“SHAFIQ, is your passport READY? We need a ‘senior-journalist’ to travel urgently.” Munadia, my program manager sounded positively chirpy. For just a moment, thoughts of Baghdad crossed my mind.

“Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman of the Gift of the Givers is heading to Niger,” she told me.

Dr. Sooliman is the livewire CEO of Africa’s only indigenous, “proudly South African” relief organization. The Gift of the Givers (also known as Waqful Waqifin) is an NGO with a reputation for doggedness and delivey.

Dr. Sooliman’s website proclaims inspiration from the Jerrahi Sufi order, with Gift of the Giver’s operational credo deriving from the Qur’anic adage: “| The | best among people are those who benefit mankind.”

Non-sectarian in outreach, the Gift of the Givers cut its teeth in Bosnia, and moved on to poverty relief and development programs in southern Africa. It also operated in more than 20 countries, including Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Relieved that I wasn’t on the plane to a war zone, my ears pricked up. I’d never done an aid story before. We’d already been following wire service dispatches, especially from the BBC, that Niger was suffering from a famine in which up to 3 million people were affected.

I spoke to international relief agencies, Oxfam and Muslim Hands, who confirmed this, as had Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), who pointed fingers at a slothful United Nations, as well as structural pressure foisted upon the country’s leaders by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

A drought followed by relieving rains, and then a locust outbreak across West Africa, devoured crops and reduced grazing land, pushing one of the world’s poorest countries over the edge. The warnings came in November 2004, but the world only woke up six months later.

The UN tentatively sent aid to be distributed via schools and food-forwork programs. But as the food crisis burgeoned beyond the capacity of local NGOs, millions began to starve.

Even when there was food, many Nigeriens couldn’t afford it. The dropping of government subsidies and the imposition of 19% value-added tax on basic foodstuffs at the alleged urging of the EU and IMF forced food prices to balloon nearly 100% in five years. So much so that food-price protests rocked the country in March 2005.

In addition, to abide by IMF loan conditions, the country was unforgivably forced to sell its emergency grain reserves to the highest bidder. And if that wasn’t enough, the price of uranium, the country’s only recognized (and controversial) international currency earner, slumped.

In a BBC interview just before our departure, Niger’s president Tandja Mamadou denied there was a famine. If problems were that serious, he argued, shantytowns would have mushroomed around major cities. Refugees would have poured into neighboring countries, he said.

While accepting that there were food shortages in some regions after drought and locust infestations, he said this was “not unusual” for Niger.

Johanne Sekkenes, the Niger mission head of Medecins Sans Frontieres, observed that the Niger famine was not similar to Somalia’s. It was not a crisis characterized by displaced people or political unrest. It was not a case of a people being denied access to their lands.

Just before my departure, Kate Pattison of Oxfam told me that the price of livestock (the main source of currency for food) had plummeted more than 25% due to a glutted market. This, she said, made food even more unaffordable, adding ominously that the customary agrarian lifestyle of Nigeriens was disappearing.
Dr. Giuseppe Annunziata of the World Heath Organization in Geneva said there was no famine in Niger. He defined the problem as a “food crisis” in which malnourished people-particularly infants-were more susceptible to disease. He seemed to point to Niger’s almost non-existent health system as being the chief culprit.

For us South Africans, however, Niger was virgin terrain. “This trip is unlike many others … we are going into unchartered territory with no proper infrastructure, no embassy, no visas and no partnering agency,” the irrepressible Dr. Sooliman wrote in a cheery prc-expedition email.

“Please leave some fingernails for biting in Niger. Those who’ve worked with us before know things change all the time and at short notice … your patience willbe tested, the weather will bother you … after 10 days of negotiation we are no further from where we started.”

On the plus side, our foreign affairs ministry officially sanctioned the operation. A plane was chartered and 36 tons of food and medicine were ready. The team consisted of 24 people: 12 aid workers and 12 journalists. But, we still would be flying into the unknown, a mercy mission all dressed up with possibly nowhere to go.

When I told people I was going to Niger, most replied “Oh, Nigeria!” Exasperated by that reply, I tried the French pronunciation: “Nee-jeur.”

“Uh, where’s that?”
Niger is a landlocked former French colony in the heart of Africa at the southern edge of the Sahara desert, a region known as the “Sahel,” a belt of scrubby savannah extending nearly 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) across North Africa from Gambia in the west to the Sudan in the east.

Other countries in the desert’s embrace are Guinea Bissau, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad. Most of these nations are dirt poor, with Chad and Niger the worst off. Niger’s northern neighbors are Algeria and Libya; to the west is Mali; the east is Chad and due south is Nigeria.

