Workers Battle Drought, Starvation and Superstition

June 22, 2017

Emaciated boy in Niger.
A clinic in southwestern Niger was this malnourished boy's only hope for survival.

Weak from drought and fearing angry spirits, Samira* felt she could do nothing as her 2-year-old son wasted away.

The weary young mother in the drought-stricken, West African country of Niger had already seen two of her children die from starvation. Now her son Adamou*, born in her mud hut in Tsaboudey village in Niger's Sahelian southwest, was acutely malnourished, his skin clinging to his bones.

Adamou had never received any medical treatment. In her native Kollo District, Samira had taken him to traditional healers, whose ritual incantations, koranic verse recitations and attempts to make contact with spirits via plants and perfumes had not protected Adamou from the ravages of Niger's drought.

More than 80 percent of Niger's people are Muslim, though many practice their religion alongside the animistic rituals of their ancestors. In Samira's area, traditional healers and marabouts (Muslim holy men) discourage people from seeking treatment from medical clinics. They gave her little hope of recovery for Adamou.

"The native healer told me that the spirits are not happy about me, and that I have to pay with my children," she said.

Many rural people in Niger are deeply suspicious of modern medical practices, and Samira's neighbors were continually frustrated when they urged her to take her children 22 miles away to an indigenous ministry's medical clinic in Dantchandou. At the clinic another toddler, 19 months old, was suffering from Kwashiorkor – the protein deficiency that leads to a swollen belly – along with anemia and diarrhea.

"One week after the admission, the mother ran away with the child to a marabout," said an indigenous medical missionary at the clinic. "She came back two weeks later, when the child was in bad condition." He offered himself consolation with a final thought: "Only God is in control."

Another mother at the clinic was suffering from mastitis, an infection not from drought or malnutrition but a common breast inflammation during breastfeeding. The precarious condition of her baby went from bad to worse.

"The child cannot continue the breastfeeding because of the condition of the mother," the doctor said. "Therefore, the child is severely malnourished, and as usual the parents came very late to the health center after visiting several marabouts."

Some people avoid the clinic because of its Christian leadership. Enough Muslim animists seeking treatment eventually have put their faith in Christ that area religious leaders advise against it. The grandmother of a baby who refused to nurse his first three weeks of life said the family initially declined to bring him to the clinic.

"We were advised to come here with the child, but at first we refused, because we were told that once you come here, you will be Christian," she said.

Woman holding emaciated boy in Niger.
A malnourished boy's mother brought him to a modern medical clinic just in time.

The clinic was able to refer the baby who refused to nurse to a hospital, where it received a life-saving blood transfusion. Personnel from the clinic in Kollo are following up every day with the infant in a hospital in Niamey, the capital.

The indigenous ministry director that oversees the clinic said personnel are gentle, tactful and wise in sharing the reason for their hope within.

"In our experience, most people are open to listening [to the gospel]," he said. "The decision to follow Christ may not come immediately, as some plant, and others water, and others harvest. Over here, it's basically a one-on-one thing with lot of patience, as God does His work through their hearts."

The impoverished country of mostly Saharan Desert and some semi-arid Sahel is home to several tribes, including Hausa (slightly more than half the population) Zarma-Sonrai, Tuareg and Fula, and nine official languages besides French – Arabic, Buduma, Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamasheq, among others. Amid this complexity, indigenous missionaries are in prime position to understand and minister to the unique, multilayered characteristics of the various micro-cultures.

Suffering alongside those they're serving, the indigenous teams are enduring the drought in the Sahel region of West Africa that is threatening 1 million children with severe malnutrition. As malnutrition rates are reaching 15 percent in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali and northern Senegal, food prices in the region have risen 20 to 25 percent over the past five years and could reach 30 percent by August.

As many as 13 million people are expected to suffer the effects of drought this year, such as Samira and the young son becoming weightless in her arms. Recently her neighbors finally persuaded her to take Adamou to the clinic in Dantchandou.

"At the clinic, she had it explained to her that it's just a problem of food," said the director of the ministry, which is assisted by Christian Aid Mission. "The child is malnourished. By the grace of God, he will be fine again. We referred him to a hospital for further management. We are following up on the case, and the mother says, 'I'm very happy.'"

Most of the parents who arrive at the clinic return, he said.

"The mothers are always happy and appreciate a lot what they are receiving all the time from us," he said. "Most of them are thankful now and smiling when they come to the center. A lot of lives are changing. Thanks a lot for all your support, especially your prayers toward us."

To help indigenous missionaries to meet needs, you may contribute online using the form below, or call (434) 977-5650. If you prefer to mail your gift, please mail to Christian Aid Mission, P.O. Box 9037, Charlottesville, VA 22906. Please use Gift Code: 511HIS. Thank you!

*Names changed for security reasons