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Last Updated: Monday, 1 August 2005, 04:59 GMT 05:59 UK
Niger's tiny victims of hunger
By Barnaby Phillips
BBC News, Niger

Maina is 10 months old.

Her tiny body moves up and down with each fast, laboured breath.

Malnourished child
MSF says there is a mortality rate of about 5% in its camps

The contours of her ribcage are outlined through her emaciated chest. Loose flaps of skin hang from her limbs.

She stares at me with big, apparently beseeching eyes. Her mother Kaswa is laying next to her, apparently in good health.

"There was nothing left in the village to eat so we came here and left the other children behind," Kaswa says.

This is the emergency feeding centre in Tahoua, a small town on the edge of the Sahara Desert, about 480km (300 miles) north-east of Niger's capital, Niamey.

The feeding centre is run by Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), whose Johanna Sakannus says she expects the number of children to rise in the weeks ahead.

"We know that the month of August is always difficult here," she says.

"It's the last month before the harvest and it's the rainy season so we expect diseases like malaria and diarrhoea. I would be very surprised if the number of malnourished children here does not go up."

Severe hunger

Behind us, workmen are expanding the camp and building new, more permanent structures. Most of the children being treated here will recover.

"These kids are very tough and resilient," Dr Milton Tektonidis says. "They're just hungry. Give them food and wow, in 10 days they are OK."

But not everyone does pull through. MSF says there is a mortality rate of about 5% in its camps for malnourished children in Niger.

Given that MSF has admitted about 15,000 children this year, that amounts to approximately 750 deaths.

Of course, the fear is that many children are not making it to the camps.

Niger's population is spread out across a vast landscape.

"We're seeing severe hunger," another aid worker says.

"It varies from village to village depending on how much rain they received last year or the fertility of their soils."

Deceptively green

We headed south from Tahoa and drove nearly 100km to the village of Yamma. We had been told that half of all the children in Yamma are now malnourished.

Niger Aid
Aid is finally reaching Niger

The last part of our journey was on a bumpy mud track. After some good rains in recent weeks Niger's landscape is deceptively green and many rivers are full of water.

Yamma is a collection of mud huts with a beautiful ornate mosque, also built from mud. The chief, Moussa Ahmadu, was wrapped in a majestic yellow turban.

He told me that he had never seen such hunger as this year. He showed me his crumpled and creased ID document lovingly stored in a plastic folder.

It says he was born in "about 1932" and that he was appointed a chief by the French authorities in 1959.

Moussa took us around the village. We walked along narrow sandy lanes. Superficially everything seemed fine. Women were pounding millet, children were running and playing.

But inside several huts we met several mothers with young children who were obviously in desperate trouble.

The children were stunted, with swollen bellies and yellow hair.


In one hut we met Saadi, whose two-year-old son Mahaya died last month. Saadi started crying when I asked how it happened.

"I knew he was hungry and I had to get him to a clinic," she said. "But we could not find the money for the taxi ride."

Even at the best of times, Niger is an extremely poor country with about one in four children dying before their fifth birthday and only about 18% of the population knowing how to read and write.

On the UN's human development index, Niger rates 176th out of 177 countries.

Now the combination of a poor harvest in 2004 and an invasion of locusts has pushed Niger over the edge.

"It makes me angry," says Johanna Sakannus of MSF.

"I'm very sad about this situation. It could have been avoided if the international community had sent in resources earlier."

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