|Rain has finally started falling in Niger, but for many it is too little, too late [GALLO/GETTY]|
In the dry lands in the north of Niger, it is not hard to find the first signs of the struggle the people here have faced over the past two years.
The landscape is dotted with dead animals; goats, cows, even camels. I started counting but gave up after 30. There were just too many.
After two years of drought, the rains that have finally started falling here have come too late to save these animals. Nothing has grown for months. As far as the eye can see, there is simply the dull red of the soil or the light tan of the sands. There is no green, no grazing, nothing to provide food for the animals.
They die where they fall, which is why one man is desperately encouraging his cow to get to her feet; encouraging, pulling, threatening despite her anguished cries of distress. He enlists the help of two passers-by. One grabs the horns, the other the tail and the three drag it to its feet. It has survived for now, but it is so thin, so weak, it may just be postponing the inevitable.
|The most needy queue for food [GALLO/GETTY]|
Ali Gocher was a successful herdsman. He had 52 cows. The drought has taken all but two. He walked them all around this area hoping to find some grazing, some place where the rains had fallen. And slowly one by one he watched his animals die.
“I cried a lot when they died,” he says. “But there was nothing I could do. I was powerless. For a man like me it’s not good to cry, but I had to cry be cause there was nothing I could do to help.”
The West African state is facing a food crisis. Failed rains over the past two years mean that half the country’s population, around 7.8 million people, are experiencing food shortages.
Summer is traditionally a difficult period. The food from the last harvest has all but run out – the food from the latest is not ready to be gathered.
Children are most in danger – 900,000 under the age of two are at risk of malnutrition.
In the centre of Abala, the locals line up patiently in the midday heat waiting to collect the free food provided by two groups from the UK.
Every month here and in seven surrounding villages, a local committee of elders meet to decide who most needs help. They are then given a voucher which allows them to collect rice and millet, salt and oil. It is worth around $5 and can be used over the course of a month. It is not much – but at the moment, for many, it is enough. It is keeping them alive.
But for everyone that is helped, there are those who are judged not needy enough.
On the edge of the village, in a one room house, Hafiz Bissad lives with his wife and six children. He is a bright, engaging man who speaks French and English better than he thinks.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher reports on how people in Niger are fighting this year’s hunger season
He shows me around, pointing out how clean the living area is kept and he talks of plans to use more of the land next to his home to build one, maybe two, more rooms.
In the past two years, hunger has been the one constant. He wakes every day wondering how to feed his family. He tells me they once went 15 days without any real food. He offers his services to the NGOs that come to town, but they do not do that too often.
He and his children, aged three to 14, have not eaten today. They did not eat yesterday. He has no idea what tomorrow may bring.
As we talk in the shade of his home, the children sit quietly. They watch their father closely.
“It is very difficult for us, because sometimes we have nothing to eat. When I see my children cry because they are hungry, it is hard for me, it makes me sad,” he says.
But his face tells me sad is not what he means. The emotion is stronger, deeper, but he does not have the words in English to express that pain.
People we speak to say this is the worst they remember. The two years of drought have left people hungry, exhausted and forlorn. Yet they still seem to know places where it is worse, where more cows have died, where more people are struggling. They are probably right.
|Dead animals dot the landscape [EPA]|
Boubacar Maman is a village elder. He is 60. I know this because he shows me where he has had his name and birthdate tattooed on his arm.
He tells me he has never seen things this bad – including the famine which struck the country in 2005.
“The last two years have been an incredible struggle for everyone,” he says. “I have heard whole villages have been abandoned because there’s nothing left for them and no prospect things will get better.”
In the distance, thick black clouds are gathering, moving slowly across the sky. Normally they feel sinister and threatening. Here, they are anticipated and welcomed. They bring rain, and with that, the hope that this year’s harvest will be better.
That may not be enough to end the people’s struggles – but it will ensure their survival.
West Africa food crisis appeal number: 0207 523 2141 www.christianaid.org.UK/westafrica