The village of Dabré, in Oullam district, about one and a half hours north of the capital Niamey, used to have more than four thousand inhabitants. 4,584 to be precise. But now, says village chief, 64 year old Halidou Younoussa, the village has been hollowed out.
He estimates that around 60% of villagers have left in search of work and food. “it’s one of the strategies we have to deal with the crisis”, he says, as we sit down in the shade to discuss how hard times have affected people the village, most of whom would normally be able to make a living through their livestock and cultivating cereal crops.
But even in good times, things can be tough. Local officials told us that even in years when Niger had good harvests, Oullam will remain a food-deficit area, especially in northern areas of the district. Back in April, a Niger government food security household survey classified Ouallam as having the highest level of food insecurity in the country – 64.1% compared to the national rural average of 21.5%
“We have had so many difficulties because of the harvest. The food from last year’s harvest only lasted for 2 months…which left us with a 10 month gap until the next harvest”, explained Halidou Younoussa.
“Some houses have had no harvests at all.”
Patchy rains in 2009 have not only affected the harvest, but livestock. There is little pasture land. The landscape around us is almost barren – horizons of sandy brown soil, punctuated by a few spiky plants and trees.
Around 100 animals have died in the village weakened by lack of food, estimates Halidou. Many farmers have been forced to sell their emaciated livestock, but for significantly reduced prices, to buy cereals to feed their family.
And as Halidou told me, many have simply decided that they can no longer stay in the village hoping that help and rains will come, but have moved to urban centres in Niger and neighbouring countries to try and find more regular work and food.
But, as is often the case, it’s the women who are facing some of the toughest burdens now. As many men have left in search of work, its up to the women to look after the household and any remaining small livestock. To put food on their families’ plates.
“Its very hard for women”, said Kadidja Tahirou, who heads the village committee.
“Women have to take on extra jobs, often very physical ones, in order to look after the household, get food and so on..and that can be very difficult.
“The women often collect wild fruits…either they eat them in the family or sell them in the market.”
Oxfam, through its partner Karkara, has been helping some of the most vulnerable villagers, distributing cash vouchers so people can buy food staples (mostly cereals, the cheapest way of filing stomachs; villagers told me oil, tea and sugar were items only for “rich” people) providing animal fodder, and carrying out some “de-stocking” work: buying weakened animals at above-market prices to help farmers, and distributing the meat to the poorest families in the community.
To people like 78 year old Bibata Thairou, whose animals died several months ago.
“I have never seen things as bad as now. Everything is so dry”, she tells me, her painfully thin limbs part-hidden by her flowing robe.
She insists things are worse than in 2005, the last time that Niger faced a serious food crisis. “Things weren’t as bad then. Now, more animals are dying, more people are suffering”, she said. “It’s a catastrophe.”
But she and her nephew, 26 year old nephew, Boubacar Idi, haven’t given up hope yet. They are both praying for rain. They tell me there’s still time for the rains to come, which would allow people to begin planting for the next harvest.
Boubacar’s twins, just 22 months old, are being treated for malnutrition at a health clinic.
“Its been very difficult during this crisis”, said Boubacar.
“If we have rain, things here can get better. We pray for God’s help.”
His prayers may soon be answered. Just five minutes drive away, we pass a village which had its first heavy rains the night before, the ground still soft and damp from the downpour. People were busy digging holes in the ground to plant seeds for the harvest
There is some room for hope after all.