WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin (second right) and UN Higher Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres (centre) join a line of women who are shifting rocks as part of project to build a dam. In the future, this will will help store rainwater and facilitate irrigation.
(Copyright: WFP/Rein Skullerud)
One month after arriving at WFP, Executive Director Ertharin Cousin was out in the field in the west African nation of Niger, one of the countries most affected by the drought in the Sahel region. After the first day of her field trip, in which she traveled with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, the WFP chief sent back this account of her experiences.
NIAMEY -- One month ago, during my first week in office as WFP's Executive Director, I began convening daily operational briefings. Since then, each and every briefing has included fresh and ever more disturbing details of the tragedy unfolding across Africa's Sahel region. Now, visiting Niger, I am witnessing first hand the human consequences of this complicated complex crisis.
Niger's hungry poor, like others across the Sahel affected by last season's failed harvest, are facing food shortages and high food prices. The situation is compounded by an influx of refugees fleeing neighboring northern Mali's evolving armed conflict. To make matters worse, because of last year's Arab Spring Niger's men find no jobs in Libya, which means no remittances for the women and children left at home alone. Women and children across this hot dry land cannot access enough food to eat.
On our first day out, we drive for over an hour from our hotel in Niamey towards Ouallam. There’s red sand with scattered brown trees...as far as the eye can see.
We stop at the village of Tokolbey. Here WFP is providing nutritional support for about 3,500 babies and their mothers. They are just some of the 39,000 children we are assisting in the Ouallam area, where malnutrition rates hover at the emergency level of 10-14 percent. The mothers line up in the hot sun with crying babies on their backs. Their smiles hide their worry.
Breastfeeding mothers are given a product called ‘Super Cereal’. A micro-nutrient rich corn-based blend, in these situations it is often the only tool available to ensure a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. The staff show the women how to mix the cereal with water over a hot fire to make a yellow soup.
I'm told by our very able Country Director Denise Brown, "It’s very hard to get hold of this Super Cereal. It’s produced in places far from Niger and can take up to four months to arrive in villages like Tolkoboye". Life -saving! But there must be an easier way?
Talking to the women here, they don't complain, they are strong and hopeful. They tell me the problem is the lack of rain, food and drinking water. They have walked from Tokoba village, many miles away.
I meet a wonderful mother here named Hawa (see photo right). She has nine children but has brought only one baby with her to Ouallam. Hawa explains that when the women here can’t find anything to eat, they leave and go to Niamey to look for work and food. Hawa tells me she can sometimes can make 500 Niger francs a day (just over 1 US dollar)
Women at work
Our next stop along the banks of dry river bed where the colourful robes of a row of women lined up against the red sand is a welcome sight. As we draw close, we see them handing rocks, one to the other, all the way down the line. They’re building a dam that after sifting the sand will contain the water that comes gushing down in the spring. This dam will last for 10 years, according to the governor traveling with us. The government has provided the technical support and project monitoring while WFP has provided the women with food and cash to perform this work.
I had a chance to talk to one of the women and to ask what this programme means to her. “We've been given food. Oil, beans, millet and salt at the beginning. Then, we got corn and oil. It helped us a lot because the harvest wasn’t good this year. It meant we could eat! We are still alive. Please don’t stop!”
I ask what they would do if there was no work. She says they would move on and look for food. But the children? “We'll take them with us. If they’re in school, we'll take them out.”
Despite the tough times, these women understand the work they are doing is changing their lives. With the dam they are building they’ll be able to store water. Then, next year, they can do more crop irrigation. I ask them what else they need. The answer was simple: 'Seeds!'
Berries and leaves
Our next stop is a place called Tougfini where WFP has no programmes at the moment. Here, like many poor communities across Niger, women and their children are often left alone. Even after a good harvest, their husbands must find work. I met a woman here whose husband left seven months ago. The bad harvest forced him to look for work in the Ivory Coast even earlier than usual.
The problem is not just how long he's been gone. The real tragedy is that her husband is not sending money home. She’s doing everything she can but she’s struggling to feed her family. Now there is nothing left. She gathers wild leaves from the trees around the village. It takes her all day to find enough leaves for the family. She then boils the leaves for six hours in plain water. They are boiled for these long hours before they’re edible and even then they are bitter to eat.
Next I meet a mother called Myouna, who is 32 years old. She shows us a small tin can of yellow berries. She said these otherwise toxic berries require cleaning and boiling six or seven times-changing the water between each boil. She feeds this poison to her children because there is simply no other choice! It's her attempt at diet diversity: wild leaves one day, potentially toxic berries the next!
Myouna invites me into her home and, as I peer into her dark mud hut, I see eight pairs of eyes looking at me. She has four children of her own, but because her brother also went to find work she now also cares for his children. Do your children get sick? I ask her. Yes, she says, they have stomach pains. How many times a day they eat? Morning and evening. Do you have anything to sell to buy food? No.
No one should have to live like this, it's just unacceptable.
Refugees from Mali
Our next stop is the Menghaize refugee camp close to the Malian border. I'm lucky to be shown around the camp by my friend and colleague the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, who's excited that we are visiting this refugee camp together. He and I sit together under a makeshift covering to talk to an elderly woman with her grandson.
She has come from Mali and tells us, "everybody wants to leave Mali". Like many others, she and her children fled their homes to the sound of gun shots, leaving everything. Yes, they now receive food and shelter, but most importantly they feel safe. This, money can't buy.
As we leave her small 'home' another bus load of women and arrive looking for this same safety!.
It's been a long day, so much to take in. As we head back I have mixed feelings. Sadness as well as hope.
Lets see what tomorrow brings.
(All photos by Rein Skullerud for WFP except last by Rebecca Richards)