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Niger: Hunger Pains A Nation

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By Lane Hartill

Habsu Boubacar has gotten used to being hungry.

The burning stomach, the blurred vision, the joint pain: Habsu has learned how to work through aches, how to force herself to go on.

Growing up in Toudoun Jaka, a sand-blasted village full of ribby cattle and bone-thin dogs that slink through the sand, Habsu learned how to cope.

Food distribution in Simiri, Niger.

In Simiri, Niger, 85 children are acutely malnourished. CRS delivered vegetable oil and corn-soy blend for children under 2 years old. Learn more about CRS' efforts in Niger. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

She learned how to mix water and millet husks—the stuff she normally feeds the goats and sheep—and make a sludgy drink. She learned how to gulp the brown, gritty stuff so the bitterness doesn't sit too long on her tongue. She got used to the feel of it in her stomach; it takes up space, so she can feed the real food to her 4 kids.

What she hasn't gotten used to—what she doesn't even like to think about—is anza. It's famine food, and only the most desperate donkeys would nibble it during normal times. The plant's fruit is so bitter and tough she has to boil it several times to get the bitterness out of it. Then she adds tobacco to soften it. But she eats it, like most people do, when there's nothing else.

Hunger by the Numbers

Nigeriens want the world to know what they are going through. But hunger here is a recurring theme, a slow-burning problem that doesn't make headlines.

Nigeriens have known for months this would happen. When the rains failed to show up last year—influenced by the El Niño phenomenon—everyone knew that food would be scarce. But now that it's here, the numbers are startling:

  • The United Nations estimates that 7.5 million Nigeriens—roughly half the country—don't have enough food to eat. That's about the equivalent of the populations of Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and Chicago eating once a day.
  • A recent survey by the government of Niger revealed that 17 percent of Nigerien children under age 5 are acutely malnourished. The emergency threshold is 15 percent. Doctors Without Borders estimates that number to be about 500,000 children.
  • The World Food Program, which is currently feeding 2.3 million people in Niger, plans to feed an additional 2 million. But this will cost an extra $100 million. So far, it's only raised a small portion of that.

Little to Eat

The rain never came to Toudoun Jaka last year, and the land withered and cracked. Habsu's millet crops shriveled and died. She wasn't able to put any grain away for her or her 4 kids.

Fighting Malnutrition in Niger

Hamadou is the town crier in the village of Simiri. He makes the rounds using his booming voice, announcing to anyone within earshot a lost machete or goat. He'll make 50 cents for his efforts. But work is hard to come by. So he supplements it by selling straw and firewood at the market. With no grain to fall back on—his harvest last year was a complete failure—he's desperate for food to feed his 6 kids.

Hamadou, like most men in Niger, does much of the grocery shopping. He buys the staples; his wife, Maimouna, buys the rest. But meals have been skimpy lately: some rice, or millet when he can afford it. Otherwise, it's gari, a coarse flour made from cassava. Their youngest boys, Abdurachman, 2, and Yacouba, 3, sniffle and sit idle on a wicker mat in the sand. All this has hit Maimouna hard, and she's having a hard time sleeping.

"If your child hasn't eaten, a parent can't sleep," she says.

That makes for a lot of sleepless women in Simiri. At the local health center, Madina Sanoussi, a stern woman who keeps her sentences short and her smiles to a minimum, says that 85 women had been coming every week to receive about 8 pounds of fortified corn-soy blend for their acutely malnourished children. The food was supplied by an international humanitarian organization.

Madina would also give them nutritional counseling, telling them what foods they should buy to supplement it: things like beans, chicken and mangoes. But then the food stopped coming because of a glitch in the supply chain.

Medina kept counseling them, reminding them they could go to the depots where the Nigerien government is selling corn and rice at reduced prices (A 110-pound bag of rice sells for $25. At the market, it costs $43).

But soon the stream of women turned to a trickle. Then it dried up all together.

"They'd say, 'We don't have money to buy this,' " Madina says. "So they stopped coming."

That's why the arrival of Catholic Relief Services at the local middle school was such a big deal. Several hundred women, including Maimouna, lined up and received corn-soy blend and vegetable oil for their youngest children—those younger than 2. A cooking demonstration over an open fire taught them how to prepare the mixture.

Maimouna started cooking the mixture as soon as she got home.

"I've been really tense lately," she says, standing next to her mud-brick outdoor kitchen, "because the kids haven't had enough to eat. Receiving this food has lowered the tension because the kids will have something to eat for a while."

She and her husband grappled with a single question: To stay or leave Toudoun Jaka. Habsu's husband, along with other men in the village, decided to go to the capital, Niamey, where they could work as part-time livestock butchers, a job many here wouldn't do because of the low-class status associated with it. The little cash Habsu's husband could send home would partially meet the grocery bill. God, they figured, would take care of the rest.

Habsu sold off 3 goats and 3 cows—all listless and skeletal—in order to pay for food. Only 2 goats remain, the ones that are nosing around her daughter, Balki, a smiling girl with warm brown eyes. In the last 6 months, her delicate frame has lost what little extra weight it had on it. Her dusty knees are bulbous compared to her stick-like legs.

Balki and her siblings eat nothing but millet mixed with water, a chalky-tasting porridge with little nutritional value. Habsu can't remember the last time she served them anything else. No fruit, meat or vegetables. Just millet porridge every meal.

