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Plan Ireland CEO David Dalton in Niger

I arrive in Niamey Airport, Niger at 3am and a wave of intense heat greets me when I step off the plane. I am in Niger, West Africa to see Plan’s emergency response to the food crisis which is currently sweeping through the Sahel region.

I met with the Plan Niger Team at head office, where I had a detailed security briefing and an update on Plan’s emergency response and nutrition programmes currently in operation in Niger.

We didn't stay long in Niamey as I was keen to hit the road and get straight into the field to see the work that Plan is doing on the ground to avert the humanitarian disaster and food crisis that is already affecting more than six million people in Niger alone.

David with Sister Marietou

En route to Tillaberi, in northwestern Niger, a sand storm swept around us, the sky darkened and visibility was limited by the sand. My colleague told me that this was a natural forerunner of rain and that rain was desperately needed.  The rains are effectively two months late which exacerbates the food gap between the harvests.

Our first stop was the municipal hospital, where I visited the Paediatric Unit, which was funded by Plan, and the wards that looked after severely malnourished children. Seeing young children and babies suffering from severe malnourishment, de-pigmentation and swollen limbs from lack of food was, as always, absolutely shocking

It leaves an indelible mark whenever you experience this and see young children suffering from starvation and hunger. When you see the fear etched on the faces of parents. Severely malnourished children lose the ability to express themselves and so a great emptiness replaces the smiles and inquisitive looks that should be on their faces.

Here I met with Sister Marietou, a typical, formidable nurse we take for granted. She just got on with it and smiled right through her work. Three to a bed, four to a bed. She did whatever was required with little or no resources to work with.

The work that is undertaken in this food stabilisation unit is nothing short of amazing – children and their mothers arrive at what’s called ‘phase one’, they are literally at death’s door and are looking for help.  The child is firstly weighed, then measured and assessed. Depending on the severity of their condition, the child joins the appropriate feeding programme. Children start with a milk formula, ‘F-75’, and gradually move on to a high protein food paste, ‘plumpy nut’.

In addition to the nutritional work, Sr Marietou and her colleagues are tasked with ensuring all the children in the area are vaccinated.  She took great pride in informing us that vaccination coverage was 96% and polio vaccination, a remarkable 100%. A success in the midst of adversity.

Pictured right: David and 7 month old Abdoul

It is both a sad and happy place. Sad because some children die, largely because they have arrived at the hospital too late.  Sometimes they are orphans. One new born boy I met had just lost his mother to cholera.  For many, however, they recover. Slowly at first, but once the therapeutic feeding staff start their programme of support the improvement in the child is obvious. They are no longer starving to death.

The mothers, I learned, have another problem. Once they make the long trek (sometimes 80km) to the Paediatric Unit with their child they are told that their child will need to remain there for several weeks. The mothers don’t expect this – they expected some medicine, not a long stay in hospital. The problem is one of money. The mothers are staying in a strange town with no money and no food. In addition, they have other children at home who will go hungry if she is not there to feed them.

For these mothers it is Hobson’s choice, very often they will take the sick malnourished child in the middle of the night from the Paediatric Unit and return home to the rest of their family. This further endangers the life of the sick malnourished child.  But if they look to save one child, they will perhaps neglect siblings who are also, most likely, undernourished. A difficult decision and one which no mother or father should ever have to make.