Eden Foundation

Eden Foundation

Founded 1985 in Sweden
Active in Tanout, Niger, since 1987

auf deutsch

en français


på norsk

på svenska

Geographical Location

When Endemic Malnutrition is Labeled as Famine


There was a lot of media attention around Niger during the summer of 2005. Newspapers and TV channels around the world showed pictures of children dying of malnourishment and disease, urging people to donate money for disaster relief to “the millions of people affected by the drought”. Niger, who has often been confused with its greener and more populated neighbour Nigeria, suddenly rose from anonymity as it was labelled a famine-stricken country; a situation that was compared to the drought that Niger endured in 1984-85, which hit the entire population, adults as well as children.

“Yunwa cadi yaro cadi baba”
”Famine strikes the adult as well as the child”
– Hausa proverb

Kofi Annan arrives to Zinder on August 23rd 2005 to view the situation with his own eyes

The media picture

“Children are starving to death”, the BBC announced in July, presenting a handful of pictures of nude, emaciated children in their last stage of life. “The poor African nation of Niger is in the grip of a devastating famine.”[i]
“A third of the population face food shortages”, BBC correspondent Hilary Andersson wrote on July the 20th. “Families are roaming the parched desert looking for help. One family we met did not even know where they were going.” She went on to say that across the windswept plains of the Sahel, carcasses of cattle littered the landscape.[ii]

The Tanout countryside (July 2005)

Other news channels followed. “As men flee to urban centres,” the UN’s news agency IRIN reported, “their women lie listless at home, too weak to work the fields despite the recent onset of the rainy season, and their children wither to skin and bones.”[iii]

The women of the Eden village Kona Shirwa preparing their gumbo field as usual (July 2005)

CNN reported in August, in the middle of the rainy season, that the soil in Niger was so dry that “cattle and donkey bones littered the roads.”[iv]

Animals grazing in the Zinder region (end of July 2005)

The President’s statement

Mamadou Tandja, the President of Niger, who had himself experienced the famine of the 80s, did not appreciate the image that the news channels were giving of his country. He denied that his country was experiencing a famine and accused UN aid agencies of exaggerating the scale of the problems in order to receive donor funding.[v] “We have no people starving to death,” he announced in August. “No trucks carrying displaced people, no refugee camps.” He accepted there were food shortages in some areas after poor rains and locust invasions but said this was not unusual for his country. “We are experiencing like all the countries in the Sahel a food crisis due to the poor harvest and the locust attacks of 2004,” Mr Tandja said, but made it very clear that the country was not experiencing a famine.[vi] His statement received major criticism by the outside world. “How dare he bite the hand that feeds his people,” commentators asked and suggested that the president was making excuses for what they saw as the failings of his own government. “I find the president’s comments to be quite disturbing,” Hassan Amidhozour from Iran wrote on the Readers’ Comments page that the BBC set up in response to the president’s statement. “If it wasn’t for the international media, I don’t think anyone would know about this.”[vii] Lizzie Kwaghbo from Nigeria wrote that she was very surprised by the president’s comment. “Does this mean that the pictures we see on our screens everyday are fake?” Firozali Mulla from Tanzania did not think so. “Pictures tell the truth more than a thousand words,” he wrote. “Niger’s President, Mr Tandja is trying to protect his integrity. Niger is in starvation.”[viii] The idea that the president might be right and that the media could be exaggerating seemed unthinkable to many. “I am surprised to learn that President Tanja thinks that his country is not being ravaged by famine,” wrote Daniel Deng from the the USA. “What are all these horrific pictures we are seeing on TV? That is typical of an African leader. So long as they have enough to feel their stomach, they won’t think of others.”[ix] A man from the UK ventilated the mistrust that many Westerners felt against the President’s credibility. “Mr Mamadou Tanja is a typical example of the incompetence, corruption, arrogance and complete disregard for human life many African leaders show towards their own people,” he wrote.[x]

Mamadou Tandja, the President of Niger (July 2005)

A massive relief program

Fuelled by media attention, a massive relief program was launched in Niger in order to help the estimated three million people around the country who would otherwise be facing starvation. Nigeriens in Zinder, the country’s second largest city where Eden has its head office, were surprised by the media reports and found them highly exaggerated. “There is no famine in Niger”, said Mr Mutari, a worker of the NGO Yarda. “I have been to both Magaria and Matameye and life there is going on as usual.” Two American Peace Corps volunteers from the villages of Matameye and Guidemouni, confirmed in July that they had heard about the famine on the news, but said that the problem was not in their area. Ironically, Magaria and Matameye were later pointed out as worst-affected areas. “I have seen the reports on television”, said Mutari’s colleague Mr Abdrahman, “and I find them highly exaggerated. The only difference from ordinary years is that this year is getting international exposure.”

Food distribution in Zinder – Reaching the intended targets?

