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Niger: the end of the rains

I arrived in Niger almost three months ago. The rainy season was just starting.  It’s hard to overstate the importance of the rains here – when 86% of people live off 11% of the land, where animals are the main source of wealth, and where water is precious — the rains can make or break people’s lives. The 2009 rains were erratic and 7.1 million people have suffered the effects — another bad year would have been impossible to manage.

Before the rain makes the situation better, it makes it worse. Between the week I arrived and last week, the number of children being brought to Save the Children when they were sick rose from 2,000 children per week to over 15,000.

Malaria has erupted, with 1.5 million cases recorded this year in Niger compared to 1 million by this time last year. The worst floods in 80 years have hit the capital, Niamey, and the worst in 30 years hit the former capital, Zinder. Over 50,000 animals perished. Around 9,000 families have been made homeless. There have been outbreaks of cholera in all three of the regions where Save the Children works, and nearly 800 cases nationally. There have been threats against foreigners, seven people have been kidnapped, another person tragically executed.

Every week there’s been something new to deal with. There are days when it’s felt like being in the apocalypse, and the idea that a few people could do anything to make this better just seemed farcical.

But then when you focus on the positives you realise how many of them there are:

  • Dr Morou, working every single day at the clinic with children close to death but always ready with a grin when you arrive.
  • International coverage of the crisis by reporters from BBC World and Today, Sky TV, ABC, and more, who have work so hard to get this in the news.
  • The generosity of people in the UK who have given their money to a country they’ll probably never visit and may never have heard of before. Thanks to them we have £150,000 more to spend then we did when I arrived.
Djamila playing with my sunglasses and posing for a photo

And the children can tell you that, despite the appalling numbers, there’s a lot to be happy about. Djamila, who earlier this year was begging on the street is now back in her village and hoping to return to school. Tsiharou, who struggled to breathe without oxygen three months ago, is now healthy and at home. Rahina, who was barely conscious when she was brought to us, is now getting regular medical treatment in her village and plays with her family.

And now the rains have ended. The harvest has begun; in most places it’s a good one. Rates of malaria are starting to drop. Malnutrition rates will soon start to drop too, as children who were beginning to suffer are saved from becoming critically ill with the new abundance of food, and critically ill children are nursed back to health. The price of cereals in the market are lower than the average for this time of year. Animals are fattening.

This is the time when the real work begins though. Niger is the least developed country in the world. There’s one hospital in the entire country. Families think going hungry for four months is normal. People’s lives are threatened because it doesn’t rain. People’s lives are threatened because it does.

It’s not the apocalypse here though. It’s nothing like it. It’s poverty. We can’t make the rain fall where and when it’s needed, but we can stop it mattering so much.

Building families’ resilience so they’re not living such a marginal existence will mean that when another harvest fails — and it will — they can cope. We need to invest in families now to put back what has been lost during the crisis. People are in debt; they’ve sold everything for food. And we need to invest systems too — in better access to clean water, health care, farming techniques, micro-credit schemes and schools — so that in the future, Niger’s population don’t suffer.

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