“Where’s the love for my Niger?”

Omayra Issa is like plenty of other average Canadians: when she was a child, her mother drove her to school; now that she’s 20, she’s studying Business at Faculté St. Jean; she loves her country and is fiercely proud of its people. But Omayra Issa isn’t your average Canadian, and she’s not from Canada at all.

She hails from what is literally the poorest country on planet Earth.

The West African state of Niger is in crisis. Last year in this country where desert possesses two-thirds of the land, severe drought and hordes of locusts afflicted 3.6 million people; food aid has arrived, but only after months of stomach-bloating, agonising hunger. While the UN warned the world a year ago, the world refused to listen. It took a BBC video report of skeletal children with anime eyes to drill wealth from our pockets, more in ten days following the report than in the previous eight months combined. Right now, the UN wants to end large-scale food aid, and Niger’s Prime Minister Hama Amadou agrees, describing the donations as “an affront to the country’s dignity.” He went further, saying, "We've seen how people exploit images to pledge aid that never arrives to those who really need it." Omayra Issa agrees.

“Prime Minister Amadou’s reaction was absolutely legitimate,” she says in an elegant French accent via telephone. “Every human being that witnesses another human being suffering feels bad; the [sufferer’s] dignity is affected. This is a country where you have a population that works extremely hard every day to better their destiny. Of course, it’s not flattering to see that those efforts are in vain.”

Issa won’t stand by allowing her homeland to suffer either hunger or indignity; instead, she volunteers with Students for International Development in hopes of improving life for the 2.4 million people of Niger (including 800,000 children) who desperately need relief from hunger. This Friday, SID is hosting a benefit concert featuring Isokan Afrika drummers and guitarist Kenya Condo with proceeds going to the Red Cross to provide relief in West African countries such as Niger, Mali and Senegal, and southern states such as Zimbabwe and Malawi.

If blame for Niger’s misery must be parceled out, some of those parcels must be airmailed overseas, while others must be sent to the capital city Niamey. Like many impoverished countries under the pressure of the International Monetary Fund, Niger has privatised its own health care system. That means that in the poorest country on the planet with one of the world's highest maternal death rates, a mother must scrape together $14US to get doctor to look at her baby. Result? Almost no children get seen by doctors. UNICEF has stepped up with food, but its “success” underscores the national defeat: 200,000 children have been “treated” in so-called nutritional recovery centres. Despite UNICEF’s intervention, according to the BBC’s Hilary Andersson, large numbers of young children are dying at such centres, and Medecins san frontières says that upwards of forty people a day are dying in just one area they analysed. Undeterred by Prime Minister Amadou’s concern that his country will become reliant on aid, MSF warns that the UN must not stop food delivery when almost one million people have not yet been fed.

How will these problems be overcome in the long-run, when the last the bags of grain have been delivered and the final vials of serum have been injected? “It is important,” says Issa, “that we have a political and economical elite that can be socially conscious. The fact that the international community had not responded at all to the human alarm that was pronounced from Niger and many other African countries [until the BBC report] is devastating in the 21st Century. Maybe that would be understandable five centuries ago, because we would say, ‘Oh, well, communication was not that good and the information will take two years to get to the people.’ But it is very disturbing that people do not respond to or will ignore what happens in other parts of the world.”

Issa and her family feel the pain of being so far from their homeland during a crisis of this magnitude. “It hurts a lot to witness this very dramatic situation at a long distance,” she says. “We left our country three years ago.... We just hope that the situation will get better.”

There is hope for Niger. While still high, cereal prices have been lowering into the range of affordability; fewer people are selling off their livestock and other possessions, suggesting greater stability and hope on the local level. And the UN Population Fund has provided about $50,000 for a reproductive services initiative with an additional $25,000 coming from Rotary International, all of which are bringing food, anti-malarial supplies and safe child-delivery services to people who need them desperately.

Issa hopes that the Friday fundraiser will also contribute to the solution. “We’re hoping that people will come to the concert and enjoy the music and the food,” she says, “but they will [also be able to say], ‘Hey! We do care about countries in Africa who are not living in the same conditions we are, and we want to make a difference in the world we live in.”

Tragedy in Niger: a Famine Foretold
"Imagine if your local fire department had to petition the mayor for money every time it needed water to douse a raging fire.... That's the predicament faced by humanitarian aid workers."

Food Supplies in Hunger-Stricken Niger Improve But Remain Insecure, UN Says
While the food supply in Niger is improving, with favourable rains portending good harvests next season, recent surveys by the United Nations spell continuing danger of a renewed hunger crisis in rural areas.

Niger women 'banned from grain stores'
Journalists who have visited Niger are reporting finding a strange phenomenon: villages in which women and children are going hungry, while there is still food in their households.

Niger's children continue dying
Were you to take a left or a right off the main road - the only tarred road in the region - and travel into the villages, you'd find one of the ugliest and saddest human plights on this continent. Few can afford the little food there is, and although the next harvest looks promising people are still starving to death. The terrible truth is that this is the world we in the West accept in this day and age, and we assuage our consciences by dipping into our pockets when it gets so bad we can no longer bear it.

UN Population Fund Sets Up Programme for Mothers in Drought-Stricken Niger
A new programme will help pregnant and nursing women in Niger, a drought-stricken, locust-ravaged West African country with one of the world's highest maternal death rates, with food and anti-malarial supplies, as well as safe child delivery services.

UN Population Fund Sets Up Programme for Mothers in Drought-Stricken Niger
A new programme will help pregnant and nursing women in Niger, a drought-stricken, locust-ravaged West African country with one of the world's highest maternal death rates, with food and anti-malarial supplies, as well as safe child delivery services....


Presented by Students for International Development for the Canadian Red Cross
Friday, November 18, 7 pm
Edmonoton, University of Alberta’s Convocation Hall, 11316-89 Ave
$7 students, $10 non-students


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