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The thick calloused soles of the feet of the women with whom I sat in the tiny village of Maijanjaré in Niger, seven hours by road away from the capital Niamey, tell their own story. It is a story of many hardships, of back-breaking labour to dig a bit of land in extremely rocky, hard and dry soil in order to plant and hopefully harvest a bit of millet. It is a story of having to walk two hours each day to collect water. It is a story of women who have lost their husbands many years ago either to migration, working in another country where they have found new families, or to early death. It is a story of women who are widows and who tell us that without CARE’s Cash-for-Work project, they would be beggars now and are vastly relieved that for at least these few months, they do not need to beg.
These women are referred to as the elderly, and while they cannot tell us their age given that they don’t know it, they are probably in their late 40ies. The life expectancy for women in Niger is 45 years of age, an indicator of how tough life is in this part of the world. The women eagerly tell us the Cash-for-Work project, where they are paid a small sum of money to dig half-crescent shaped basins that will form natural reservoirs for the millet to be planted, has helped them to buy a small amount of grain that the government of Niger stores and sells at a subsidized price to community members during this very lean season.
Without food assistance and other support, over five million women, children and men in Niger are at risk of not having enough food in the coming months.
Already we are being told that people are reducing their food intake to one meal a day, and that the seeds that they have saved for the next planting season are being eaten to supplement their diets. The severe droughts of 2005 and 2010 are in very recent memory, with many people having gone into debt to survive those crises - yet people did not have enough time, productivity and stability to regain their livelihoods. The ‘elderly women’ of Maijanjaré will be amongst the first to suffer from this impending crisis if they do not receive help. But they do not want to beg for help. They are eager to work. They want to feel that they are helping themselves during this extremely difficult time.
The situation in the Sahel is a complex one and the small village that we visited is only a small microcosm of what many millions are living today in Niger. In times of hardship such as those, people used to migrate and find work as daily labourers in other countries. However, the conflict situation in Mali, the tenuous situation in Nigeria and the uncertainty and volatility of Libya does exhaust this strategy. Those in Niger are concerned, and wonder what the future holds for them.
Halima, one of the village widows shares with me: “We continue to be strong with CARE’s help and we hope that the rains will come on time.” Hope is a wonderful emotion and can carry one far, but it is not enough for the women of Niger. They must have the continuous support of CARE and others to help them through this very critical time.
It is important for us all to remember that during the food crisis in Niger in 2005, it would have cost us 1 U.S. dollar a day to prevent malnutrition among children if the world had responded immediately. By July 2005, it was costing 80 U.S. dollars to save a malnourished child’s life. Now is the time to help Niger --- not when it is too late to prevent what we know can be prevented.
Barbara Jackson is CARE International's Humanitarian Director.