For the northern tribes of Niger, the severity of a food crisis can be measured on a scale of piles of bones versus cheese.
In bad years, these nomadic tribes of herdsmen leave piles of cow carcasses in their wake. Animals that die from lack of food are left behind because no one has the time or tools to prepare them to be cooked. But in good years, the nomads have enough animals producing milk that they can make and sell cheese. Nomadic women dry the cheese on wooden slats in the sun, and then sell it at market to raise money to feed their cattle and themselves.
This year, the bones won out.
The roadsides are littered with piles of corpses – those of cows as well as other animals. Death and starvation are visible everywhere, said Donnie Hebert, a development worker with Youth With a Mission (JEMED), which partners with Tearfund to provide aid to nomadic herders in the north.
“I have never seen that many dead animals,” he said. “You couldn’t go too far without seeing something dead.”
“Bad is an understatement. Catastrophic would be close to an understatement,” Hebert continued. “It has a façade — even though everyone’s screaming famine, life goes on … I’ve had close friends go a week without eating anything of real sustenance and not breathe a word of it. That’s life here.”
Hebert, a headscarf and robe-clad Westerner with a soft Louisiana drawl, has been working with nomads in Abalak, in central Niger, for 10 years. He and his wife are the only white people in the area, he said.
The north is more dangerous, especially for Westerners, since the al-Qaeda faction in the Islamic Maghreb announced their intention to kidnap Westerners in the area. Perhaps because of this, the nomadic areas in central and northern Niger are relatively untouched by foreign aid, Hebert said. Most of the many NGOs in the country are based in the beltway between Niamey and Maradi, aiding the Hausa people who farm those areas, and much aid funding designated for the north is siphoned off before it reaches the ground through either government corruption or poorly coordinated NGO operations. As a result, northern tribes are low on the list, ignored or forgotten when crises hit.
During the peak of this year’s crisis, cattle values plummeted from roughly $500 to around $10 per head, Hebert said. And even in a good year, food prices — for cattle and humans — spike during the four-month “hungry time,” forcing herders to sell more cattle for money to feed the ones they keep.
Poor crops also mean nomads must expand their grazing areas, sometimes walking hundreds of miles to find land for animals. Locals overgraze land in the north, where nomads from neighboring countries also graze their animals, causing land and food shortages even in good years. To cut down on overgrazing, Hebert teaches nomads about land ownership and rights.
JEMED and Tearfund have worked since early this year to stock grain banks in the northern part of the country and, with an animal loan program, restock herds decimated over the year. The organizations buy an initial stock of animals for the community, then the community takes responsibility for loaning out the animals’ offspring.
Food crisis or not, Hebert is bombarded with requests for help. “You have people literally every day on your doorstep asking for help,” he said. “If you’re a project, everybody knows you. You’re the money. Every time you open your door there’s somebody saying I’ve got this, I need that.”
Over his 10 years of work, Hebert has seen some slow improvements. Villages out in the bush near Abalak are healthier economically and nutritionally, but the process could be accelerated by improved international aid. The media coverage Niger receives in crisis years still tends to highlight only underlying, chronic problems, like the years of drought accentuating food scarcity concerns.
“There’s a lot of this idea, ok, we have a crisis, let’s throw some millet out, feed them —get them through this crisis. When the rain comes it’s going to be ok,” Hebert said. “The crisis portion of aid is only a very small portion, and it’s just the beginning. Because once you keep these people alive, then comes the post-crisis. What do you do with it after they’ve lost all their animals and have no means to support themselves?”