/ 13 August 2010

Niger: Animal graveyards and a struggle for survival

An animal graveyard. Along the roadside, or to be more specific, a dirt track carved out through the bleached-white desert landscape, animal carcasses could be spotted every few hundred metres.

The drive from Amoulass to Gadabedji, in Maradi region, south-eastern Niger, is less than 7km. But during that short drive of less than half an hour, I counted more than 70 dead animals: cows, donkeys, sheep, goat, even a horse. Some were under trees; others half-buried in the sand. They had died of starvation. They looked skeletal; their rib cages protruding through their bodies.

Maradi region, a drive of at least nine hours east of the capital — Niamey, and close to the border with Nigeria — is one of the areas most affected by the current food crisis. More than seven million people in Niger — nearly half of the population — in the world’s least-developed country, are currently facing food insecurity.

Erratic rains last year meant harvest production across the country is down by about 30%. The poor harvests, combined with drought and rising food prices has had a devastating impact on communities. More than 80% of Nigeriens live in rural areas and are struggling to find enough food to eat.

It has also been a body-blow to nomadic herders who travel from place to place, seeking pasture and water for their animals. They are having to move further and further away from their native villages, leaving their wives and children behind, often crossing into neighbouring countries to find something to feed their animals.

Rains have only just started in some parts of Niger; enough, in some areas, for small green shoots of shrubs and plants to peek through the desert sand and for families to begin planting seeds for next season’s harvest. But in many cases, the rainfall has been very light. Other villages have still seen no rain at all this year.

Herdsmen are being forced to make difficult choices.

Many villages in Maradi are dominated by the Fulani ethnic group. For them, their cattle are the most important possessions. “They rate their cattle sometimes more highly than their own lives”, I was told. “If their cattle die, the very meaning of their life is over, finished.”

Which is why what’s happening now is proving so devastating.

Tens of thousands of animals across Niger have died in the last few months; literally starving to death. I saw animals at local markets unable to stand on their feet; collapsing from their own body weight or being carried on carts, too weak to make it on their own.

The price of basic food staples, like millet, has shot up this year. In some areas, prices have increased by more than 40%. Although subsidised cereals are now being made available which should help to stabilise prices in some areas.

Difficulties in finding food to eat and hardships in buying food that is on sale in local markets at inflated prices is forcing herdsmen to sell some of their prized livestock. But, skinny and frail, their animals are selling for a tiny fraction of the prices they used to fetch.

“Prices of food are very high now”, said Djafarou Amadou, who I meet in the village of Amoulass. He works for AREN (Association pour le Redynamisation de l’Elevage au Niger – the Association for Redynamising Livestock-Rearing in Niger) a local organisation which Oxfam partners with in several areas of the country. “In this area, herders are now forced to sell as many as ten cows just to buy one sack of millet”, he said, shaking his head.

One sack will last a family about a month.

In Amoulass, one of our main activities has been to buy weakened animals from herders and pastoralists at pre-crisis prices, helping to inject much needed cash into local economies. The purchased animals are then killed and the meat distributed for free to the most vulnerable households.

“That cow there would only fetch 1 500 CFA in the market today. It’s a catastrophic situation”, said Aboubacar Mamane, who also works for AREN, pointing to a carcass under a tree. Oxfam is purchasing weakened livestock from herders for up to 50 000 CFA.

“Herders are being forced to sell their animals at derisory prices. People don’t know what to do any more. If they don’t sell animals now, very soon, their animals could die and they wouldn’t get any money at all. They’re forced to make very tough choices.”

A day earlier, I had visited the bustling market of Dakoro, also in Maradi region. Its here that some of the better-off herdsman come to sell their livestock.

Father of eight, Labo Bermo, was selling two of his cows the day I visited. He planned to buy a sack of millet and some food for his remaining animals – just ten cows, 4 sheep, 3 goats and two donkeys. He told me that nearly 150 animals had died since November because they couldn’t find food.

“I’m very pessimistic about the future. There have been no rains, the animals are dying every day and everyone is hungry. If things continue like this, I don’t think even one of my cows will be able to survive.”

His neighbour, 44-year-old father of nine, Roudaka Mahaman, told me a similar story. He used to have 37 cows; but 33 have died this year. He is selling three of his remaining cows to buy some food; leaving his family with just one cow.

“We are facing famine this year”, he insisted. “That is how things are looking now. We have a little hope because organisations like yours are helping; but without that help, we would have nothing at all.

“Even if the rains come soon, we still have to wait for the harvest in September. There won’t be any food straight away, so we still need help.”

Niger is no stranger to hunger and drought. The last serious food crisis occurred in 2005. But even in normal years, families struggle to eat. Young children under five are the most at risk; and Niger already has one of the world’s highest child mortality rates. Around one in six children will die before they reach the age of five.

At a therapeutic feeding centre for malnourished children in the town of Guidan Roumji, in Maradi region, I meet Rabi Garba. She tells me she’s a mother of ten. Then she corrects herself to explain that she used to be a mother of ten. One daughter died soon after childbirth. Six other children, she says, died from malnutrition.

She cradles her youngest child in her lap. Rahaman Yacouba tries to suckle at her breast. But Rabi tells me she can barely produce any milk. She’s also hungry and weakened by malaria.

Rahaman is put into a halter and weighed: just 4,8kg. He’s far below the normal weight for a child his age of between six and eight kilograms. He’s also stunted: measuring 68cm; when his normal height should be between 75cm and 100cm.

“It’s the worst year I can remember” says Rabi. “We have no food. We have used up everything.

“We can only depend on God” she sights, when I ask her whether she thinks things will get any better.

Nigeriens I meet in rural areas are desperate. Their normal ways of coping at this time of year, known as the “hunger gap season”, when they have to wait for the harvests in late September/October, are almost exhausted. It’s often said that for most Nigeriens, their livestock are their bank accounts. But so many animals have now died, or sold, that there is little left to cushion families against future shocks.

People are selling the few remaining household assets they have; many have left Niger for other countries or moved to towns and cities in search of food and work.

They’re supplementing tiny amounts of millet or cassava flour with wild leaves and fruit, such as the anza berry, to try to keep hunger at bay.

In the town of Tanout, in Zinder region, further east, I meet a group of women selling food on the street. They’ve borrowed money from a shopkeeper to buy ingredients for the meal and will pay him back with the money they’ve earned. They told me they’d left their village of Baki Birgi, about 100 kilometres away, a month before.

“Hunger made us leave”, said 35-year-old Raya Sa’adou, who’d come with her husband, saying she had “no choice” but to leave their three children behind in the care of her mother.

“We had no animals. We had to sell everything to buy food”, she said.

She also tells me many women are being forced to take more desperate measures.

“A lot of women have left their husbands behind in the village and come to the towns. There is nothing for them in the village. They are working as prostitutes in order to buy some food to eat. I know there are many women like that here.”

Before I set off for Zinder region, there’s a night of heavy rainfall. It’s the first proper rain they’ve had all year; a welcome relief from the stifling temperatures which soar beyond 40° C. The next morning, the fields are full of families, busy preparing the ground and planting millet, sorghum and haricot beans.

Their hopes are on the next harvest. But that’s still several months away. The big question is how they will be able to cope until then.

Oxfam has launched an appeal to fund its emergency work in Niger and other countries in the Sahel region of West Africa affected by the current food crisis.