The Real Hunger Games


By Kent Alexander

March 24, 2012

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A girl holds a sign with the word 'Charite' (charity) during a function to welcome visitors to the village of Ayyawane (Tahoua region, Niger).

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 was 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 in three bordering countries. And among many other challenges facing Niger, a catastrophic drought is underway.

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A girl rides a donkey carrying water in the village of Maijanjare (Tahoua region, Niger).

According to a recent CARE 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.

How economically poor are the villages we visited in western Niger? Mind bogglingly poor.

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.

We toured Ayyawane and spoke with the mayor and other people about their lives and their very modest dreams.

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CARE USA's General Counsel, Kent Alexander (bottom-right), CARE USA's Deputy Director of Major Gifts, Tom Hanschman (top-right, background) and CARE Niger's Project Manager, Nouroudine Pereira (center), listen to salutations during a function to welcome visitors to the village of Ayyawane (Tahoua region, Niger).

Then, at the end of our visit, I saw something that gave me another small but jolting idea of what poverty is like. As we headed to the car for our departure, dozens of young children crowded behind the Toyota and were uncharacteristically pushing and shoving each other. The tail gate was open, and the driver stood beside our cooler containing a few leftover cold drinks from lunch earlier in the day. Philippe Leveque, the National Director of CARE France said, "Kent, this is the face of poverty." Frankly, I thought he was overreacting a bit and said as much. After all, the day was broiling – over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course the kids were elbowing in for a shot at a cold drink.

Then I took a closer look. The cooler was shut tight, and the driver was not handing out drinks at all. He was handing out a few of our empty cans and plastic bottles. The cans were fodder for tin toy planes and cars to sell. The bottles were prized receptacles to be used months down the road when the rains finally come. The throng of children only dispersed after an unsympathetic man swatted at them with a stick. Our trash was their treasure.

So the uplifting parts of the visits? There were 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 and shade rarely seen in most of Niger. The mayor told us they planted all those trees with support from CARE more than 30 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 the CARE-initiated village savings and loan associations in action. Each of the three dozen or so women members stepped forward to contribute their week's savings of 500 CFA (1 U.S. dollar) or less into a pooled fund, which they could later use to make and collect small development loans. The president of the group, colorfully clad 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 was no longer money for the future, and not enough for food and water for the present.

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Women line up in the village of Maijanjare (Tahoua region, Niger) to collect a payment for their participation in a cash-for-work project run by CARE. With funding from ECHO/WFP, CARE is providing income to vulnerable families so they can buy food and repay their debts ahead of the lean season. People receive cash in exchange for part-time work in projects identified by their communitie s, or as a handout in the cases where nobody in the family is able to perform manual labor.

Back on the road, in the village of Maijanjare (again, no pronunciation requests please), we went to a rock-hard, barren field with hundreds of three-meter-wide half-moon craters that stretched as far as the eye could see. It reminded me of some television special featuring landscapes pocked with mysterious patterns possibly left by an ancient culture or even extraterrestrials. But in this case there was no mystery.

CARE's Project Manager Nouroudine Pereira told us that the villagers, ingeniously, dug the craters on a gently sloping plain so that when the rains finally do come the water will not simply wash over the baked terra cotta landscape and flood the southernmost point. Instead, each crescent captures the rainwater and becomes a garden, and the villagers harvest millet and other crops to sell and to store for the next hungry season. But they cannot do this without money to buy tools and without food to sustain them. And unfortunately food prices have soared since last fall.

Enter CARE.

Nouroudine explained the details of CARE's "cash-for-work" program, and after showing us the field brought us over to the line of villagers collecting their payments. CARE pays each villager a very modest sum to dig two craters per day into the concrete-like soil and provides the tools. This injects money into the economy, which people can use as they see fit. A 36-year-old mother standing in line spoke of how critical the payments are to support her and her four children. Her husband is in the somewhat more prosperous Nigeria (though still a lowly #156 out of 187 countries on UNDP's Human Development Index), scavenging for work to send remittances home, although finding work is never guaranteed. On the other hand, the lack of food and water in most of Niger has become dishearteningly reliable.

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A man poses for a photograph in the village of Maijanjare (Tahoua region, Niger).

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, certainly compelling, suddenly seemed almost trite by comparison 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 development aid can bring them back.

Kent Alexander is CARE USA's General Counsel.