As Aid Arrives, Niger Crisis May Worsen
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Emergency food aid is now reaching the hungry in the West African nation of Niger. Drought, poor rains and a plague of locusts have devastated last year's harvest, and the international community was slow to respond to the shortages this year. As NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, other countries on the fringes of the Sahara Desert could face a similar crisis.
(Soundbite of concert)
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:
Niger's first lady, Laraba Tandja, organized the charity concert against hunger a week ago, featuring Nigerian and regional artists to collect money for people suffering food shortages, including hundreds of babies who've fallen victim to starvation. The following day, Madame Tandja's husband, President Mamadou Tandja of Niger, caused a stir with this statement.
President MAMADOU TANDJA (Niger): (Through Translator) There is no famine in Niger. Who said there's famine? Anyone who's seen what's going on here and says there's famine in Niger is saying so for either political or economic interests. If there were famine in Niger, we would all have disappeared, because most of the money in the food pledge has simply not been delivered.
QUIST-ARCTON: Aid workers rejected President Tandja's suggestion that they had exaggerated the magnitude of the hunger crisis to elicit more money, and for many mothers struggling to keep their severely malnourished children alive in Niger, the second-poorest country in the world, the president's comments were simply not helpful, famine or no famine. Women like Zouera Issa, a 30-year-old mother of four in the village of Garin Goulbi, 25 miles outside Niger's second city, Maradi, just want food for their families.
(Soundbite of applause)
QUIST-ARCTON: Zouera Issa rejoiced and applauded as the UN children's fund, UNICEF, arrived to distribute sacks of millet, the main staple cereal grain.
Ms. ZOUERA ISSA: (Through Translator) Because there's been no food for humans, we've been reduced to picking and cooking wild leaves, fruits and greens that normally only animals eat. It's been total desolation here. Families can go two or three days without eating a thing because there was simply nothing to eat.
Unidentified Man #1: (Via projected acoustics) (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Drought and erratic rains last year across the Sahara Desert Belt countries, including Niger, were compounded by an invasion of desert locusts that munched their way through villagers' crops, guaranteeing a failed harvest. The Niger government began sounding the alarm about an impending crisis last November. The international response was tepid. The UN launched appeal after appeal this year, but it took images of starving babies in Niger for the world to sit up and react.
Unidentified Man #2: I'll bring them to you sometime.
QUIST-ARCTON: As she toured a therapeutic feeding center full of emaciated infants in malady and witnessed the death of a baby, UNICEF's deputy executive director, Rima Salah, said everyone had a share in the blame.
Ms. RIMA SALAH (UNICEF): A baby died in front of us because it was too late. It was too late for the baby. I mean, I feel bad that we could not save the baby, and you know, that we saw the mother crying and now the mother is going to carry the baby back home to her village and show the village that she could not save her baby. So we fe--I feel guilty.
QUIST-ARCTON: Dr. Chantal Umutoni from Rwanda is part of the emergency medical team sent into Niger by MSF, Doctors Without Borders. Dr. Umutoni spoke as she continued treating high-risk, acutely malnourished children in a tent that serves as an intensive care unit where year-old baby boy Husseini(ph) died.
Dr. CHANTAL UMUTONI (MSF): People just don't react. They wait for the last minute. Well, we have got already deaths where it is maybe too late, and then they start reacting, instead of preventing in advance. It's difficult to understand for me.
QUIST-ARCTON: Doctors Without Borders, the UN and other relief agencies warn of the threat of a similar hunger emergency across the drought-prone Sahel region of West Africa. As well as Niger, food shortages have been reported in neighboring Mali and nearby Mauritania, with talk of a potential threat in Burkina Faso. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.
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