Swiss Interchurch Aid (HEKS), a member of the global alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, started responding to the crisis in April this year with emergency assistance. Called a "silent famine" by the United Nations, it has affected almost a third of the country's population.
The coordinator for HEKS/ACT in Niger, Bashir Barke Doka, says that for the last few months his agency has been assisting between 25 and 30 villages in Tahoua and North Maradi, the two regions where HEKS is operational through its local partners, reaching some 55,000 people. Plans are to extend the assistance gradually to cover 55 villages in the area.
In total in the country, some 3,800 villages out of 10,000 have been affected by the famine. Of these, 800 are located in the region where HEKS/ACT is responding.
"Part of the problem," according to Barke Doka, is that "people have become so hungry and malnourished over the last few months, that they no longer have the strength to work their land." He explains that the rainy season this year is good, and that people in the villages being assisted by HEKS/ACT are able to continue tilling their fields. "At least they have some strength."
Other difficulties also include the fact that working the land, traditionally a male task, has now fallen to the women in many instances, as so many men have gone to urban centres looking for work, desperate to earn something to support their families.
Yet, he adds, "there is a sense of solidarity amongst people. The people of the [some] 30 villages we are assisting with food are sharing it with people from another 80 villages. They share the little they have, but there is just not enough food for people."
Since June, Medecins Sans Frontier has reported admitting about 1,000 children a week at each of its five emergency feeding centres-many on the verge of starvation.
Barke Doka recounts meeting with one family of eight recently. "They only had enough food for one person (to eat) in 48 hours," he said. "People are trying to share what they have, but it's not enough."
What also concerns him is that "in spite of the good rainy season this year, people are so weak from being starved for so long, that they will not reap the benefits of the rains this year. Hopefully it will be better next year. But not now."
US-based ACT member Lutheran World Relief has been working, along with HEKS/ACT, in Niger for several years, and is in the process of joining ACT appeal AFNG51, which was issued a week ago, requesting $222,840 (US) from members of the faith-based alliance.
ACT Web Site address: http://www.act-intl.org
ACT is a global alliance of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide.
The ACT Coordinating Office is based with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Switzerland.