smaller village called Ko Kaina. The situation we find here is utterly desperate: The villagers talk to us of famine and question whether they can survive to the autumn.

We sit with four women who tell us they have nothing left to eat at all. They say that this year is especially bad. Last year at least the animals had enough to eat, but now the cows and goats are dead or dying. In hard times, their tradition is to share—neighbors helping neighbors—but  now no one has anything to share.

“Everyone is down, down, down,” they say. “Our stomachs are empty.”

Their last source of food is a small, hard round green pea called  “wanza.” It has a bitter taste, but villagers eat it when there is nothing else to consume. To find the wanza,  the women set out from the village at 5 a.m. walking miles in their hunt. They ask me to taste one of the peas to see how bitter and sour it is; the unpleasant taste stays in my mouth for an hour. The peas first need drying in the sun then soaking several times in water before they become at all possible to digest.

They show us their only other food – a small bowl of cooked leaves from short small trees that grow in the dry earth nearer to the village. A woman puts a small amount in her mouth and mimics being sick, to show me how ill and malnourished they are on this diet. A short distance away, a small group of children stares at us hoping, I think, that we have brought relief. They are thin and listless.

The women explain that their animals have been weak and dying for months now and no longer produce milk. Some are even too thin to slaughter for food. A few days back, the women tell us, the villagers killed one weak calf before it died. They needed it for food. But four children became ill from eating the meat and had to be taken to a larger village nearby for medical attention. That cost money the families didn’t had and had to borrow—leaving them in debt, too.

People are so weak, the women explain to us, that after a few minutes working in the fields – vital work – they are already too tired to keep going.

“We are weak and dying like our animals,” they tell us.  “If it goes on like this, some of us will die and some God will keep alive ‘til the next harvest.”

Oxfam has launched an emergency program to provide support to 800,000 people across Niger, Mali, and Chad. In Niger, the organization is helping 400,000 people by distributing food and supplies to the poorest households. Oxfam is also buying weak livestock at above-market rates to help herders who need to sell some of their animals. Meat from the livestock is being distributed to some of the most vulnerable households. In Mali, the organization will help 200,000 people by distributing food as well as fodder for livestock.  And in Chad, distributions of food and seeds are accompanying agriculture support projects, with a goal of helping 200,000 people.