by Mark Wentling
“Cram-cram,” replied Hadjara, when I asked her what she was eating. She and about thirty other women and a dozen children dressed in flimsy black rags were camped by the last water well in a vast barren zone 200 kilometers north of Niamey, Niger. Their animals had died and they had expended all their few assets. All the men in their clan had long ago migrated south to the coast or to Nigeria in search of work. Many of their children had already died from malnutrition and exposure, and more were likely to die in the days to come. All their old people had already died. They were the survivors, living on the edge of survival in a desolate place where all their usual drought coping mechanisms had been exhausted and death was a likely prospect.
I offered to help move Hadjara and her group farther south where their chances of survival were much better. Through my driver, and interpreter, Ousmane, I emphasized, “If you stay here, you will die.”
This Bella woman, who looked much older than her years because of the harsh climatic conditions she had endured her entire life, responded in a weak voice, “No, we cannot leave here. If we are to die, we must do so in this place because this is where our ancestors lived and died. And, if we go farther south, we will not be accepted, as our kind is not welcome by those living in the south.”
I was perplexed and saddened by her reply, but I knew what she meant. The Bella were descendants of former slaves and were often looked down upon by other ethnic groups. Her response reminded me that ‘marginalization’ was one of many factors that contributed to hunger and one’s chances of survival in lean times. I did not know what to say to her; I did not want to say the words that were forming in my mind. I hesitated, but I could not hold back, “You know better than me that your strength will soon diminish and you will no longer be able to pull the muddy water from the deep well or search for what little food there is in this sandy place. You also know that your children, the sick and any remaining old people in your group cannot last much longer. How do you intend to survive?
In a soft, muffled voice she repeated what she had said at the onset of our visit, “cram-cram.”
At that point, I turned to Ousmane to ask, “What does she mean by ‘cram-cram?’”
He replied, “Look at the numerous stickers adhering to your pants. Those are ‘cram-cram.’”
My pants had collected many stickers when I had walked through the sparse grass growing around the water well. These stickers appeared similar to the ones I knew growing up in Kansas. We called them ‘goathead’ stickers. I could not believe they could eat such stickers. I asked Ousmane, “How can they eat this.”
He replied, “I don’t know.” He then asked Hadjara, “How do you eat ‘cram-cram.’”
Hadjara took a tiny cram-cram sticker and opened it to reveal inside a microscopic grain. She defiantly said, “This is what we eat.”
Her reply had my mind trying to calculate how many cram-crams they would have to pick to make an adequate meal. As far as I was concerned, if every cram-cram weed in a kilometer radius was harvested, there still would not be enough food to provide a decent meal to this group. I doubted that this group, which had already been reduced to bare bones and skin, would survive for another week. These were tough people and I, as well as most people in the world, would have perished long ago from such harsh conditions. Time was running out even for these masters of survival in the arid Sahel.
I again offered to take them farther south where they could join other drought-affected people who were being assisted by aid agencies. But, again, they refused, saying, “We prefer to die here in the place of our ancestors. At least, if our husbands, brothers and sons return, they will know where to find our bodies.”
Their courage and stoicism against such dreadful odds made me feel small and useless. At the same time, my sense of deep pity for them made it hard for me to hold back my tears. I wished I had brought some food to leave with them, but I was not expecting to find any people still living on the southern fringes of the Sahara after years of drought. In a choked voice, I said my goodbyes and Hadjara responded in a barely audible voice, “Thank you for caring.”
All this happened in the aftermath of the Great Sahelian Drought of the early 1970s. Hadjara’s dire plight and words have haunted me ever since, but, sadly, I was to experience many more tragic hunger situations in Niger and other African countries in the years that followed. Much work has been done over the past few decades to combat hunger, but the disheartening reality is that there are more hungry Africans today than there were in the 1970s, and the child malnutrition crisis persists and amplifies. I was to learn that hunger, and its worst manifestation, famine, has many faces and those faces are growing in number and complexity.
After leaving the courageous Hadjara and her fatalistic comrades, we headed south to Filingué (180 kilometer north of Niamey, capital of Niger) where I planned to spend the night and check on the impact of food shortages in this provincial center. I took a walk through the town, visiting household compounds to ask people how they were coping with high levels of food insecurity. The responses I heard were uniformly bleak and void of any hope. This dreary setting was accentuated by the onset of high winds and blowing sands that reduced visibility. I was forced to wrap a turban around my head.
I visited with a head of household named, Moussa, who invited me to sit on one of the low three-legged stools gathered around a simmering but very smoky cooking fire. I was thinking of what questions I could ask so I could better understand how he and his family coped with not having enough food. But, before I could say anything, he blurted out in an alarming manner, “We have given up all hope of ever enjoying happiness again.”
I was taken aback by his outburst and paused a moment before reacting, “What do you mean? What is happiness for you?
