Famine debates are irrelevant to those starving in Kawa Fako

August 18, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y. - Talk about culture shock.

I'm writing this on the patio of a mansion, looking out at a swimming pool set in an expansive lawn kept green by automatic sprinklers and surrounded by hedgerows. Not far away, fields of corn stand high, others are rich with potatoes and all sorts of vegetables. There are vineyards and flowers. The sky is overcast, but it's still beautiful here. The only concern is that the sun may not get through for long enough to make a good beach day.

This time last week, I was in Kawa Fako, a village in the province of Dogondoutchi in Niger with a team of Americans and Nigeriens distributing food rations to the starving people of that community.

Two-thirds of the nearly 1,000 tons of millet, beans and cooking oil was delivered to people in the Nigerien province of Tannout. One-third was sent to Dogondoutchi.

There is a lot of debate about how bad conditions in Niger really are, whether it's technically correct to call the situation a famine, how much worse things are than the normal cycle of drought and starvation that Nigeriens experience every year.

The debate was irrelevant to Binta Amadou, 35, the mother of three, as she sat on the sandy ground in Kawa Fako, suckling her infant girl, Hayizu, and described the extraordinary hardship that she and her husband and their children have endured.

"There is no food left in the home and we have no money to buy anything," she said, speaking through an interpreter. "We had anza, but now there is no anza."

Anza is a bitter pea-sized berry that grows on desert bushes and tastes awful.

Then what? After the anza was gone, "we boiled leaves from trees, and weeds," she said, pointing to weeds sprouting from the rough ground.

Such has been the mainstay of the diet of the people of Kawa Fako. It's astonishing that they are even alive in this land that's been racked by a devastating plague of locusts last year and drought this year.

In pockets around the country, like Kawa Fako, tens of thousands are on the verge of starvation. Many of the children have the red-tinted hair, the listlessness and the vacant looks that signal acute hunger. In a "normal," year, UNICEF calculates, more than a quarter of Niger's children die before age 5. That's the second highest under-5 mortality rate in the world.

The ration Binta Amadou's family received last week is supposed to last for 40 days: 220 pounds of millet; 33 pounds of beans, about three gallons of cooking oil.

Later, a lesser ration will be distributed for the next month, the hope being that Nigeriens will be able to get their own food from the harvest which starts in early September. But that depends on the rain. In Kawa Fako, farmers coping with poor rainfall have planted four times. Binta Amadou said last week that it hadn't rained in the previous two weeks, a critical time for the fourth planting.

As I left Dogondoutchi Aug. 11, it looked as if it might rain. Here in Bridgehampton, it's been raining quite a bit, and the sprinklers still come on automatically.

Near the mansion here, there's a farm where a cock crows at sunrise, just as a cock's crow announces dawn in Dogondoutchi, a similarity that brings to mind John Donne (with apologies).

Each man's death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the cock crows,

It crows for thee - and me.

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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