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Niger: Behind the scenes with the BBC

It’s always a bit strange meeting someone whose voice you’ve heard so often on the radio but never seen what they look like in the flesh. Before meeting Mike Thomson – reporter for BBC Radio 4 Today Programme – I did a quick google on him to find a picture.

In reality the picture didn’t look like him at all so it wasn’t much help!

I met Mike and his colleague, Ed in Zinder – the old French colonial capital of Niger. Apparently the capital had to move to the present day location because the city ran out of water.

That was back in 1926 and the water situation certainly hasn’t improved. In fact only 32% of people have access to drinking water in many rural areas – 80% of under 5 deaths are linked to unclean water and poor sanitation.

Although Zinder may have been the former colonial capital it really didn’t show any signs of its former glory. In the short time I was there it didn’t seem to offer much at all.

It was run down, dirty and dusty and didn’t seem to have any of the hustle and bustle you normally associate with African towns.

I met Mike and Ed for dinner in a very basic restaurant – apparently one of only a couple of restaurants to choose from in Zinder – and one of those ones with a long menu but not very much available from it, in fact we were told there was only one dish we could choose!

What was bizarre was that in a town where there was nothing, in a restaurant where only one dish was available they had managed to find an enormous flat screen TV to show the football! Football mania and what it does to people’s priorities will never cease to amaze me!

After our ‘gourmet’ meal we set off early the next morning on what was to become the start of a very long road trip. I took Mike and Ed to one of our clinics for severely malnourished children.

There we met Habsatou and her seven month old son, Djibril, who was in a very bad state. When he was admitted to the clinic he only weighed 2.8 kg.

That’s less then a newborn’s weight should be. His target weight, the weight he must reach before he is discharged from the clinic is 4.5kg. He has a long way to go.

That night there was a massive sand storm with very high winds and torrential rain. I was worrying about the crops that people had just planted and hoping that that the rain wouldn’t damage these fragile new shoots.

What I didn’t think about was whether the UN plane that was going to be taking us back to Niamey – shortening a 14 hour road journey to a one hour 30 min flight – would be damaged by the high winds! The plane was badly damaged and wasn’t air worthy. So 1000km here we come!

Looking on the bright side, what this meant was I had the opportunity to show Mike and Ed a lot more of what was going on in Niger.

Driving through one small village we encountered a swarm of brightly dressed women. We stopped to find out what was going on. It was one of 30 Save the Children blanket feeding distribution points in this one district.

Blanket feeding is where we give all mothers with children under the age of two a ration of corn, soya, sugar and oil mixture. The idea is to reach all potentially vulnerably children before they become malnourished.

It also gives us the chance to check all the children who we’re distributing to and to refer those who are already badly malnourished to our clinics.

Mike and Ed were beginning to see the scale of the problem – as the queues of women shouted out to them that their food ran out months ago, that they were living off wild berries and leaves and that this is the worst they’ve ever seen.

Our next stop was another one of our clinics for severely malnourished children – this one is located in one of the worst hit districts of Niger.

The beds were all full up and Save the Children’s amazing Dr Mourou, who runs the clinic, was telling us he was expecting to have to put two or three children to a bed over the coming months as the situation gets worse.

We still had more than 500km to drive! Plenty of time for Mike to start editing his piece for the Monday morning bulletin as we bumped along the long straight road towards Niamey.

Listen to Mike’s feature on BBC iplayer

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