He immediately said, “Happiness for us is having tranquility.”
I said, “I am sorry, but I do not understand.”
He continued, “The only thing that can give us tranquility is a full granary. Ever since the annual rains have stopped falling as abundantly as they did in the past, we have not known full granaries for years because the quantity of millet grain we harvest is much less. At the same time, the number of mouths we have to feed are many more and the cost of food and other essential items in the market place is much higher.”
His hard-hitting words were stark reminders of the increasing challenges for those living in the Sahel Region, as well as other regions in Africa where recurrent drought and food shortages were common. Climate change was already working to decrease rainfall and, thus, diminish harvests. And repeated attacks from pests, particularly locusts, birds, rodents and army worms made it harder to have a good harvest even when rains were sufficient. Moreover, a fast growing population made it impossible to feed and care for everyone. Rapid urbanization was adding tens of thousands of additional non-food producers to the hunger rolls. Rises in world food prices made it more difficult even for people with money to buy food. The number of people able to eat one good meal a day was decreasing, as was the dietary diversity needed to stay healthy. Almost nobody was satisfying their daily minimum food requirements.
Moussa’s comments on the loss of “tranquility” struck me deeply and I was not sure of what to say. All I could muster was a sympathetic, common refrain, “I understand. Life is an eternal combat and becoming more costly, difficult and complicated.”
Moussa appeared to be using the occasion of my visit to vent all his frustrations over the deteriorating conditions of life for him and his family. I sat humbly by as he continued to release a long and angry tirade, “We work very hard, but we get less for all our labors. The size of our farms is smaller and the soils poorer, but we can do anything to improve any of this. Our government does not help, and poor governance and political instability contribute to our misery. Things were not like this when I was a young man. We had ‘happiness’ then and a full granary could take us from one harvest to another. That no longer happens.”
There was no stopping Moussa. He certainly had my full attention and seemed to appreciate a good listener. He placed his hand over his heart and ranted on, “If Allah blesses us with the good fortune needed to fill our granaries, they will be empty within a few months. A full granary no longer is enough, because we have more people to feed and it costs much more to buy essential items like salt and cooking oil. We have to sell more food at harvest time because prices are higher and we need to pay off debts contracted the prior year to buy food. Our increased poverty is like a prison. I see no way we can get out of the vicious cycle in which we find ourselves.”
Moussa was almost in tears when he said, “Look at my scrawny children. Even in the best of years they do not grow as they should and are often sick because they do not have a good diet. Moreover, their mothers are undernourished and unable to breastfeed. In the old days, we would buy powdered milk if breast milk was not enough, but we can no longer do that as it is too expensive. Also, the remaining cows and goats are under-nourished and do not produce the milk we used to give to our children. How can we progress on empty stomachs and with stunted children? All our politicians do is talk. Too bad we cannot eat their words, because if we could, there would be no more hunger.”
At that moment, Moussa screeched loudly in his language, Hausa, some words, “bukata na yahi reyna.” I had heard this utterance before, but I did not know what it meant. I asked Moussa, “What do you mean by the words you just said in Hausa?”
Moussa laughed and said, “This means my needs are greater than my life. By these words, we are trying to say our needs right now are more important than anything that can come tomorrow. We say this often when somebody talks to us about helping us in the future, which is of no importance to us as we are trying to survive today.”
I looked around at his emaciated children and the women in his compound. They looked worse off than Moussa. I wondered if it was because they ate last. Traditionally, men in the family eat first and the children and women eat whatever is left over. In some cases, if men had any money they would keep it a secret and use their money to eat outside of the house. In this way, they could avoid the pressure to share their food and the awkwardness of eating when their families had nothing to eat.
I observed one child moving awkwardly about the compound and sometimes tumbling into the dirt. It finally dawned on me that this child was blind. As Filingué was far from the Niger River, I eliminated blindness caused by onchocerciasis (river blindness). I thought this could be the consequence of prolonged vitamin A deficiency. Local knowledge of essential vitamins, minerals and micronutrients was absent and bringing these alien topics up in the midst of such suffering would be absurd. No sense talking to people who faced starvation about how essential minerals like iron and iodine are vital to one’s well-being.
I politely asked Moussa a question, “Do you still have some animals?”
It was like I hit a raw nerve because without hesitation he firmly retorted, “Of course not! I had to sell all our animals to get money to buy food. Real destitution started for my family when we no longer had even a chicken. Before, we were well-off, with some camels, cows, goats, sheep and dozens of chickens.”
I knew that a family’s prestige and wealth depended on the number and types of animals it possessed. Not having even a chicken would place Moussa’s family in the most vulnerable category. Animals were like a family’s bank account, which they used in times of duress. With this account now empty and no safety nets in place, Moussa and his family were living on the very edge of survival and the slightest shock would push them over the edge.
