Samuel Hauenstein Swan

This is the Story of Zara

She is a women framer from Guidan Koura. The name of the village means the place of the Hyena, in remembrance of the ancient female ruler, once guiding this region of Niger at the edge of the Saharan Desert.

Zara's story typifies the reality of many smallholder farmers in the Sahelian belt running from Senegal in the west of Subsaharan Africa to Ethiopia in the east. Like many communities in this semi-desert environment; rain falls only a few months of the year, and irrigation sources are few. Every year between April and harvest time in September the food runs low and hunger grips communities, families, men, women and children.

"My Fram is more like a garden," Zara tells us, "the soil is poor. It gives us no more than two months' worth of millet, less if the rains are not plentiful. The rest of the year I must look for work and make do with whatever is there is to find"

The Gaps in this Family Portrait

The few months after harvest in September, are comfortable for the community of Guidan Koura. Food is readily available. The water holes are replenished and full. The time of plenty is short-lived

Zara's husband is missing, from the picture, he is coming only for the short rainy season to help with the agricultural season and harvest. they all know there will not be sufficient work or food for all and he is leaving for the rest of the year to work in the faraway coastal countries the rest of the year.

Soon the supplies reduce, the mothers have to think of the months to come and start to ration. Orientate their thoughts to the long months ahead. Survival to Zara's family will depend on her forward thinking and her ability to balance her household economy and care duties as a mother.

2005 was a terrible year the harvest was small, no one in the village had much grain. The social fabric of the community began to unravel; neighbours hid food from each other, knowing that dividing food into even smaller portions would mean starvation for all. Hunger drove them all mad. It was then when Zara's big sister fell ill and died; she left two daughters to look after. With no food in the home and two more mouths to feed her second born boy fell behind. He too died during the 2005 hunger season.

Zara now calls three daughters and two boys, one born in 2007 her children.

Empty River

The vast majority of small-scale farmers in Subsaharan Africa depend on rain feed agriculture. Yet, around Zara’s village the rivers dry up, as soon they have swelled in the short rainy season, and water becomes scarce.

Most of the world’s economic weak families live in rural areas and work in agricultural and livestock economies. For these households, poverty, hunger and illness are highly dynamic phenomena, changing dramatically over the course of a year in response to production, price and climatic cycles.

As a result, most of the world’s acute hunger occurs not in conflicts and natural disasters but in that annually recurring time of the year called the ‘hunger season’, the period during the year when the previous year’s harvest stocks have dwindled, and little food is available on the market, causing prices to shoot upward.

Employment and economic opportunities are often scarce during the hunger season, and to make matters worse, in many countries this period usually coincides with the rainy season, when severe illnesses like malaria strike hardest.

Despite the importance of seasonal cycles throughout the rural developing world, development response is often homogeneous in type and amount throughout the year.

Seasonality is one of these leverage points. Interventions like pre-positioning nutrition and health resources, providing employment during the hunger period, and indexing benefits to prices will cost-effectively reduce poverty, hunger, child mortality and illness.

Raise Early and have Only one Meal a Day

We ask the elder in the villages about his daily routine in the growing season. “my wife and I get up at about five o’clock in the morning,” he begins, and head out right away to the fields, to beat the heat that is building up very quickly. We try to get most of the farm work - which is at that time of the year mostly weeding and ensure the soil is not to compact around the base of the plants, so the rain gets to the roots quickly - before one o’clock n the afternoon.

By the time we reach home, it is nearly two it is we have our first meal.

During the months where we have the most work on the farms, we also have the least reserves in the kitchen. We often have just that lunch meal, and in the evening we make some tea with sugar.

These hunger season meals lack both in quantity and quality. It is often just as much that a headache is going but never as much that we feel full. During this month of the year, it is only porridge we dilute with much water and give a bit of tasing by adding wild leaves and hot spices.