However, millions of dollars were requested for this ‘emergency operation’. Aid organizations, some of which had previously been unheard of in the country, arrived to distribute supplementary food (normally consisting of rice/sorghum, beans/lentils and some oil) to families with malnourished children. Anyone with an underweight child qualified, raising people’s expectations high.

Food distribution by the Red Cross in Zinder

A woman residing on the same street as a food distribution centre in Zinder, complained to one of our workers that unfortunately, she did not qualify for aid. “I have no malnourished child,” she said, “and my husband isn’t malnourished either. He is thin, but he has always been that way, never putting on any weight.” She went on to say that several women had passed by the centre day after day hoping to get some food, but after receiving nothing, they had given up. “Those who do receive the food however, sell it right away. When the Red Cross distributed food in town for example, each woman received two sacks of sorghum. The food was meant to support the family, but they didn’t keep it. Instead, they sold it off on the spot, receiving 9000 CFA for each sack. It is unusual to find a woman who only sells part of the food and keeps the rest for her family.”

Shemao Chapiou, wife of one of our field workers, had also noticed that the distributed relief food was being sold off, instead of being consumed as intended. “I know a lot of women who, without consulting their husbands, immediately sell the food at the market. The money is then used to buy decorations for the house.”

As no formal papers were required to establish the identity of the malnourished child and its family connection to the person carrying it, women without malnourished children began borrowing sick children from each other in order to receive the much-desired sacks of cereals and beans. On August the 12th, Shemao’s husband Chapiou visited a radio repairman east of the public health centre of Garin Malam in Zinder. On that particular day, there was a large crowd of women standing in the street. He asked the repairman why they were there, and was told that the Red Cross was going to distribute food to women with malnourished babies. Next to him sat a group of women, with their children. As the queue in the street grew, one of the women took a good look at the child of her neighbour, and asked her to lend him to her, so she could join the women at the food distribution. “Can you really go and receive food without having any documents confirming that it is your child?” Chapiou asked the woman. “Oh yes,” she answered, “that's what we do. Once you come in, you present your child and if they think that he is thin, they weigh him. If he is malnourished, they give you a piece of paper and the following day, you receive two sacks of food.” And with that, she went away with the borrowed child. A little while later, another woman arrived. She had visited the centre, but had been denied food rations because her child was not malnourished enough. “However, if you find another baby, you can come back,” the Nigerien Red Cross nurse had told her. The woman had gone out and found a suitable girl – the daughter of a friend. Unfortunately, when she picked up the child, the little girl had started screaming so loudly that the attempt had to be abandoned.

Food distributions saw a lot of middle class families turning into beggars, and Western people were instantly associated with handouts. Most Nigerien did not understand why the aid organisations had chosen this particular moment to bring them free food, but welcomed it nonetheless. Outside the food distribution locations, healthy well-dressed women wearing feast clothes and jewellery lined up with their underweighted children in order to receive aid.

Happy women at a food distribution centre in Zinder

Though food distributions were met by cheerfulness, they also caused disruption. In August, the private radio station Anfani of Zinder reported that a child had been choked to death during a Red Cross food distribution event in Zinder. The crowd had pressed so hard, that in the end, one of the children died. The mother got an extra sack of millet as a compensation for her lost child. The Red Cross cashier denied the story, saying that it was only rumours meant to demean the credibility of aid organisations.

Medical aid centres – Healthy parents with starving children

Besides food distributions, medical help was directed towards the younger children, primarily carried out by the international aid organisation Médécins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). In July, the MSF set up their first medical centre in Zinder. The volunteers were very surprised by the fact that Eden did not come across a lot of undernourished children in our area (which is north of Zinder where the rainfall has been even less).
“We receive around 20-30 malnourished children daily,” one of the MSF volunteers said, “which only occurs in critical situations. Yesterday, four children died.”
The volunteer was Dutch and had previously worked in both Angola and Ethiopia. “The situation in Niger is very different from Angola and Ethiopia”, he said. “There, entire families were suffering, both adults and children. Here in Niger, only small children appear to be in a critical state. You will often find families where all the members look fit, and yet the smallest child is in a terrible state.” Basically all the children were suffering from some sort of disease. Malaria was of growing concern, but other sicknesses including hepatitis, pneumonia and measles, were taking many lives as well.

Women and children at the MSF centre in Zinder (August 2005)

A Swedish nurse explained that all the children were treated against malaria, since ninety percent of them suffered from it. They were also given antibiotics against infections. Badly malnourished children were fed therapeutic milk, and all children were given two food packets a day (called Plumpy Nuts), consisting of a mixture of peanuts and sugar, enriched with vitamins and minerals. The MSF workers did not understand why there were so many malnourished children with healthy mothers and found the situation very complex. Many volunteers were struck by the indifference that the mother’s showed towards their children. “It’s as if they’ve already given up on them,” the nurse said.
A recurrent problem that the staff faced was that the mothers ate the Plumpy Nuts themselves, even though they had been given supplementary food rations for the rest of the family. “We try to tell them that the paste is medicine for the children, but they answer that if it’s good for the child, then it’s good for the mother as well.” MSF staff later mentioned that Plumpy Nut was being sold at the market instead of being given to the children as intended.