Moussa stopped talking, exhausted from the exertion it took to communicate his very dismal prospects. For a few moments, he kept his head down and did not say anything. He raised his head and looked toward the heavens, beseeching Allah to come and take him and his family away. He said, “We have already experienced Hell on this Earth, so anything in the afterlife will be better than we have known here.”
I was left numb and speechless by his heavenly pleas. I certainly could not match his passionate articulation of the depths of his dire plight. I simply said, “Your problems are more than my feeble mind can grasp. I am quite moved by your words. I wish there was some way I could help you. At least you will be eating something tonight.”
Moussa immediately emitted a dry laugh, acting a bit mad, “Why do you say we will be eating something tonight?”
I replied, “Well, I can see you have lit a cooking fire and that tells me you will be preparing some food.”
He did his bitter laugh again, and surprised me by saying, “We do not have anything to eat and this fire is to fool our neighbors into thinking that we are alright and eating something. It is just too shameful to be seen as unable to feed your family, so I waste scarce firewood on a useless cooking fire.”
I knew what he meant about the wasting of wood, the main source of energy. Increased aridity and the fast growing population had denuded the surrounding country side and combustible bushes and trees were increasingly hard to come by. Sometimes families had beans (black-eyed peas) they could eat, but the boiling of these hard beans took more firewood than was available and enough heat could not be produced by burning any millet stalks a family might still have on hand in the middle of the harsh, eight-month dry season.
By this time, Moussa was in deep reflection, searching for any important words he had failed to communicate in his long litany of the many sufferings caused by hunger. After a long pause, he said loudly in a most serious tone, “Look at us! We used to be a great and proud people and now we are reduced to beggary. Are we only staying alive to be beggars?”
Moussa continued in a weakened voice of defeat, “Look at me! I was once a well-off man and a leader in my community. Now I have become skin and bones with only this old gown to wear. I had to sell all my clothes to survive. Now, I can’t even buy a small cup of detergent to wash the remaining filthy gown I am wearing. This is a disgrace. I have lost all dignity as a human being. This is not a life I want to live!”
Poor Moussa’s profound suffering made me feel nauseous. I had never dealt with such profound hopelessness. I knew I had stayed longer with him than I should have and I was searching for a polite way to extract myself from his compound so I could continue my visit of the town. I thanked Moussa for spending so much time with me and opening my eyes to the awful and very complex depths of suffering caused by prolonged food shortages. Moussa accompanied me a short distance and graciously wished me well. His final words to me were, “Thank you for coming and listening to me. God willing, I will be alive when you visit again.”
I was beginning to think that the only thing I could do was to lend a sympathetic ear and listen to people as they talked about the impact of food shortages on them and their families. I believed this was a poor substitute for tangible assistance, but I had nothing else to offer. I was learning much, but the gap between my world and theirs was unbridgeable, and I knew I could never fully appreciate the agony and pain these people were experiencing. I knew that nobody living in high-income countries could imagine how bad and terrible conditions were for these people. I asked myself how much we really cared about hunger in Africa.
I wished there was a way to readily transfer food from America to the hungry in Africa. I knew the quantity of food thrown away in America would be enough to feed the hungry in Africa. I also knew that Americans spent much more money on pet food, sporting events, beauty products and many other things that would be more than enough to buy food for those hungry in Africa. Of course, I knew this was fanciful thinking on my part and there was really no practical way of improving the distribution and access to food in the world. The billion hungry and malnourished people in the world would always be with us and their human right to food would continue to be violated. I did not have any of the answers that I desperately sought.
As I slowly walked down the path leading from Moussa’s house to the town center, the wind picked up and I found myself wrapping my turban more tightly around my head as I forged through a blizzard of blowing sand. I was thinking how survival ---even in the best of times--- was possible in such a hostile environment, particularly when there was not enough to eat. There were so many things that could kill you in this environment and hunger increased the probability that endemic water-borne diseases, upper respiratory ailments, malaria, cholera, and meningitis could take you to an early grave. Many children died of dehydration caused by simple cases of diarrhea. No wonder life expectancy was less than 50 years of age and most Nigeriens did not live long enough to see their 40th birthday. The cemeteries were filling up quickly!
I was feeling hungry, but I also harbored a sense of guilt because I knew my hunger was nothing like the hunger afflicting those I had visited. I was well-fed and I knew I had the means to eat almost anything I wanted. But I found no solace in living on the “right” side of the unfair nutritional divide that divided the world into “have’s” and “have-nots.” I was very sympathetic of the latter, but it made no sense for me to force myself to join them. Nonetheless, I was very uncomfortable about eating well while so many were going hungry. I wished for a more equitable world where things were not this way and all could eat to their satisfaction.
After I walked a short distance, I heard someone calling ‘anasara,’ the local word for white person. I stopped to see what a young man approaching me wanted. He greeted me and told me I needed to go see the traditional chief and his elders. I replied that I had little time as I still had to visit the government health center that cared for malnourished children. He insisted that before doing anything else I must see the traditional authorities. I relented and followed him on a short walk to the chief’s vast compound.
