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Fortress of food

Bunkers get millet to the masses in an orderly fashion

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TORODI COMMUNE, Niger -- In a village of adobe-style mud-brick houses, thatched-straw storage huts and thorn-bush fences, a concrete bunker with locking metal doors looks out of place.

But this structure and dozens like it across Niger may be the most important buildings in the African nation in the coming months. Behind the metal doors sit stacks of 100-kilogram bags of millet, the staple food of the Nigerien diet -- and the crop that failed most spectacularly during the drought of 2011.

Over the past two weeks, development and relief organizations have begun distributing millet in villages across Niger, where roughly 80 per cent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture to survive.

There is more than enough food in Niger to feed the entire population of 16 million. The issue is the cost of millet, cowpeas, cooking oil and other staples have soared beyond the means of most ordinary villagers.

"There's always plenty of food around during a famine. The issue is access to that food," said Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a Winnipeg-based organization that uses a $20.8-million annual federal grant and $11 million worth of donations to help fund food programs run by other organizations.

The situation in Niger will not become an outright famine if non-governmental organizations can distribute food that's already in the region, Cornelius said.

The days of actually shipping grain across the Atlantic Ocean -- an inefficient, expensive practice that distorted grain markets in Africa -- have given way to using donations to purchase food aid as close as possible to the recipients of that aid.

In Niger, some of the food is simply given to villagers identified as vulnerable by other people in their communities. Some is sold at a subsidized price, while some is handed out in exchange for environmental remediation work such as digging shallow holes to capture more rain water.

When the food has been shipped to storage bunkers, workers do not just show up in villages and start doling out buckets of the millet. The process is a lot more orderly than westerners may expect.

Earlier this week at a small village near the border with Burkina Faso, a distribution day began with a group of mostly young men lining up in the afternoon heat outside a concrete bunker where millet is stored.

Then a representative of an international aid organization -- it will remain anonymous for security reasons -- stood up to address the crowd.

"Farmers in Canada have heard of the trouble you are experiencing and are distributing food to Nigerien farmers," said an American employed by one of the organizations funded by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Many of its donors are from rural areas of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

After a translator repeats this message in Djerma, the tribal language in this region, murmurs of approval rise from the crowd.

The aid recipients then line up to check their names against a pre-approved list of beneficiaries. Digital photos are taken to record their identities, as few people in rural Niger have birth certificates or ID cards of any sort.

Then two men hoist a bag of millet about 15 metres to a waiting donkey wagon or motorcycle and drive off with a sack intended to feed a family for a month.

The mobilization for this food-distribution program dates back to October, when farmers reported widespread millet-crop failures due to drought and in some areas, locusts.

In December, harvest statistics confirmed widespread food shortages in Niger. Then meetings were held with community leaders in January before aid organizations decided to pursue the plan.

"To be honest, we don't like doing any relief. It takes time and money and it stops development work," said one Niamey-based NGO administrator, again requesting anonymity due to the potential for kidnapping.

The increasing need for food aid in a region where marginal farmland has proven even more marginal in recent years raises an even bigger question, she said.

"If it's not sustainable for people to live off the land here, then is it wise to keep allowing them to do so?"

The alternative, however, would mean widespread social upheaval and quite likely deaths due to malnutrition and disease. Across Niger, people living in villages that receive food aid say the programs have prevented men from leaving in search of income for their hungry families.

"The men are still here," said Adiza Boulkadri, a small, slender woman living in the Songhay village of Yatakala, near the border with Mali.

Until a month's worth of millet arrived last week, her family of 13 got by on a thin porridge of millet water. Their food aid is now gone, as they shared it with neighbours who were less vulnerable but still hungry. It will be three more weeks until they get another bag.

"I'm always frustrated, but I have no choice. I have nothing," she said.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2012 A6

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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