Mintou ad her family. Credit: CAFOD

Nick Harrop is a writer for Cafod (Caritas England and Wales). He has just return from a mission in Niger and give his first impression on the food crisis growing up in the country.

During the last few days, I’ve had the chance to ask several people in Niger how this year’s food crisis compares with previous ones. They’ve all said the same thing: it’s the worst one they can remember.

Mintou, a grandmother living in a village about three hours’ drive from the capital, said: “There was one year when it was very bad, which we call ‘kantchakalague’. Maybe we can compare this year that that one. But I think this year is worse.”

“Does ‘kantchakalgue’ mean famine?” I asked Tchadi from our partner CADEV (Caritas Niger), who was translating.

“No, not famine,” he said. “Literally, it means tiredness, thinness, a time when people are thin and animals are overwhelmed. A time when even if you kill an animal, you will find no meat inside. It’s a special word that people here give to 1984. We will have to see if they give this year a name as well.”

In a normal year, the harvest in November would produce enough food for the people in the village to last all year. But the harvest last year was disastrous, and people in Mintou’s village have already run out of food.

“We have never known a time like this,” said Ramatu, one of Mintou’s neighbours. “We planted sorghum, millet, groundnuts – and then the rainfall just stopped. There wasn’t sufficient water so the crops couldn’t grow. Instead of grains and seeds, we have nothing.

“There are some days when I have nothing to give my children. In the morning and the afternoon you can go without eating. But at night you have to go out and find food. You cannot spend a day without eating.”

I was struck by how resourceful Mintou and Ramatu were. They work hard collecting firewood or foliage for animals, and make brushes or mattresses out of old millet stalks so they have something to sell for a few francs at the local market. Both women also talked about the amazing solidarity in the village. But the village’s food stores are almost empty, and people have little left to share.

“There are times when my grandchildren hold me and say grandma, we need to eat,” said Mintou. “I don’t have anything. When the children say ‘I’m hungry, please give me some food,’ my heart will be beating and I will be in trouble. Even when the rain starts falling, it will take another three months before the harvest. I have eight months in the darkness. I am afraid of the future.”

There’s still time to prevent this crisis becoming a catastrophe. If the world acts now, 2012 doesn’t need to be another ‘kantchakalague’