Miriam Booy (WV Canada Country Program Manager: West Africa) visit to Ouallam ADP, Niger, November 25, 2011.
Last week I had the opportunity to view firsthand the emerging food security crisis in Niger; what many are saying will be the worst one to occur since 1995. Niger has suffered from cyclical food crises every five years for the last two decades. This time it has only been two years since the previous crisis in 2010.
Driving out of Niamey towards World Vision’s Ouallam Area Development Project (ADP), the poor harvest is immediately evident from the passing barren fields with millet only a few inches high. The ADP’s Manager, Ango Mayaki, says “People should be in their fields harvesting at this time, but look…they are all empty.” He goes on to explain that farmers have suffered one setback after another the last few months: “First the rains came very late. Then many of the seeds that did germinate were eaten by small rodents and the millet which managed to survive this was then attacked by a plague of locusts.” As a result, it’s estimated that 277 out of 300 villages in the Ouallam region will face food shortages in the coming year.
The first thing I notice as we arrive in a village called Tchalla is the lack of men. We are told they have all left to find work in Niamey or neighboring countries to send money home to feed their families. Most of them began to leave at the end of September following the locust epidemic.
We are introduced to Haissa Issaka. She is the mother of six children but has another three children under her care. She explains that her husband has been away for the past year working in Nigeria to send money home. He recently sent them enough to buy two sacks of millet which should normally last them 12 days, but she will try to make it last for the month. Her biggest concern is finding food for her family and she hopes they will not have to leave their home. “There is no comparison to last year,” Haissa says. This is the worst that we have seen for a long time and we will be forced to leave if help does not come.” She does see as a small glimmer of hope as four of the nine children under her care are sponsored by Canadians through World Vision. She also explains that she is part of a group of women that have received vegetable seeds that they are growing near the well that WV provided. Haissa is hopeful that this will provide some income in the coming months.
As I struggle to find words to respond, my colleague Jadi whispers that I can say ‘kalasuru’ meaning ‘take courage’ in the local language. As I say this to Haissa, her eyes light up and she nods and agrees that this is the only thing that she can do.
Driving back to Niamey we pass several donkey carts laden with hay bales. The dry grass is the only marketable commodity coming out of this year’s harvest. Ango tells me that it has taken the men and their carts three days to get to the capital from Ouallam to try to sell their hay. I turn to look on the other side of the road and see empty carts going the opposite direction, starting their long journey home. It’s a small sign of hope that they have been able to earn a few dollars.
World Vision Niger, supported by WV Canada and other partners, is already responding to this crisis by providing cash for work, food for work and cash transfer programs to prevent people from selling off their assets and to help them remain in their villages. WV Niger works closely with the Ministry of Health to supply 36 health centers in five regions with a supplementary feeding program and to offer support to sensitize mothers and health workers on the treatment and prevention methods for malnutrition. All signs indicate that much more will be needed to help mothers like Haissa and her children in the coming months to meet their basic needs, and to be able to remain in their homes.