Driving from Niger’s capital Niamey to the town of Konni for five hours through the sand-swept, arid Sahel region, I listened to the audio book The Hunger Games. The novel opens with a scene of bleak poverty in a post-apocalyptic town called District 12. Dirt, grime, threadbare clothing, scarce food.
Looking out the window at the mud-and-thatch structures and the gaunt, colorfully dressed women floating by my window, I couldn’t help but think Niger was District 12 on steroids. Here, people are experiencing ‘the hungry season’, and it is certainly neither a novel nor a movie. It’s very real.
Still, I couldn’t help but smile about the difference people here are making in partnership with CARE.
Having joined CARE as general counsel just last April, this is my first trip to a region deep in the throes of crisis. This is poverty as I’ve never seen.
The facts? Niger ranks 186th out of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, putting it in a dead heat with the Democratic Republic of Congo as the least developed country on earth. Most adults over 25 have precious little formal education, and an overwhelming majority are illiterate. Particularly hard hit are Niger’s women and children, always the most vulnerable to poverty. Conflicts simmer on three bordering countries. And among many other challenges facing Niger, a catastrophic drought is underway.
According to a recent report over 10 million of Niger’s 16 million citizens will run out of food stocks well before the next harvest, expected around October. All families have cut back on their food consumption. Most who I met are down to one meal a day.
The country is on the proverbial brink. Without help, many will suffer irreparable physical harm; many will lose their lives.
When we arrived at Ayyawane hundreds of people gathered for a welcoming ceremony. During the program, young children presented formal requests in envelopes to the group of visitors from CARE. Their number one request? Not toys, not new clothes, and certainly not a trip to Disney World. Drinking water. Water! This was especially striking because Ayyawane was by far the most ‘affluent’ of the villages we visited.
So the uplifting parts of the visits? There were certainly many.
While in Ayyawane, we visited a garden made possible by five wells that CARE had dug through the years. Outside the garden stood a huge grove of trees, greenery rarely seen in most of Niger. The mayor told us they planted all those trees with support from CARE more than thirty years ago, when he was just 11. The grove now serves as a ready source of wood for energy and construction, which villagers maintain, planting new trees as they log.
In another village, Bangoukoirey (please don’t ask me to pronounce it!), I saw one of CARE’s savings and loan groups in action. Each of the three dozen or so women members stepped forward to contribute their week’s savings of 500 CFA ($1 CAD) or less into a pooled fund, which they could later use to make and collect small development loans. The president of the group, colorfully dressed in a green, black and blue striped robe with a purple scarf, told me she had been saving for six years. During that time she had used the loans to buy poultry, two oxen and a cart, and had repaid all the money with interest. But life was still hard. With the drought underway, there is no longer money for the future and not enough for food and water now.
On the long drive back to the capital city of Niamey, I listened to the rest of The Hunger Games and watched more villages roll by. My mind wandered to the real life hungry season and the onset of a food crisis in Niger. Suzanne Collins’s book, compelling to most, seemed almost trite as I thought – and continue to think – about how to make the crisis in the Sahel compelling to all those who will never see it firsthand. How to avoid a severe crisis like what we are now seeing in the Horn of Africa? How to preserve the development progress made to date through the efforts of CARE, other NGO’s, the UN, the government and the people? How to help the adults and children of the Sahel with such strong spirits and determination avoid going beyond the tipping point, when no amount of aid can bring them back?