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Food Aid Arrives in Niger, Belatedly

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

After months of appeals for international assistance and attention, the world is belatedly responding to the food crisis in the West African nation of Niger. Truckloads of supplies have begun to arrive, and the United Nations now says it will increase the number of people it plans to feed from 1 1/2 to 2.5 million people. But the UN warns that food shortages threaten to engulf the entire desert region. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has more.

(Soundbite of child crying)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

Frail, underfed and sickly children, like Refisutele(ph), who's two years old, though he looks more like a six-month-old infant, now have a chance of survival. Their mothers have made it to this feeding center, a huddle of calico-colored tents set up next door to a sport field and run by MSF, Doctors Without Borders, in Maradi, Niger's second city in the south. The tents are full of babies, and each child wears a red bracelet indicating that the doctors have agreed to admit them.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Refi's mother, Malia Isika(ph), has left her other kids behind in their village, Tibili, hoping that she can save her youngest child. Refi is in the advanced stages of chronic malnutrition. With a vacant gaze, Refi's listless on a plastic mat. He's very deceptively bloated; his body, skin and bones, too weak even to support the weight of his own head, nor can he attempt to stand up and totter about on wobbly, thin legs as some other children are beginning to do. Yet Niger began warning about impending food shortages many months ago, says the country's foreign minister, Aichatou Mindaoudou.

Mr. AICHATOU MINDAOUDOU (Foreign Minister, Niger): We told the international community that because of the lack of the rain, because of the locusts, Niger population will face problem of food around May, June and July. And we really, really needed help. Nobody took any action. If there was a response, well, you couldn't see today all those pictures which is shown on the TV of starving babies, starving population.

QUIST-ARCTON: This weekend the international response to the food crisis in Niger shifted up a gear. The UN World Food Program has flown in emergency supplies of high-energy biscuits to be trucked to affected areas nationwide. And aid has begun reaching feeding centers. Distribution from a cargo planeload shipped in by Doctors Without Borders began this weekend and will continue in earnest next week. Dr. Mesun Tektonedas(ph) says they're making progress, but the crisis is far from over for Niger and its needy children.

Dr. MESUN TEKTONEDAS: Most of them are just hungry. They have no food, and they've gotten malnourished. They're just skinny and starving without enough food. It's unacceptable, really. I mean, all you can do is keep on going and keep on screaming and try and shake the boat, and this time it worked. I mean, even if it's two, three months late, there's now people coming and help coming. Even if it's late, better than nothing.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Meanwhile, feeding centers like this one in Maradi are working at full tilt. New tents have been erected to accommodate growing numbers of especially poor women carrying emaciated children on their backs and in their arms, waiting for them to be weighed, assessed, diagnosed and possibly treated.

Ms. SALUSARAMA TUSHAWI(ph) (Nurse): (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Nurses, like assistant Salusarama Tushawi, are working around-the-clock shifts in southern Niger, handing out ready-to-eat, highly nutritious peanut butter paste and balanced mineral-enriched formula for babies and young children. But relief workers in other West African desert nations, also hit by drought, locust invasions and poor rains last year, warned that millions of people in Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso as well as Niger are facing severe shortages. The hope is that this time donors will not wait to help. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Maradi, southern Niger. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.