Babies first

With not enough food aid for everyone, the elderly have become abandoned victims of the crisis in Niger.

Published August 5, 2005 2:54PM (EDT)

Her face is seamed and her arms are painfully slender, but Mohadien Goumar is only 45. Her neighbor Aminata Musa, who is about 60, lies barely moving on a wooden pallet, staring at the world with flat, bloodshot eyes, dependent on the charity of fellow villagers to keep her alive.

As aid agencies focus their scant resources on saving malnourished babies and children, the elderly are the forgotten victims of the crisis in Niger.

The village of Terbadeen, a Tuareg settlement of thatched huts surrounded by sand and thorny trees, has been stripped of its fittest inhabitants: Two-thirds of the men have left in search of work elsewhere.

"I have had nothing but water for two weeks," said Mohadien. "The food foreigners have sent, I have not seen it. The men who left the village said they would send food back, but no food has come."

Throughout Niger, the hunger crisis is an affliction of the poor. While people in Terbadeen starve, there is food in the markets of the nearest big village, Abalak, four miles away down a winding dirt track. And in the hotels of the capital, Niamey, breakfast coffee comes with seven cubes of white sugar lining the saucer.

Even here among the poorest, there is a hierarchy.

The village chief, Salaman Mahamadou, a regal, hawk-nosed man in a navy blue robe, still has the best diet of anyone in the community. The villagers share food with one another, watering down the tiny amounts of rice they can afford, but women are served last and the elderly are at the bottom of the pile.

The people of Terbadeen were herders and subsistence farmers, whose wealth was tied up in their cattle and goats. When drought and locusts destroyed the pasture land, the animals wasted away. The villagers tried to sell their surviving livestock, but no one would pay a high price for a skinny, starving goat or cow.

"I sold goats to get some millet before," Mohadien said. "I had 100 goats and sold 10 of them. The others all died."

Aid is beginning to arrive in Niger. But until three weeks ago, it was government policy not to distribute free food to the worst-affected communities because of concern that it would disrupt the markets. That has changed, and the United Nations plans to start the first general distributions of food aid next week, targeting 2.5 million people. Even then, it will take time to reach every affected village in a vast, landlocked country where the aid must be brought hundreds of miles by road.

The focus of the aid effort is on helping those most at risk: babies and young children between 6 months and 5 years old. "They are the most vulnerable in the family, nearly always the ones that first show signs of malnutrition," said Anita McCabe, a spokeswoman for the aid agency Concern.

In Terbadeen, the village chief points at women and holds up fingers to show how many babies they have lost. He gestures at a tall girl in a flower-patterned gown, whose name is Zeinabu. "She lost two children, twins; they were 8 months." Then, pointing at another: "That is Reshatou. Her baby was 2 weeks old when it died."

He himself has lost three children, a 2-year-old and twins age 1, who all died last month. Shielded from the sun by a tent spread over a framework of branches, Mahamadou opens the covers of his dinner dishes; a bowl of rice and a bowl of okra sauce.

"Before, I never ate this kind of food. I had 100 cows and I could drink milk, eat meat. Now I have only three left." Counting on his fingers, he recited the names of the men who remain in the village: "Alqasim, Agali, Musa ... "Out of 150 men, just 46 remain. He gestured to the village's grain silos, a row of hazelnut-shaped domes of mud and straw, all empty.

By the roadside on the way to Terbadeen, parties of children from nearby villages gather weeds to eat. Carrying faded sacks that once held flour, they pluck up small, leafy plants that will be boiled with salt and spices.

"We have nothing else to eat," said Adama Zachary, a girl of perhaps 15, her hair tied back with a red bandanna. "The locusts ate the millet, and there is no money to buy food in the market."

Dead cattle and donkeys litter the fields -- piles of bleached bones and wrinkled hides. At one spot, there are 11 cattle carcasses, which villagers say were dumped there by a truck heading to market after they all died from lack of fodder.

The scale of the need in this region became apparent Wednesday morning, when 1,500 mothers brought their babies to an aid agency distribution intended to feed 500 malnourished babies. In brightly colored robes and headdresses, long queues of women and babies wound through the heart of a mud-hut village that had been chosen as the distribution point, more than 100 miles south of Terbadeen.

"We're going to have to rethink this whole strategy," said one aid worker. "How do you weigh and measure 1,500 children at one time?" Aid agencies here say they need to expand their operations, hiring more local workers to help the small teams of expatriate medical staff and nutrition experts.

Even without a food crisis on this scale, Niger is the world's second poorest country and struggles to feed its people every year. In the 1970s, when the uranium-mining industry was booming, the government built a network of paved roads, while multistory buildings and lavish villas went up in the capital. But with the end of the Cold War, the country's main export is no longer in such demand.

"This is a country with adult literacy rates of 17 percent," said McCabe, the aid agency spokeswoman. "It's got food insecurity every year, desertification. There are huge problems."

By Jeevan Vasagar

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