Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Paradox of hunger in Niger

Markets abound, but not everyone can enjoy bounty

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MARADI, Niger -- On the side of a highway connecting Niamey to the Burkina Faso border, bisected goat and mutton carcasses hang from the ceilings of open-air butcher shops.

At gas stations in the town of Dosso, you can pick up pineapples trucked north from Benin.

And in pretty much any community of significant size in Niger, you'll find market vendors hawking mangoes, tomatoes and purple-skinned sweet onions, bread merchants balancing metal platters of dry baguettes on their heads and dry-goods stores with bags of rice, maize and millet piled up to the ceiling.

To North American eyes, the presence of all this food seems at odds with widespread concerns about the risk of famine over the next few months. Unfortunately, the existence of food in any given country does not necessarily mean the people living there have access to it.

This hunger paradox is not unique to Niger, easily one of the world's most impoverished and environmentally degraded nations. Even in Canada, one of the world's wealthiest and most pristine nations, some people go hungry every day.

The difference, of course, is a matter of scope and depth. While very few Canadians are at imminent risk of dying from starvation or malnutrition, roughly four in five Nigeriens -- about 12 million people -- are fed by subsistence farming in a region where subsistence farming isn't working, at least right now.

As reported over the past week, somewhere between 25 to 50 per cent of Niger's agro-pastoralists are either hungry right now or running out of food because of widespread millet-crop failures in 2011 and the compounding effects of previous droughts, locust attacks or weevil infestations.

During ordinary lean years, rural Nigeriens would simply sell or consume the sheep, goats, chickens or guinea fowl they rely upon as living insurance policies. But much of this livestock is now gone, thanks to at least three widespread crop failures within the past eight years. Many rural Nigeriens have literally had no food in their granaries since last summer.

So how have they survived? Tens of thousands have received some form of food aid from non-governmental organizations, but these distributions only began over the past month.

The survival of millions more can be explained by a variety of short-term coping strategies to deal with hunger, residents of 10 rural communities said in response to the simple question: How do you manage without food?

Some say they borrow from neighbours, if they can find neighbours with any food to lend. Some men work as middlemen in the livestock trade and use the marginal profits to buy food. Some women take in similar marginal profits by buying millet and selling breakfast snacks at the market.

Those are the least desperate measures. More desperate men migrate to neighbouring Nigeria or Benin in the faint hope of finding work and sending money back home. Desperate landowners sell parts of their farms. Desperate farmers cut down precious trees and sell the wood, even though they know this is madness in the long term.

Even more desperate families water down their remaining stores of millet into a calorie-poor emergency porridge that may allow dwindling supplies to last for weeks. Even more desperate souls gather bitter leaves from nearby trees and boil them until they're tender. Yet even more desperate souls talk enthusiastically about gathering up the first grasses that emerge when the rainy season starts.

What rural Nigeriens really want is millet, which they pound, sift and finally boil into a mushy paste call tuwo. Millet is to Niger what wheat is to Canada, maize is to Mexico or rice is to Japan. Many villagers say they prefer to eat millet for dinner every night and consume the leftovers in the morning. That paste can be fried into small, savoury pancakes called masa.

For lunch, rural Nigeriens may eat rice instead of millet. They add protein to their diet by eating black-eyed peas and occasional morsels of meat. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, okra and mangoes provide fibre.

The urban Nigerien diet naturally is more varied. People who can afford to eat meat love "rice and sauce," or steamed rice topped with meat, poultry or freshwater fish from the Niger River, swimming in a tomato-based sauce flavoured with onions and intensely hot, small peppers.

Meat lovers may also purchase daché, or barbecued mutton or goat, grilled streetside over a smoky charcoal fire, chopped into bite-sized pieces and then dusted with peanut-chili salt. Street meat is also grilled on skewers as brochettes. Frites, or fried potatoes, are omnipresent.

Simple omelettes are popular for breakfast, either alone or stuffed into baguettes. Nigeriens may not be nostalgic for colonial rule, but they certainly appreciate French-baked goods. Bakeries in Niamey produce good croissants.

Coffee is instant Nescafé and tea is always Lipton. Both are served in small glass tumblers with copious quantities of sugar.

Reciting this cornucopia makes the thought of scarcity seem absurd. But at the risk of repetition, hunger is never a function of the mere quantity of food in a given location. The only thing that matters is whether the most vulnerable people have access to it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 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 and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

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


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