MAGARIA, 6 April 2011 (IRIN) - The evening meal will be stewed leaves tasting somewhat like spinach, which the women pick every morning, yet crops were standing tall before the leafhoppers few into Zinder in Niger and devoured anything green. The official response to a region on the edge of survival has been slow, but then the women went to see the Prefect.
It is after 6.30 in the evening in sandy and hot Dan Gouchy Haoussa, a village about a 1,000km east of Niamey, capital of Niger, and about 20km from the border with Nigeria. Nine children - the youngest about four years old and the oldest a teenager doing his homework - sit around a pot that Salamatou, one of their two mothers, has placed on the fire.
The stewed leaves of a wild bush called leptadenia hastate will be served when the tenth child, who is queuing at the only tap in the village, returns with water. It will be the family's first meal of the day.
More than 200,000 people in the district of Magaria have been living on meals like this for almost six months, but aid agencies warn that the worst is yet to come.
The traditional lean season, when farmers run out of previously harvested stocks of staple cereals like millet and sorghum, only starts in May, said Sylvain Musafiri, humanitarian officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
It will be some time before the rains come, new crops can be planted, then harvested, and there will be food again. Help will not be on the way anytime soon. Pleas for assistance, sent to Niamey by a variety of local authorities, have so far gone unanswered.
The national administration is in transition - a military junta-backed government makes way for an elected civilian government this week - but Musafiri said he was concerned that an adequate response by the authorities would take longer.
Mamamadou Baraze, governor of Zinder Region, where Magaria is located, told aid workers he feared the situation could get worse than the crisis in 2010 if help did not arrive in time.
How did Salamatou's family and the residents of Dan Gouchy Haoussa end up in this situation? IRIN found a chasm between the people of rural Niger and the policy-makers and implementers in Niamey, but also discovered a group of people led by women fighting enormous odds for the right to food.
There is a strong case for the incoming government to address the structural causes of food insecurity in Niger: a rapidly expanding population, lack of rural infrastructure and agricultural support to boost food production in a country increasingly affected by uncertain weather.
A recent food security conference in Niamey discussed the gap that needs to be bridged if the nation's development goals are to be achieved, but which keeps getting wider because the country constantly has to tackle emergencies.
Was it the rains?
Niger produces about four million tons of cereals, so it has to import about 20 percent of its cereal needs, 10 percent of which is brought in by traders and the remainder by aid agencies, said Prof Maxime Banoin, an agronomist.
Magaria district is a tiny green belt in the Zinder Region along Niger's border with Nigeria, where the people, mainly small-scale farmers, produce crops of millet and sorghum that account for most of the semi-arid region's cereal production when rain falls for the expected two-month period.
"In 2010, the rains were good our crops were going very well," said Abdou Gibada, the headman of Dan Gouchy Haoussa. The men in the villages constructed additional storage bins in anticipation of a bumper harvest.
Banoin noted that in 2010 the country had produced 500 million tons of cereals, including millet, sorghum and cowpeas - more than enough for its needs until the next harvest in 2011.
Gibada holds his composure as he talks about the misfortune that struck them in August 2010, when hordes of leafhoppers (of the family
cicadellidae) flew in and ate the standing crops in more than 300 villages across the district.
Nouri Habsou, the agricultural extension worker based in the neighbouring village of Dan Tchiou, had not seen crop destruction on this scale in more than 20 years of experience. "I was helpless; I had no pesticides to offer." She informed her superiors in Magaria town, who alerted Niamey.
Disbelieving authorities in the capital dismissed the calls for help. "They said this particular species of the insect, which usually attacks sorghum plants, is never known to have attacked millet," said Ahmadou Ama, head of agriculture in Magaria.
Months later, towards the end of 2010, an agriculture official turned up to make an assessment. "He was shocked by what he saw, and in subsequent investigations agriculture scientists in Niamey have offered us a possible explanation for the change in the behaviour of the insect," said Ama.
"They said the rains were unseasonably heavy, which led to a very good millet crop attracting the insects, who would have usually gone for the sorghum crops, which would normally have been standing then." The explanations made their way back to Magaria, but no aid.
