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Niger: One woman’s story

I couldn’t believe how many people were looking at me. I had expected a family of four, maybe five people. Not the twenty women and children all sat in the dust waiting expectedly for me to speak.

I’m not in a rural village in the middle of Niger. I’m in Niamey – Niger’s capital – at dusk and I’m looking at a crowd of people who left their village a month ago.

The simple reason: they had no food. They risked everything and made a five-day journey to the capital city in an attempt to survive.

This is one woman’s story. Hassia’s story.

“We were farmers at home. In our village we would farm millet, beans, peanuts, sorghum, sesame and corn – nothing worked. There wasn’t any rain so the millet got this tall… [she gestures to a few inches above the ground]… and then it died.

“From the very start we knew it wouldn’t be OK. You’d plant and it would die; you’d plant and it would die. There weren’t even wild leaves on the trees to eat.  I have never seen a year this bad. 2005 and 2010 were not as bad as this.

“We came on a donkey that we borrowed. Others walked. It took us five days. We had nothing to eat – we went hungry. Sometimes we begged. Usually people only gave us water but sometimes they gave us millet for the children.”

Where are all the men?

As Hassia continues to talk and more women gather around, it dawns on me – there are absolutely no men here.  I ask her why.

“My husband took off. He went to Benin to find money. Since he left I haven’t heard anything – I don’t know when he’ll come back. All of the men have left to look for money – no one has sent any back.

“All the young men have gone into Niamey in search of food. We have come to Niamey in hard times before but this time more people than ever have come. Everybody came.

“A lot of people are doing domestic work here to survive. But they don’t want to take people who have children – so we can’t find any work. We depend on charity and gifts. We also go out to people’s houses and scrub their pots and pound their millet in return for food, but we are starving.”

“Husseini, one of my twins, has lesions all over his legs and back because of infections.”

His skin is cracked, red raw and painful. He is only four years old.

There are many consequences of crop failures and hunger – one less considered is education.

“Nafisa, my daughter, had to leave school. Many children have had to leave school. The boys have gone to Koranic schools – we worry about the boys who have gone there. We hope it’s better but we don’t know what it’s like. They had to go because of the hunger.”

Another girl in the group, Zurera, quietly explains:

“This year was my last year of primary school. I’m unhappy about leaving my school. I had to say goodbye to some of my school friends.”

This confirms my worst fears.

In times of crisis, children often drop out of school to support their families to earn a living or cut down on costs. Migration represents yet another cause of school drop-outs.

As I get up to leave, I ask one final question: Where are the elderly?

“The only people left in the village are the old people. They were too weak to walk here. There is no one to help them – they’re on their own,” says Hassia.

I started to ask what will happen to them? Then I realise the naivety of my question and fall silent.

One woman overheard, walks over and angrily asks the group, “Why didn’t you put them on the donkey cart?”

There is no answer.

It strikes me these women don’t have many choices left.

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