First Person

Hunger in the Sahel

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“Five years ago the world ignored warning signs from Niger, failed to act rapidly, and lives were lost. The international community cannot make the same mistake again.”

Women dig through anthills in search of small amounts of grain the insects have stored there. Photo by Oxfam
Women dig through anthills in search of small amounts of grain the insects have stored there. Photo by Oxfam

Those are the words of Mamadou Biteye, a regional director for Oxfam in West Africa sounding the alarm for a food crisis that, so far, has failed to penetrate the consciousness of much of the western world. The stunning thing is it’s affecting 10 million people across the Sahel region of West Africa—10 million people who are scrambling to find enough to eat.

What does that mean?

For women in the Chadian village of Djaya, it means rising early and spending the day under the hot sun digging through anthills in search of small cashes of grain stored there by insects. If they’re lucky, some of them can scrape together about five and a half pounds from a day’s work.

For Fadoul Acheul, a farmer in Mongo, Chad, who has eight children, the crisis means he had to sell his last ram to buy food for his family—but it was only enough to last a week.

Drought across the Sahel has triggered the crisis, robbing farmers of healthy harvests and shrinking the pasture on which herders depend to feed their livestock. Chad, Mali, and Niger are the worst hit. And the news from Niger this week makes Biteye’s words more haunting. IRIN, the UN news agency, reported on Monday that acute malnutrition rates among children younger than five had climbed 42 percent higher than it was this time a year ago—to 17 percent. That’s almost half a million kids in Niger.

Oxfam has been lobbying governments for a speedier response to the crisis, but it’s been slow in coming. At the recent G8 and G20 summits in Canada, global leaders made no mention of the deep problems in the Sahel.

Our world is full of trouble right now. Here in the US we’re consumed by the ramifications of the massive British Petroleum oil spill on the Gulf Coast. Haiti is struggling to recover from an earthquake in January that killed nearly 230,000 of its citizens and destroyed much of its capital. Conflict in Somalia has left almost half the population—3.2 million people—in need of assistance. The complexity of issues that feed these problems is hard to untangle. They’re taking a lot of our energy—and time.

But hunger won’t wait. Ten million people in West Africa need our help now. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+