Saturday, July 30, 2005

Famine in Niger

I've written previously that although this blog bears the name of Niger's capital, where I lived nearly 4 years, this blog is not primarily about the country but about larger issues of localization around the continent. However since the blog does bear the name of Niamey, and there is no more important matter on earth than life, I want to mention the drastic circumstances that have befallen large parts of Niger (esp. the agro-pastoral zones towards the north). Would that mention here could save a life or make a positive difference somehow in the world response to the unfolding tragedy.

Niger is already practically the poorest place on earth even in a good year. As I used to explain to new Peace Corps volunteers when I was an Associate Director there, life for rural Nigeriens is like a stacked gamble: when it rains enough you survive to try again next year; when it doesn't rain, maybe you die. This grim assessment, something that I gained a little familiarity with when in neighboring Mali in 1984 (year of a huge drought regionwide), has been borne out this year with a vengeance. But this time it's not just an issue of rain but one of locusts - something that is favored by a lot of rain in preceding years.

In 2000, when I first arrived in Niger, the country was facing a shortfall in grain. Or actually, the previous year's crop was not going to stretch through the "hungry season" which is the period beginning more or less about the time you plant the new year's crops but the granaries from last year are running low. Obviously the less full the granaries are then the bigger problem you face the next. That is in effect what is happening now. What is a bit confusing hearing about this longdistance is how the state of affairs now couldn't have been better anticipated considering the les than full granaries last year. Indeed there was some early warning back in November, but apparently not all those on the ground agreed on how bad it would be (perhaps because it was mostly in areas away from the capital and administrative centers?).

Back in 2000, the problem was relatively mild, but saying "relative" is easy when you can retreat to a place with food and have money to buy it. That year I gained a renewed appreciation for Sahelians and their resilience, and also for the PCVs who were practically the only foreigners on the front lines as it were, trying to make sure that the villages they lived in were not forgotten when the lists of needs were compiled, seeking ways to generate project monies to assist in matters that get neglected when food is the bottom line, and more.

During the time I was in Niger, each year there was a kind of watch of the weather and then an assessment of the situation in various parts of the country where rainfall was marginal. When I left the country in 2004 I told some new volunteers, as I had earlier incoming groups, that there was a chance that they'd see a major drought or famine during their two years there. Would that I had been wrong.

Though the focus of this blog - to the extent I can add to it and have time to do so - will remain ICT in African languages, I will add any further information I receive from people on the ground in Niger. One letter by the Peace Corps Director in Niger, Jim Bullington, can be read on the Friends of Niger site, which also has links to other articles on the situation in Niger.

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