One in five Nigeriens is dying the result, many say, of a belated response by the world to a disaster predicted 11 months ago. Aid began trickling in to some of the needy villages across southern Niger (NYE-jer or nee-ZHER) late this summer, but the world’s actions are too late for many.
Niger's latest hunger problem is more complex than it first appears. Even in so-called normal years, many of the country's children die of malnutrition. Of every 1,000 children born alive in Niger, which is the world's second-poorest nation, a staggering 262 fail to reach their fifth birthdays.
Niger is now in the spotlight, but it is not alone. Famine is also ravaging the people of Mali, Mauritania, Malawi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, and southern Sudan.
Same Problems, Only Worse
Some aid workers say that Niger's miseries this year are merely a worsened version of its perennial ones. Since Niger gained its independence from France in 1960 (see Times Past, p. 28), it has wrestled with challenges such as primitive farming, primitive health care, and primitive social conditions. Until those issues are addressed, infants will continue to die unnoticed in numbers that dwarf any hunger emergency.
But that in no way minimizes the urgency of Niger's current problems erratic rainfall and severe food shortages in the agricultural and herding belts where many of Niger's 11 million to 12 million people live. Together, they are pushing the death rate for small children even higher than Niger's customary one-in-four level, and killing off the livestock upon which the nation's nomads depend. Weak from long treks in search of pasture and with stomachs full of sand, thousands of prized animals have died in recent months.
Much of this disaster was predicted last November, when experts monitoring Niger's farms found a 220,000-ton shortfall in the harvest of grains, especially millet, which is the staple of most people's diet.
Among others, the United Nations World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders sounded alarms, and Niger's government, with the World Food Program's approval, quickly asked donors to give Niger 71,000 tons of food aid and $3 million for the most vulnerable people. By May, it had received fewer than 7,000 tons of food and one $323,000 donation, from Luxembourg.
"I think everyone knew that a crisis was going on," says Johanne Sekkenes, the Niger mission head of Doctors Without Borders.
Initially, Niger's government ruled out free food aid to hungry families, preferring to sell surplus millet at subsidized prices in an effort to force the price down. But millet prices skyrocketed anyway, forcing families to sell cattle and other goods to buy food. Some say Niger is on a steady course toward future disasters, free aid or not. Even with huge numbers of dying children, the average woman bears seven babies, and the population is expected to double by 2026. Moreover, Niger has few of the modern tools that might enable it to feed itself, meaning that charities must make up a food shortage virtually every year.
This year, Doctors Without Borders has treated more than 14,000 children at six centers, more than double the 2004 total.
Among the newcomers was Saminou, whose 40-year-old mother, Mariama, brought him from her village 15 miles away to the charity's hospital in Maradi, the region's main city. "I didn’t even have time to talk to her, the baby was so bad," says Dr. Chantelle Umtoni, 34, the chief of the hospital's intensive-care ward. "He has severe anemia. He has severe malaria. He was dehydrated completely dry. And he had heart failure."
Indeed, doctors restarted his heart while they plugged bags of blood and intravenous fluid into him and clapped an oxygen mask on his face to assist his labored breathing. Umtoni gave the boy a 50-50 chance of living. Dire as they are, such cases are not unusual.
Mariama sat by her child and watched him as she discussed her family. Of eight children, five were already dead. As she spoke, a nurse put a stethoscope to the baby's chest, listened, then summoned Umtoni, who listened intently. Then, wordlessly, the two removed his oxygen mask and catheters. Mariama stared at her dead child, impassive, then covered him in a red scarf.
An hour later, she was home, having ridden the 15 miles with her baby in her arms, tears running down her face.
Outside her compound, she gave the dead child to her mother-in-law, who washed his face. Then she sat down and wailed, inconsolable.