Anti-hunger efforts stepped up in Niger

Now that Niger’s most vulnerable have been mostly taken in hand, relief agencies are widening their ministrations to children who feel only a gnawing ache in their bellies—those at “moderate” risk for severe malnutrition.

Hundreds of hollow-eyed mothers crowd into patchy shade outside the district hospital in the town of Miyahi, about 90km north-east of Maradi, considered the epicentre of the food crisis threatening one in three of Niger’s 12-million people.

Their children hang limply in their arms, wilting under the heat but also from an increasingly acute food shortage in their community caused by years of unyielding drought and an invasion of locusts that devoured a third of the desert country’s cereal production last year.

But today, they hope, their children will eat; maybe a traditional “ball” of millet paste and water, maybe porridge made with fortified milk.

Since the early hours of the morning, more than 100 children have passed by the desk of Hama Rhali, the local director of a Spanish project of Action Contre la Faim (ACF, or Action against Hunger).

Rhali’s criteria are strict; only 41 children are admitted after their size, weight and general health were evaluated. The rest are sent home, their conditions too good to be considered sufficiently malnourished, though by the bowed shoulders of their mothers as they trudge away, one could think that they had failed in some way.

Her skin covered in white spots, her eyes glazed over, eight-month-old Hadiza, at just 3,4kg for her 57cm., is one of the first to be admitted, her height and weight classifying her as severely malnourished.

Her mother is gently steered towards a neighbouring building where she too will be fed, offered a feast of high-calorie pasta and vitamin-added milk.

“One of the biggest problems is that Niger society is very patriarchal, with the man being the land owner and responsible for all decisions concerning the home,” said Aboudu Karimou Adjibade, country director for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

“So here in the south, at the epicentre of the food crisis, the portion of food left to the woman and child is the smallest. Compare that to the north, dominated by the matrilineal Tuareg people, where we are seeing less malnutrition.”

After Hadiza is tended to, the ACF staff turn to year-old Ali Hussein, whose numbers are slightly more reassuring: 5,8kg for 68cm.
They hand his mother, Saliya, a thin sack of medication, including vitamin A and folic acid, and 5kg of enriched flour with which to feed her son for two weeks.

But they have little else to give this and all the other mothers, for only promises of food have been forthcoming.

International aid, slow to arrive in the early months of the food crisis, has started to pour into Niger, among the world’s least-developed countries and no stranger to chronic malnutrition.

But logistical problems and a patchy distribution network have meant that few of the mothers arriving here can count on the 50kg of rice, the pulses and the oil that ACF was hoping to hand over.

“We’ve been waiting for a week already,” said Rhali.

Such delays in response, while aggravating the food crisis and putting tens of thousands of people at greater risk of starvation and even death, have also jacked up the price significantly for emergency rations.

“Before, when we first launched our appeal in November, had the money come in we could have sent 45 tonnes of enriched flour by boat for $15 000,” said Unicef’s Adjibade.

“Now, for the same quantity of flour, we’re paying $210 000 to ship it by airplane—and we need 4 000 tonnes, which right now will cost us $6-million,” he said.

“We, and the people of Niger, are paying the price for the weak early response from our donors.”

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Burkina Faso, food shortages are affecting about 500 000 people, an official was quoted as saying on Thursday.

Mahama Zoungrana, who is responsible for agricultural forecasting and statistics, told the daily Le Pays that the situation in 16 northern provinces bordering Niger and Mali is causing concern.

He said that crop failures have hit about 300 000 people, and herders have to sell off their cattle.

Belem Amade, secretary of the National Council for Emergency Relief and Rehabilitation, said some people have been reduced to eating leaves and breaking open termites’ nests for the seeds that the insects buried there.—Sapa-AFP