June 1, 2010 - The last time I visited Koma Bangou, Niger, was two years ago. Back then, I thought it was one of the poorest and most desperate places I had ever seen.
Koma Bangou is a mining area — very hot, dry, and with poor access to drinking water. The community is made up of people who migrate from all over Niger and neighboring countries.
A large river bed on the road to Koma Bangou, Niger is almost completely dried up. People and animals try to make use of the little water that's left before it disappears. Niger's rainy season normally starts in late April or early May, but this year, by June 1, it had only rained three times. The lack of rain means most people have not been able to begin sowing this year's harvest. The lack of rain plus the country's annual "hunger season" (the time from when cereal stocks run out until the next harvest in October) means that more than 7 million people in Niger are at risk of moderate to severe food insecurity.
They are desperately poor, trying to make a living from what is, in effect, a non-productive mine. I am glad for the opportunity to go back to Koma Bangou, but very nervous at the same time. I am worried about what we will find, given the current drought and food crisis.
‘In Africa, everyone is looking to the sky’
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/07/26/wv3_web.jpg caption="Zeinaba Abdoulaye feeds her 8-month-old daughter, Tinoumoude Guissa, with Plumpy'Nut, a read-to-use therapeutic food, at a World Vision health center in Niger. Zeinaba left her village at 6 a.m. and walked seven kilometers to bring Tinoumoude to the health center because the baby had had a fever for the past several days. Zeinaba and her husband have two other children at home, but she says there is no millet left in the house to feed her family." width=292 height=320]
On the road to Koma Bangou, all the earth is orange — a really deep terracotta orange. The trees are very sparse, and as we get closer to Koma Bangou, the orange, sandy earth gives way to very rocky soil.
I remember a conversation I had with a colleague, Moussa, the day before.
He told me that it has only rained two or three times so far this rainy season. Normally, it should start to rain in late April and continue through September. On hearing this, my heart sinks.
This isn’t just about communities trying to make it through the annual “lean season,” which are typically the months running up to the October harvest. It could mean that even this year’s planting and upcoming harvests are at risk. It’s not what I wanted to hear.
We drive by another river bed; this time, there is a small amount of water in it. Others are completely dry. We pass two Fulani herders, and the angular bones of their skinny cattle stick out.
Again, I think of a conversation from the day before. “In Africa, everyone is looking to the sky,” someone had said to me. “Communities do not understand the rain patterns anymore.”
How can they, I wonder, given the changes in seasonal rainfall?
Help for the hungry
Two-year-old Jamila's baggy skin is a symptom of severe acute malnutrition. The little girl was brought to one of World Vision's health centers in Koma Bangou, Niger. In Koma Bangou, health workers have already identified 53 cases of severe acute malnutrition, up from 22 cases recorded for all of 2009.
We arrive at the health care center in Koma Bangou; it’s time to start working. The community volunteers and health workers trained by World Vision were in full swing when we arrived, already weighing and assessing the children and babies for malnutrition.
I start to photograph the babies, and I feel my stomach turn over every time I hold the camera up and see another skinny body in front of me. It seems like baby after baby is suffering from severe malnutrition.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/07/26/wv4_web.jpg caption="A community health volunteer weighs 12-month-old Mariam at a health center in Koma Bangou, Niger. Mariam lives with her 19-year-old mother, Baraka, nearby. Baraka said she cried when she found out her daughter was severely malnourished. She said she would like to feed her child but often has no food to give her." width=292 height=320]
The day we spent in Koma Bangou, 13 new cases of acute severe malnutrition were identified — bringing the current total of severe cases in this one health care center to 53 in just three weeks. I am told by health staff at the center that last year, there were just 22 severe malnutrition cases for the entire year. The comparison is startling.
World Vision has received a $1 million grant from the United States' Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance to implement an emergency nutrition intervention in Niger. The grant will provide food for nearly 28,000 malnourished children over the course of one year. To help support World Vision's response in Niger, please visit www.worldvision.org/nigercrisis or call your members of Congress and ask them to support the Global Food Security Act, legislation that would make a significant contribution toward reducing hunger by investing in sustainable agriculture and nutrition programs.
Jill Dougherty | Bio
U.S. Affairs Correspondent
It’s 7 a.m. on a cold Thanksgiving morning and 500 volunteers at Food & Friends already are at work wrapping up turkey dinners – 3,000 of them. A whole roast turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans and three pies.
Another team of volunteers picks up the boxes and heads for their cars to deliver the dinners to Food and Friends’ clients: people with few financial resources and many health challenges, including HIV/Aids and cancer.
For twenty years, Food and Friends has been providing them with nutritionally balanced meals, three per day, delivered six days a week – for free. “People are making difficult choices in this community between paying for their medical care and eating,” says Craig Shniderman, executive director, “and the job of Food & Friends is to make sure that, for our clients at least, they don't have to make that choice.”
Editor's Note: Actress Drew Barrymore is an Ambassador Against Hunger for the U.N.' s World Food Program.
Special to CNN
I made my first trip to Nairobi after reading an article in The New York Times about schools and how they can change a child's life.
Dollars could do wonders for one child in a year in Africa, providing food and education, it said, while children in so many other parts of the world have the luxury to spend that money on miscellaneous fun.
The article made me feel one person could actively help another person; that I could tangibly help a child in need. A problem that had seemed so vast, so untouchable to me, suddenly felt smaller and more contained - at least for the moment.
I picked up the phone and called the United Nations and told them that I would love to further educate myself on what they do and would more than anything love to go with them on a trip to Africa to see things firsthand.
Impact Your World: The global food market's shelves are getting bare and hunger activists say it will get worse. As the nation marks World Hunger Relief Week, more people are asking: Why are so many people starving and what, if anything, can be done to eradicate hunger? Learn how you can help
CNN Senior National Editor
The young man, wearing a shirt and a tie, turned up just as the pantry operated by an Iowa food bank was closing for the night.
He knew it was after-hours. That’s why he was there.
He kept his gaze downward as he told the woman from the food bank that he had lost his job, had a wife and kids and was too embarrassed and ashamed to stand in line to receive a bag of groceries that hopefully would feed his family for a week.
I have a master’s degree. I shouldn’t have to do this, he said.
I heard this story last December, a few weeks before the Iowa presidential caucus.
Throughout this election season I talked with professionals and volunteers at food banks and pantries across the country.
The refrain was the same from Oregon to South Carolina, from Maine to Texas: Demand was rising, easily outstripping supply.
More and more new faces were standing in line; not looking anyone else in the eye, hoping not to be recognized by friends or neighbors.