NIAMEY -- Even at the best of times, Niger struggles to feed itself. It’s one of the poorest places on Earth and now drought has devastated the October harvest bringing those living in that narrow space between hunger and starvation even closer to the edge.
Ouallam is a particularity precarious place near the border of Mali where armed groups have been busy lately. We set off from Niamey accompanied by heavily armed police equipped with a pick up truck mounted Gatling gun.
We later found out that their nervousness was justified. Just a few miles away that same day, several foreigners were abducted and the next day more Europeans were taken - one of them shot dead on the spot.
Difficult place to work
Needless to say, the tense circumstances are not ideal for humanitarian organizations to work in.
We arrived in the village of Hanam Tondi where the despair was palpable.
In the blazing heat, a woman pounded a few grains of millet with a massive wooden pole, baby strapped to her back. The children were lacklustre and didn’t crowd around my videocamera as usual.
There were no men in sight - just women, old people and young children. The remaining villagers gathered under a massive tree to talk to us.
I have been to Niger several times and have always been impressed by the strength and resilience of the women there. But in Hanam Tondi they had reached their limit.
They told us that the men had all left. They’d gone to look for work in Nigeria, Ivory Coast or Benin. The crop failure was the final straw...they had no option but to leave.
Denise Brown, WFP’s country director in Niger asked a woman what she was going to do. Where would she go? She replied without hesitation, decisive and determined. She said: “I am going to Niamey to sell sand.”
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Niger has great potential to be self-sufficient in food and no one here is looking for a hand out. Here’s the proof.
Tomatoes in the desert
Just a few miles away in Garbey Malo Koira,in the same soil, under the same blazing sun, we found tomatoes growing in the desert.
For years, a silted up pond lay stagnant, a malarial swamp, until WFP offered to pay people in the village with food to dredge it and use the water to grow vegetable gardens.
More than 2,500 inhabitants, mostly women, participated. Some of the food grown here is eaten and some sold. As a result families are now able to stay together at home in their village.
Hunger is turning into hope. It’s proof that if people are given the chance to help themselves, then anything is possible.