Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Raising Concern

I wanted to take a post to acknowledge a real-life hero of peace while we continue to fetishize our soldiers at war. Don't take this to mean I'm deemphasizing the sacrifice of our guys in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in our present culture, the warrior takes precedent over the peacemaker, quite contrary to the Gospel I might add.

Dominic MacSorley is a man I met while volunteering for Concern Worldwide, an international relief organization began by Catholic missionaries, fittingly in 1968. As Concern's Emergency Coordinator, MacSorley travels to the worst poverty stricken areas -- whether war-torn or ecological disaster areas -- to bring relief to the most desperate and downtrodden. Currently, MacSorley's in Niger bringing aid and comfort to human beings that are suffering famine from something you'd think only happened during Exodus: a locust infestation.

In his honor, I post his latest communique from Tahoua, Niger uninterrupted. (To donate to an organization that doesn't preach the Gospel but fulfills its message, click here. Your donations are desperately needed.)
Report from the Field: Lives Unraveling in Niger

It's only 28 kilometers from the main town of Tahoua to the village of Barmou, but the journey takes almost an hour along rough broken roads that are hard going, even when there has been no rainfall. Once you cross through two streams and over the barren, lava-stone hills, you dip down into a valley and arrive in Barmou.

Constructed entirely of mud brick, the square houses and dome shaped empty grain stores stand in stark contrast to the green fields that surround the village. It�s somehow hard to reconcile hunger in a fertile valley, but the promised harvest won�t yield its desperately needed millet crop until October. And even then, there are concerns that yields may be low again.

The Concern nutrition team is making its third visit to Barmou. A week ago, they screened 560 children who had arrived at the health center with their mothers, some having walked all day, more than 20 kilometers, arriving in the village the night before. In the morning, they made an orderly line outside the local health center and waited for the Concern team and the trucks of food to arrive.

All the children were measured using the MUAC, a small plastic tape that measures the child's mid upper arm circumference. It's a quick way to determine who is malnourished and who isn't. Later, we would weigh and measure the children more accurately, but there were too many to get through , and it was important to get to all the children that day. You couldn�t ask the mothers to come back and some of the children needed immediate treatment.

Of the 560 children that were screened, 242 of the children were malnourished, 32 of them severely. All the malnourished children were given a bracelet, admitting them to the program. Admittance to the program ensures that the children and their mothers will receive weekly food rations, vitamins and iron tablets in the coming week. The severely malnourished were given an extra ingredient in their food ration - Plumpy nut, the fortified peanut paste that would start to restore these critical children.

And so, as promised, a week later the nutrition team returned. All the children from last week were back again as planned but so were many more, and as we pulled up to the center, there was a long line of women waiting for us. Word had spread around the community that Concern was coming again, and more than 800 mothers had brought their children to the center to be checked. The numbers were overwhelming. We knew that another long day of weighing, measuring, treating, and handing out food rations lay ahead for the Concern team.

Hunger is not new in this region and food security is an annual problem in Niger, the second poorest country in the world. Drought, followed by a plaque of locusts, severely affected last year's harvest. Countrywide, the deficit was around 7% or 230,000 Metric Tons but in other regions, such as Tahoua where Concern is working, the harvest was down by 26 %. People go hungry in Niger every year, but the poor harvest in 2004 meant that they ran out of food stocks much earlier than usual and by February of this year, the situation started to deteriorate.

Albaraka, is a village of 2,000 people a further 7 kilometer beyond Barmou. In almost every household, at least one child had died, from hunger, malaria, meningitis or diarrhea. The nearest water source was 7 kilometers away, but even this wasn't that clean. It was red from the color of the soil and, while the women strained it through cloth to make it more drinkable, they knew that their children were getting sick from drinking it .One 40 year old woman, Musana, had lost 4 of her 7 children . Her only income was from the baskets that her blind husband wove. Albaraka once had over 2000 goats but now only 300 remained, most had died or had been sold. Prices of goats had dropped and you had to sell 5 to get one sack of grain. Almost all the able-bodied men gone to Senegal, Libya, Nigeria for work. In the past year, 500 had left and the money they were sending back was the only income in the village. For the poorest in the village, the hungry season means that they can only eat one meal a day or even once every two days, a meal that consists of millet porridge, a thin soup of grain mixed with milk or water. It's a very impoverished diet...and not enough to remain healthy.

In a country where 60% of the population live on less than a dollar a day, there is not much to fall back on when times are hard. Increasingly, the poorest have been are forced to sell off whatever possessions they own -- a cow, a goat, farming tools, anything to be able to buy food. As the market floods with livestock, the prices drop -- last year you could get $15 for a female goat, then it was $10 and today the prices in some areas have fallen as low as $4. And then when there is nothing left to sell, families do what they have been avoiding at all costs. They sell their land. Something that has been rare in the past, but is now on the increase despite the fact that again prices are dropping and a typical land holding will now only bring about $120. It's a desperate measure that they know will ultimately push them deeper and deeper into poverty.

The drought, locusts, and poor harvest have contributed greatly to the current food security crisis where 2.6 million are classified as severely hungry and 800,000 children are affected by malnutrition.

Severe malnutrition is estimated between 2.4 and 2.9% in the most severely affected areas, rates similar to those of the worst conflict zones. It is estimated that as many as 150,000 children under five years old are affected by severe malnutrition among an estimated 800,000 malnourished children nationwide.

Chronic poverty is the main killer in this, the second poorest country in the world, where in any given year one in four children die before the age of five from a combination of hunger, sickness, disease, and the lack of basic health care and clean drinking water. In the short term, Concern�s emergency intervention will save and sustain the most vulnerable until the next harvest. But if the population is ever to break out of the annual cycle of hunger, Niger will require a concerted investment by international donors to tackle the root causes of poverty. And Niger is only one of many countries across Africa that is experiencing serious food shortages. Today, 18 million people across this continent are hungry, some dangerously so. This is what the Live 8 concert in July was all about. This is why Concern believes that the189 governments that signed up to the UN's Millennium Goals and their aim to cut global poverty in half by 2015 now need to live up to that promise. There are no more excuses.

Dominic MacSorley, Concern Emergency Coordinator
Tahoua, Niger
August 10, 2005

To set up an interview with Dominic MacSorley, please contact Concern Worldwide US at (212) 557-8000.