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Working to beat hunger in northern Niger
The small village of Balambouk is just off the dusty desert road some 20 kilometres outside of Agadez. It’s bustling - it is the fourth, and final food distribution during the lean season. And while only 2.5 per cent of the total population of Niger lives in this northern mountainous area, they have suffered the most food insecurity this year.
Niger is 186 out of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index.
“We used to have animals a long time ago but we ate or sold them,” says Adude Alam, a stooped 70-year-old man wearing a traditional white Tuareg turban. He is picking up Oxfam’s food distribution kit for his household of 30 people.
To make sure that no one starves between June and September, the aid agency has created a kit of rice, millet, beans and other basics for 54 villages in the Agadez region. It is delivered once a month over four months.
In May and June 2,200 of the poorest families received the food. Financial help from the European Commission Humanitarian Office (Echo) meant that another 2,000 households were added in July. By late August the distribution had supplemented some 4,200 families.
The programme is a stopgap measure. Sustainability is the key to getting these villages back on their feet permanently.
The distributions have aided the area’s local economies.
“There are no jobs for the youth here,” says Mohamed Barokan, a youth leader in Balambouk. “Fifty youth have been mobilised to work during distributions. And we can stay home, with our parents. We can help the farmers.”
Without this income, many would have to leave Niger to find work.
Back to Libya perhaps?
“Yes, to Libya,” Barokan says, referring to nearly 300,000 Nigeriens who fled the country during the uprising against Moamer Kadhafi. Many of them have swelled the ranks of the jobless in northern Niger.
Not just a handout
In order to receive the food kit, residents must volunteer one person from their household, man or woman, for 10 days to work in the village carrying out manual labour that will benefit everyone.
Kane Latouher heads the work detail in Balambouk. He has supervised the building of a stone wall around a garden to protect it from the elements that have repeatedly killed crops in the past.
“We put this here so the sand won’t enter,” he says, motioning to the wall. “Because the sand came through, even to the other garden over there. But now we have stopped this, right here, up to the kouri (desert rain gully).”
There are now small parcels of corn and onion. They will be harvested in a few months.
“The people at the beginning thought that they couldn’t stop this phenomenon. Today it is possible,” says Abdou Mounkaila, emergency and food security head for Oxfam in Agadez. Oxfam is trying to pass on best practice in land management. Villagers were not always aware that there were measures they could take against problems such as erosion from the desert.
“We didn’t use a big truck to bring the big rocks,” says Ibrahim Dan Malam, Oxfam’s community adviser. “We found local people who own donkey-drawn carts, so they could be hired to bring the rocks in. That means other people in the community could be employed to carry out these activities.”
Malam says that a local solution is preferable to hiring a truck, which uses petrol and benefits no one locally, from outside the village.
At a handpump well near a kouri, mayor Ahmad Emini explains more of the programme’s achievements.
“This used to be a big hole,” he says. “Women were unable to cross the hole to get to the well, especially when it filled with water after raining.”
The full gully nearby attests to the major rainfall Agadez received during late August. Women and young girls walk on a path made by large, dry stones put in by villagers on their 10-day-per-month work detail.
“This way, there won’t be a need to ask each time for aid, for aid from the outside,” says Oxfam’s Mounkaila, whose focus is on sustainability.
Food insecurity, the aftermath of unrest
It’s not a question of asking for handouts.
The poorest people here want to go back and continue the life they had before. Red zones, imposed by the government following abductions of foreigners in northern Niger, and the Tuareg rebellions have effectively killed off tourism. Western European visitors fascinated by the region’s desert-orientated cultures used to visit. Not any more.
Two women in Balambouk village display souvenirs they had made - a set of five straw market baskets, with a colourful purple design and similar placemats. It takes an artisan four days to make one placemat.
But there are no tourists to sell to. So they are unlikely to earn the asking price of 1,000CFA (two euros), which would buy roughly half a kilo of rice.
Return to normalcy?
The harvest begins in October and kicks off a flurry of activity for everyone in the area.
“Now we have three months of sweat before the harvest,” says Balambouk villager Adude Alam. He says that he is able to take the time to tend his small garden to supplement the food kit he is given.
Oxfam, which opened its Agadez office in April, is one of the few NGOs with a base in the area. Mohamed Anako, the president of the Agadez region, hopes this is the beginning of more NGOs returning.
“Some NGOs are now showing that it is possible to come to Agadez. People are starting to return. It’s just that they are coming by plane. The roads are very bad,” says Anako.
With threats from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in neighbouring Mali, those aid workers who do operate in the area work under strict curfews and security guidelines, a frustrating situation for the locals. But they do welcome what little outside help is on hand to ensure that they can get their lives back on track.