Famine or not?

While the aid organisations, fuelled by the media reports of Niger’s alleged famine, continued their food distribution en masse (starting with the larger cities before moving on to smaller towns and villages), life in the agricultural zone continued as usual. The Governor of Zinder’s right-hand man, his Chef de Cabinet, strongly opposed the description that his country had received. “This is no famine,” he said. “The millet heads are standing in the fields, everywhere, and they are unguarded. If this were a real famine, wouldn’t hungry people steal the millet to have something to eat? Yet no one is touching it.”

Millet in Dalli (August 25th 2005)

On August 4th 2005, one of Eden’s expatriate workers met a Dutch journalist from Amsterdam at the MSF centre in Zinder. He had reported on several African disasters before and found the crisis in Niger nothing like a famine at all. He had been sent to Zinder to make a report for Newsweek and for the German magazine Stern, but had made the journey in vain. “There is no famine here,” he said, “nor any starvation. There are just an awful lot of children suffering from all sorts of diseases.” He had visited the countryside, and seen that everyone had food to eat. “Everybody looks well, apart from the sick children at the centres.” He had also noticed that a large number of storks inhabited the acacia trees in the region. “If this was a famine, wouldn’t people hunt the storks and eat them?” His greatest challenge however was that he didn’t know how to describe the situation. “The readers want to see pictures of suffering people, so I’ll send photos of the children at the feeding centres. But I don’t know what to write.” He would not use words such as “famine” or “starvation” because that was not the situation as he saw it, but he was frustrated because he did not know how to describe it. “In fact, no one knows how to describe this situation, but that is probably because this year isn’t really that spectacular, but just the nature of life in this country.”

Storks are common in Niger during the rainy season (September 2004)

An African doctor working for the MSF told Eden that he found the situation in Niger very similar to what they were used to elsewhere. “This is just the way Africa is,” he said.

The harvest – mediocre, not disastrous

All in all, Niger's harvest in November 2004 was not disastrous, but merely mediocre. Despite the poor rainy season, the country’s cereal production was, according to FEWS (Famine Early Warning System) only eleven percent below its five-year average.[xi] In 1996, when our Eden farmers suffered from a second successive inadequate rainy season, no catastrophe was announced. Though the year after the 2004 rainy season was tough, it was in no way comparable to the famine of the 80s.[xii]

Malnutrition is endemic

Although child malnutrition was rampant this year, it is endemic in Niger. The situation is always grim and malnourishment is widespread. For many years, Niger used to be the second least developed country in the world. According to the UN, it is nowadays the absolutely least developed country in the world[xiii] and has no civil war to blame it on, only poverty and desertification. Famine or not, one fourth of all children in Niger die before their fifth birthday; the most common causes of death being malaria, meningitis, measles and diarrhoea. The death rate of young children in Niger are amongst the highest in the world, but that comes as no surprise to the international aid community, who have been publishing these very statistics year after year.

Reflecting on MSF’s work in Niger, a French worker said that he found their work pointless because of its short-sightedness. “Our centre in Maradi has had large numbers of ill children for two years in a row now. What we have discovered in the Zinder region is basically the general situation of the country, rather than an extremely bad year 2004-05.” He said that the kind of help they were doing now could probably go on continuously for years and years if the underlying problems were not tackled.

The situation for our Eden farmers in the Tanout area

According to the media and large aid organizations, the Zinder region, which includes the Tanout department where Eden has been working since 1987, was mapped out as the region that had been the worst affected by the “crisis”.[xiv] Of the Zinder departments, Tanout is the driest and the least developed and should therefore have suffered the most, but the situation amongst our Eden farmers was very different from the picture portrayed in the media.

In February 2005, people had just finished collecting fruits from two Eden species, which they were drying to keep for the coming months. “I got a lot of Eden fruits from our field this year,” reported Aïshatu Nasiru from Bubaram.“I sold most of it at the market, so that I could buy millet and support my husband this year that the crops failed.”

“This year we don’t have any millet,” said Hampsatu Mahamadu to our field workers when they visited her village Molori. “Instead, we eat the fruits of the Eden trees in our field. The leaves of maerua crassifolia, which we pound and mix with peanut powder, are especially important. I’m going out to the field to collect it right now.”

Hampsatu, here with her grandson, shows the food she has cooked of maeura crassifolia leaves from her field (February 2005)

In Kirilla, the wife of Eden farmer Abubakar Idrisa, a mother of six children, was also collecting leaves from a large maerua crassifolia bush. “I’m collecting these leaves for my young ones,” she said. “They are very nice.”

