Monday, August 01, 2005

[Africa] Food crisis worsens poverty trap in Niger

August 01 2005 at 08:46AM

By Francis Temman

Katan Bague, Niger - Forced to migrate to the cities, sell their livestock, gather roots, berries and insects to survive, the villagers of Katan Bague in southern Niger are bearing the brunt of the hunger crisis threatening the vast West African state.

"We have nothing left. We have sold everything, the cows, even the chickens," said Yahou, 20, a young farmer, his "daba", or hoe, hooked over one shoulder as he trudged back from a day's work in the millet fields.

Labouring all day on an empty stomach, with nothing but water to sustain him, he had eaten nothing since a meagre crust of bread the previous night.

Yahou recently returned to Katan Bague - in the heart of the south-central region worst hit by Niger's food crisis - from neighbouring Nigeria, where he spent part of the year working as a shoe-shiner to help feed his family.

The annual exodus of men from rural areas to the cities and over the border has become part of the survival pattern in Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, which is prey to encroaching deserts and unreliable harvests.

Typically, young men return for the harvest season, from July to September.

But a severe drought and a plague of locusts have dealt a heavy blow to a country that struggles to feed itself at the best of times - creating a food crisis that threatens to engulf a third of the population of 12 million.

In droves, men left the countryside for the "kara kara", the squalid shantytowns that surround Niger's large cities, or further afield to Nigeria or Libya, in search of jobs.

"By December, people were already short of food," Jacques Becuwe, a specialist in Niger at Paris's Jussieu university, told AFP.

"Hunger began to hit hard in February. Whole villages were deserted. The men left, leaving only women and children."

"Everyone knew this year was going to be very hard, so people left early," agreed Najim Boucli, the Touareg prefect of Dakoro, around 130km from the south-eastern city of Maradi.

Many of those who remained have been forced to sell off their belongings, losing the little capital that they had and sinking deeper into poverty.

"People's purchasing power has declined so much that they cannot buy millet anymore. They have sold their livestock, worked in the fields. Some have resorted to gathering plants, berries - even termite grubs," said Boucli.

In remote villages, where adults barely survive on one meal a day, hunger claims a daily toll of young lives - children under five who die from hunger and malnutrition-related diseases, deaths often unrecorded by the authorities.

In the southern village of Mailafia, seated in the shade outside his home, chief Ali Boube stared blankly ahead, bowed down by the weight of misfortune.

"Kadane, Kadane," he answered, when asked if he has had anything to eat, meaning "A little."

"We get by," he said. "We go to other people's places to grow some crops to eat, we make do by eating grasses."

Even in the cities, times are exceptionally difficult, with jobs hard to come by.

Amadou Yero, a 61-year-old father of 12, from Maradi, had to go without food for two days the previous week - but on Monday he wore a broad grin of relief, having just landed a job as a truck driver for a humanitarian aid company.