“Hunger in the village and the region has to do with poverty and secondary with rains.” Zara’s neighbours explain: ”the rain permit only one harvest. The better off villages have the low grounds close to the river and with fertile soil to make most of the few spots of rain. The others have the fields that are higher and on slopes where the water runs off, and the most fertile ground is missing. These areas give little and even in good years are sufficient to feed the family. They also have no surplus to bring to the markets and gain cash to purchase food later in the season. Once their stocks are empty Zara, and families like hers must hope for occasional work in exchange for a meal. 

Struggle to Find Work

The Story of Zara, we follow in this series typifies the struggle of many households in the village of Guidan Koura a community in Niger and further afield throughout the Sahel. For many small farmers like her, 7the food and cash gained from their agriculture are just not sufficient to feed their children all year round. They must search for additional work throughout the year. In many rural areas of poor countries, however, regular employment is impossible. With the start of every day, the Zara has to scrape by perhaps find work with a wealthier villager. Or collect wood and to sell it on the road side, send some older children away to relatives to see for protection and food there.

The young ones remain with her. But there is the physicality of all the task which make it difficult to look after the little toddlers. "if I am strong I take one on my back, to collect wood or fetch water. Zara says. "but usually I must trust the older girls to look after the little ones, to keep them asleep, so they not noticed I am gone, and if they wake up give them some water, so they think they are not hungry and stop crying." I can not keep up the breastfeeding as I am out the house for work most of the day and I have very little milk in my body when I am back. The poor nutrition is probably why so many of our baby fall ill with malnutrition and die in the dry seasons. Zara concluded thinking of her lost child (Part II of the Descendent of the Hyena Series). If all fails, we eat wild roots, and leaves or I send the children to beg on strangers doors.

I have to go to work whenever I find some, no matter if I should look after my children or go to work on my farm. To weed or water the shoots. Poor people have no choice. To days work or lack of it is today's food or a day of scarcity and hunger. This cycle then is the basic scenario for many rural people: living in a downward spiral of low productivity and resource degradation. But the picture would not be complete without considering how poor people try to cope and what this means for their future. 

Copping

The coping strategies that poor people adopt in response to seasonal hunger are almost identical to those adopted during famines.

The difference between poor which are chronic hungry and an international noted food crisis is the proportion and severity with which hunger is spreading and gripping in a location and its inhabitants.

In all cases, food insecure families are forced to ration food, cut spending and sell assets to survive and provide meals to their children. Rationing is always the most common response because other strategies (such as borrowing, selling off their properties, livestock or migrating) have more serious long-term consequences for household viability.

Every year hunger returns to villages like Zara's in Niger, only the prevalence of households and the intensity of coping; strategy adoption varies from year to year and country to country.

In 2016 the number of chronically undernourished people in the world is estimated to have increased to 815 million, up from

777 million in 2015. This increase signal a reversal of trends. The food security situation has worsened in particular in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, South-Eastern Asia and Western Asia, and deteriorations have been observed most notably in the context of conflict and conflict combined with droughts or floods. Wasting, the most life-threatening form of hunger, affected one in twelve (52 million) of all children under five years of age. 

Seasonal Hunger the Father of Famine

The outside response to seasonal hunger is sadly apathetic, can not say the same about famines, which deservedly generate enormous outrage and promises of "Never Again". 2017 Yemen, 2016 Lake Chad Basin, 2012 Somalia Famine, 2012 West African Famine, 2011 Horn of Africa, 2010 Sahel Food Crisis, 2009 Kenya Food Crisis…

Elias Mandela remarks: "No One organises televised concerts for children [world wide one in twelve (or 52 million) of all children under five years of age], who go to school without eating breakfast and go to sleep without supper. Nor are they the primary concern of academics or journalists". The story of Zara is talking about a deficit of a different order - recurrent and seasonal hunger that kills its victims without attracting national or international attention. The villages and mothers, however, fear and lament first and foremost this kind of hunger.

Talking with Zara and her children laughing at my visit the visceral horror of famine was absent, but that does not mean there was not dying going on. It was a slower kind of dying, a quieter kind of violence, but it was there, and it deserves a response.

in the next instalment, we turn to some of the interventions that prove to mitigate this suffering in the hope these are more readily promoted and implemented. 