Left: The wife of Idrisa Abubakar picking maerua crassifolia leaves for her children (February 2005)
Two well-dressed girls from Bakatchiraba on their way to collect maerua crassifolia leaves on their families’ fields (March 2005)

To the left: The daughter of Eden farmer Idi Zaki from Kadakato shows the maerua crassifolia leaves that they have harvested from their field. In the middle: The leaves have been pounded into paste and the children dig into the mortar to eat what is left. To the right: Idi’s wife presents the finished dish of maerua leaves.

Hasia, the daughter of Hasan Idi from Marmari showed the field workers some of the Eden fruits that she had collected. “I’m very happy with my fruits. When I have collected enough, I bring them to the market of Shirwa where I sell them. With the money that I earn, I buy salt, spices and stock cubes that I bring home to my mother.”

Young Hasia Hasan from Marmari with her Eden fruits (February 2005)

In March, the women were busy selling dried Eden fruits and collecting maerua crassifolia leaves. In the village of Zangou Sabon Carre, the Eden field workers met Nimatu Idi, whose family has worked with Eden for 10 years. Her husband had gone on exodus and left her in charge of the whole household, including her children, some chickens and a horse. “In order to support my household,” she said, “I sell Eden produce.”

Nimatu with the family’s horse (March 2005)

“I’m so happy when you come to visit me,” said Nimatu’s friend Salamatu Baraka Hasan, whose family started working with Eden the same year as Nimatu’s. “I am very pleased with the produce we get from the seeds you have given us, which we eat or use to make mats, ropes and things like that. This takes us through a lot of difficulties, especially when it comes to food shortages. I often show others what we are getting through Eden, so that they will understand the benefits. I tell them to follow your instructions so that we in our village will reach a high level of productivity. Direct seeding is a successful way of establishing plants in our area, and if you just bring us more seeds, we will do our best to sow them!”

Salamatu Baraka Hasan from Zangou Sabon Carre (March 2005)

Having eaten the fruit flesh, the son and daughter of Eden farmer Habu Adamu crush the stones in order to eat the seeds, which are rich in protein and fat (Zangou Sabon Carre, March 2005)

“Fruits are actually becoming rare in the region now that everybody has begun to understand their value!” said Saida Adamu from Garin Tudu. “In my village, fruits are now so valuable that people are forbidden from entering each other’s fields to pick them.”

Saida Adamu from Garin Tudu (March 2005)

“Because the millet wasn’t sufficient, I sold almost my entire harvest of Eden fruits this year,” said Hadiza Abdu from Birgi Mari, whose family has been working with Eden for eleven years now. “I only kept a little to give to my youngest children while they wait for me to prepare the evening meal. We are very happy with Eden because you have taught us so much; from preventive health care to making use of our Eden trees.”

Hadiza Abdu from Birgi Mari (March 2005)

“Eden has taught us a lot of things,” said Aishatu and Mariama from Maydiga, the teenage daughters of Eden farmer Lawali Haruna. “You have taught us about hygiene and to make use of the food that our Eden trees give. Your fruits are our sweets and we can sell them at the market. Thank you!”

In April, many Eden families were collecting boscia senegalensis fruits. At this time, the fruits were still unripe but the seeds which are consumed as staple food, taste the same whether the fruits are ripe or not. Though the millet had failed, the Eden trees produced food in abundance and boscia senegalensis is an important substitute when the millet is insufficient. In Bubaram, the field workers met Hajara, who was harvesting unripe boscia senegalensis fruits, which she would dry, pound and then soak in water for a few days before preparing them as a meal.

Hajara of Bubaram harvesting unripe fruits from a boscia senegalensis tree (April 2005)

Hadiza from Amourzouk showed the field workers how she pounded the boscia senegalensis fruits and then removed undesired parts of the seeds in the same way as she would with millet or sorghum.

Hadiza from Amourzouk showing her pounded boscia senegalensis fruits (April 2005)

In Moucheri, Sani, the son of Eden farmer Abdulmumuni Adamu was busy drying boscia senegalensis fruits that his mother had asked him to collect. These would later serve as dinner.

Sani Abdulmumuni from Moucheri drying boscia senegalensis fruits for his mother (April 2005)

“Our Eden trees are very important to us,” explained Fasuma Ali from Abaga, who has been working with Eden for thirteen years, “because with their produce, we can do so much! The women of my village are very proud of the project. Eden has helped us get our lives back!”

Fasuma Ali from Abaga (April 2005)

“Yes, I am very happy with Eden,” said the wife of Yakuba Hamidu from Abaga, “because thanks to my trees, I earn a lot of money at the market.”

