6 July 2008

Nigeria: Snaking Through Food Crisis

Behind the world summits on food crisis, in the backgrounds of parliamentary deliberations on the hunger strikes, and in the shadows of the Federal Executive meetings on the acute food shortages and soaring food prices, a cruel reality is taking shape in scores of impoverished homes. The impact of the crunch on poor families in Dagba, an extension of Durumi, a shanty town on the edge of Area One, Abuja, shows evidence of gnawing claws of hunger on helpless victims.

The food crisis may yet be another cow for high profile politicians to milk. For white collar workers, it is just another of the numerous economic crisis that has been slashing deep into their savings and they would soon get adjusted. But for the poor man and his family, it is an untold story of hunger and starvation. It is a dark period, much dreaded than the one in Mtshali's Soweto. Robert Zoellick, World Bank President saw this clearly when he urged world leaders thus: "as leaders gather in Rome to discuss global food crisis, our task is clear but not simple: to help those in danger today and ensure that the poor do not suffer this tragedy again".

Mr. Peter Ude is one of "those in danger". A petty trader, he sells fast food in a slum where he lives with his wife and two kids. His scrawny stature adorned in rags is evident of the daily struggle to overcome hunger. As the orange tinted sun is sliding leisurely down the blue sky and over Dagba, a slum of red mud and rusty, low roof houses, his wife Ukechi is stirring a pot of beans beside their shack. The aroma wafts across the sticky air permeated by chattering sparrows and parrots from the green flourishing maize surrounding the ghetto. The blaring native Igbo music almost muffles Mr. Ude's voice as he laments the food crisis. "I wonder where we are heading to, every food item is expensive. Look at beans that was seen as a poor man's food that one can easily purchase for N40 or N50 and cook to eat with garri is unaffordable now because it has gone up to N180 a measure. I do not really know what is happening but if food will be very costly now, what about December? Maybe rice will be sold at N500 a measure then".

But Mr. Ude does not have to worry too long about December as the reality at hand is much more than he can handle. He has been starving to spare food for his wife and children to eat and survive. "I no longer think of three square meals. Personally, I just soak garri and allow my wife and children to have any food there is to be eaten", he says. While he is talking, his two year old daughter is crying and tugging at her mother's wrapper demanding for food. He has to pick her up and calm her down before the food is cooked. "As you can see it is most difficult for children because they cry when there is no food, they can not endure like me who am an adult. This sometimes makes me to go and borrow money to feed them", he laments.

A stone throw from Mr. Ude's hovel is another dilapidated muddy shack with battered rusty roof. A plump woman sits by the door slicing peeled cassava, scars of years of worry of what to eat for the day written all over her face. Some kids are scampering about, one is washing plates; while one is strapped on her back. She is preparing the cassava to ferment it into akpu, what has become their stable since the food crisis began. Smoking fire and the muddy smell of raw akpu pervades the muggy twilight air as the kids cast hungry glances at their mother. Three year old Chidinma nudges her mother and says "mummy stand up and start cooking I am hungry". The little girl had not eaten since breakfast and she can not wait till nightfall when they would have their dinner. They ate rice and beans for breakfast without meat or fish and the poor girl feels really bad about it. "Mummy I hope you are going to cook meat in our soup this evening?" Her mother could only shake her head in response as words seem too heavy for her to utter. She knows that meat and fish are good sources of protein but she can not afford them recently. "You see my child is demanding for meat in the soup for our evening meal but meat is no longer what poor people like us can afford to be eating everyday", she says.

Mrs Ebere Okwochi has five mouths to feed, including that of her husband and herself. Her husband Mr. Hillary Okwochi is a carpenter but he never gets work to do as most people in their slum can not afford the services of a carpenter. "Everybody here does carpentry work himself. I wake up and I stay at home doing nothing", he complains. Thus the burden of feeding a whole family of seven falls on the shoulders of the weary looking woman. She is a petty trader that sells food stuffs but the proceeds of her trade are too meagre to cope with the soaring food prices. "Food items are too costly, even when you take up to N15000 to the market you can not buy anything reasonable", she exclaims. "Beans that use to sell for N80 or N90 before is now sold at N160 in the market at wholesale price and we here sell at N180", she adds.

The food crisis is the worst period in Mrs Okwochi's entire life. For her it is like a war time when people are helpless, left in the hands of fate. She has been sweating to put bread on the table for her family in the bleakest of conditions ever. They eat rice and beans in the morning and akpu or eba in the night. Survival is gradually giving way to starvation. When Vivienne Walt wrote in Time of June 16 2008 that "for the world's impoverished masses who already spend most of their earnings simply feeding themselves, that margin between survival and starvation has become uncomfortably narrow", she may just as well have spoken for millions of poor families across the globe, but not so succinctly as for Mrs. Okwochi and the people of Dagba slum. "We are suffering seriously. We do not eat to our satisfaction nowadays. The items I am selling there is no market. When a buyer comes and you say a measure of rice is N320 and beans N180, they carry their hands on the head and start going back. But they would turn back and ask "Madam you get garri and sugar?" I would say yes. "Give me garri N20, sugar N10 and groundnut N10". Life is so hard now it is only God that will see us through because nobody cares if we are suffering, not even the President of this country".

Aisha Musa is a full time house wife and her husband is a barber in Area One, Garki. They have four children and they live in one of the shabby shacks in Dagba slum. Old, ragged zinc sheets are patched on what could at best be the size of a cubicle. The floor is damp and dirty. They too make the list of 100m people under the scratching claws of hunger, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Their children have come to accept garri as the staple food in their poor home. According to Aisha, "food is very expensive nowadays so it is difficult to feed well. When my children are crying for food and there is garri in the house I soak it for them". They too have cut down on their daily meals. They have been going without lunch since the start of the food crunch. The fact that there is no hope of prices of food falling drives crippling fear into Aisha as it portends endless days of going hungry in the future. It is really a grim future. "Life is getting harder and harder and I do not know when things would get better. When we get food we eat, when we do not get, we endure. But how long we will endure hunger is what I can not tell. I am appealing to government to provide aid to poor people like us otherwise they will wake up one day and see corpses all over, corpses of poor people struck by hunger", she implores.

"Ever before, cost of living in Abuja has been very high. The food crisis has only aggravated it". This is the view of Mrs. Bukola Akirinyade, a vendor's wife. Living in Abuja the past few years has taught her that one has to work extra hard to be able to survive. Besides one has to be frugal in spending especially now that the crunch has a firm grip on the poor. Her gaunt figure and drawn face bespoke the struggle to survive the hard way. "Now that prices of food items have gone up, before cooking, I sit down and do economy, I do serious calculations before I go to the market", she says. In spite of the harsh economic situation, Mrs. Akirinyade and her three children still eat three square meals. Though she complains that the quality of what they eat in terms of nutritional value has depreciated. She believes it is not how many times one eats that matters, but what one eats. "We took pap for breakfast, we ate beans with garri in the afternoon; and we will be cooking eba with ewedu soup this evening". According to her, they always have the same drab meals everyday. Even when they change diet it is either rice or yam which are carbohydrates.

In front of her door of sack curtain, a group of hungry children are scrambling over a pot of beans much like a group of chicks would do for grains of corn. She has had to cope with the kids of her neighbours whenever she is cooking. As fresh green leaves scent the air, the children grin hopefully, sure of dinner. Asked if he would eat in his neighbor's house? Ibrahim one of the kids fighting for the pot of beans says yes. "Wherever you get food you eat before you can die of hunger". Their withered faces suggest that they have been living on the edges of penury. The usual bright tinge in the innocent eyes of children can not be seen. Pain and fear has taken over.

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