Annan to Survey Niger's Hunger Crisis

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U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is scheduled to visit Niger next week to survey the impact of the regional hunger crisis. Drought and swarms of crop-eating locusts have left many people and their livestock in West Africa desperate for food.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan plans to visit Niger next week to assess the hunger crisis in West Africa. This is an area called the Sahel, the southern Sahara region. Children, women and livestock suffer most from drought and a plague of locusts. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports that Niger's neighbors, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali, are also struggling.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

Choose virtually any country in West Africa's Sahara Desert zone and farming techniques are the same: rudimentary. For centuries, a pick and a hoe have been the main tools used to till the land. Mali is no exception.

Ms. KUNI BAGARA: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Greeting visitors and tending the crops on her farmland in Firma(ph), the main agricultural zone outside Mali's capital, Bamako, Kuni Bagara says she's praying for rain.

Ms. BAGARA: (Through Translator) Last year, it hardly rained again, which was a disaster for our cotton harvest and our crops. And then the locusts landed. We didn't produce enough cotton or cereal grains, and everyone's going hungry now. It has really had an impact on all our households in the rural areas of Mali. We're just getting by and waiting for a good harvest, we hope.

QUIST-ARCTON: It's the same story wherever you travel in the Sahel. Across the border from Mali in Niger, the country worst hit by the current food crisis, like Kuni Bagara, farmers are finding it tough. Aside from poverty, among their main problems are arid land and the climate. Drought and erratic rainfall making most small-scale farmers almost entirely dependent on the elements. So patchy rain or a locust invasion like last year and they're in trouble. Marcus Prior is the regional spokesman in West Africa, United Nations World Food Program.

Mr. MARCUS PRIOR (Spokesman, United Nations World Food Program): I have seen for myself the incredibly really primitive state of agriculture. People do look to the skies and hope that the rain falls for what they need next year. And yet, you look around and you see almost no irrigation, certainly very little use of fertilizers. A plow is probably as technologically advanced as most farmers get.

QUIST-ARCTON: So, says Prior, once the hunger emergency is over and counting on a good regional harvest in the Sahel this year, attention must shift to long-term agricultural solutions for this area of West Africa.

Mr. PRIOR: This year the focus has fallen on Niger, and this is a particularly bad year, but really every year in this part of the world. It's quite plain to me that a few fairly basic agricultural inputs and the sensible use of appropriate technology would make a huge impact to provide Nigerians, provide Malians, provide Mauritanians with the kind of inputs they need so that they don't find themselves in this kind of situation every year.

QUIST-ARCTON: That makes sense to Hali Mamusa(ph), who's come with her hungry three-week-old baby girl from Wazoo(ph), a village in southern Niger. Madame Mamusa herself is going hungry and has no milk to breast-feed Bara Attu(ph), who's been drinking a little goat's milk. Her mother has heard that the Catholic charity Caritas is distributing subsidized food in nearby Koumboula village.

Ms. HALI MAMUSA: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Hali Mamusa's is a story that has--it goes all over the Sahel, women who work hard in the field and in the home, pounding millet, cooking and looking after the family while hunting for food.

(Soundbite of food distribution activity)

QUIST-ARCTON: Ibrahim Evandawaki(ph) is the village chief in Koumboula in Niger. As he tries to keep order during the food distribution, he laments that the sense of solidarity of old has all but vanished.

Mr. IBRAHIM EVANDAWAKI (Koumboula Village Chief): (Through Translator) You know, it's the women and the children who are really suffering in this crisis. There's no food to eat and these days it's each to his own. That's not how it used to be here in Niger. If there was a crisis, we would all rally together. That sense of solidarity doesn't exist anymore.

QUIST-ARCTON: Millions across the Sahel are hoping for some relief come harvest time in October to ease the hardship during the lean season. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says good rains have fallen from Mauritania in the west via Niger and Mali to Chad in the east. Predicting a promising harvest, FAO says the outlook for next year is already looking significantly better and should mean enough food where now there is hunger in West Africa.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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