Facing Hunger Crisis in West Africa, Families Pick Leaves, Berries to Survive

On approach, the tiny village of Goubeyday looks like a typical rural African village.  But immediately after we get out of the four-wheel-drive vehicles that carried us here for hours over sandy, unmarked roads, it is clear something about this village is very different.  There are few animals roaming around, most cooking pots outside thatched roof huts sit cold, and not even the children are playful.

"It's too quiet here," whispered World Food Programme Niger Country Director Denise Brown.  "African villages are supposed to have noise. It bothers me because it means there's a lack of dynamism, lack of movement, lack of life in this village."

The fields around Goubeyday, Niger, are parched.  When the rains refused to fall at this time last year, crops failed.  With four months left to go before the next possible harvest, the village granaries are already empty.  The people in the village usually spend the vast majority of their meager incomes on food, so they don't have enough money to compensate for the drastic increase in food prices at the market.

A mother named Mariama shows us the only food she has to cook for her family is leaves she goes out to pick from trees.  Another woman shows us her only meal is made of wild berries so bitter and hard to digest she calls them "poison."

"We need to get to these people," said Brown.  "I don't think any of us can accept that this mother has to go and pick wild food for her children to eat, and if she doesn't go and do it every day then they don't have anything to eat."

Brown said the World Food Programme has not yet been able to provide aid to the people of Goubeyday because of a lack of funding for the food crisis that is now peaking in this region of West Africa.  According to the United Nations, at least 15 million people in the Sahel region just south of the Sahara desert are affected.  Eight million are at serious risk of running out of food before the next harvest, and a million children's lives could be threatened by severe malnutrition.

Disaster declarations have been declared in seven of the eight affected countries.  Niger is the hardest-hit country-home to about half of the more than 8 million people WFP would like to help.  The impoverished country is still recovering from a drought less than two years ago.  It is one of the world's least-developed countries, and because of this new drought it recently replaced Afghanistan as the "worst place in the world to be a mother" according to an annual statistical analysis by Save the Children.

In Niger and across the Sahel, the world's largest aid agencies- including WFP, Oxfam, UNICEF, Save the Children, and World Vision- have seen this crisis coming for months.  By appealing for help early, they hoped to apply lessons learned from last year's late response to the famine in the Horn of Africa to keep this crisis from becoming another catastrophe.  But fewer donors have responded, and most aid groups have raised less than half of the funds needed for their planned response.

Brown said the supplies of emergency food and nutritional supplements that have been moved into place in the affected parts of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal will run out before the next possible harvest in October.  The demand for emergency help is rising quickly.   At rural health clinics, the lines of women carrying their thin, young children in for treatment are getting longer each day, and health workers are seeing more severe cases of malnutrition.

In addition to nursing mothers and children under 2, the most vulnerable to the food crisis in West Africa are pastoralists.  Many of them are nomads who roam to find pasture and water for their cattle.  Both are getting harder to find.

"This is big, difficult situation.  Pastoralists must now sell many animals just to be able to buy a little cereal to survive," said Hassane Baka of the AREN cattle breeders association based in the city of Maradi.  AREN is partnering with Oxfam to provide emergency cattle feed in Niger.

"We are working too hard, walking too far," said Amadou Damana as he worked with his family to draw water from a well in the district of Bermo.  Damana said his cattle need water every day to stay healthy, but now he is barely able to give them water every other day because he has to walk them so far from the well to find land where they can graze.

At a nearby livestock market, we find extremely thin bulls and sheep waiting to be sold.  Trader Jodi Makau says the price for grain is so high, an animal sold this year can buy only half as much as last year.  He tells us it is a bad time for breeders to sell, but many are so desperate to buy food and animal feed they have no choice.

Mariama's three children are too thin, but there isn't much else she can do to help them.  Because her own diet is so limited, she says she is having trouble producing enough milk to nurse her youngest son. 6-month-old Kader is wrapped in beaded cords of traditional charms which Mariama hopes will protect him from the common illnesses like diarrhea and fever that kill 1 of every 7 young children in Niger, especially those without enough to eat.

"That means she cares. I think we have to keep in mind these women, these mothers, they're like you, they're like me. There's no difference. They have a child. They love that child. They will do what they can to protect that child," said Brown.  "These women, these children, they deserve our attention."