“This is my ninth year with Eden”, said Eden farmer Zakari Abdu from Gogine, one of the men not to have left on exodus. “At first, we didn’t understand your solution but now I know that Eden has come to save us. You have given us seeds, taught us how to sow and to tend to our plants. You have done this for free and we have gained a lot. Thanks to our Eden trees, we men save a lot of money since our women now collect their own harvest. With the money they make, they buy things such as a clothes, shoes, salt etc, which we men would otherwise have to pay for. Through Eden, I have also learned about preventive health. I will remain a faithful Eden farmer until I die. I don’t care if other people don’t understand your message, because my family has understood.”

In May, while the MSF launched an appeal calling on other charities to respond to the “nutritional crisis” as they called it and asked for food distribution programmes throughout the country,[xv] our women in Tanout continued collecting boscia senegalensis.

“We are all very happy when we see the project car,” Zeinu Djibo told the field workers when they arrived in Mikalgo, “because we are doing what you have taught us to do in order to survive. Now that you have come, I want you to see the dough that I am making out of boscia senegalensis seeds. In the village, you will see that all the women are making it. Some mix it with a bit of millet. As for the men, many of them are still gone. They left us behind with our children, but now that the boscia senegalensis season is in full swing, we live from that.”

Click here to see Zeinu Djibo of Mikalgo prepare her boscia senegalensis dough

On May the 8th in the village of Garin Boka, the field workers met Hadjia, the mother of Eden farmer Mahamadu Bukar, who was busy selling fruits of an Eden species that had stopped fruiting several months ago. It is a common sight for our field workers to see women drying Eden fruits on their roofs, which they store and sell at the market long after that particular species has stopped fruiting. When the crops fail, the money made from their Eden trees and bushes becomes their main source of income.

Left: Hadjia from Garin Boka selling Eden fruits in May, several months after the season of that species had ended (May 2005). Right: The family of Musa Haruna of Bararaye drying Eden fruits on their roof (December 2004)

In Gomgom, the daughter of Eden farmer Malam Goni Amadu showed the field workers the fruits she had picked from the Eden trees in their field. When her younger brother AbdulRazak saw the fruits, he started crying and did not stop until she gave him a handful.

The daughter of Malam Goni Amadu with the Eden fruits she had collected (April 2005)

Aïchatou from Tabani, one of the five healthy children of Abashe Mahamadu who has been working with Eden for eleven years now (June 2005)

In July, the rainy season started and the men were back to tend to their fields.

Sowing time in Garine Boukar (July 2005)

During this period, the women were busy collecting various edible annual grasses, following Eden’s recommendations. Though our research is focused on drought-tolerant fruit-bearing trees and bushes, Eden’s plant database covers all sorts of plants, totalling 27 000 different species of which 1300 grow in our area. When the rains failed in 1996, many of our farmers had just recently begun direct seeding and did therefore not have any mature perennials growing in their fields yet. Knowing there would be little food that year, Eden advised its farmers to collect different edible annuals available in and around their fields and to dry them for the months to come. This advice has since been repeated in all of our villages and has been adopted by many of our women, who dry the herbs and store them for the coming months. Dinner in Niger normally consists of millet dough and sauce, and the green leaves are a very important ingredient to that sauce. The herbs that the Eden farmers collect during the rainy season, together with the edible leaves from the Eden trees, provide the women of the Tanout area with a varied diet, which is a key element in avoiding malnutrition.

Women harvesting annuals according to Eden’s recommendations

Dinner in Niger normally consists of millet dough and sauce (Tanout, 2005)

In Adam Kole, the field workers met Ibrahim Lechi, the man who appeared in the Eden Info April 2002, calling Eden “God’s gift to the poor”. His daughter Hassana had fallen from the wall of the new school and had broken her wrist. “I paid for her treatment with the money earned from one bowl of Eden fruits, which my wife sold at the market,” said a proud Ibrahim Lechi. Apart from Hassana’s wrist, the children looked very healthy and his younger daughter Fatuma showed her brand new clothes.

Left: Friends: Hassana, Halima, Zara and Fatuma
Right: Zuwera and Fatuma carrying Ibrahim’s youngest twin daughters

“Every morning, village children come to my house to buy fruits,” said Ibrahim Lechi’s wife. “If I’m away, my oldest daughter goes out in the field and collects Eden fruits, which she sells in my absence. That makes me very proud.” This year, their family collected nearly 300 litres of food from their Eden trees, at a total value of €58. More than half of the food was sold; the rest was consumed within the household.

Curious children in Adam Kole come to look at the field workers’ direct seeding demonstration (July 2005)

In August 2005, while the millet was still growing in the fields, another of our Eden species began fruiting. This particular fruit has a sweet taste and is often used to make syrup. It is much appreciated as it gives fruits before the new millet can be harvested, during the time when the farmers normally have little to eat.

Zaratu Suleyman from Kele Kele with Eden fruits for sale (August 2005)

The Eden perennials do not all fruit at the same time but have different seasons, thereby covering the entire year. Together the fruits are rich in vitamins, proteins, energy, minerals and fat, providing a balanced diet which is essential when combating malnutrition.

