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The tragedy of Niger - a personal reflection

2005 will go down as a year of struggle, deprivation and death in the Sahel. Television pictures meant the world could no longer ignore Niger’s suffering, as food shortages took their toll in a region where poverty exerts an ever-greater stranglehold. This is a personal reflection on the tragedy by Marcus Prior, WFP's spokesperson for West Africa.

When my phone rang it came as something of a relief; I was glad of any excuse to get out of the intensive care section of the feeding centre where tiny, skeletal children were dying in front of my eyes.

Seven had died the day before. Two were dying every day on average. And what was most haunting was the silence; children scream when they hurt, but only if they have the energy and the will to do so.

Centre of the crisis

I was in the town of Maradi, at the centre of the region worst affected by the food crisis which this year gripped Niger – the second poorest country in the world – after a combination of drought and locusts devastated crops and grazing land.

It was the BBC on the line, calling to do an interview. Except they were calling to cancel; terrorist bombs had gone off in London, many were believed dead and Niger’s tragedy would have to wait.

Sense of waste

It was tempting to try to look for some deeper meaning in all of this, but as I wondered whether members of my own family were safe in their London routines that day, all I felt was a sense of waste.

Life can be brutish and short, but it shouldn’t be. Not in London; and not in Niger.

Dirt poor

What was most haunting was the silence; children scream when they hurt, but only if they have the energy and will to do so
Marcus Prior, WFP's spokesperson for West Africa
Someone wiser than me said recently that the worst place for a child to live is in a peaceful country with no border conflicts, where the government has been democratically elected but which is, frankly speaking, dirt poor.

Why should the developed world care? That question would need a book to answer, but the children of Niger are a far more eloquent response.

Treating Mariama

Nine-month-old Mariama is a perfect example. Her mother Zouera took her to a clinic when it was clear she was ill and showing no signs of improvement.

From her tiny village of Jangouna Abanda, she had to walk for a day with her sick daughter on her back, then sit in the back of a bush taxi for two hours.

Eventually Mariama was taken in for treatment, and nine days later she was discharged, happy and healthy.

"We can only trust God"

“I am so happy to be back home,” Zouera told us as she arrived back at her tiny mud hut in the family compound.

“This year has been very hard and at this time we just have to get by with whatever we can get our hands on – we can only trust God that the harvest will be good this year.”

As if to make the point, a few yards away an elderly relative is preparing the evening meal. All she is putting into the pot are a few green leaves collected from nearby trees and shrubs.

Sounding the alarm

Sometimes it is too easy to point fingers and accuse the rich world of doing nothing, but in Niger’s case the fingers are out with justification
Marcus Prior, WFP's spokesperson for West Africa
The tragedy is that this need never have happened.

The government of Niger first sounded the alarm late last year. WFP followed soon after when assessment missions in late 2004 indicated a tough year ahead and the need for a strong, targeted response.

Sometimes it is too easy to point fingers and accuse the rich world of doing nothing, but in Niger’s case the fingers are out with justification.

With a lack of funds from donors making a bold response impossible, the government, WFP, other UN agencies and non-governmental organisations were suddenly struggling to cope with the creeping tide of hunger.

Crimes of indifference

But there is an even greater crime of indifference.

The fact is that even in a good year, Niger struggles to feed itself. Even in a good year, malnutrition rates among young children in Niger are above the level at which an emergency is usually pronounced.

Agriculture has progressed little since the Iron Age. ‘Wealthier’ farmers turn fields with rudimentary ploughs pulled by camels or oxen, and technological inputs such as fertilizer and irrigation are a distant dream for most.

When people look to the skies for rain, they do so knowing that their livelihoods, if not their lives, depend on it falling.

Helping hand

What Niger needs is development; a helping hand off the treadmill of poverty and onto the ladder of progress.

Most Nigeriens still survive from year to year, not knowing what the next will bring, while weather systems play poker with their way of life. It is a pulverizing poverty from which they cannot emerge without a helping hand.

If she could, little Mariama would no doubt tell us how much it would mean to her and her own children to come.