Famine: Niger villagers helpless
Tarna - After the great drought of 2005, which took a severe toll in southern Niger, people in the region again face a severe food crisis for themselves and their beasts.
"We eat once a day instead of our three daily meals," said Abdou Garda, a peasant farmer in Tarna, a small village in the central southern Maradi region of the west African country.
Next to the elderly man, children are fighting over a few bean fritters and a little further away, skinny cows are grazing on the rubbish tip for lack of sustenance elsewhere.
In 2005, Maradi, a region home to more than 20% of Niger's population of 15 million, was one of the worst hit by a famine that affected 3.5 million people, because of drought and the destruction of harvests by locusts.
This year once again, a lack of rainfall is behind the dearth of food in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa.
"We and our beasts are hungry, it's the drama of 2005 that is repeating itself," said Ali Galadima, Tarna's headman.
Millet and maize, the staple cereals, "began to grow well, then the rain brutally stopped for two months and the heat burned everything up", Galadima added.
‘A descent into hell’
In consequence, a majority of farmers had no harvest at all and among those who did, the harvests have been divided by a third compared with last year.
"In the last season, I harvested 30 sheaves of millet compared with just 11 this time, and our reserves are already used up," said Mamane Garba, the father of 18 children.
Abdou Ado, a farmer in a neighbouring hamlet, said that he had "harvested nothing" and that he saw his plight as "a descent into hell".
Many men have begun to flee the villages, leaving behind the women, children and elderly.
In Tarna, between 300 and 500 people have already fled towards Maradi town, according to Galadima.
Since her husband left for neighbouring Nigeria a month ago, Nana-Aichatou must manage to feed eight children and take care of her sick mother.
Malnutrition gains ground
To survive, she goes every morning to cut brushwood, then walks the 3km separating her village, Nassarawa, and Maradi town, where she sells her wood.
"I usually earn about 500 CFA francs ($1). It's just enough to buy two kilos of millet to make a meal," the young woman said, marching with an enormous pile of wood on her head.
The meal is a simple porridge with a little bit of fermented milk.
The situation is equally critical in the neighbouring Zinder region, where families have fled the food shortages "en masse", according to local authorities.
The health ministry has reported that malnutrition is gaining ground among children.
Nevertheless, the shops are full of food products, mostly imported from Nigeria. Some traders hoard food in the hopes of selling it for higher prices later, charged Hassane Baka, who works for a local non-governmental organisation.
At the beginning of March, Niger launched a "pressing appeal" for international aid, stating that famine already affected 58% of its population.
The government is trying to ease the suffering by operations to sell cereals cheaply. But the worst is feared during the period between June, when the crop is supposed to be growing, and the month of September, which should be a time to reap the harvest.
To help the most vulnerable people during this time of shortages, the Niger government's Food Crisis Cell is planning the free distribution of food supplies in May.
International aid is slow in coming.
According to the charity Oxfam, the drought could affect "almost 10 million people" in coming months in the Sahel, particularly in Niger.