The first graph shows when the millet normally can be harvested. During the long dry season that follows, no cereal will grow unless irrigated, which is not an option for our farmers in Tanout. The second graph shows the fruiting seasons of the different Eden species, which covers the whole year and offers our farmers a nutritious and varied diet. In addition to the fruits, several Eden species also provide edible leaves.

As for the “great famine”, life was business as usual when our field workers arrived in the village of Dakar on the 30th of August 2005. The men were out working in the fields, and the women, who had been out in the field drying edible annuals, gathered for an Eden reunion of preventive health. The wife of Adamu Kalamu, whose family has been working with Eden for six years and who harvested a total of 243 litres of Eden food from their field this year (worth €45), spoke on behalf of the group.
“Although it’s been a difficult year, no one in our village has died of hunger or malnourishment during the year. One woman wanted her child hospitalised at the Red Cross centre in Tanout, but when they weighed the child, they did not think that he was malnourished and sent them back. She only did it because she wanted to receive the donations that the mothers of hospitalised children are offered. We have seen the kind of children that are accepted at the centres – they are the children with watery eyes, running noses and with flies never leaving their faces.” After the field workers had finished giving their preventive health advice, heavy clouds approached the village. The women hurried off to bring in their annual herbs so that they wouldn’t be destroyed by the rain. Had the villagers suffered from a true food shortage, they probably wouldn’t have thought about drying food for the months to come, but would have been totally preoccupied with finding food to eat for the day. In the village of 150 inhabitants, no child had died this year.

Young children returning from field with Eden fruits and annuals herbs (August 2005)

When our field workers arrived in Garin Farara in September, all the villagers were in the fields. People were in a very good mood, expecting a good harvest. According to the village chief, no child had died this year. Although the health centre in the town of Tanout was only 21 km away, they had not bothered visiting it. “We cannot waste our time going there,” one of the Eden farmers said, “because we have a lot of work to do in our fields. Besides, our children wouldn’t be accepted anyway.” The millet wasn’t ripe enough to be eaten yet, but they had begun harvesting green beans and were complementing this with maerua crassifolia leaves and edible annuals – all according to Eden’s recommendations – and were doing well.

Nana Aishatu Umaru of Garin Brimma, nursing her healthy daughter Uma (September 2005)

On November 19th, the field workers arrived in Tazzey. Here they met Fatima Adamu whose family has been with Eden for five years. “Every morning, I share a bowl of Eden fruits with my children,” Fatima said. “My children are used to eating fruits now.” The family harvested 300 litres of food from their Eden trees and bushes this year, at a total value of €60. In their village of 145 people, one child had died of malaria.

Fatima Adamu and her children. Every morning they share a bowl of Eden fruits (November 2005)

“As soon as I notice unripe fruits on any of our Eden trees, I check on them regularly so that I won’t miss their season,” said Rabi Murtala, also from Tazzey. Her father Murtala Habibu had been an Eden farmer for five years. During the year of 2004-05, the family collected 280 litres of Eden food from eight different species, of a total value of €52.

Rabi Murtala from Tazzey is very satisfied with her family’s Eden trees (November 2005)

In the village of Filijirigui, a village of 63 inhabitants, no child had died this year either. The wife of Eden farmer Abdu Haruna and mother of seven children showed the field workers some of the Eden fruits she had collected. “If I show you everything that I have stored, the children are going to jump at it, especially my youngest daughter. I’m going to bring them to the market to sell them, so that I can buy salt and things like that, since my husband has gone on exodus.” Her family, who has been working with Eden for four years, collected a total of 265 litres of Eden food from their field.

The wife of Abdu Haruna with some of her Eden fruits (November 2005)

In Gournache Garin Gona, the wife of village chief Matu Abdu told the field workers that she had difficulties storing any Eden fruits because of her six children. “As soon as we have harvested them, they eat them. From what we collected this morning, nothing remains; they’ve eaten it all. I am really grateful to Eden because you have taught our children to appreciate fruits like sweets.” Since the bad rains of 2004, the family of Mato Abdu harvested 253 litres of Eden food, worth €47. In their village of 65 people, no child had died this year.

In Gournache Garin Gona, the wife of Mato Abdu shows what remains from the fruit harvested in the morning (November 2005)

In Kouyewa, the family of Eden farmer Mustapha Adamu, who has been working with Eden for eight years now, had harvested a total of 270 litres of Eden food, worth €61. “If you had come a little earlier,” Mustapha’s wife said, “I could have shown you the cakes that I made from our Eden fruits. I sold them at the market of Sabonkafi. Thanks to Eden, we now have trees and bushes growing in our fields. Your preventive health is very useful in order to avoid getting sick. I’m so thankful that you think about us and that you have given us the opportunity to order seeds.” In their village of 470 people, two children had died of measles this year, but none of “famine”.