Islam came to North Africa before the Hijra, the Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina in 622, and by 650 Arab traders had traversed west across the Sahel searching for gold and slaves in the forests of Guinea and Ghana. The early Muslims introduced the din (religion) to the African kingdoms more by osmosis than outright propagation.

Timbuktu in Mali became Africa’s “Bukhara,” and original manuscripts of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) can still be found in neighboring Mauritania. The mud-walled city of Agadez in Niger grew into an important salt-trading Saharan crossroad. Herodotus reported on it in 440 BC and the Moroccan voyager, Ibn Battuta, passed by in 1352.

In 1076 the Almoravids, a confederation of Berbers, colonized Ghana, southwest of Niger. Other empires and dynasties followed, more particularly those of Songhai and Mali. By 1250, the Malian Empire was at its peak, its magnificent crenellated mud mosques and toron (wooden spikes) protrude from minarets sculpted two decades before the grand pavilions of Granada’s Alhambra.

In fact, the region was once so prosperous that when Mansa Musa, the ruler of Mali, performed the Ha jj in 1324, he traveled with so much gold that he transformed the economy of the towns his caravan passed through on its way to Mecca.

Today, the gold is gone. The Saharan salt caravans have dwindled to less than a trickle. Students no longer flock to the Sankore Mosque. And while the Wodaabe men may still tart up for National Geographic, population growth and global warming have wreaked environmental havoc. Two million Bedouin may be able survive in the Sahara but in the sensitive and confined Sahel, more than 60 million people have to compete for declining resources.

Since 1960, the Sahel has surrendered more than 30% of its woody plains to the sandy high tide of the desert. Conflicts from the Sudan to Senegal have emerged as nomads and farmers-no longer able to live in peaceful symbiosis-squabble over shrinking pockets of arable land.

In Niger, many destitute Tauregs, Fulanis and Hausas have been forced into the urban, rancid cities such as the capital Niamey, whose slums grow at an alarming rate. In the beautiful, but erosion-scarred plains of the Sahel, drought, hunger and disease have become a way of life.

And for those who might think that the Kyoto Protocol, an international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has no relevance, scientists have discovered that the Sahel is another evidence of the earth’s fast disintegrating eco-systems. An overload of Saharan sand blown across the Atlantic is beginning to choke the coral reefs of the Caribbean.

We landed in Niamey before dawn. Dropping out of the darkness, we hit the runway with a bump. Perched atop a pile of maize inside the Russian Ilushin, I hung on for dear life. Inside the aging behemoth, a forest of hanging cables shook like wind chimes as the metal-fatigued fuselage groaned under the G-forces.

Taxiing to a halt, the pilot shut down the screaming engines and we heaved our bags onto the runway We were met by a solitary aviation official, Mukhtar Maman, an enterprising gentleman who was well connected enough to phone the president’s office the next day.

As we drove to the Ga wave Hotel, Niamey was hot, humid and asleep. Donkeys wandered in the streets. Just after dawn, as I prepared to turn in, I looked out my window to see a Taureg herding a string of camels down the road. Welcome to Niger, I thought, bienvenue.

Whether it was being an African in an African land, or Maman’s magic, I don’t know, but by lunchtime, Dr. Sooliman reported to us a bureaucratic miracle.

Meetings with government officials had been hugely productive, he said. Apologetic for not having welcomed us at the airport (the Cote d’Ivoire Embassy had apparently failed here) we were reassured that the Gift of the Givers mission had a presidential endorsement. Displaying a heart-warming hospitality, the Nigerien government put trucks, warehouses and vehicles at Dr. Sooliman’s disposal. Protocol would be corrected that very afternoon.
Laratou Abu Bakr, a national Cabinet adviser, stood perspiring in the hot sun as TV crews filmed the Ilushin being unloaded at Niamey-airport.

“To date we’ve experienced no deaths due to the current situation,” she said in French, ostensibly to Niger’s ORT TV network. “There’s definitely malnutrition due to negligent mothers, but there’ve been no deaths.

“Several factors came together; drought, locusts and people from neighboring countries reliant on our food sources. We’ve had good rains now, and insha-Allah, we’ll get through. And I’ll say this in front of my colleagues; nobody is dying from this hunger crisis,” Ms. Abu Bakr said.

This was proud but fighting talk. The UN had just called for $50 million in aid (as opposed to a $30 million initially) and had predicted through its emergency relief head, Jan Egeland, that 150,000 Nigerien children would soon the if they were not helped.