I was warmly welcomed by Chief Boukari and members of his entourage. They invited me to sit with them on low benches under a straw-covered hangar. The chief opened our session by saying, “We heard that you are here to see first-hand the impact on our town of severe food shortages. We know you have already talked to our brother Moussa, but we want to make sure that you have all the information necessary to understand the gravity of our hunger.”
I very humbly replied, “I am honored to have this opportunity to discuss your food problems with you and I am interested in learning more about how you view your situation and prospects. I do not want to be in a rush, but I need to visit the health center before darkness falls.”
The chief cleared his throat and hocked up some unsightly phlegm before saying, “We do not want to detain you for long. We also have things to do before dark. But we want to add to the points Moussa has already communicated to you. We will try to do this quickly.”
At that point, a small basket of red and yellow kola nuts was passed around. I followed the custom and broke off half of a nut and took a small bite out of it. Kola was very bitter and I did not like chewing on it, but in this instance, my concerns about using appropriate behavior and being polite outweighed my dislikes. Kola nuts contained high levels of caffeine and were chewed to take the edge off hunger and keep energy levels up. It was like taking a coffee break.
The chief started his monolog by pointing to the men around him and saying, “As you can see we are all old. There are not any young men in our town. They have all left to seek work in the cities or neighboring countries. One of our hopes is that they will find work and send money back to their families, but times are hard and work is almost impossible to find. Our young men can’t stay here as there is nothing for them to eat; we need fewer mouths to feednot more. Sadly, many of our men never return and many among those who do return are sick and a burden to us. Also, those who do return come back with bad habits and no longer respect our traditions. We need these young men to provide labor for working our fields during the planting and weeding periods, but there is nothing to eat at those times. Our young men are obliged to work for rich farmers who pay them a pittance for their labor. Therefore, often times our fields remain neglected and this results in a lower harvest for us. How can we advance if we do not have enough men to work our fields?”
I was surprised that I still had more to learn about the impact hunger is having on the life of this rural town. I knew that the agricultural season was short with few trade-offs, and if you did not weed your fields when needed, you would not have a good harvest. Timely weeding was a real bottleneck that required extra labor. But how do you increase the expenditure of energy when you are suffering from a decreased calorie intake? How do you increase the productivity of your fields with limited labor, only hand tools, and no inputs? Any remedy required enough money to make yield-raising techniques affordable. Nobody had this kind of money. The average annual income for Niger was less than $300, but many people had no money at all. I could see that poverty was a cause of hunger, but that hunger contributed to making poor people poorer.
Almost as he was reading my mind, Chief Boukari exclaimed, “What we urgently need to reverse our downward spiral is more money and less hunger!”
His very astute words resonated well with me, as they summed up nicely the prime needs of this long-suffering population. I was thinking that these words encapsulated what all humanitarian and development assistance actors should be pursuing. Maybe all food security assistance projects should be judged on these simple, but vitally important criteria. The central question was: did the project increase incomes as well as reduce hunger? The success or failure of any external intervention should be evaluated on how it answers this question. Furthermore, genuine success would mean that this question could be answered affirmatively year-in and year-out over many years. It was easy to see that achieving more money and less hunger on a sustainable basis is a daunting challenge, particularly if people do not have access to sustainable income-generating activities.
Chief Boukari’s profound words would stay with me for years, becoming something of a ‘holy grail’ for me as I tried to contribute to reducing poverty while improving nutritional levels. I always found myself on a slippery slope where success became more about not sliding backwards than moving ahead. The odds against getting things moving in the right direction and keeping them moving until there was no more hunger were always overwhelming. Many factors always worked to sabotage the best of plans.
Increasingly, a fast growing population and falling levels of soil fertility made any prospects of achieving sustainable progress impossible. How can you get ahead when there is no longer enough farm land to go around? Moreover, it is not possible to eliminate hunger and build a rising standard of living on a declining level of soil fertility. Poor soils result in low yields, which mean less to eat for all. Crop yields in Africa, as a region, are lower than in other region of the world. For the most part, Africa is still waiting for the ‘Green Revolution.’ If crop yields were as high in Africa as elsewhere in the world, there would be enough food produced to feed all Africans. I learned that ‘yield-raising techniques’ were key words, but achieving the objective embodied in these words in a sustainable, environmentally-sound manner is fraught with daunting obstacles.
While my mind drifted into the food security minefield, Chief Boukari was having some discussion with his comrades. I was told they were trying to see what additional points they should share with me. After a prolonged interlude, Chief Boukari said, “We are reluctant to tell you this, but another outcome of our sorry plight is that many women in our town are resorting to prostitution to make ends meet, particularly those women whose husbands have been absent for a long time. This is something that has never before happened in the village.”