Where are the Moral Limits of Helping the Hungry?

Over centuries, many societies have come up with mechanisms that reduced seasonal hunger of its citizens. Transport networks, agricultural technologies, storage and information on surpluses and shortages of food crops in various parts of a country all ideal mitigate the impact of hunger and hopefully prevent starvation of its populations.

However, systems and technologies no matter how sophisticated and right meaning depend on solidarity on all levels. For Anti-hunger policies they need the resolution of the powerfull to enable the voices of the communities that are subjected to the massive destructive forces of seasonal hunger and its aggravating factors - poor health, lack of access to resources conflict and so for.

Examples of success as plenty: massive relief interventions, public works programme, agricultural extension workers, relaxation of taxes to stimulate trade and lower prices. Social arrangements to redistribute food, assets and relief from the rich to the poor exists on the national and international level. Humanitarian is on an upward trend with record budget of US$27.3 billion for global humanitarian assistance for 2016.

The question of who is "deserving" of this help, remains a contested topic. Those in power accept a moral and legal duty to protect poor and powerless against the worst and often focus narrowly on the prevention of starvation death while neglecting other forms of hunger and malnutrition. The concepts of vulnerability have evolved over the past decades for sure. The same sharp but the ultimately false distinction between "starvation prevention" and "hunger prevention" prevails today. An especially poignant question as the number of displaced, conflict affects and climate change affected populations raise quicker than the funds available to respond. Is the global moral responsibility limited to starvation or the much higher sum of death and distress caused by annual cycles of hunger which is mostly ignored?

The Lessons from History


The battle against seasonal hunger must be fought on several fronts: emergency assistance to protect lives and assets during the hunger months; social protection safety nets to minimise the number of families who require emergency assistance; and agricultural livelihoods development initiatives to work towards a future when safety nets are rarely needed. As Millman and Kates write, “not all food shortages lead to hunger; not all hunger leads to starvation; not all starvation causes death”*. The chain is broken by good policy, and the measures we discuss above are key components of a good policy package.

* Millman and Kates  “On ending hunger: the lessons from history”. From Hunger in history : food shortage, poverty, and deprivation 

Any spare Coin is invested in Sheep, Goats and Camels


Food aid has traditionally been the dominant form of assistance to people suffering from hunger. In the past decade, however, support in the form of cash transfers has become increasingly popular as an alternative to food aid, especially in Africa. The advantages of cash are many. Cash gives people more choices to the recipient than food, enabling them to meet a range of food and non-food needs, including health expenses, clothing, and – even in emergency situations – the purchase of livestock and other critical assets needed to build livelihoods. Herds small to big not only provide food directly, but they also guarantee an income flow, can act as a store of value enhancing risk-bearing capacity, and often have an inherent value linked to the status they confer to their owners. Farmers like Zara ideally invest there harvest surplus profit to gain animals which the resell if they face financial hardship, such as an illness, prolonged food deficit etc.

The nomadic communities around where Zara lives had once abundant and diverse herds. The “dry” years of the late 1980s and the first decade of the 21st century severely reduced the numbers and composition of the animals. Trying to recover in the aftermath of severe droughts is a long and tough process: buying young and healthy animals is beyond the means of all but the wealthiest. Losing their strong camels signifies diminishes the ability to move from place to place in search of water and pasture. In turns that result in heightened conflict between the villages and the nomads as the prolonged presence of animals and humans around limited water-points leads to increasing overgrazing, deforestation, and disputes over the usage of extensive plains.

Almost all evidence available highlighting positive effects of cash transfers, on livestock and inputs. The impacts on savings, ownership of animals were consistent highlighting positive results of giving distressed communities cash on hand at times of seasonal hunger.

Cash also has ‘multiplier effects’ in the economy: spending cash transfers will generate income and employment for others that not got the cash directly. Capital can help farmers protect their belongings and their production systems. prevent distress sales of animals and livelihood stimulate local food economies.

The complete family portrait

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