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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 August 2005, 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK
Niger diary III: Food trickles in
Mark Snelling
Mark Snelling: "A bag of food change hands from us to them. It's a good moment."

Mark Snelling is a member of the British Red Cross Society's Emergency Response Unit in Niger.

He has been keeping a diary for the BBC News website.

In his third entry he is impressed by the dedication of local aid staff - but also realises the problem goes much deeper than food shortages.

Monday 1 August

Mija is excited. We will be able to do a distribution in Bambeye today. She has found a source of Unimix (ahead of the main delivery this week), the staff have been trained, so she decides to go ahead.

When we arrive, a couple of hundred mothers and their children are there already. The volunteers have been weighing and registering children and have started issuing the all-important registration cards that they will present in order to receive their ration.

And so it begins.

Predictably, there is a job to do to get the crowd into a manageable queue and the relief co-ordinator from the Niger Red Cross takes on the task.

Farmer and daughters
Farmers cannot afford enough seeds to sow their lands
I have no idea what he says, but the women listen and eventually fall into a line.

Medecins Sans Frontiers is running a therapeutic centre in the same compound for the acute cases; the moderate cases (a misnomer if ever there was one) come to us.

For the first time since we arrived, I see a bag of food change hands from us to them. It's a good moment.

There will be mothers who turned up today who won't have received a ration. But we leave knowing that the system is up and running and much more will be along soon.

Sunday 31 July

Mija and Dr Yao carry on with the training of another group of feeding centre volunteers. The first session was yesterday in Tahoua town. Today they move to the commune of Bambeye, 35km west of Tahoua, which will be one of the province's three main supplementary feeding centres.

Mother and child
Food distribution is beginning
It's a crash course. In order to make the correct assessments, the volunteers are drilled in weighing and measuring children, mixing the Unimix with oil to the correct specifications, and running the registration process so that there is no duplication in the distributions.

Walking around the village, it is again clear that the problems here are far more complex than a straightforward shortage of food.

I pass a stall where skewers of beef grill slowly over a charcoal fire. A bag of flour sits inside the door of a local trader.

There is food around, but another nuance that demands understanding here is that Niger, like everywhere else, has its own haves and have-nots. A couple of kilometres outside the commune, I meet the latter.

Idrissa Sallaw rakes the sand with his two daughters. A few meagre shoots of millet struggle through the earth.

Aside from the girls working with him, Idrissa has a wife and three other children, the youngest of whom is three.

"It's a disaster for me," he tells me. He can only cultivate about one fifth of his half-hectare, as he could not afford any more seeds.

Added to that, the cost of a small bowl of millet has gone up from 400 CFA (60 US cents) last year to 1,000 CFA. According to reliable reports, the drought last year did not erase as much of the annual harvest as people think.

Natural causes played their part, but so did the remorseless pressures of the open market.

His eldest son goes off to work for another farmer, but brings home a pittance; about enough to feed the little one. I dare not ask him if he realises that his crop is too feeble to survive, even if the rains are good. I leave him alone.

Saturday, July 30

Eric and I set off early with a group of volunteers from the Niger Red Cross, which has organised a small distribution in Tigar, a village some 15km north of Tahoua.

Malnourished child
Poverty, as much as drought, has caused the hunger
Having completed most of the wider assessments in the region, Eric wants to get a feel for what our local colleagues are doing.

As we head out from Tahoua, the mechanics of this crisis become ever more evident.

The rains may have started well, and many crops may be growing nicely, but for those without either a fertile block of land or enough money to buy seeds, it might as well be raining on Mars.

On arrival in Tigar, it is - once again - not what I expected. At first glance, the villagers look to be in pretty good shape. This is not Ethiopia in 1984.

But a closer look, particularly at the children, yields a clearer picture.

Some are indeed running around, happy and excited at the arrival of outsiders bearing food. Others, though, stare blankly.

A mother walks past with a baby strapped to her back. It doesn't cry, it doesn't make a sound. Its head lolls listlessly, a classic symptom of malnutrition. Another little girl has a skin disorder and a tiny but evil bronchitic cough; again, not hard to diagnose.

Villagers show us the dried grass that has been their sole food for more months than they care to remember.

Foreign media have made much of the eating of grass here as an indicator of desperation. Once again, the story is not quite that simple.

There are many types of so-called wild food - grass and plants included - that are eaten by everybody in this country, all year round.

The difference this year is that for so many of them, there is absolutely nothing now to go with it.

The distribution is very, very small: 20 cases of dates and three 100kg sacks of millet. But the dedication of the local volunteers moves me.

Expatriate aid workers can come and go. If we get sick or injured or even overly threatened, we can evacuate back to the smooth comforts of London, Geneva, or New York.

For all local staff, this is their world and their suffering, come hell or high water. In many cases, it's both.

Do you have any questions about the relief effort or want Mark to explain anything in his diary? Then drop him a line using the form below.

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