Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a die-hard advocate for the people of Niger. With one short and unreliable rainy season per year, the Sahara Desert threatening to overtake sparse crops, the highest fertility rate in the world, and often ranking in last place on the world’s development index, Niger needs our help.
I truly believed I’d never find people poorer than those I knew in Niger.
And then I went to Kenya.
Mamaselina, age 30, and her seven children were the first family who showed me that poverty can hit hard in other places too. I remember walking the rocky path to their home and noting that while the landscape looked green, it was a mirage. The bushes and trees weren’t lush, they were either cactus or branches full of thorns. There were no fields, no crops, no water sources.
To get water for her family, once per day Mamaselina walks two hours to the nearest river. She’s able to carry about 20 litres back home, which would be enough for one of us to take a two-minute shower or flush the toilet twice. My upstairs bathtub faucet drips about this much each day.
If her children have enough energy, they might join her in the task, carrying 5 litres each. That barely puts a dent in what they actually need, though. The minimum standards are 25 liters per person per day. As a result, each child is rationed one cup of water to bathe with once per week.
During her two-hour trek back home, Mamaselina will collect firewood–adding it to her 44 pound burden of water–in hopes that she can sell it for a few shillings at a nearby market. This is her only source of income to buy food. On the day we visited, only the two smallest children had eaten a bit of porridge. No one else in the family had eaten since they boiled some maize the day before.
I looked around the compound as we spoke with Mamaselina. Besides the mud hut, there was almost nothing to indicate that people lived there. No granary, very few dishes or utensils, barely any possessions even inside of the hut. I could see why she wasn’t worried about locking up her home during her daily trek for water. What could anyone steal?
The destitution was obvious in Mamaselina’s answers to our questions as well:
We asked if she knew why little Julia (left) was often sick, with a swollen belly and dull, yellow eyes. “Who knows?” she replied.
Do her children ask her to give them food when they are hungry? “No, they are used to being hungry.”
I was shocked at her fatalistic sentiments when we asked if she felt the baby she was nursing was receiving enough milk. “I believe the little milk the child is getting is enough and she will be used to this life.”
At 7-months old, how sad that a baby should already be resigned to a life of hunger.
Does she have hope? “I just believe that God will help me. There is nothing I can do.”
I wanted to argue. But what could she do?
In that thorny, hot, remote, dry landscape, Mamaselina needs resources. So what can we do? Pray. Donate. Help.
We emptied our water bottles into the family’s plastic jugs, hoping that would at least help a little. And we returned home to tell the story.
I often think of Julia, and her younger sister Chathrine. During our visit someone had placed a handful of thick-skinned fruits into an empty bowl and handed it to them. I’d already noticed how the toddlers simply sat in the shade, too tired and hungry to be playful. But it was equally disturbing to watch them with the bowl of fruit. Suffering from chronic hunger, you’d think they would have dug in and devoured it as quickly as they could. I know my two-year old would do that if she had a bowl of candy. But Julia and Chathrine mostly just held the fruits protectively, and picked at one. The toddler impulse had been replaced by the wisdom to ration the food and make it last.