Newborn babies fight to survive amid drought, hunger crisis

Countries in West Africa’s Sahel region continue to experience emergency food shortages following failed rains and a poor harvest last year. The story of Yadou Abdou and her young children puts a human face on this crisis.

By Ann Birch, World Vision Niger.
Published May 15, 2012 at 12:00am PDT

Across the Sahel region of West Africa, as many as 15 million people are affected by desperate food shortages — the result of prolonged drought, poor harvests, and high food prices. In Niger alone, 6 million people are said to be in need of immediate assistance.

It is easy and sometimes convenient to talk about numbers like these. Admittedly, they are helpful in this type of context, as they can show the huge impact of a failed harvest in a country almost entirely dependent on subsistence farming.

However, these same figures can be so overwhelming that they mask the paralyzing effects that such a crisis has on the lives of men, women, and children. Those people are the mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, grandmothers and grandfathers at the heart of this human calamity.

They’re the people who, at the beginning of the sowing season about a year ago at this time, rejoiced in the first rains that fell, and had optimistically hoped and prayed for a good harvest. But they watched as their hard labor and meager resources resulted in almost nothing, because of what turned into irregular rains and attacks of worms and locusts on crops.

These are the conditions that have led to heartwrenching stories like this one from a health clinic in Niger.

A place of desperation

A fatigued Yadou Abdou holds her newborn twin daughters at the clinic. (Photo: Ann Birch/World Vision)At the clinic is a familiar scene: large numbers of women and babies clamoring to be seen by government health workers and community volunteers, who are trained by World Vision. It’s very loud, as mothers talk all at once to get attention, and babies cry and scream.

I see a tired nurse put her head in her hands. Later, she tells me that they treat a constant stream of moms and babies every day.

Yadou Abdou is a mother of twin baby girls and an 8-year-old daughter, Mariama. The woman appears tired and confused as she sits down on the floor in the health center. She says she walked more than nine miles to the clinic from her village. Her older daughter helped her carry the twins.

Yadou has no breast milk. Obviously, she is malnourished herself. She had been trying to feed her babies with goat and cow milk, which only made them sick. She says that insects destroyed their crops, leaving her family with nothing to eat.

Gently, she tries to put drops of water into the mouths of her daughters, using the tips of her fingers. I’m told by the health staff at the clinic that most likely she will have to be referred to a hospital, as the supplementary feeding program is only suitable for babies aged 6 months to 59 months — not newborns.

In these health centers, World Vision also collaborates on feeding programs for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and I wonder whether Yadou will be able to benefit from such an intervention. Sadly, I have to leave the health center before finding out what happened to her.

I watch as health workers show her where to line up with other mothers so that she can be examined. And I can only hope that she and her little girls found a solution to their immediate needs.

Widespread crisis

Mariama, Yadou's 8-year-old daughter, helped carry the twins to the clinic. (Photo: Ann Birch/World Vision)It is difficult to comprehend just how devastating the failed harvest and food crisis is to Niger. This is the largest country in West Africa — almost twice the size of Texas. Its population of almost 16 million people is distributed across a vast terrain, although mostly in the southern belt.

Niger’s population that is almost completely dependent on subsistence farming — so when a harvest fails, a family’s food supply for the coming year disappears. As if this isn’t bad enough, there is, of course, drastically less millet for sale on the open market, which means higher prices. Therefore, even if a family once had money to buy their food instead of growing it, they can no longer afford to do so. Many families have had to start selling off their animals — normally a precious asset — just to purchase a small amount of food.

Without prompt intervention, the drought and hunger crisis has the potential to escalate to the level of severity that devastated the Horn of Africa region last year. Please join with World Vision as we work to save lives.

Learn more

Read more stories and commentary about the West Africa food crisis on the World Vision Blog.

Three ways you can help

Please lift up in prayer the children, families, and communities affected by the drought and hunger crisis in the Sahel region of West Africa. Pray for rains to return soon, and pray for a successful harvest this year. Pray, too, that God would bring assistance to those who are suffering most.

Make a one-time gift to help provide life-saving food and care to children suffering from hunger and malnutrition in places like Niger. Your donation will help World Vision deliver inteventions like emergency food aid, clean water, nutritional training, agricultural support, and more to those in greatest need.

Sponsor a child in Niger today. Sponsorship provides an extra safety net during times of emergency, like the current hunger crisis, and helps deliver critical support like nutritious food, clean water, and medical care to a boy or girl in need.