In the first of three blogs, Jane Barrett meets the herders selling their animals to buy grain, and Oxfam’s partners working to support them, during the current West Africa food crisis.
The dirt road towards Dakoro is a rollercoaster ride. I meet two people from our partner, AREN in Maradi, the commercial capital of Niger, and we set off north for the pastoral region. Among other things, AREN distribute food and train pastoral groups in Niger. We pass herders with huge herds, mainly of goats or cattle. These, I’m told, are already sold and are being transported to Nigeria, a major buyer of Niger’s animals because they are of good stock and cheap at this time of year, when the herders don’t have enough to feed themselves, let alone their animals.
On our left we see a camp of nomadic herders. I approach carefully, as they tend to be shy. But this young mother of a boy and three girls, one of whom is a tiny baby, is forthright. Zainabu has come south from Amoules, about 80 kilometers north of Dakoro, in search of fodder for their animals (ten camels and six goats). Her husband is in town looking for work. They have had to sell many goats as there is no fodder. She and her family are planning to return to the north, which puzzles me, as there is even less fodder there. Later I’m told that there’s a reserve where herders often secretly take their animals to feed – at the risk of a huge fine.
We move on and pass a market, Sacabal, where Zainabu had sold her animals. The commercial traders, in their aviator sunglasses and slick tracksuits, are a stark contrast to the herders in their long cloaks and swathes of turban. Most of the animals are female – an indication that the herders are desperate to sell their animals, as they otherwise wouldn’t be selling their only reproductive capital. A member of our team, a vet we call “le docteur”, tells me that on a scale of 1 to 4 from weak/sick to strong/healthy, these animals rate a 1, as they are so emaciated.
As we drive further north, the landscape loses all its bush and becomes entirely sand. It’s hard for me to imagine that most years this is covered in fields of wheat and millet.
We arrive in Tacha Ibrahim just before sunset, with just enough time to set up camp. As night falls, I’m relieved by the cool breeze after the 44 °C we endured throughout the day, and I’m looking forward to sleeping under the stars.Children at the well in Tascha Ibrahim. Credit: Jane Barret/Oxfam
The next day we wake up to the call to prayer. Today, hundreds of herders from the nearby villages are expected to descend upon Tacha Ibrahim to buy wheat and millet that AREN is selling at subsidized prices.
After breakfast we walk to the well, which is a buzz of activity. Some herders have been here since four in the morning to get their turn feeding their animals. Donkeys pull the water up while the women and children scurry to fill their yellow jerry cans.
A consensus must be reached among the herders about how to proceed. A prior survey identified those that were vulnerable and needing these grains at a reduced price. Elders have been chosen to confirm that herders are who they claim to be as they’re called up from the list of those eligible. The herders agree that the sale must happen in a calm and ordered way so that no disrespect is brought upon the village. Some dare to express the hope that more grains might be made available next time, and there’s a broad nod of agreement.
The herders wait all day in the sweltering heat as one-by-one they’re called from the list to pay for their grain. Some particularly vulnerable people, such as a widow and a blind girl, have been chosen to receive the grain for free.
At nightfall our partner team finishes up and returns to the camp, where the villagers, full of gratitude, have produced an excellent meal.
View the audio slideshow: Food crisis in Niger