Niger villagers in bid to break cycle of famine

Spade in hand and barefoot, Hanatou digs holes in the ground intended to catch rainwater. In her village of Tibiri, in southwest Niger, people are trying to break the annual cycle of food shortages.

Like dozens of other villagers in the blazing heat and dusty wind, the young woman works the stony soil to dig holes shaped like half-moons, three metres (10 feet) wide and 50 centimetres (1.6 feet) deep.

On the arid plateau near the clay houses of the village, the aim is to trap water and regenerate the terrain by planting acacia trees, in a project backed by the charity Oxfam and financed by the World Food Programme (WFP).

In Niger, one of the poorest countries of the world, six million people out of the 18 million in the desert Sahel region of west Africa are threatened with famine each year, according to the United Nations.

But the project in Tibiri "has changed our lives," Hanatou shyly told AFP.

Oxfam has set up a "work for money" programme in Tibiri, in which it pays farmers for activities that serve the community.

The charity pays 32,000 CFA francs (about 45 euros/56 dollars) a month, which according to Patrick Andrey of Oxfam UK is enough to cover for the needs of ahousehold for a month.

The money is handed out during the delicate transition period between the time that last year's food stocks ran out and the start of the new harvest, in September and October.

The cash generally goes towards buying supplies at the local markets, said Andrey.

Once the rains come -- in a modest amount at first -- the programme will enter a new phase: the financial support will continue, but each farmer will begin sowing his own land.

And the stakes are high: in the Tibiri region, 80 percent of the 75,000 farmers lost their harvest last year because there was insufficient rain.

Several hundred kilometres (miles) to the northeast, in the Tanout region, Oumarou takes advantage of the first rains to plant his millet seeds.

The harvest of the last three years "didn't meet our needs, because the production was not good," the turbaned Oumarou says, standing outside a barn that has been empty for several weeks.

Oumarou lives alone with his wife -- their son left to find work in neighbouring Libya -- and the couple were able to stay in their village of Assakaram this year thanks to another aid programme.

For it was here, two years ago, that one of Niger's 6,000 cereal banks was set up. The storing of the first harvest was financed by the WFP, while the Irish Red Cross supervises the management of supplies.

"We buy cereals at harvest time, when the market price is affordable," said Moutari Aboubacar, programme coordinator. The cereals are stored and then sold back to villagers during the most difficult times, at a price that has seen a "tiny increase", he added.

Some local merchants on the other hand, do exactly the opposite, stocking up their foodstuffs until they can sell them at exorbitant prices.

The villagers themselves organise the actual distribution of food, meeting in a council, to try to ensure that nobody gives up and leaves for lack of food.

And while they wait for Niger's government to coordinate its limited resources to fight famine, Hanouta and other Tibiri villagers have taken their own initiative locally.

They have decided to use their savings to set up a food bank.

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