Chief Boukari continued by lamenting, “Prolonged hunger has degraded our moral values and people have lost our traditional moral compass, resulting in a rise in crime and other transgressions never before seen in our town.”
One more thing, “Population growth and the desire to produce more food have forced people to cultivate marginal land that formerly was always reserved for pastoralists and their animals. This encroachment on pastoral land has resulted in a number of bloody conflicts. Furthermore, we no longer have cereal grains to sell or trade to the pastoralists. This situation has increased hunger among the pastoralists, forcing them to steal our crops. Such thievery is unprecedented. What can we do? There is no longer any grass in the pastoral lands. People are desperate!”
What I was hearing from Chief Boukari was quite troubling. I was noting these points about crime and conflict on my growing list of the negative outcomes of hunger when a young boy came up to me and said my driver was waiting for me outside the door. I told the boy to tell him to wait for me as I would soon be coming. Before I left, I had a question for Chief Boukari and his group. I asked, “Do you benefit from food aid?”
Chief Boukari quickly replied, “Yes we do, and we hope more food aid is coming. Some of us would not be among the living today if we had not received food aid rations.”
I said, “That is good to know. I guess you have had a good experience with food aid.”
The chief quickly shot back, “I did not say that! There are plenty of problems with food aid, which is welcomed by us but is in need of many improvements. If we are to suffer the shame of surviving on handouts, we would like to receive food that is more palatable to us and arrives when we need it. Too often the food provided is not like what we are used to eating and it does not arrive when we need it the most. Our traditional diet is mainly composed of millet-flour porridge and most of the time we are given small rations of yellow corn. This is something we have not eaten before and it is hard for us to grind into flour and cook it. We have seen white corn but not yellow corn. Certainly, having corn is better than no food at all, but corn is much harder for us to digest.”
Chief Boukari continued, “Sometimes we receive sorghum from America, but it has to be cleaned before we eat it. This is okay, although I hear our government complained because in America sorghum is only grown for animal feed. The government said that America was wrong to regard our people like animals. For us, this is all nonsense and we welcome any foodstuff offered to us as long as it does not make us sick. We did have some food aid arrive in bad condition and it either had to be destroyed or fed to our surviving animals, as it was declared by the authorities to be unfit for human consumption. In fact, we are waiting for a food aid shipment to arrive any day.”
I did not have the heart to inform them that the ship transporting food aid for Niger had been diverted on the high seas to another country which had even greater and more pressing food needs. This diversion would result in a delay of several months before additional food reached Niger from the ports of origin in the US’ Gulf of Mexico. It would take weeks to source more sorghum, bag it and load it onto a ship in the port. It would take a couple more weeks for this ship to arrive at a port in West Africa, where there were lengthy delays in waiting for a berth, as dozens of ships were anchored off-shore, paying costly demurrage fees. It would take more weeks for trucks to transport the grain overland the over 600 miles to Niamey and to remote upcountry warehouses.
The logistics involved with transporting, loading, unloading, warehousing and distributing large quantities of food were mindboggling. And the risks of loss and thievery along the way were high. Trucks would often breakdown or get stuck in Niger’s deep sand. The increase of heavily-loaded trucks ruined many roads. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that a 50-kilogram of sorghum landed in Niamey cost less than a bag produced locally. There was simply no way African farmers could compete with large-scale US farms, which were often subsidized by the US Government.
Moreover, US food aid must be shipped on the much more expensive ships with US registry. Since the passage of legislation by the US Congress in 1954, food aid and its shipment have become big businesses that are supported by US farming and shipping lobbies. These interest groups have made it so US food aid has survived mostly intact in the Farm Bill the US government is obliged to pass every five years. These vested interests, farm subsidies and the high productivity of US farms enabled the US to be the main source of food aid for 60 years.
I was jarred from my thoughts by the loud voice of the lone woman in the group who was sitting behind all the men. In a no nonsense manner, she raised her voice to say, “My name is Fatimata and I represent all the women in our town. We want you to know that we do not like the way food aid is distributed. Rations are given to the men who often sell them and take the money for their own purposes and, thus, no food ends up in the household for consumption. If you want the household to benefit from food aid, you must give it to the older women of the household. Thank you. That is what I have to say.”
After saying her startling words, Fatimata abruptly sat down and seem to fade into the background again. I could see her words made the men uncomfortable, but no man offered any rebuttal to her frank assertions. I could not help but accept as the truth what Fatimata said.
Chief Boukari tried to save face and put the discussion back on track by referring to the chaos food aid often caused in the town. He said, “It is the government authorities who determine how the food aid is distributed. These unscrupulous men often take much of the food aid for themselves before allotting the rest to the neighborhood chiefs for distribution. It is true that these chiefs often take more than their fair share and favor their own relatives. We follow our traditional systems in the allocation of food. Even though we try to do our best, there are always complaints and conflicts. In some ways food aid is necessary, but also a curse in terms of maintaining peace and good relations in our town.”
