Tchima and her community in Niger get a little help from CARE to overcome the lean season

Tchima Ibrahim IroTchima Ibrahim Iro is only forty but her eyes and her wrinkled face bear witness to a life of hardship. A widow and a mother of six, she has no means to support herself and her family, and relies on other people’s handouts. “Last year I was less exposed, as people produced more and I could get more from begging. But this year, with the drought, I receive less.”

Having less food during the months leading to harvest is not new for people of Niger and other countries in the Sahel region of West Africa. However, this year they are bracing for something harsher than what they are used to, as drought, soaring food prices, and regional insecurity are adding additional stress.

CARE is providing income to families like Tchima’s so they can buy food ahead of what is commonly known as the ‘lean season,’ the gap between the time people run out of food stocks and the next harvest. People receive cash in exchange for part-time work in projects identified by their communities, or as cash support in the cases of families where nobody is able to perform manual labor. 

Since neither Tchima nor her children can work, she is receiving cash. “Without this support, I would not have been able to feed my children’s mouths. Now I can buy food for my family.” 

The commune of Sarkin Yamma, Niger, where Tchima lives, consists of vast expanses of semi-arid lands. The sandy tracks that lead there cut through a barren-looking landscape; a flat monotony only broken by a few lonely acacia trees, camels, and bridges over dry riverbeds.

Even for people who know how to survive in such a hostile environment, small weather variations can have a big impact. 

Nigeriens agree that the last few months have been particularly dry. The wet season started later than usual and rains were fewer and far between, affecting crops and the survival of cattle, people’s main sources of income and nutrition. 

“Unfortunately, I do not have any land nor animals – not even a chicken,” explains Tchima, “so my biggest problem is to have food during the lean season.”

For Tchima, it is generally difficult to make ends meet, but this year she has been most affected by the rise of food prices. “Currently, you can buy a tiya (2.5kg) of sorghum for 500 or 550 CFA francs (more than one dollar), but people speculate. If my memory serves me right, last year it cost 400 CFA francs (about 80 cents),” she points out. Even better off homes are struggling to cope with a twenty percent increase in the price of Niger’s most basic staple food. For Tchima, it means a life at the edge of survival. 

In addition to the drought, insecurity in the region has made it harder to bring food to the table. Usually, most families send one of their members to work abroad for several months and rely on that extra income to provide for their families during the lean season. This year, however, many Nigerien migrant workers had to return home due to the conflicts in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Mali and Nigeria, putting a stop to crucial remittances. 

This is also the case for Tchima. “My oldest child, a boy, is twenty years old and lives away.  I financed his departure to go find work, but he did not manage to earn anything,” she laments. 

With funding from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department and the World Food Programme, CARE is supporting 11,377 families in the regions of Maradi, Tahoua and Zinder. 

Participants work six days a week and get a cash payment of 25,000 CFA francs (50 U.S. dollars) a month. The work is completed in the morning, so people have time to make additional income the rest of the day. In households where nobody can perform work, people receive the same amount of cash. The community selects the households that will be involved and a committee addresses any complaints. CARE’s partner microfinance institution, Asusu, handles the payments. 

Even though the primary goal of this activity is to inject cash so people can cover their immediate basic needs, it also brings longer-term benefits to the communities, which propose and select environment and infrastructure projects where the participants’ manpower will be used. In the case of Sarkin Yamma, people are turning an unused piece of land into pastures. After removing weeds, they seed grains which will germinate during the rainy season and create a new area for cattle to graze. 

Tchima is aware of the benefits of this project for the community. “Independently of how much money I make, we are part of a village. It contributes to our solidarity link. We will have a grazing area for the future.”

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