For many in Niger, a child's life depends on reaching an MSF centre

© Didier Lefevre/imagesandco.com Click image for large view

Habiba Souleymane1 has just received a food ration at MSF's Chare Zamna CRENAS2 located in western Zinder. Although this 30 year-old mother is used to Niger's crushing heat, she could not take any more. This morning, she managed to find a place for herself and her two year-old daughter in a truck leaving her village, Kari Bakoi, and headed for Zinder, a 20- kilometer journey. Like dozens of other women and children who had also made a long trip, they waited patiently starting at 7:30 a.m.

Habiba knows a lot about malnutrition. She remembers the terrible food shortage of 1984 and seven years ago, she lost a child to hunger. Today, she wants to do everything possible to save the daughter that she and her husband can no longer feed.

"We are destitute," she says. "There is no more millet, so we are surviving on a little manioc flour. That's all we have left. My daughter has been ill for two months and I can't go to the Termini health centre because we don't have enough money."

As poor farmers, they depend entirely on the harvest from their field, where they have planted millet, sorghum and a little corn.

In Termini, Habiba was told to go to the Zinder hospital, but there, too, you have to pay before receiving treatment.

"They told me to go to the CRENI [intensive nutritional recovery centre] in Berni, where they took my daughter and me," she says. "We spent nine days in the centre and today I came to the CRENA. My daughter is better. She's started gaining weight again. She likes the plumpynut."

This morning, the child had another medical exam and despite a little fever, her overall condition is improving. For Habiba, the situation is beginning to improve slowly, too.

"My daughter is better and if we continue to get good rain, the harvest will be good, Inshallah. If I want to be able to work in the field with my daughter on my back at harvest time, she has to be healthy otherwise she won't be able to take it. It's very hard with this heat."

She knows at least four malnourished children in her village who have not yet come to Zinder for treatment. The children's mothers do not want to take them so far away or simply cannot. For the time being, Habiba will go back to Kari Bakoi and rejoin her family. She will bring a litre of oil, pouches of plumpynut for her daughter, the bag of millet, beans and the bar of soap she just received. She still has to find 200 CFA for the ride back so that she will arrive before nightfall. That is yet another hardship.

MSF has run nutritional programmes in Niger since 2001. Since April 2005, MSF has raised an alert to a grave nutritional crisis. MSF has provided care to over 20,000 severely malnourished children in seven therapeutic feeding centres and 34 ambulatory feeding centres in the regions of Maradi, Tahoua and Zinder. There are more than 100 MSF volunteers and 750 national staff members currently at the emergency