The millet Habsu planted recently has withered and been covered over by blowing sand. Maybe by some stroke of luck, the rain will come and soak the ground and the millet will grow. But even then, nothing will be ready to harvest for another couple of months. So Habsu has a backup plan: the stack of dishes near her sagging four-poster bed. She will sell them to buy food. Until then, it's millet husks and that vile green fruit, anza.

The Cattle Market

Not far from Habsu's mud house, on a desolate stretch of road, two boys are driving a donkey cart. Illiasson and Abdul Aziz, two brothers, squint through the haze. The heat—110 degrees Fahrenheit—has sucked the energy and life from everything. In the cart, carefully bedded down on a yellow blanket, is Blackie, a heifer so exhausted and malnourished she can barely hold her head up.

In Islam, it's forbidden to eat a sick animal. And thousands of cattle like Blackie, who have been forced to eat bitter leaves for the last 6 months, whose flesh long ago gave way to a rack of bones, are considered sick. Farmers bring them to cattle markets that are full of bulls that can't stand, calves with sunken sides, and cows with no cud to chew. Long-horned zebus, once flashing with muscles, could bring well over $600. Now, a farmer, if he is lucky, might get between $150 and $200 for a cow.

Illiasson, 16, and Abdul Aziz, 14, refuse to sell Blackie. They are from the Tuareg ethnic group and revere their animals. When word came in that morning that Blackie had gone down and was too weak to stand, they jumped into action.

She was in "the forest" as Illiasson called it: a patch of acacia trees and some gnarled bushes all on a vast bed of sand. When they found Blackie, she didn't move. They hoisted her into the donkey cart. They were getting pretty good at it. Of their 12 cows, only 3 were still standing. The rest had collapsed from starvation. Illiasson said a passing farmer had told them Blackie also had malaria.

Now the hard part begins: Hand-feeding Blackie a mix of millet husks and sorghum—the same food many people eat—in hopes that she bounces back.

Desperate for Food

As Illiasson and Abdul Aziz head home, they'll pass by Goma Gadji's house. She's standing out front, a woman with a deeply lined face and a swirl of children eddying around her feet. She isn't afraid to admit what most people don't want to: She's getting close to turning to the termites for food.

"For the moment, I haven't gone to them yet," she says, referring to the termite mounds. "But if things don't get better, I'll have to."

She's had to do it in the past. Now, with her husband too old to travel to Niamey to look for work, she'll have to do it again. Already, the kids around her feet show signs that things are bad. Some are losing their hair. Others have distended bellies. Both are symptoms of malnutrition.

A termite mound, a rust-colored conical pile of sand and saliva, is where desperate Nigeriens go for food. Termites store grain in a series of connected chambers. And a series of ventilation shafts maintain a constant temperature within the mound. In this climate-controlled environment, termites use separate chambers to store different grains. When Goma hacks back the mound and exposes the chambers, she says, if she's lucky, she can find up to several cups of grain.

Feeding the Youngest

CRS will continue feeding kids like Abdurachman and Yacouba regardless of their health status. Through a variety of projects—some funded by the United States Agency for International Development, others with CRS private funds—CRS has started a multipronged approach to the hunger crisis in Niger. If children are between 6 months old and 23 months old, their parents will receive food. In addition, targeted food distributions of bulgur wheat, beans and vegetable oil to the most vulnerable Nigeriens will also take place. To get money into the hands of those who need it most, CRS has also started cash-for-work projects, which include digging trenches to trap rainwater and picking up garbage in villages.

If you cut straight across the dessert from Goma's house, you'll run into a scorched and rocky plain, so flat and empty it looks lunar. That's where Abdoulai saw the French safari hunters take down the bull elephant. With their Mausers and khaki attire, the French loved to roam the forest above Boulkougou in the 1970s, looking for the big bulls. It was a jungle, and Abdoulai as a teenager was careful not to venture too deep.

But then the droughts came. The trees died and the vegetation wilted. Now the only thing left are doola, a tangle of green vines that sprout from the places trees once occupied. Doola is everywhere, a map to a forgotten forest. And it's what Abdoulai, 58, and his wife Bibi, ate when they ran out of food.

Blinded by Hunger

The rainy season last year was so bad, Abdoulai says, that his crops didn't produce a single sack of millet. For his brood of children, it didn't even last a week. That meant he had to count on work as a day laborer at a nearby gold mine. But he was one of scores of men, and his name was only intermittently called. And after a day of crushing rock, he only made about $2.

So for the first 5 months of this year, Abdoulai was always hungry. He says when hunger persists, one of the first things to go is your sight. Things blur. Time slows. And 1 day will feel like 2.

"If you haven't eaten all day and someone is walking toward you, it will seem like 2 people," he says. "When the sun goes down, you can't see at all."

So when Catholic Relief Services showed up in his village, asking who wanted work, it was a godsend. Banquettes, or berms that trap rainwater, needed to be dug on the plain that used to be a forest. Grass will grow, and the hope is that other plants will take root and transform that hot pan into a green field.

Cash-for-work projects like these employ hundreds of Nigeriens while providing cash so people like Abdoulai can buy food in the market (though crops failed, there is still food in the markets, albeit expensive). The money comes from a grant made by the United States Agency for International Development and managed by CRS.

For Abdoulai, the stress of not having to wonder when he'll eat next is the best part of the job. The blisters on his hands, the furnace-like wind that never stops and the 115-degree heat are a small price to pay for the $3.50 a day he makes.

"I had a lot of stress before," he says. "I was always worried about money. But now food is not a problem."

"Now," he says, "we have leftovers."

Lane Hartill is the western and central Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.

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