“I don”t want to lose another child’


Melanie Brooks

Jan. 22, 2012

“I don”t want to lose another child’ image 1
Dije Ousmana, 45 years old, breastfeeding her two-month-old baby Abdulahadi. Yan Sara village, Dakoro, Niger.

When Dije Ousmana looks down at her two-month-old baby boy, Abdulahadi, she tries not to think of her three other children, all babies like Abdulahadi, who died in earlier food crises. She has seen the signs before, and she is afraid: diarrhoea, difficulty swallowing, crying for more milk when there is none to be had.

In her arms, baby Abdulahadi stirs, opens his eyes, and begins to cry. Dije quietly puts him to her breast, but it isn't long before the cry turns into a wail.

"There is no milk," she said. "I haven't eaten yet today."

Outside, her daughter continues to pound millet for the family's only meal of the day. Dije's six-year-old son runs in and asks when the food will be ready.

Today, Dije and her extended family of 14 will eat just one bowl of millet, mixed with a bit of goat's milk and plenty of water to make it stretch farther. It's been three months that it's been like this, she said.

"The younger children ask all the time why we aren't eating," she said, telling her son to wait. "They don't understand. They think I am just not cooking."

Niger is spiralling down into a severe food crisis. A catastrophic combination of a failed harvest, returning migrant workers from troubled neighbouring countries, and soaring food prices has left more than 5.4 million people in Niger at risk of hunger; at least 1.3 million people, like Dije and her family, are in critical need of help now.

Across Niger, there are communities that have no harvest at all, and have already exhausted their food supplies and are starting to sell their animals and household belongings just to buy food to keep their families alive. In each affected community, the prognosis is the same: this crisis is already worse than the crises of 2005 and 2010.

"It's been years since we've seen a situation this bad," said Dije. "I already sold five of my goats, and we have just one goat left. We've sold everything to buy food."

Here in Yan Sara village, a poor community of 170 people in the barren semi-desert of rural Niger, children are already showing signs of malnutrition: protruding bellies and orange hair revealing the tell-tale signs of nutrient deficiency. Children with chronic malnutrition risk permanent stunting: they will never grow as tall as other children their age, and they may have developmental challenges as well. Severe malnutrition, if not treated, can lead to death.

Nearly 300,000 children will become malnourished across Niger this year, and that figure is expected to rise as the country's food crisis worsens.

But if help is provided now, we can prevent children from becoming severely malnourished, said Amadou Sayo, CARE's Regional Emergency Coordinator for West Africa. CARE has already started a cash-for-work program in partnership with the World Food Programme, which will help families buy food. But more is needed. CARE is raising funds to start an emergency food program for families like Dije's, who are already in dire need. High-energy, nutritious food for children, such as Plumpy'nut, a peanut-butter-like emergency food used to treat mild malnutrition, can help prevent children from becoming severely malnourished.

"Prevention is more effective, and less costly, than allowing children to become malnourished in the first place," said Sayo. "In a food crisis, helping the children is critical, as well as pregnant women and breastfeeding women. The adults can survive a hungry season, but young children are very vulnerable. If they don't have proper food, they start to get sick, they lose weight, and they are at risk of death."

For Dije, the situation is frighteningly clear.

"We need help," she said simply. "I don't want to lose another child."

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