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Food crisis looming: Hawa's fight against hunger

Niger, March 26, 2014

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  • Hawa Maney is one of more than 11 million people in Niger facing severe food shortages this year. "The harvest wasn't good, so we had just a few crops," she says. "We are very hungry." Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
  • Millet fields around Hawa's village are dry and barren. The third drought in less than five years ruined most of the crop across the country, which is the main staple of the local diet. Photo: Sean Sherdan for Mercy Corps
  • Hawa struggles to feed her six-year-old daughter Ramatou as the staple grain is already running out. With seven long months until the next harvest, she is worried about how they will manage. "Every day, we will have to eat less if we don't find food," she says. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

Hawa Maney emerges from the doorway of her dark, two-room home carrying a small bowl of lettuce. The shredded leaves are coated with a bit of oil and wilting in the heat — it’s already pushing 100 degrees in northwestern Niger and it’s only February.

We sit in the shade of the mud walls and Hawa, 35, explains that the lettuce is the only thing she and her six-year-old daughter, Ramatou, have to eat today. Our conversation is punctuated by the rhythmic echoes of women pounding millet throughout the village, and I wonder how long that sound will last.

Serious food crisis looms

Drought returned to Niger last year and the lack of rain ruined the staple millet crop across the country. Like Hawa, many families are already rationing out what little grain they managed to harvest; some women told me they’re already down to just one meal a day — and there are seven long months until the next harvest.

It’s a food crisis that’s just beginning. The government of Niger estimates that 11.7 million people are at risk of food insecurity this year — that’s 66 percent of the population without enough to eat. And most of them are in hardest-hit Ouallam, where Hawa lives.

Even before this drought, 13% of children under five years old in Niger were acutely malnourished — considered a serious emergency by the World Health Organization. These youngest children are especially in danger as food shortages grow increasingly severe over the coming months.

Hawa is lucky to have a small garden where she can grow some lettuce, potatoes and tomatoes with a little water from the village well. But the vegetables are simply not enough without the grain that’s the staple of every meal.

“We are very hungry. Every day, we will have to eat less if we don’t find food,” she explains as she looks out toward the dry, parched landscape.

An increasingly vicious cycle — a new way of life?

Farming is a way of life that has sustained communities in Niger for generations, and they are used to making food last from one harvest to the next — it’s called the lean season. But changing weather patterns and increasingly frequent droughts are wreaking havoc on people’s ability to produce enough to eat.

“It depends on the year,” Hawa tells me when I ask about the farming conditions here. “Sometimes we have good harvests, so we can survive well. But more and more, the harvest is bad and there are a lot of problems for the village.”

The most urgent problem, of course, is not having enough to eat. But when that basic need isn’t met, other tragedies emerge: Men, like Hawa’s 20-year-old son Mamoudou, leave the village to look for work in the city. Women are left on their own to feed their families, with few options to make money to buy the food they need. Children drop out of school to help.

Families can’t build a more stable future when they’re torn apart and have no time for school or for work — when they are focused only on their immediate survival.

Unfortunately, these circumstances have become just as much the way of life here, as the time between droughts gets shorter and shorter. Just the year before last, in 2012, a widespread food crisis grabbed headlines and devastated millions in Niger. Families are still recovering and were not prepared to cope with yet another blow.

In early February, the U.N. called attention to the life-threatening situation, appealing for $2 billion to prevent more than 20 million people from starving across the Sahel, including Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal.

Addressing immediate needs, protecting progress

Sitting with Hawa, watching the dust swirl in the bright light of the mid-day sun, such massive needs are distilled into the voice of this single mother — into the wide eyes of her little daughter, Ramatou. When I ask her what she needs, Hawa doesn’t hesitate.

“We need help, especially food. But we are willing to work,” she says with a small, determined smile.

During the last crisis in 2012, Mercy Corps provided emergency food assistance and cash-for-work projects that both prepared the land for better cultivation and helped people earn money to buy food during the height of the shortages.

“When Mercy Corps helped, we even cooked three times a day!” Hawa exclaims when I ask her what that assistance meant to her.

We also distributed goats and improved seeds designed to withstand the dry conditions. The harvest was better the next year, and women learned how to process the new crops into products they could sell at the market.

Hawa started a business selling peanut oil, and her two goats gave birth three times. They had enough food to eat and to make a living; for the first time, she was earning an income on her own.

But another drought, so soon, threatens to destroy the secure foundation Hawa is just starting to build. Now there aren’t enough peanuts to make the oil, and there isn’t enough fodder to keep the goats breeding and producing milk. Without enough time to save money or prepare for another crisis, she is struggling again.

That’s why another emergency intervention is necessary. We’ve put the tools in place for families to build resilience to these recurring droughts — improved seeds produce crops optimized for the conditions; goats provide new income that’s not dependent on rain; village savings and loans groups create financial safety nets.

But we need to make sure these advances are not wiped out in the midst of this crisis.

Our teams asked Hawa and her village — and many more in the region — what they need most to make it through. Right now, it’s cash-for-work to buy food at the market and drought-resistant seeds to replant for a better harvest this coming fall.

Investing in stronger communities

That kind of urgent assistance is part of our ongoing efforts to help families adapt to the challenging new reality. Our work throughout Niger helps mothers learn about proper nutrition, families learn how to earn better incomes, and communities learn new ways to keep animals healthy, manage new wells and use new farming techniques that make the most of limited resources.

The goal is that communities can maintain their food security and thrive on their own — the same hope that Hawa has for her own life.

As we say our goodbyes so she can go fetch her goats from grazing in the fields, Hawa pauses and smiles. “We’re very grateful to Mercy Corps,” she says. “You helped us so we could be stronger.”

This latest food crisis puts our work to the test, no doubt. But it’s the strength I see in Hawa that makes me believe that long-term change is possible. And it's the strength of our supporters that will help Hawa and thousands of families get the food they need to survive this season — and have the resources to feed themselves in the future.

How you can help

Your support provides emergency food and agricultural solutions that fight hunger and build food security for families in Niger and many of the world's toughest places. Donate today ▸