My journalistic colleagues were not impressed. Ms. Abu Bakr soon found herself at the wrong end of a press conference. However, I saw no reward in grilling party subordinates parroting President Mamadou. Rather, my question was why in sub-Saharan Africa-my part of Africa-had we come to regard the attrition of poverty as something so normal?

We drove in a convoy north out of Niamey the next morning. I could see that it had rained recently. The Niger River was flowing strongly as men paddling pirogues threw fishing nets into the muddy water.

The soil was a deep orange, the countryside a subtropical, semi-desert mix of fan-palms, thorny acacias and millet fields worked by villagers with primitive hoes. A herd of emaciated cows crossed the road. In contrast to a deceptive veneer of greenery were eroded gullies, dry riverbeds and patches of bare earth.

Beehive huts and conical granaries dotted the plains. Donkey carts plodded on sand tracks. Women washed their clothes in roadside puddles that would soon become cesspools of bacteria.

I saw no wells, no irrigation schemes and no hint of technology in any of the villages, not even a tin roof. I was looking at scenes from the middle ages. This predominantly Muslim country made me think deeply. Here, in Niger, very often the only thing the people had between themselves and their Creator was the soil they’d be buried in.

On day two we were nearly 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Niamey in 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) heat with 90% humidity. Our destination was Tillaberi, a town just south of Mali. It is said to be one of the last regions in West Africa where wild giraffe roam.

But giraffes were not on our minds. We had heard there was a need for aid in Tillaberi. It was still an adventure into the unknown as we drove into town, the main road dotted with lean-to stalls. There, a Fulani man barbecued stringy goat steaks while the Qur’an blared distortedly from a nearby speaker. A woman carrying a bowl of cassava roots stopped to stare at us.

Tillaberi hospital, our destination, was a huddle of orange buildings among the acacia trees. By “first-world” standards it was less than a clinic, but here it was the chief provincial hospital. It had to serve a catchment area of some 240,000 people.

One medical official, two Cuban interns and a handful of nurses “worked” at Tillaberi. The hospital had empty consulting rooms and vacant wards, but little else. Its sole ambulance, a dusty Peugeot, rested wheel-less on bricks. As we waited to meet Tillaberi’s chief medical officer, a South African doctor approached us. “You just gotta see this!” she said, her voice trailing off.

She led us to a group of women in mockingly cheerful outfits sheltering under a veranda. As we got closer, a heart-rending tableau unfolded. For listlessly resting in brightly colored laps were tiny skeletons. Children! That was all I could think. Children should not look like this! One boy had orange hair and a grotesquely distended belly, a sure sign of kwashiorkor.

A nurse told us these desperate mothers had been coming to the hospital for eight days. Why eight days? There was no medicine, and in any case, the people couldn’t afford the consultation fees. In Niger, where there wasn’t even money for food, this was beyond outrage.

Reeling from distress, I stumbled upon a critically ill child in a “ward.” Inside the dank room, Malusi Ntanzi of SABC TV was already setting up his tripod. We looked at each other, shocked, speechless. The mother stood by helplessly, her eyes frozen with anguish.

I saw a tiny bundle of barely conscious skin and bones. And although it was a two-year-old boy, he had shriveled to about four pounds (two kilograms). Flies teased mercilessly about his nose and mouth. He moved fitfully, but his face was already a death mask.

Ever conscious of protocol, Dr. Sooliman accompanied Konoto Abdullah of Islamic Relief (a Tillaberi local) to the prefect’s office to negotiate the niceties of distributing free medicine and food. They were graciously received and the district health secretary was all smiles afterwards.

She gave her full cooperation and even arranged for messages to be broadcast via the media and for drums to be beaten. It was decided that the Tillaberi stadium would be used for handing out food, freeing up the doctors for medical care at the hospital and outlying clinics.

Over the next few days, thousands flocked to Tillaberi, Famale and Namarikongu for free treatment at the clinics. Some walked for hours in the oppressive heat only to face more hours of waiting. Numbers overwhelmed our doctors and tough decisions had to be made.

At Famale a man pushed his desperately ill mother in a wheelbarrow. A bony hand lifted a sheet and a pair of rheumy eyes stared at me. She was dying but was sent to the back of the line. The babies would have to come first. At Famale I saw men with grey hair for the first time. Some had been to Nigeria and could talk in broken English and French. One man, Taibu, told me they were burying five to six people every week. “Quelque semaine?” (Every week?) I asked, disbelievingly. (Yes, every week) he replied.

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