Although I have swapped raging 43 degrees temperatures and camel-strewn desert landscapes for a wet and grey window view of a Peterborough shopping centre, memories of Niger remain larger than life.
National coverage of the Sahel region’s food crisis is mounting and fears among the resilient folk of Danja in Niger’s Maradi region are rising.
Most cited it was five years since the country’s food stocks had reached similarly low levels with the nation teetering on the brink of famine. Last year’s dismal rainfall yielded a poor harvest and, as a result, high food prices. At Danja Hospital where The Leprosy Mission provides specialist treatment to thousands each year, staff had sufficient nouse to secure several containers filled with 100kg sacks of millet – each enough to feed a large family for several weeks. This was done at the lower of price of 16,000 CFA (£21) per 100kg in October as opposed to the current rate of 22,000 CFA (£30).
At first the hospital’s doctor would prescribe measures of millet to patients ahead of the official food aid programme launched in April. This provides a monthly grain allowance to families affected by leprosy. Allocated to former breadwinners who can no longer work as a result of leprosy-related disabilities, the millet is enough to suppress hunger pangs for several weeks but, by admission, not an entire month.
Niger folk are praying for a textbook rainy season with the heavens opening from mid-June to the end of July. This brings the best hope for a fruitful harvest in September. Day-to-day survival, however, is something increasingly preying on people’s minds. Danja Hospital’s food stocks are already depleted and expected to be gone within six weeks – still weeks and weeks ahead of this year’s harvest.
Representatives from leprosy-affected communities are lobbying Niger’s government asking ministers how they should feed themselves when they can no longer work and there is little ‘food for work’ programmes available to their offspring. People are open-minded and even optimistic about the new government elected last year. Ministers have made efforts to buy food in bulk to sell onto people at low prices but sadly the prices are still out of reach for most of the communities surrounding Danja Hospital.
I previously mentioned the people of Niger encapsulating everything UK Prime Minister David Cameron could dream of achieving in his Big Society vision. Instead of hoarding food, any spare is passed onto hungry neighbours with little concern as to what’s for dinner next week. As a result, extended families are increasingly running out of food to give one another and individuals are already making the dusty trip to neighbouring Nigeria, Benin and even the Ivory Coast to beg.
The fear etched on people’s faces when discussing the most basic need of food is unmistakable and needs no translation from their local Hausa dialect. The situation is desperate and September is a distant horizon.