Food Crisis Empties Niger Schools

A nutritionist assesses the health of a child in the Sahel: red indicates severe malnutrition.  - Kristin Palitza/IPS
A nutritionist assesses the health of a child in the Sahel: red indicates severe malnutrition. - Kristin Palitza/IPS
  • by Souleymane Maâzou (niamey)
  • Inter Press Service

According to the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the country's second-largest city, Zinder, large-scale movements of people have been observed, particularly from the Gouré and Tanout regions, both north of Zinder, towards areas with better harvests, such as Magaria, in the south of the country, and Matameye, in the west.

According to estimates from the Ministry of Education, around 45,000 children have left school this year for reasons linked to the food crisis.

Mamane Sani, 13, followed his parents from their village, Marmari, in Gouré, to Zinder.

A few months ago, Sani was in school, but he is now working as a domestic for a large family in Zinder. Every morning, while other children his age are in class, Sani can be found in the streets selling spices on behalf of the family he works for.

He spends his afternoons fetching water from boreholes some three kilometres outside the city. And in the evenings, he can only fall into bed exhausted after he's finished with the laundry and dishes for the household of 20.

'It's hard here,' Sani told IPS. 'I was happier in the village, and I miss my classmates too.'

In a bid to help children stay in school, the Nigerien government and its technical and financial partners have opened temporary canteens for students in the areas worst affected by the food crisis.

But absences from school have been observed throughout Niger's famine-struck regions.

'A dozen children went missing from my class in March,' said Ali Moussa, a teacher in Goubdi, also in Gouré. 'And those students still haven't come back. From what I've been able to find out, they left with their parents.'

But many of the children swept up in this internal migration have arrived alone in cities like Zinder and the capital, Niamey, in search of work.

'I have been in Niamey for three months,' said Hassane Issa, 15. 'My father left before me. My mother, my brothers and my sisters stayed behind in the village. My family has nothing left to eat. Every week, I send money back to the village from what I'm making as a shoe shiner.'

Issa said he is earning the equivalent of 46 dollars per month, from which he sends about 34 dollars home to his family.

He told IPS that he didn't want to leave his home in the southwestern Nigerien village of Daytagui, where he was in his fifth year of secondary school. 'I wanted to continue at school, but that's not possible with an empty stomach,' he said.

The western part of Niger is among the areas facing acute food shortages. Just weeks after the harvest, many households had already exhausted their small stocks of food. Whole families left their villages to come to the city in search of work.

The Agriculture Ministry attributes the poor harvest to drought that set in after the 2011 rainy season ended early, as well as to damage to growing crops from locust swarms. According to statistics from the ministry, the grain shortfall for 2012 is roughly 500,000 tonnes, 14 percent of the total needs of the country's 16 million inhabitants.

A November 2011 inquiry by the government found that more than 4.5 million Nigeriens face food and nutritional insecurity.

The government estimates that the rate of infant malnutrition has now passed the 'alert' level in seven of the country's eight regions. In the west, the malnutrition rate stands at 14 percent, approaching the 15 percent level designated as an emergency by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The exodus has been slowed somewhat by the distribution of free food by international NGOs and local associations since February, and an accompanying drop in the price of staple foods. The government began its own distribution of food aid in June.

'The sale of grain at controlled prices and the free distribution of staples, organised by the authorities — with the support of humanitarian organisations — has reduced the pace of migration. If not for this, you would find schools completely empty,' Amadou Boukari, a member of Gouré's school governing board, told IPS.

© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service