Don’t moan about the rain

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).

Amadou Tanko and Nouhou Ibrahim are begging for food in Danja
Amadou Tanko and Nouhou Ibrahim are begging for food in Danja

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.

Charlotte Orson

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The Big Society in action

Chief Salouhou Moussa

Prime Minister David Cameron would be proud of the people of Niger who personify the Big Society.  Amidst fears of famine and a distinct lack of food, people affected by leprosy who cannot work are given monthly supplies of grain as the only option to survive aside from begging.  This is prioritised to the smallest members of the family and stretched out to extended family and eventually the entire neighbourhood.  Although folk might not have anything to eat next week, there is an inspiring attitude to ‘look after others today’. 

In the Maradi region where we are staying there is an elected ‘leprosy chief’.  It is Salouhou Moussa’s (pictured) role to lobby the Niger government on behalf of the hundreds of very disabled people living in the poorest conditions that certainly I’ve witnessed.  He even travelled to Niger’s capital Niamey to meet with government officials to express the needs of these people who are unable to work for a living.  In a country without a social welfare system it is a desperate situation and the welcome we get, from the people given food aid by The Leprosy Mission, is tremendous.

I only wish each and every one of our supporters could witness first hand the gratitude of these people for their generous support.

Charlotte Orson/Rosalyn Palmer

When the sun is shining down on me

At church in Danja
At church in Danja

Being amongst people who have so little in the material sense but so much in terms of gratitude and mutual support meant that as I sang the following later that day I felt humbled:  

Blessed be Your name
When the sun’s shining down on me,
When the world’s all as it should be,
Blessed be Your name.
And blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering,
Though there’s pain in the offering,
Blessed be Your name. 

The chorus is: ‘You give and take away’ and perhaps this is the hardest for visitors such as us to be at peace with.   

Sitting on a battered old deck chair set on red dirt, under the half shade of a small tree, we listen to the stories of villagers who have grown up with leprosy and loss.  Their resignation to the fact that children will be taken away seems wrong to those of us living with first class healthcare and sanitation.  ‘I had eight children but two died. It is how it is’ one man said.  ‘No, it should not be’ we think and then try to balance this worldly view with the fact that their faith makes such loss bearable. 

Through worldly actions we will work to remove the causes of such loss; things that all have their root in poverty and lack of education.  Through faith we will aim to bear the hardships we witness with the same fortitude that the people of Niger do.  

To do so we can keep in mind the end of verse one:  

“When I’m found in the desert place,
Though I walk through the wilderness,
Blessed be Your name.”

Rosalyn Palmer/Charlotte Orson