A Village In Niger Faces Famine
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Food aid is beginning to reach many parts of Niger, where millions of people are still going hungry. The international response to the food crisis in this West African desert nation was slow, despite early appeals from the Niger government and the United Nations. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports that the emergency humanitarian operation has now moved into overdrive.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:
Aid workers talking through loudspeakers implore dozens of women surging forward to move back into the shade, but they continue trying to bust through a human barrier, almost causing a stampede in sandy Suffel Village(ph) in southern Niger.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Mr. KRISTOF REVERE(ph) (Medecins Sans Frontieres): (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: An exasperated Kristof Revere, a logistician from MSF, Doctors Without Borders, calls on the women to get in line as he tries to put some order in the unruly crowd. And all of this commotion because villagers from Suffel thought they were getting food, but MSF is supervising an emergency mobile screening unit to identify children at risk of starvation. Salal Alkakalay(ph), the mayor of Suffel, says his people are desperate.
Mr. SALAL ALKAKALAY (Mayor, Suffel): (Through Translator) When it comes to food these days, everyone's gone a bit crazy, because they're hungry. Hunger has made these women misbehave. Someone told them if they came here they'd be given wheat, millet, corn, flour and oil.
QUIST-ARCTON: Suffel and neighboring hamlets make up a typical rural commune here in Niger of 60,000 people located 450 miles southeast of the capital, Niamey. At his wit's end, the mayor tries to calm the mass of women in rainbow-colored scarfs protecting their babies from the scorching sun.
Ms. SALAT ERRO(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Salat Erro has made it through the barriers cradling Omirra, her stick-thin, 11-month-old baby girl, latched onto her mother's empty breast. Omirra receives a specially mixed enriched formula to build her strength. More international aid has now reached Niger to help feed up to a third of the population of 11 million. Karim Adibadji of UNICEF says the case of Niger need never have become an emergency if the world had listened and acted.
Mr. KARIM ADIBADJI (UNICEF): I would say our big frustration that the international community knew of this situation a long time in advance. The international community knew that there was a crisis ongoing in Niger, and all the delay in the reaction is now what we are paying in term of children dying for starvation.
QUIST-ARCTON: Poor rains, drought, an invasion of desert locusts and a bad harvest last year have brought millions of people in Niger to the brink of starvation. UN and government appeals for funds to pre-empt the crisis went virtually unanswered for months. Now Nigerians are finally receiving food aid. And as she weighs underfed babies at Suffel Village in the south, nutritional assistant Kalama Ishetu Boulama(ph) says it's pitiful to watch them suffering.
Ms. KALAMA ISHETU BOULAMA (Nutritional Assistant): (Through Translator) Look at all these malnourished children. Really, people should take pity on them and take pity on Niger because we're really suffering here.
QUIST-ARCTON: Ishetu Boulama and relief workers with other aid agencies are relieved to see that overseas help has finally arrived, but they warn that the worst is not yet over for Niger.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Suffel Village, southern Niger.
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.