I thought Chief Bourkari was being mild in his remarks. I could easily see how the corrupted distribution of food aid could result in an excess of tension and a long-term breakdown of social order in the town. I was aware that the previous president of the country had been overthrown by the military because of the diversion of food aid.
Chief Boukari reminded me that he was not finished. His group wanted him to mention a few more things. He said, “Food aid is not enough; we need firewood to cook the food and we need condiments to go with it. We never receive these additional essential items. We also need clean water to prepare food. The water we use now is dirty, as it comes from the bottom of a few remaining wells. Drought has caused the water table to fall considerably and we need to deepen existing wells or dig new wells. Only the government can dig wells, so we can only suffer the consequences of too little water and no potable water.”
“One more thing, dryer weather has brought more frequent locust invasions. The damage caused to our crops by these invasions is often more than that caused by poor and uneven rainfall. Moreover, there have been more invasions of yellow locusts instead of red locusts we are accustomed to. At least, we can eat the red locusts but not the bad tasting yellow ones.”
My head was spinning as I tried to grasp all this new information and input it into my “hunger” analysis. This was all quite enough for me, so I was hoping he had finished talking. I said, “Thank you for all this additional and very interesting information. I assume you have now finished with your remarks. I really need to be on my way.”
Chief Boukari said, “Yes, I am finished except for one point one of my colleagues here has just mentioned to me. He wants me to also tell you that dryer weather has increased the number of rodents infesting our food storage units. When we used to eat enough food we would expend a lot of energy in trapping and killing rodents. Now, we are too weakened by hunger to do this. More rodents are consuming our stored food products. Our storage losses are therefore much higher than before hunger sapped our strength.”
After these interesting remarks, I stood up to go, shaking hands with everyone. I looked for Fatimata as I wanted to thank her for her words, but she was not to be seen. I was finally able to extract myself from this group and join Ousmane waiting for me in our four-wheeled vehicle. We drove quickly off and headed to the only health clinic in the town to see how it was handling the increased influx of severely malnourished children. Ousmane dropped me at the clinic while he went to the one guest house in town to ensure we had rooms for the night.
I entered the clinic and politely asked if I could see the person in charge. I was quickly introduced to Dr. Moustapha, who warmly welcomed me and exuded much happiness over the opportunity to receive a foreigner and show off his work at the clinic. I told him I would like to see the malnourished children he was caring for. He said, “No problem, follow me.”
He took me outside where we walked to a nearby warehouse-type building. I was not prepared for the horror I observed as I stepped inside this old building. There were corpse-like, matchstick children crowded together with their feeble mothers from one wall to another. Soiled sleeping mats covered the floor. Many children were on IVs. Health staff moved intently from one child to another, telling mothers what they needed to do to help save their children’s lives. The putrid smell of sickness and death was overpowering. The sight of so many children reduced to almost nothing but bones and their miniature size made guessing their age impossible. It was eerily quiet in this dark and dank warehouse as most children were too far gone to have the energy needed to cry.
It was really too much for me. I had no words that could express how awful I felt about what I saw. I tried to keep a sympathetic face and appear to be very concerned. But, deep down, I felt very helpless and angry over such cruel destruction of so many children. Even if some children survived, they would be permanently damaged and not able to realize their full potential. I kept asking myself: “How can we save the children?” I was not sure who the ‘we’ was or how the task could be achieved because I knew there were clinics like this spread across the country and the children in these clinics were just a fraction of the millions of children who needed urgent help to survive. For me, seeing these children at the point of no return was hunger at its worst.
Dr. Moustapha could see I was uncomfortable and invited me outside to discuss further the care of children brought to his clinic. I was relieved to go outside and breathe some fresh air, as dirty as it was with the blowing sand making it hard to open fully your eyes. While we were exiting this so-called children’s ward, a woman arrived in a chauffeured Mercedes Benz with another lifeless, emaciated child in her arms. I thought this well-off woman must be rendering a service to someone less fortunate than herself, but the doctor told me a different story.
In response to my comment about how nice it was for this woman to bring someone’s child to the clinic, Dr. Moustapha said, “This is not someone else’s child. This is her child.”
I was very astonished by what he said and exclaimed, “How can that be? She is obviously well-off and thus able to feed her children.”
Dr. Moustapha said, “Yes, but just because you have the means to buy food for your children does not mean you are feeding them correctly. Many mothers with means do not know how or what to feed their children, and they do not breastfeed. They do just as the rural village women do and provide their children a diet mainly consisting of millet porridge. A child needs more than that to grow well. Traditional ways are hard to change. And, just because you are wealthy does not necessarily mean that you are literate. It is hard to teach people better practices when they cannot read or write. Poor feeding practices and child care take their toll on children’s lives even among the wealthy.”