Despite having no ovens, many women are now making Eden fruit cakes, which they sell at the market. Maura Yau from Mairo cooked hers on the fire (May 2004)

“Right now, we’re eating Eden fruits. When we need millet, we sell some fruits at the market”, said Ammata Musa from Tekina.

Ammata Musa from Tekina with Eden fruits (December 2005)

During the year 2005, our families harvested produce of an average of €57 from their Eden perennials.

Coping mechanisms

In December, Eden visited the MSF centre in Tanout, which was the base for their operation in the Tanout department. By then, they had treated 2300 children in the area where Eden operates, but were now closing down their activities. The head of operations, an Italian nurse who had been in Niger for a few months, said that the number of children treated in the Tanout area was much smaller than in the south of the country.
“The people of Tanout have much better coping mechanisms than in the south”, the Italian nurse explained. “The further south you go, the more cases of malnourishment you will find. North of the city of Tanout, people have been doing well, farmers and nomads alike.” She thought that the people of the Tanout area were much richer than in the south, having more animals and making use of the trees and bushes in the area. “People here eat a lot of boscia senegealensis fruit for instance, which they don’t in the south. They eat it both during good years and bad years, and they are much better adapted to the harsh environment.”

Harvesting ripe boscia senegalensis fruits in Sorodaya (August 2005)

Coping mechanisms means people’s ability to fall back on alternative support systems when the main activity of their livelihood fails. They are a key element in attaining a sustainable life, but short-term aid represses these as it is easier to beg than to do something about one’s situation. It is not true that the food does not exist, nor that the food available is famine food not worthy for human beings. In the Western world however, it is hard to appreciate what one does not know and the media has belittled the local food. Many poor people now dream of rice, maize and wheat; expensive crops that do not grow naturally in Niger and which are less nutritious than millet. A lot of money is wasted when wives insist that their husbands bring them “quality food” instead of local millet and the children suffer because the quantity is less and there are not enough nutrients in what they eat.

In Tanout however, our children go out in the fields and pick fruits whenever they feel like it. Their food is varied and contains energy, vitamins, proteins and fat. There is money to be earned as the fruits are appreciated and easily sold. Because their parents chose to forgo destructive environmental habits several years ago and to start direct seeding, the younger generation now have edible trees and bushes available to them, which many others lack.

Because their parents started direct seeding in 1994, the children of Gidan Leko can now pick Eden fruits in the fields during their spare time (February 2006)

Amongst our villages, our field workers frequently meet proud, hardworking and energetic men and women who treasure their relationship with Eden and who thank us for helping them achieve a sustainable and independent life. During the past few years, we have seen a number of positive initiatives being taken in the village and instead of asking for handouts, they have worked to find their own solutions.

Children died
Average of children that have died per Eden village, per year   Since Eden introduced its preventive health sessions, the child death rate has decreased heavily in our villages. The sessions are held yearly in all our villages.

Aid distributions have not helped our work, however. In October, the Irish organisation GOAL distributed free goats to farmers in some of our villages, wanting to replenish the stock that they assumed had been lost during the “famine”. The goats were received with open arms but many were slaughtered or sold the very same day.

To the left: The son of village chief Mato Ganau of Adam Kole is on his way to sell their Goal donated sheep at the market (November 11th 2005)
To the right: Dayebo Haruna, village chief of Zermou slaughtered a goat donated by Goal, to celebrate the gifts. “This year, no one died of starvation,” he said. (November 1st 2005)

The Red Cross carried out an “experiment” as they called it, handing out cash worth nearly a year's income in Niger to farmers in selected villages. “Of course there are many questions on the impact of this project,” said El Moctar Yacouba Sido, Red Cross Society’s Tanout branch coordinator. “It is a first. Just like a dish that one cooks for the first time – one never knows the taste that it will have. What we do know however is that the dish is welcome. People are very happy to see the Red Cross arriving.”[xvi]

To the left: Zermou was one of the Red Cross’ selected villages, where each family received €183 in cash, worth a yearly income to them (October 28th 2005)
To the right: By this time, the farmers were already harvesting their millet (October 25th 2005)

The problem with handouts is that they kill people’s motivation to take care of themselves. If there is money available, why not beg? Handouts not only reduce people’s power of initiative, but unnecessarily turn many Nigeriens into beggars.

Left: “Bring us food, we are starving!” these healthy girls called out as they ran up to our field workers when they arrived in the village of Kulumbutu in the middle of July. “Bring us wheat, millet, sugar and milk!”
Right: In Deugache, a visitor asked the field workers for money despite the fact that he was the owner of two healthy horses, complaining that Eden was not the Red Cross and therefore did not hand out cash.


