5 August 2005
"It's a great start, I'm really excited," says Mija Ververs, a nutritionist from Red Cross headquarters in Geneva. Mija is overseeing the distribution in the small town of Bambeye in Tahoua province, about 550 km northeast of the capital Niamey.
With logistical backing from the British Red Cross, it is the first installment in a co-ordinated and rapid emergency response to the Niger food crisis. Aside from the British, it gathers delegates from the French and Spanish Red Cross Societies, colleagues from the Niger National Society, as well as nutritionists and doctors from Geneva.
Over recent days, Mija and her team have been training local volunteers and Niger health ministry nurses to handle the delicate process of food distribution in this hunger-stricken region, one of the country's worst affected.
"It's all been theory for them up until now, now they start in practice," she says, as mothers and their children line up in the compound of the local health clinic. Today they are receiving rations of Unimix, an enriched flour combined with oil which is made into a life-saving porridge.
For Salifou Sabit, one of the Bambeye commune elders, the distribution is a life-line to a frantic population.
"We really appreciate this help, the children are suffering greatly," says Salifou, 70. "The people do not have enough money and the prices of grain are so much higher than last year. If it continues like this, we will start dying."
The hideous irony of Niger's crisis is that there are food stocks available. This is not a famine in the technical sense. Even in Bambeye, some local traders are selling millet and meat. But the stocks are small, and they are expensive.
Exorbitant price rises following last year's early end to the rainy season have pushed a staple diet far beyond the household budgets of hundreds of thousands of people. The cost of a small bowl of millet on the local market has gone up from 400 CFA (60 US cents) last year to 1,000 CFA; not much by Western standards, but drastic and prohibitive for many Nigeriens.
There may be a good harvest this year, the rainy season has started well and many crops are growing. But they will be of no use to those who could not afford to plant in the first place. Any interruption in the rains would be universally catastrophic.
In Bambeye, it is not hard to find the people who have fallen through the cracks. Bouli Oumarou, 90, sits in the doorway of her small house with her granddaughter Hassana. For this family, it could hardly be worse.
Hassana's father is crippled so cannot work in the fields. He travels the region on his donkey, begging for handouts. Hassana's mother tries to work their plot of land, but she has difficulty walking having injured her leg in a fall a few years ago. She is also pregnant.
"There has been no hope for us," says Bouli, cradling Hassana, who is clearly malnourished. She stares listlessly into space, breathing heavily through what sounds like a severe respiratory tract infection. Bouli says they get something to eat every three or four days. Even then, it is impossibly inadequate.
If Hassana is diagnosed as an acute case, she will receive therapeutic treatment at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) centre, also in Bambeye. If she has yet to enter the critical phase, she will receive all the supplementary nutrition she needs from the Red Cross. Either way, help is at hand.
The main thrust of Red Cross distributions - 138 tonnes of Unimix for the first month - is to begin towards the end of this week, targeting some 23,000 vulnerable children in four provinces in Niger. These will combine with general distributions of family rations from the World Food Programme (WFP).
Not everyone in Bambeye will have received a ration from the first distribution. The rest will be taken care of soon. But there are sick, hungry and frightened children who will be eating tonight; and many more to come.
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