Niger: Food Crisis or Ground Floor Opportunity to Save Mothers and Babies

Ask a woman when she was hungriest, she might say when she was pregnant or breastfeeding. Ask a man and he might remember being a teenager, growing several inches a year. If you ask me, it was when I was driving home from work, pregnant with my first baby, so famished I knew if I didn't eat I'd vomit. As I drove past a hot dog stand advertising chili dogs I almost slammed on the breaks, but as a consummate vegetarian I decided it would take something better than a chili dog for me to lose my meat virginity. Instead, I drove to McDonald's where I was seduced by a filet-o-fish sandwich. Yeah, that's how hungry I was. So hungry, I got to choose between fast-food chains. In contrast to what's happening right now in Niger, I wasn't hungry at all.

Most of us won't ever know what hunger is. Not like people who've survived situations like the one building in Niger. Ask Dije Ousman when she was hungriest, she'll say, "Today." Dije, (46) lives in Dakoro, Niger. As she spoke with Melanie Brooks, communications coordinator for CARE (a global humanitarian organization), Dije's daughter pounds millet with a stone that's almost as big as she is. That small bowl of millet will be boiled with water to provide the only food Dije, her seven children (ages 2 months to 20-years) and extended family of 14 will eat all day.

When Dije's little boy asks when dinner will be ready, Dije answers with tears in her eyes and a fearful expression, "We're still cooking, honey. Just wait." She tells Brooks, "My younger children have never been through a food crisis before. They think we're not eating because I'm not cooking. How can they think I would do that to them? The older children remember 2005 and 2010 when all the food was gone. They remember my three other babies dying."

Dije's 2-month old, Abdulahadi cries and she puts him to her breast. He latches on, sucks hard and after a minute, pulls away, howling. Dije switches breasts and after another minute, he pulls away and slumps into sleep, no less hungry than he'd been a few minutes before but without the energy to struggle for milk. With tears now rolling down her cheeks Dije says, "I don't have any milk. I haven't eaten lately. I don't want to lose another baby, but I know the signs. I know what will happen." She knows what every breastfeeding mother knows -- if you don't eat, you don't make milk. But she knows something mothers in developed countries don't: If you don't make milk, your baby dies. Now that, my friends, is hunger.

The situation in Niger provides a master class on the anatomy of a food crisis, but also an opportunity to intervene before it's too late, like in the Horn of Africa. Drought, pests, failed harvest, loss of livestock, thousands of migrant workers returning from troubled, war-torn neighboring countries, soaring food prices, rapidly diminishing food stores... that's how you build a famine.

More than 5.4 million people in Niger are at risk of hunger; at least 1.3 million people are in critical need now. In Dije's village children are already showing signs of malnutrition: protruding bellies and orange hair. Nearly 300,000 children will become malnourished across Niger this year, a figure that's expected to rise as the food crisis worsens.

Niger suffered food crises in 2005 and 2010 when failed harvests left millions of citizens desperately hungry. Erratic rains, pests and locusts destroyed entire harvests, leaving families with nothing to see them through this year's hungry season. Yeah, that's right... they call it their hungry season. Y' know, like we have swimsuit season.

With this new food crisis riding piggyback on the 2010 crises, few villages had time to harvest enough food to stock up. Many villages' harvests were completely decimated, while other villages fared slightly better. But, Niger isn't a country that counts on outside help. To the best of their ability and in the words of Bruce Springsteen, they take care of their own.

Brooks says:

It's the most impoverished place on earth and home to the most generous people I've ever met. When one village is out of food, its' citizens walk to neighboring villages. Invariably, if that neighbor has anything, even if they're running out themselves, they share it. It's inspiring.

In Niger wealth is measured in livestock. But when they can't be fed, they're butchered or sold to buy stored grain. When grain stores are depleted, villagers start walking in search of work or food. When neighboring villages are wiped out, they travel to neighboring countries, but when those countries are similarly suffering or are war, travel is too dangerous. That's when a country like Niger, (which still has a chance) turns into a nightmare like the Horn of Africa.

Niger provides an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and face the challenge of a starving nation effectively. With organizations like CARE, we can prevent children from becoming severely malnourished. What does CARE do?

CARE started a cash-for-work program in partnership with the World Food Programme, to help families buy food. They pay citizens to do jobs that improve their village's long-term infrastructure, like clearing pastureland of inedible weeds and planting them with edible crops.
They're raising funds to start an emergency food program for families like Dije's. They're providing cash transfers to keep villagers home with their families instead of traveling to countries where there's no hope for work and very heavy dangers. They're opening cereal banks to provide emergency food and help reduce soaring food prices.

What can you do?

Niger's crisis is barely on anyone's radar yet. Spread the word to your family, friends and social media contacts.

Call your representatives and insist they fully fund the foreign affairs budget for 2012/2013.

Yeah, I know... we're all scrimping these days, but America only spends 1 percent of our total budget on foreign affairs and those meager dollars are more effective when used for preventative than emergency measures. In fact, it takes $80 to treat a starving child, but only $1 to prevent starvation.

Support organizations like CARE who focus on women, girls, families and children as a way to reduce poverty in entire communities. Join the CARE Action Network and help mothers like Dije, babies like Abdulahadi and children who know what it really means to be hungry.