I made a note of this surprising paradox and was preparing to thank Dr. Moustapha for the visit when he began talking about all the problems they faced in treating malnourished children. The good doctor said, “You have seen our children’s ward, but you do not know all our problems. We lose many children because we never have a sufficient stock of the supplies needed to save them, and more children arrive every day. It is also hard for us to maintain proper hygiene and sanitation, as we do not have the means to procure the needed cleaning supplies. We also do not have any latrine or shower stalls. The water we have from the clinic’s well is bad. The children’s mothers, and often their grandmothers too, do not have anywhere to stay and they do not have food. And, there is no firewood to cook anything.”
I said, “This is terrible. Surely, the fathers of the children bring something.”
Moustapha rapidly reacted, saying, “Most of the men are gone and even if they are present they do not come. That is the tradition.”
I asked, “What is it that you need the most.”
Again, he lost no time in replying, “Supplemental foods for children. There is a factory in Niamey that works twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to produce food supplements but, apparently, that is not enough to cover the entire country. Without these supplements, we have nothing good to feed the children.”
I told him, “I am making a note and when I return to the capital I will visit this factory to see how it works and what is needed to expand its production. I also want to visit a vegetable oil plant to see what is involved in enriching cooking oil with much needed vitamins.”
Moustapha nodded his head, noting his firm approval of my planned visit to a cooking oil plant, saying, “If somehow we could introduce only one teaspoon of oil into the daily diet of children that would make a world of nutritional difference. This practice would prevent many cases of kwashiokor and marasmus that you observed. It is rare that we have any vegetable oil.”
A light flashed in my head. I noted that maybe a teaspoon of enriched vegetable oil each day was one of the answers for which I had been searching. My mind was fully engaged with how to put such a simple application into widespread practice. I knew that there was nothing simple about introducing change in ingrained habits and human nature, but, at the same time, I thought this was an idea worth pursuing.
Moustapha added very quickly, “We also need body soap. Many of the children go unwashed and develop scabies and other skin diseases. If they could wash regularly, all these dermatological problems could be prevented.”
These last words of Moustapha made me recall something I read about how much disease could be prevented by washing your hands regularly. Everyone needed soap, but almost nobody had the money to buy it. It was hard to imagine living in this dusty environment without being able to wash. It was a germ and disease vector paradise.
Night was falling fast. I thanked Dr. Moustapha and wished him much courage with the daunting challenges he faced. I told him that I knew it was not easy for a trained physician like himself to have such a remote posting, but that his work was much appreciated and he should be proud of all the lives he and his team had saved. Dr. Moustapha replied in somber voice, “Thanks for your visit. We do not receive many foreigners here. I hope you go back to the capital and spread the word about what we need here to save lives and prevent more human suffering.”
I was a young and inexperienced aid worker with no influence. I did not want Dr. Moustapha to think I could do anything, but I did not want to discourage him by telling him that I was a very small fish in a large ocean of donors who knew much more than I did and had the power to do something. I also did not want to tell him that many donors and people in their respective countries were tiring of being called to help with what seemed to be an unending stream of African disasters, both the natural and man-made types. I also did not want to say how hard it has become to respond adequately to the growing number of disasters in Africa. There was just not enough food aid, and the capacity to deliver it effectively, to feed the large number of hungry, malnourished, displaced people and refugees in the world.
I met Ousmane parked outside and we sped to the lone guesthouse in the town for something to eat and get a good night’s sleep before rising early the next morning for our return to Niamey. We ate some grilled Guinea fowl and washed it down with the bottled water we had brought with us. A very undiversified and meager meal by any standards, but it was better than what most of the people in this town are eating. And, I had the luxury of drinking purified water. You would hear no complaints from me after my day with desperate and dying people.
I did not sleep much that night in a spartan room void of any comforts. The noise made by the constant noise of rats running around on top the ceiling boards kept me awake. The need to be vigilant about the rats obliged me keep my kerosene lantern burning and to keep them away. I had heard stories about hungry rats chewing off the tips of the dirty fingers of sleeping children. I made sure my fingers were clean and without any residue from the grilled Guinea fowl.
My night was made more miserable by the sounds of crying children. All around the dilapidated guest house were the sounds of children sobbing. I knew the children were crying because they were hungry. For me, the worst sound you could hear was the pitiful crying of hungry children. These pitiful cries would haunt me for the rest of my life.
The next morning we decided to leave early and forego any notion of breakfast. We could feast after our three-hour drive to Niamey over a rough wash-boarded, laterite road. Sometimes this road would become so bad that trucks with food aid could not pass, and when they did pass they contributed to the deterioration of the road. The absence of good road infrastructure made it impossible to deliver food to Niger’s over 5,000 villages. Again, the logistics involved with food aid were mind boggling.