Ayesha Yaou and the women
In the affected villages people had already eaten the previous harvest's reserves and started crossing the border to Nigeria in search of food. In October 2010 an assessment by local authorities found that more than 15 percent had fled with their families, and the household head of almost 50 percent of families had migrated.
By December all the able-bodied men in Dan Gouchy Haoussa had gone to Nigeria. The women, children and elderly, left behind, struggled on until February 2011.
"We just could not sit and wait to die, we had to get help," said Ayesha Yaou, 33, who has seven children. She decided to organize the women.
"Each family contributed 50 CFA [about US$0.11] towards the fare to hire a taxi to Magaria [town] to make representation to the Prefect [administrative head] of Magaria district." They warned him that mass migration might be imminent.
"We were moved by the plight - we calmed the people, tried to convince them not to leave,"´ said the Prefect, Inoussa Garba. "I then managed to get some rice, maize and millet for the people, but it was not enough."
In March 2011, Garba approached UN agencies and international and national NGOs working in the neighbouring town of Zinder for help. He said Care International, the aid NGO, would begin a cash-for-work programme in a few villages in April, and the World Food Programme (WFP) intended to start blanket feeding in the area but only in May, when the traditional lean season began.
Staple grains are readily available in the markets along the road between Magaria and Zinder, but few farmers have the money to buy. Most have eaten or sold their livestock, although some still have a few goats, chickens or ducks.
"A farmer will never eat his own livestock - only if it is killed during celebrations," said Hassia, who also lives in Dan Gouchy Haoussa, stirring her pot of stewed leaves. "We killed a goat last week but we gave a portion to all the families [500 people] in the village. None of us actually get enough to eat." The eggs from hens and ducks are sold.
The children in the village were healthy because the medical NGO, Médecins Sans Frontières-Switzerland, had been treating them, said Ayesha Yaou.
Olivier Bonnet, project manager of MSF-Switzerland in Magaria, said their organization, whose mandate was to respond to emergencies, had been forced into a developmental role because of a lack of resources at the local level and was providing some free essential medicines, and training personnel at primary healthcare centres.
Violent flare-ups linked to the upcoming elections in Nigeria forced some of the men to return at the beginning of April 2011, but they brought little or no money.
In Nigeria many saved rice or millet from their meals, or odd bits of food they received while begging. The food was dried in the sun and sent back to their families with returning Nigeriens. At home the dried food is soaked in water and cooked with the leaves.
"There is no charge for this service [carrying food]," said Zakaria Yaou, 25, who came back to his village, Kinoma, in the last week of March. "One day the carrier might need to ask me to take food for his family." He spent three months in Nigeria ferrying water in a cart, but managed to bring home only about 3,000 CFA (almost $7) for his five children and two wives.
A big family has its drawbacks - one with 12 members would need at least 1,000 CFA (about $2) worth of millet every day. "When my father was alive, the produce from the land was sufficient to feed all of us [including my two wives and five children], but when he died, the small patch of land I inherited was not adequate," said Yaou.
Sanousi Atta, a professor of agriculture who led discussions on food supply at the conference in Niamey, identified large families, which split the limited ancestral agricultural land into plots as small as two hectares, as the biggest obstacle to achieving food insecurity in Niger.
The villagers in Kinoma do not want to talk about family planning, but IRIN met a group of women from Yaouri Kaba, a village near Magaria town, who said their local primary health centre was offering information on contraception.
Ama, the head of agriculture in Magaria, said the rainy season was approaching and they needed a supply of seeds and fertilizer as incentives to make the demoralized men stay to plant for the next season, "otherwise we will enter a cycle of endless emergency".
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization said it intended distributing seeds ahead of the rainy season, which usually starts sometime in May or June.
Fertilizers are imported into the land-locked country mainly from Nigeria. The price of a 50kg bag used for growing millet is about 13,000 CFA ($30) and the ideal amount is about 100kg per hectare, but in Niger affordability limits the average application to just 2kg per hectare.
But for now, if anyone is listening, said Garba, the Prefect of Magaria, "We need food most urgently."
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