Niger is facing its worst food crisis in five years. World Vision’s Ann Birch gives a glimpse of Niger’s condition and what World Vision is doing to help. This account was written on 1 June on the road to a nutritional programme and health centre.
The last time I visited Koma Bangou, Niger, was two years ago. Back then, I thought it was one of the poorest and most desperate places I had ever seen.
Koma Bangou is a mining area — very hot, dry, and with poor access to drinking water. The community is made up of people who migrate from all over Niger and neighbouring countries.
They are desperately poor, trying to make a living from what is, in effect, a non-productive mine. I am glad for the opportunity to go back to Koma Bangou, but very nervous at the same time. I am worried about what we will find, given the current drought and food crisis.
‘In Africa, everyone is looking to the sky’
On the road to Koma Bangou, all the earth is orange — a really deep terracotta orange. The trees are very sparse, and as we get closer to Koma Bangou, the orange, sandy earth gives way to very rocky soil.
I remember a conversation I had with a colleague, Moussa, the day before. He told me that it has only rained two or three times so far this rainy season. Normally, it should start to rain in late April and continue through to September. On hearing this, my heart sinks.
This isn’t just about communities trying to make it through the annual “lean season,” which are typically the months running up to the October harvest. It could mean that even this year’s planting and upcoming harvests are at risk. It’s not what I wanted to hear.
We drive by another river bed; this time, there is a small amount of water in it. Others are completely dry. We pass two Fulani herders, and the angular bones of their skinny cattle stick out.
Again, I think of a conversation from the day before. “In Africa, everyone is looking to the sky,” someone had said to me. “Communities do not understand the rain patterns anymore.”
How can they, I wonder, given the changes in seasonal rainfall?
Help for the hungry
We arrive at the healthcare centre in Koma Bangou; it’s time to start working. The community volunteers and health workers trained by World Vision were in full swing when we arrived, already weighing and assessing the children and babies for malnutrition.
I start to photograph the babies, and I feel my stomach turn over every time I hold the camera up and see another skinny body in front of me. It seems like baby after baby is suffering from severe malnutrition.
The day we spent in Koma Bangou, 13 new cases of acute severe malnutrition were identified – bringing the current total of severe cases in this one healthcare centre to 53 in just three weeks. I am told by health staff at the centre that last year, there were just 22 severe malnutrition cases for the entire year. The comparison is startling.