Niger's Nomads Feeling Brunt of Drought, Famine

Famine in the western African nation of Niger is severely affecting the country's nomadic tribes. The nomads have lost fewer children to starvation than some villagers, but the effect of the severe drought on their livestock has been devastating.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now from the Middle East to Africa. The nomads of Niger have not escaped the hunger crisis that has hit that West African nation. Up to a third of Niger's population remains nomadic; most are traditional cattle herdsmen. NPR's Ofeibia Quist-Arcton reports.

(Soundbite of a camel braying)

OFEIBIA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

A camel is a nomad's best friend in the desert, or so say Niger's Tuareg and Pul, or Fulani herdsmen who roam across sandy Sahara dunes to find pasture for their livestock; cows, sheep and goats. But food shortages in Niger have curtailed their wandering this year. Amadu Mamam Duchi(ph) is a Dorobo Per(ph) leader and chairman of a local association of herders and farmers based in Dakaro, an arid central region of Niger. He outlined some of their problems.

Mr. AMADU MAMAM DUCHI (Dorobo Per Leader): Really, honestly speaking, the situation is worse, specifically for nomads, because nomads are just facing two problems because them themselves as human being, they are facing the crisis and their animals are facing the crisis, too. So the nomads are living two crisis.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

QUIST-ARCTON: Further east of Dakaro at the nomadic settlement of Zurare(ph), Amadu Abu(ph) lamented as he looked back at the reasons behind the current hardship: drought, poor rains and an invasion of locusts in Niger last year.

Mr. AMADU ABU: (Through Translator) The locusts arrived right at the moment we were preparing the harvest at the end of September. They destroyed everything, gobbled up everything. We'd never seen anything like it before. They came from the north, out of the blue. One fine morning, a mighty yellow cloud of locusts just descended on us. They obliterated everything. You couldn't see a thing. They were everywhere, in the grass, in the trees, on the ground, everywhere.

QUIST-ARCTON: Vegetation is sparse in Zurare, but the Tuareg and Fulani Pul nomads have planted millet and sorghum nearby as a buffer against another bad year.

Among the women and children in this group, you don't see pin-thin babies, evidence of severe malnutrition and starvation, as you see in many other parts of Niger. `We humans are going hungry, but we've just about survived,' says Amadu Abu, adding that their livestock, their livelihood, fared much worse.

Mr. ABU: (Through Translator) I've been lucky. My camels didn't perish, but the cattle really suffered and those who had sheep and goats. But especially, the cow herders have lost almost all their animals to starvation.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Turbaned, nomadic herdsmen and eagle-eyed women in brightly colored cloths watch over food distribution in Zurare by the charity Oxfam. In consultation with the nomads themselves, Oxfam is running a voucher-payment-for-work scheme in this area. Spokesman Louis Belanger says it's to give the nomads back some dignity during this hunger crisis. And Oxfam's buying some of their cattle. Belanger said that the average cow used to sell for $120, but the market's now flooded and prices have plummeted. With cows going for as little as $10, Oxfam is paying 80 to $90 a head.

Mr. LOUIS BELANGER (Spokesman, Oxfam): For herdsmen, it's heartbreaking. Very often, they grow very little or nothing, and their herd, their animal--cows, bull, sheeps, etc.--it's their life. For an American person, it's his insurance policy. It's his mortgage; it's his bank account. So if you lose that, you've got nothing. So these people have, you know--are in a terrible situation right now.

QUIST-ARCTON: So far more then 10,000 nomads have benefited from Oxfam's community work-for-food program, but it can be personally painful for the nomads, who have to clear the wave of corpses of their precious animals that starved to death. Despair led one herdsman to kill himself by diving into a well, we're told; another slit his throat.

(Soundbite of children playing)

Group of Children: (Singing in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: These children in Zurare still have enough energy to play, but their parents know that youngsters in other nomadic communities have perished from hunger, and they're praying for continued good rains in Niger until harvest time so that both they and their animals will have food to eat. Ofeibia Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

(Soundbite of children playing; clapping)

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