A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Read the first part: Kirsty Hughes' impressions from the capital Niamey, talks with an official in the town of Ouallam, and the ironic effects of rain in the village of Tondi Kiwindi.
We drive across the desert to a smaller village called Ko Kaina. The situation we find here is utterly desperate – the villagers talk to us of famine and question whether they can survive to the autumn.
We sit with four women who tell us they have nothing left to eat at all. They say that this year is especially bad – last year at least the animals had enough to eat, but now the cows and goats are dead or dying. And in hard times, their tradition is to share, so your neighbor helps you out – but now no one has anything to share. “Everyone is down, down, down,” they say. “Our stomachs are empty.”
Their last source of food is a small, hard round green pea with a bitter taste, called “Anza”. They eat these when there’s nothing else left to eat. They set out from the village at 5am and walk miles to collect the small hard peas. They make me taste one to see how bitter and sour it is and the unpleasant taste stays in my mouth for an hour. The peas first need drying in the sun, then soaking several times in water before they become at all possible to digest. They show us their only other food – a small bowl of cooked leaves from small trees that grow in the dry desert earth nearer to the village. A woman puts a small amount in her mouth and mimics being sick, to show me how ill and malnourished they are on this diet.
We are stared at from a distance by a group of children, a little curious but mostly listless, weak, thin and desperate-looking. They seem to hope we might be bringing them something but see that we are only talking. The women understand we are here to listen and take their story to the outside world, but for desperate children that is too hard and indirect to understand. Our local partners are now assessing these villages, so we hope our aid will start to support them soon – without that, their diet will remain hard sour peas and leaves for months to come.
“We are weak and dying like our animals”
The women explain that their animals have been weak and dying for months now. The ones that are left are too thin to eat or can make them ill, and they no longer produce milk. The women say that, a few days ago, they killed one weak calf before it died in order to eat it – but four children became ill from eating the meat and had to be taken to a larger village nearby for medical attention, costing money they don’t have – money that had to be borrowed bit by bit from neighbors, leaving them in debt as well.
They and the men are so weak, the women explain to us, that after a few minutes working in the fields – vital work – they are already too tired to keep going. The poorest, who have nothing, sometimes offer their labor at pitiful rates to others to help with their fields to give them some money to buy some rice – but then if two members of a family do this, leaving only a third to work on their own plot, they can’t do what they need in their own fields, and so the problems grow. If they have any money, they say, then they buy what should be one meal and try to make it last a week. In the nearby town we’re told that about $1 will buy enough rice for a family of seven for a day. What these people need to survive is so little but they don’t have it.
“We are weak and dying like our animals” they tell us. “If it goes on like this, some of us will die and some God will keep alive until the next harvest.”
We say goodbye and drive the two hours back to Niamey – to the capital where there is food, just two hours from these people who are starving. We can help this village, but there are hundreds of thousands of people needing help and needing it now – and that means help from many organizations and governments, not just one.
And that is the message we will do our best to take back urgently and repeatedly from these small villages to London, New York, Paris and all the other capitals where governments and the UN and big international aid agencies can and must act now to end this desperate crisis.
More information: West Africa Food Crisis