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In Niger, the chief who predicted the food crisis

© UNICEF/Niger/2009/Fouchard
Harouna Mohamed, village chief of Foura Guireké, predicted the food crisis. "Solidarity is crucial to survival in the Sahel".

Foura Guireke, Niger, 6 mai 2010 - People in the village of Foura Guireke look up to their chief.  And with good reason.

Foura Guireké knew the signs were bad even before the current food crisis engulfed his village of 897 inhabitants.

Now, an estimated 378,000 children are expected to need treatment for severe malnutrition in the country in 2010.

His first clue came in  December 2009. ‘There were  very few stalks in the fields “, he said. At that time, Foura Guireké was a pretty village with shady trees, clean houses and chubby babies, a peaceful haven some 15 kilometres from the provincial capital of Maridi.

Most villagers made a meagre living  but the storehouses were filled with cereals.

Bad crops
But, by then,   Harouna knew there was trouble coming.   ’The harvest was not good, and the few stalks  in the fields was a sign that our millet had not grown  well because of poor rainfalls and then heavy showers drowned the fresh growth.’.

Harouna was right. Men started leaving to find work elsewhere, often in neighboring Nigeria.  Since then, Harouna’s predictions have come  true and everyone is speaking about the "crisis".

Harouna, who is over 50 years old, is used to years of scarcity. Every year, the lean period is a period of exhaustion when , the family meal is reduced to the minimum. In Niger, a ball of millet is the meal of the poor. Maradi region - over half the population of 3 million live under the poverty threshold.

The basic diet in Harouna’s village is millet, sorghum, local greens and peanuts. “But we also have butchers who sell goats’ or cows’ meat, .” he says.

“People live on what they produce  for two or three months at the moment, ‘ he explains, ‘but  they should be living on what they grown  for the whole year”. Agricultural production is usually  split into three equal shares, one daily consumption, one for the seeds and the stocks to survive to the lean season, as the last share is for the the head of the household. 

But Harouna knew in December that daily survival would take it all.

Bad memories of 2005
According to Harouna, solidarity helps villagers to survive  agricultural and economic shocks affecting the region. “If one of us has a child who is sick but does not have the means to pay for the transport to the hospital, the neighbors give some money to help. Solidarity is crucial to survival in Sahel”.

Though a Sahelian virtue, solidarity baulks  when a crisis affects so many household as now.. Harouna remembers 2005, a year when a lot of children were lost.  Chief of a village lost in misery, Harouna had found a position as a watchman in the therapeutic feeding centre of Maradi. Two of his children were treated there. His son, Issoufou, was 4 years old then. He is 8 now, and in a good shape.

Malnutrition, a curable disease
Harouna knows children can be saved from malnutrition. He also knows malnutrition is preventable thanks to the “essential family practices” such as exclusive breastfeeding between the ages of 0 to 6 months. He convinced the whole village to try, and now “babies are bigger than they were before” comments Harouna, as he points out some of the toddlers.

The crisis though is taking over more and more families in the region and that of neighbouring Zinder. Since January 2010, 50,000 severely malnourished children have been treated in the nutritional centres of Niger.

Lessons learnt from 2005
The good news is that 2010 is not 2005. Like Harouna, the Government and the humanitarian community have anticipated the crisis. They estimated that if nothing was done, 378,000 severely malnourished children will need life-saving care, and 900,000 children will  need supplementary feeding to prevent them from slipping in severe malnutrition.

In Zinder, a blanket feeding operation started on the 28th of April for all children from 6 months to 2 years old. 500,000 children will benefit from these distribution programs in 7 regions of the country. Partners are working around the clock to screen and treat children that are acutely malnourished.

Lessons were learnt from 2005. In 2010, relief workers are ready …  but they still need financial support to win..

By Anne Fouchard







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