In a land of starvation, mere hunger overlooked

August 09, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

ANGOUAL KWARA DOUBALMA, Niger - Na Mailaya Barke, the chief of this village of about 215 families, is 60 years old, a citizen of one of the poorest nations in the world, plagued by persistent pestilence and drought.

He has two wives and 13 children. Three other children died, one at age 7, from measles, another at 3 from meningitis, and the third shortly after birth, of undetermined causes.

The world has been focused on Niger lately because people are starving here. They are starving because their crops and what has been sent to them so far by the international aid community have not been enough to feed them. They have had bad harvests, and last year, a plague of locusts swept through parts of Niger and chewed up everything in their path.

The locusts did not hit here. Angoual Kwara Doubalma is better off than many of the pockets of Niger where people are dying from a lack of food and from diseases that accompany abiding vulnerability - sicknesses such as diarrhea that drain frail bodies of all fluids.

Some of the children in the village clearly are malnourished. You can tell from the red tint in their hair, the protruding little bellies, the listlessness and vacant looks in their eyes.

Holding such a child next to him as he tells of life in the village, Na Mailaya Barke says the government decides which communities are in sufficient need of food to receive rations. The lists are given to the international aid agencies that will deliver food and other goods to the villages on the government list.

Holding the little boy, Zachary Chekarou, who is 6, the chief says he went to see the authorities. Speaking through a translator, he says, "I told them we do not have enough food. They said it was not bad enough."

What that means is that they'll get to the village later, after the communities in the direst need are served. Those communities must be attended to first. There have been delays in getting assistance to even the most devastatingly stricken communities.

Yes, they have something to eat here in the worst of times. Villagers bring a bowl full of what looks like dried peas for the visitors to see. "Anza," they say, laughing, offering a taste.

The little pea-like things grow on bushes in the barren red sand and clay land beyond the village. They are so bitter that they are soaked in water for five days before anyone tries to do anything with them. And even then they are bitter. This is what helps to sustain the villagers when the crops fail, or between crops, when the harvest has run out.

The little pea's bitter taste has become a metaphor for the lives of the people here.

Everything is relative. And every place has its different problems. No place in this land is without them.

The really big problem in Angoual Kwara Doubalma is not always a lack of water. Sometimes it's too much. In what looks like a dry riverbed, coming from the red earth mesas that rise hundreds of feet above the village, the chief points to the destruction caused by the torrents of water that rush through the community from the high ground when it does rain.

The rushing water destroys fields. It destroys mud huts. It has even gnawed into the village cemetery, taking the bones of ancestors in its wake.

Last year, 30 family plots were destroyed - fields of millet, vegetables, groundnuts. The chief calculates the production lost equaled 57 tons - enough to feed more than 200 people for a whole year.

The village needs dams to protect it from the fatal floods. It isn't just food that's needed here. It's money for things such as those dams, the development of better and more-resistant crops, better farming methods, better hygiene, better water.

It's the sort of development need that arouses less attention and less passion and thus gets less money. But it's what helps to prevent the real disasters in the long run.

The idea is to help make sure that places such as Angoual Kwara Doubalma don't make the top of that most-needy list.

G. Jefferson Price III was a foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun. He has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services.

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