We arrive at dawn. Mothers clad in bright patterned wraps line up in front of purposeful nurses while efficient cleaners bustle around. The mothers are tired, worried, tense.
They are queuing in the half-light to receive a measure of therapeutic milk for their starving baby in the clinic behind.
Inside the clinic lie rows of sick children in white cots. There is a faint sound of crying but the cries are weak whimpers, not the demanding yells of hungry, healthy children.
The nurses move around carefully, weighing children, checking fevers, administering drugs. The shutters are down to defend the room from the dust and rising heat outside.
This is the CRENI, the intensive care clinic for children who are severely ill with malnutrition and who are also suffering from an infection or disease that they are too weak to fight off.
It’s in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, where the sun is fierce at this time of year and where the rains are just starting, bringing new life and hope but also mosquitoes, cholera and floods.
It’s where Aloubacar brought her son three weeks ago.
Dehara is four. He looks about six months old. He’s severely malnourished and he has malaria. He lies on his little white bed, his head lolling over, too weak to lift it, or to focus on me beside his bed, or to move. He’s been here for three weeks now. He’s not getting worse but it’s not clear that he’s getting better. There’s tenderness and concern in the nurse’s face as he takes a blood sample, the only thing that made Dehara move while we were there and he was crying.
Aloubacar brought her other children with her to the clinic. Where else could they stay? The family of four have been living here for three weeks, her pretty nine-year old daughter Jamila looking after the baby Nona Madya.
The last three weeks have seen the best rain in over a year, but while Aloubacar cares for her sick child she’s missing the start of the planting season.
If she doesn’t plant seeds, she won’t have crops, if she doesn’t have crops, the family won’t have food or seeds for the coming year. But she can’t leave her son.
Aloubacar’s story isn’t unusual. Life is springing up all over Niger as the thunderstorms kick-start life into the red sand, but the people who are too weak or sick or trying desperately to care for their children can’t use this precious rain to secure their food for 2011.
This is why we need emergency health care for children like Dehara now. He needs drugs, doctors, nurses, a beds, a mosquito net.
We need support for Aloubacar, Jamila, Nona Madya, and all the other mothers staying with their sick children. They need clean water, cleaners and food.
Aloubacar was able to get to the clinic for care. Niger is a huge country. There are children out there in the desert who are dying, but whose parents know the nearest help is a week away on foot in the blistering sun.
We need community workers, cars and fuel to physically go out, find these children, bring them back and save their lives.
And we need to help families in the longer term. They need food now, but they also needs to be protected from having to sell seeds and tools for just a few days of food.
If we don’t the poor rain in 2009 is going to cause families pain and poverty for years to come.