As we were leaving town, I noticed a group of boys sifting the sandy earth in a dry field where millet had been grown in the previous rainy season. I asked Ousmane what they were doing. He said, “They are sifting the soil to find any rare millet grains that might be left behind.”
I took note and wondered how millet even grew with hardly any moisture and in sandy soils devoid of organic matter. While scientists had produced a miracle rice and wheat, they could not produce a miracle-millet, as it was hard to improve on the hardy millet varieties that already existed. I concluded that millet was already a miracle and no genetic modifications could improve its ability to withstand drought and survive in poor soils.
Of course, yields could be raised if soils could retain more moisture in this hot climate and more food could be produced if there was more irrigation. But the latter was too expensive and there were many water management and land tenure issues to resolve. It was hard to have a ‘green revolution’ without water and the inputs that improved seed varieties required to achieve the highest yields to be economically viable. This meant the increased use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, but such inputs were not affordable, even if they were available. The use of such essential agricultural inputs in most countries in Africa was the lowest in the world.
The dusty red road was rough, but we traveled along at a fast 50 miles an hour. As we navigated around one curve in the road, Ousmane was obliged to firmly apply the brakes to avoid colliding with a man standing motionless in the middle of the road with a child. Ousmane could tell that this light-skinned duo were from the semi-nomadic Tuareg ethnic group that usually inhabited areas much farther north.
The man slowly approached my side of the car and I rolled down my window to hear what he had to say. Ousmane greeted him in the lingua-franca, Hausa, and he replied in a weak and uneven voice, “I am begging you, please take my ten-year old daughter and save her life. You are our last chance. Please be our savoir. If not, both my daughter and I will soon die.”
I looked closely into the eyes of the young girl and all I wanted to do was cry. I wanted more than anything to help, but I could not see how I could. It would have been so easy to say, “No problem. I will take care of your daughter and raise her as my own child.” But, instead, I sat speechless with much pain in my heart, knowing that I really could not take his child with us.
Ousmane was waiting to see what I would do. I turned to him and worked hard to emit the unkindest words I have ever uttered, “Tell him that my employer has a policy that does not allow us to accept responsibility for any person, particularly children.” My words deeply disappointed me. I felt that I was acting too bureaucratically in what was a life-and-death situation. I felt heartless and evil.
My deathly message was delivered and we quickly drove off, leaving the end of two lives in our wake. I felt no different than a murderer in a case of wrongful death. I have reflected on that day many times over the years and, now, many years later, I tell myself I made a huge mistake, as I should have accepted to care for that young girl. It is hard to live with such a wrong-doing. I will go to my grave suffering from deep regret over not saving that young girl.
After that awful episode on the road, I did not speak another word until well after I was dropped at my home in Niamey. The years have passed and I have more than that day in Niger thirty-seven years ago to think about. I have observed much of the same in other African countries, Ethiopia and Somalia being notable examples. But, relatively well-off countries in southern Africa suffered in the aftermath of the severe drought on 1991, causing what was called the drought of the century and prompting one of the biggest food relief operations in history.
To this day, I still see much hunger in Africa. I read that there are more hungry and malnourished people in Africa than there were thirty years ago. This is mostly due to a fast growing population. When I was in Niger almost four decades ago there was a national population of six million; today, there are over eighteen million people and 15,000 villages. Niger and other countries now have more people than they can feed. It is almost impossible to overcome such a structural food deficit, especially as the population keeps growing fast. Imagine. Niger is projected to have fifty million people in 2050. How will all these people be fed, educated cared for and employed? Reducing a phenomenally high fertility rate is a necessary element in the unending battle against hunger.
Nigeriens and many other people in Africa have proven to be very resilient and experts at buying time. Out of desperation, many Nigeriens have adopted better practices. For example, nutritious moringa trees are being cultivated and consumed everywhere, and fields are being improved by allowing trees to grow in them. All this is good, but as long as population growth gallops ahead, all these welcomed actions are just buying time. One day time will run out.
In the intervening years, other factors have come along to complicate the hunger battle. The HIV/AIDS virus has reduced labor available for farm work and changed the nutritional needs of those who have contracted this virus. Aquatic weeds have made their appearance, choking water bodies and irrigation canals. Terrorism and international crime have added to a more challenging African scene.
After over four decades of working every hungry corner of Africa, I should have some answers, but I don’t. Quite the contrary, I have more questions than when I first set foot on the continent in 1970. Way back then, I expected hunger in Africa to be a thing of the past by now, but clearly that is far from the case. At this late stage in my life, I am at a loss and feel deeply the failure to feed Africans, particularly the children. My conscience suffers because so many children (40% in some countries) are permanently impaired by stunting. I believe the conscience of the world should also suffer. I am worn out and feeling like a casualty of Africa’s ‘hunger wars.’ I am not sure of what needs to be done to end hunger in Africa, but I know it will take more than eating ‘crams-crams.’