I first moved to West Africa in 2005 during the region’s worst famine in years.
What a terrible introduction.
I visited Niger and saw mothers and children stripping leaves from trees to get something to eat – food that was normally only used for cattle. They told me a big drought or food crisis hits Niger every five years. But the truth is that since 2005 the region has suffered food shortages in 2008, 2010 and again in 2012.
This coupled with other problems has left up to four million children hungry.
As a writer and photographer for World Vision, I lived through all of those crises. It’s my job to try and put a human face to the statistics. To cut through our collective compassion fatigue for human suffering. And make sense of our frustration and to question why – why is this happening again?
It is not easy to witness, nor is it easy to explain the complexities of why West African families find themselves caught in cyclical food shortages. But question and share their stories we must. Because amongst the stories of tragedy and lost childhood, there are stories of hope.
A childhood can be lost to the food crisis – either literally through death or gradually as a result of other factors. I have grieved for several children I’ve seen die because of preventable causes such as malnutrition. I’ve also seen childhoods lost slowly as children are forced to drop out of school, do dangerous work to help their families. Or very simply go without adequate food, day after day until they no longer have the energy to play, grow or be children.
Despite the enormity of the challenges that face families in West Africa – together with government and humanitarian agencies such as World Vision – there is still cause for hope and a belief that things can be different.
I was reminded of this recently when I received an update on a family I met before leaving Niger in November 2011. Yadou is a mother to two newborn twin girls, who had been brought to a health centre because Yadou was so malnourished she was unable to feed them. At the time I photographed the twin babies, Yadou and their seven year old sister Mariama who had made the long journey on foot from their village to the health centre.
I watched as Yadou let drops of water drip from her fingers in a desperate attempt to hydrate her baby girls. It was a pitiful sight. And as I left the health centre I really didn’t know if those little girls would live and if I am honest I thought the odds were stacked too highly against them.
So after six months you can image my joy when a friend sent a link to an article published by World Vision New Zealand telling the story about how the twins – Husenna and Husanna had been traced to a World Vision assisted feeding centre. On meeting the two girls again my friend said: “Seeing the photos of the healthy looking girls might give you the impression that this is an aid agency story with a happy ending. But the reality is much more complex”
It is complex because despite the joy of knowing the two girls are alive and doing well, the challenge remains to ensure that other girls and boys do not lose their childhoods to preventable causes.
While it is important to rush in and help families in an emergency such as the one facing West Africa today – and agencies like World Vision do – it is also important is to strengthen families and build long term safety nets that will help them withstand future failed harvests. World Vision is currently working with the British Government to build these safety nets, catching children before they fall and protecting their childhood when their families encounter difficult circumstances.
There is hope.
As a community we would like you to join us in talking about what childhood means to you, and what it should be like for babies like Husenna and Husanna.
Answer the question ‘Childhood is……’ and send us a photo representing this on our facebook wall or on twitter using #lostchildhood. We will feature these photos on our Lost Childhood pinterest wall and the top 50 answers will be published on our website in two weeks time.
And please consider donating to our #ShareNiger West Africa appeal. Every pound you donate will be matched pound for pound by the British Government, helping us to reach even more children – building these safety nets to help carry them for years to come.