Niger: As food crisis looms, Darin’s education is lost

24 January, 2012
November 2011, Niger: Schoolchildren having a meal at Dalwaye school, 40 kilometres from Niamey. Credit: WFP/ Vigno Hounkanli
November 2011, Niger: Schoolchildren having a meal at Dalwaye school, 40 kilometres from Niamey. Credit: WFP/ Vigno Hounkanli

Darin starts work around midmorning and carries on until late in the afternoon, washing dishes and fetching water. When the customers stop coming, Darin helps her boss fold the table and pack up the pots, bowls and cutlery. Then they head home.

“I am trying to help,” explains Mariam, the woman who owns a small food stall in Niamey, the capital of Niger. “I hired her [Darin] after her aunt asked me whether I needed someone to help with chores. She has been with me for the last two months.”

Darin won’t say her age, but looks between 10 and 12 years old. She should be in school in her home village of Bakomaka. But there is no longer enough food to eat there, so instead she is working as a maid in Niamey.

Wearing an oversize jacket zipped up to her neck, and her head wrapped in a scarf, Darin sits on a wooden stool in the shade of a rickety shack to protect herself from the sun and the morning wind.

The harvest was poor and food prices were rising, Darin recalls. One day her teacher gathered the kids in her class and told them that there was no point staying around, as there wasn’t enough to eat. They would be better off going somewhere else.

Bakomaka is one of many villages located in the Tillabéri administrative region, in the west of Niger. More than half (53.7 per cent) of the 2.5 million people in Tillabéri have barely enough food to get through the next two months. They are expected to be hit hard by a looming food crisis across the Sahel region of Western Africa.

Humanitarian organizations have been highlighting the situation since August last year, when it didn’t rain enough. Under OCHA’s leadership, a common humanitarian action plan was developed to supplement the Niger Government’s emergency plan. A US$229 million consolidated appeal (CAP) was launched on 17 January to assist at least 3.8 million people in 2012. So, far the appeal has only received 7 per cent funding.

Meanwhile, Darin’s story is becoming increasingly common. In Tillabéri, an estimated one in 10 students has already quit school.

“Children are dropping out of school in their dozens in our area, and that is worrying,” said Oumarou Fati. She works for the Ministry of Education in Filingué, which is one of the five administrative departments of Tillabéri.

“We may not have the full picture of the situation before February or even March, but it is obvious that more and more children are leaving.”

The main reason, says Ms. Oumarou, is that children are following their parents in search of food. They are even leaving schools where lunch is served as their parents are not fed alongside them.

In some places, children stay in the village but drop out of class to help make ends meet. “They are busy chasing crickets, which they hope they can sell for a little money,” says Abdoulkarim Abachi, the Headmaster of Bankin-Toullou village school, located 20 km from Filingué.

Brigi Rafini, the Niger Prime Minister, described the situation as “deeply troubling” during a visit to Tillabéri last week.

WFP is telling parents that it offers free meals in more than 700 schools across Niger. “WFP is aware that the slow-onset food crisis is causing some parents to pull their children out of school,” says Vigno Hounkali, WFP Spokesperson in Niger. “Once parents learn that food is provided in school, they are more likely to send them there. Even those who are moving around in search of work can leave their children behind with extended families.”

But some parents are reluctant to leave their kids behind. “Helping the kids is good. Helping the village is better,” says Mahamadou Maidouka Aboubakar, the Prefect of Filingué department.

Back in Niamey, Darin has just washed about three dozen spoons and is laying them out on the table. At the end of the month, she will be paid CFAF 4,000 (about $8). But even that money is not really hers. She will have to give it to her family.

Reporting by Franck Kuwonu/ OCHA Niger