By Rodrigo Ordóñez
Having less food during the months leading to harvest is not new for people of Niger and other countries in the Sahel region. However, this year they are bracing for something harsher than what they are used to, as drought, soaring food prices, and regional insecurity are adding additional stress.
CARE is providing income to families like Tchima’s so they can buy food ahead of what is commonly known as the ‘lean season,’ the gap between the time people run out of food stocks and the next harvest. People receive cash in exchange for part-time work in projects identified by their communities, or as a handout in the cases of families where nobody is able to perform manual labor.
“I am grateful that CARE brought this financing,” expresses Tchima. Since neither she nor her children can work, she is receiving cash. “Without this support, I would not have been able to feed my children’s mouths. Now I can buy food for my family.”
The commune of Sarkin Yamma, where Tchima lives, consists of vast expanses of semi-arid lands. The sandy tracks that lead there cut through a barren-looking landscape; a flat monotony only broken by a few lonely acacia trees, camels, and bridges over dry riverbeds.Even for people who know how to survive in such a hostile environment, small weather variations can have a big impact.
Nigeriens agree that the last few months have been particularly dry. The wet season started later than usual and rains were fewer and far between, affecting crops and the survival of cattle, people’s main sources of income and nutrition.
“Unfortunately, I do not have any land nor animals – not even a chicken,” explains Tchima, “so my biggest problem is to have food during the lean season.”
For Tchima, it is generally difficult to make ends meet, but this year she has been most affected by the rise of food prices. “Currently, you can buy a tiya (2.5kg) of sorghum for 500 or 550 CFA francs (more than one U.S. dollar), but people speculate. If my memory serves me right, last year it cost 400 CFA francs (about 0.80 U.S. dollars),” she points out. Even better off homes are struggling to cope with a twenty percent increase in the price of Niger’s most basic staple food. For Tchima, it means a life at the edge of survival.
In addition to the drought, insecurity in the region has made it harder to bring food to the table. Usually, most families send one of their members to work abroad for several months and rely on that extra income to provide for their families during the lean season. This year, however, many Nigerien migrant workers had to return home due to the conflicts in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Mali and Nigeria, putting a stop to crucial remittances.
This is also the case for Tchima. “My oldest child, a boy, is twenty years old and lives away. I financed his departure to go find work, but he did not manage to earn anything,” she laments.
More than food
For people trying to cope with the current situation, it makes no difference whether it is called ‘drought,’ ‘food crisis,’ or something else. For them, this type of crisis is about much more than just food. This is best explained by Tchima. “Food is the most basic need. Someone who has not eaten, do you think they can care about what they wear?”
Not eating limits the choices people can make, and forces them to take one desperate measure after another.
For example, families with limited resources must face the hard choice of whether to spend the little money they have on their children’s education or on food. “I regret my children could not attend school, but I cannot afford it,” laments Tchima. She is aware of the importance of education, particularly for women. “Girls are clearly as smart as boys.”
Solidarity among villagers
The negative effects of scarcity are absorbed by communities as a whole, since other villagers show solidarity towards those who have less. “Those who fare better have land and animals, so they can produce, eat well and, with the surplus, set up businesses, or even buy more land,” Tchima explains. “But in my case, when I wake up in the morning, I cannot give my children anything to eat,” she tells. “If my neighbor is frying doughnuts, I ask her to give me some. If someone is pounding millet, I ask for some. People know I have nothing, and they are in no obligation to help me, but they still give me a part of what they have, and I try my best to pay it back later on.”
Like many others, Tchima acquires debt. “It is always debt in kind, something to eat, for a value between 4,000 and 7,000 CFA francs a month,” between eight and 14 U.S. dollars. In a country where GDP per capita is 626 U.S. dollars, these amounts are not negligible.
In many cases, people have not got time to recover and pay back the debt they incurred during the last food crisis that barely ended two years ago.
CARE’s support has helped people to get back on track. “I have used some of the cash to pay back my debt and I have stopped begging – I will never forget it,” says Tchima with a smile. “As of now, I only have 5,000 CFA francs of debt. So, today after I get the 13,000 CFA francs from the project, my first reaction will be to repay my debt. I will still have 8,000 left, so next I will buy some millet and cook it, and tonight I will savor a big pot of porridge with my children. That, by itself, is a huge moral satisfaction. After that, I am trying to tighten my belt and not to get into more debt.”
Benefits for the community
With funding from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department and the World Food Programme, CARE is supporting 11,377 families in the regions of Maradi, Tahoua and Zinder.
Participants work six days a week and get a cash payment of 25,000 CFA francs (50 U.S. dollars) a month. The work is completed in in the morning, so people have time to get additional income the rest of the day. In households where nobody can perform work, people receive the same amount of cash. The community selects the households to benefit from this measure, and a committee addresses any complaints. CARE’s partner microfinance institution, Asusu, handles the payments.
Even though the primary goal of this activity is to inject cash so people can cover their immediate basic needs, it also brings longer-term benefits to the communities, which propose and select environment and infrastructure projects where the participants’ manpower will be used. In the case of Sarkin Yamma, people are turning an unused piece of land into pastures. After removing weeds, they seed grains which will germinate during the rainy season and create a new area for cattle to graze.
Tchima is aware of the benefits of this project for the community. “Independently of how much money I make, we are part of a village. It contributes to our solidarity link. We will have a grazing area for the future.”