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March 25, 2010

People in Niger Heading Toward Capital in Search of Food

Relief officials say nearly 60 percent of families in Niger are facing food shortages because of poor rains. Some people are now leaving their villages, heading toward the capital in search of food.

In the village of Begorou Tondo, people are loading their possessions on to donkey carts for the 100-kilometer walk to the capital looking for food.

This young woman says there is simply nothing left to eat at home.

She says her family has no choice but to eat the leaves of plants growing on the side of the road, because there is nothing left to eat. They have no food, she says, and her parents have not received help from anyone.

Village chief Nouhou Senou says poor rains ruined this year's crops.

Senou says this year, people in Begorou Tondo harvested nothing, so they all have to rely on God. The village has big problems, he says, the famine is really here.

Last year's poor rains are also hurting people who live off cattle. Prime Minister Mahamadou Danda says livestock production is down 16 million tons because of a shortage of grazing. Cereal production for animals is 13 percent lower than 2008.

Cattle herder El Hadj Abdoulaye Saleh says people have no choice but to sell off livestock they can no longer feed.

Saleh says everything relies on rain. Shepherds do not want to get rid of their cattle but they have to. It is not because they want to.

The United Nations says at least 200,000 children in Niger face severe acute malnutrition requiring hospital treatment. Niger's government says more than 45,000 cases were recorded by the middle of March. That is double last year's figure.

Dr. Hamidou Hamadou is chief of epidemiology at Tera Hospital. He says they are averaging about 20 cases of severe acute malnutrition each week.

Niger needs $123 million in international assistance to meet food shortages. The country's new military rulers have spoken publicly about the risk of famine since taking charge in a coup last month. That is a clear break from the approach of former president Mamadou Tandja.

But the instability that food shortages can bring in any society could disrupt Niger's plans for new elections once politicians agree on a new constitution to replace laws President Tandja used to give himself another three years in office.

Across the Sahel, the United Nations estimates that poor farmers in Niger, Chad, and northeastern Mali will likely need food assistance at least through the early harvests in August.