Children’s lives hang in the balance in Niger

Published: 30 March 2012 16:14 CET

By Kalle Lindberg in Niger

Two malnourished boys sit still in the blazing sun. A slightly older boy comes along and gives them a bag of cookies. In silent concentration the small ones eat every crumb in the bags while the older boy smiles and pats them on the head. When they’ve eaten he helps them wash their hands.

The scene in front of the integrated health center in Kofo village summarizes the worst, as well as the best aspects of the situation in Niger, a country severely affected by the drought in Sahel. On one hand the hopelessness of so many already finding themselves in such a vulnerable situation. On the other, the fact that so many are willing to help; to share what little they have with those who have nothing.
The small boys Ali, who is 3, and Moussa, 2, are malnourished. Seven-month-old brother Salamou and their mother Mariama Amadou are also suffering.  They’ve just been diagnosed by the volunteers from the Red Cross Society of Niger who have weighed the boys and measured the upper arms of both themselves and their mother.

“Since we haven’t had enough rain our latest harvest was very poor and we have no food left at home,” says Mariama, while breastfeeding little Salamou and waiting for her turn to let the Red Cross volunteers take a look at her children.

The heat of the sun in front of the health center is oppressive. But both the temperature and the shortage of food will get worse. For Mariama and other villagers, the hottest season is yet to come. The rainy season, with its lower temperatures, is not due until June. When the rains arrive it’s time to sow in order to be able to harvest in September. That’s a long wait for Mariama and others who have already run out of food.

“I and my children are hungry. I came to the health center today so that my children would have something to eat and receive medicines so that they will be able to regain their health,” Mariama said.

Nine out of ten children that come to the health center in Kofo village are malnourished. For the mothers, the figure is eight out of ten. These numbers concern Mahamadou Abdou Garba, who’s in charge of the health centre. “The situation here is catastrophic. The number of malnourished is rising day by day, and we do not have enough food to help all those in need,” he said.

A poster on the health center wall tells its story and shows which groups it targets. It says that the center opened in August 2008, that there are 14,668 people living in the area it serves, 3 466 of whom are women of a fertile age who have 502 children under one year old. Collectively they are expecting another 725 kids this year.

“We have more cases of malnutrition this year and many of the children suffer from diarrhea, skin diseases and swollen tummies due to malnutrition,” Mahamadou Abdou Garba said. “It’s really not easy for me to see so many villagers in need of help and not be able to help them all because we lack the means.”

Combating malnutrition in Kofo is a joint effort carried out by three partners. The state provides the building and pays the salaries for the nurses. The Red Cross Society of Niger runs the health clinic and contributes volunteers that give advice on health and nutrition. The World Food Program supplies the nourishment for the children. This cooperation enables the health centre to serve several villages in the area. One of the volunteers from the Red Cross Society of Niger is Sein, who has worked there for a year. His task is to weigh and measure the children to establish if they are malnourished, and then to give advice to the mothers on nutrition and health.

“It is worse now,” Sein said. “More women and children are coming every day, and they are sicker than they were a few months back. It’s getting worse every day.”

The work carried out in Kofo by Sein and other Red Cross volunteers is one example of how people in Niger help each other in difficult times. But this time the scale of the crisis is such that help from people outside Niger will be needed.

“The future of these children depends of the help that we receive,” said Mahamadou Abdou Garba. “If we do receive the help that we need we will be able to save these people.”