The media hype of 2005 did not help us in our work, as our goal is to help the poorest of the poor achieve a sustainable life. Short-term help only makes them dependent and strangles their motivation to do something about their own situation, which we cannot see as an achievement. Unfortunately, few organisations work long-term and they are eager for quick results. But results at what price? You cannot force people to become independent, but you easily make them dependent by bringing in free food and cash. Sadly, the dignity and motivation lost in the effort is not easily rebuilt again.

What Niger saw this summer was not a sudden catastrophe, but the harsh reality of everyday life. Some may argue that the recent media attention of Niger’s alleged famine – focusing primarily on emaciated naked children drawing their last breaths in front of Western cameras – was a necessary step to draw international attention to the poorest country in the world in order to improve its situation. However, temporary relief programmes can never solve an endemic situation, regardless of how much money is invested. Hunger and malnutrition are simply symptoms of much deeper structural problems, which Niger desperately needs to see resolved. In a country where the vast majority of Nigeriens are living off agriculture and animal husbandry and depend on the natural environment for their sustenance, desertification is a huge threat to the coming generation and can only be battled on a long-term basis. Niger’s future lies in an improved environment and in the ability for the poor to produce their own agricultural products, which they can through Eden’s methods.

Habiba Abdu of Karakai with Eden fruits harvested from her own field (February 2006)

“Eden is the best project of all the projects we know. You give us good seeds to revegetate our fields; you give us very good advice on how to stay in good health, and now that we have had a bad harvest, you have given us advice on all the edible plants that are available to us in our region. That is why I say that you are the best project, because you help the poor, especially in times of need.”- Mrs Bukar Alasan from Kelzou Gantaram, 1999


  1. Author Unknown. "Children are starving to death in Niger". ABC News. 19 July 2005.
  2. Andersson, Hilary. "Niger children starving to death." BBC News. 20 July 2005.
  3. Author unknown. "Niger: Free food needed now as millions teeter on the brink of famine, UN says". IRIN News. 14 July 2005.
  4. Botelho, Anderson & Koinange, J. "Inside and beyond Niger". CNN. 15 August 2005
  5. Barou, Idy. "Niger's leader - haunted by hunger". BBC news. 15 August 2005.
  6. Author unknown. "Niger leader denies hunger claims". BBC News. 9 August 2005.
  7. Author unknown. "Niger's famine denial: Your reaction". BBC News. 12 August 2005.
  8. Author unknown. "Niger's famine denial: Your reaction". BBC News. 12 August 2005.
  9. Author unknown. "Niger's famine denial: Your reaction". BBC News. 12 August 2005.
  10. Author unknown. "Niger's famine denial: Your reaction". BBC News. 12 August 2005.
  11. Author unknown. "Niger: An evidence base for understanding the current crisis." Fews Net. 28 July 2005.
  12. Rainfall figures from the 80s are from Direction de la Météorologie Nationale, Niger.
    Figures from the 90s and onward have been measured at Eden's field station in Dalli, Tanout.
  13. UNDP. "Human Development Report 2005".
  14. Loyn, David. "High food prices 'causes Niger hunger'". BBC News. 23 August 2005.
  15. Elliott, Jane. "Battling to keep children alive". BBC News. 13 May 2005.
  16. Lengyel, Cathy. "Cash injection boosts hopes for future in Niger". The Red Cross International. 29 November 2005.

Appendix A: No Money Without Pictures of Dying Babies?


In his article “How many dying babies make a famine”, BBC’s development expert David Loyn gave his colleague Hilary Andersson credit for setting off the media through her “powerful BBC reports” about the Niger crisis. The BBC were the first news channel to present pictures of Nigerien babies in their last stage of life, taken at the MSF centres. “The nexus between dying people and the media is rather a crude one, mediated by aid organizations,” David Loyn wrote in his article. “We need dramatic images and the NGOs need funds – the dying support both needs.”[i]

“Once an emergency is identified,” said Tony Vaux, a former official with Oxfam, “the NGOs’ public relations machine takes over and there is a terrible temptation to look around for the very worst stories.” [ii]

“Glib talk of famine backed by pictures of starving children may help NGOs raise funds, but it does nothing to address these basic problems,” said Mr William Easterly, Professor of New York University, concerning the media hype that surrounded Niger during the summer of 2005.[iii]


Though the Tanout area where Eden has been working since 1987 is one of the least developed in Niger, the every day life that our field workers met was very different from the picture portrayed by the media. Thanks to their Eden trees and bushes, the families had food to eat.

Illa Mahamadu of Garin Mado with his Eden fruits shows a very different picture of Africa from the one preferred by the media (February 2006)

  1. Astier, Henry. ”Can aid do more harm than good?” BBC News. 27 August 2005.
  2. Loyn, David, ”How many dying babies make a famine?” BBC News. 10 August 2005.
  3. Astier, Henry. ”Can aid do more harm than good?” BBC News. 27 August 2005.