More than a million children are going hungry in the Sahel because of drought. A German aid group believes it can help to contain the crisis by offering financial inducements for the slaughter of weaker livestock.
Adamou Nouhou is patiently sawing away at a bone. He is a butcher from the village of Yatakala in the Tera region of Niger. Two tables are standing in the sand, they are covered with plastic bags. Adamou's two assistants are putting pieces of raw meat on metal skewers and then hanging them out to dry in the sun. Nearby two beef carcasses, supported by a wooden frame, are swaying in the wind. The air is full of sand and dust, and it is hot, more than 40 degrees in the shade. Adamou Nouhou places his saw to one side. "After we have skinned the animals, we bring them here, cut them up and remove the bone. Before we put the meat out to dry, we have to weigh it.," he says
That is the job of Fati Salou, an independent weights and measures inspector. She examines the carcasses, notes down their weight and ensures the meat really does go to those who need it.
Buying up livestock
This provisional abattoir is one of eight that the German aid organisation Welthungerhilfe (World Food Aid) have set up in villages across Niger. Some 60,000 people have benefited from the project since it started at the beginning of the year. All needy households in the villages have been supplied with meat, as well as millet and seed.
Fati Salaou opens the gate into a farmyard. A few underfed cattle and goats are chewing away in the shade of a tree. Because of the drought in the Sahel, oxen and cows have hardly anything to eat. Welthungerhilfe buys the weakest cattle from the farmers at a price which they would never get if they went to market. In and around Yatakala these animals now end up in cooking pots and save human lives.
Willi Kohlmus is Welthungerhilfe's regional director for Africa. He says they are trying to do everything they can to stop people leaving the area, because that would be the worst that could happen. "It would mean they would stop growing crops and the next harvest would also be a disaster. That in turn would mean more dependence on foreign aid, in refugee camps,".he warns.
For farmers and the nomadic peoples of the Sahel, cows and oxen are status symbols. They are also an investment for the future, or savings to fall back on in hard times. Livestock is slaughtered only on special occasions, for example, when the son of the family gets married. Normally, they would let animals starve to death rather than take a knife to their throats. Selling them is the only option. But who is going to buy cattle when there isn't any feed because of the drought? It is a real dilemma, as Saydou Abdoulaye, a young father from Yatakala explains. "One really can't expect us to reduce the size of our herds, because we don't have anything else. They are all that we possess," he says.
Worst drought ever
The food crisis is closely linked to the broader crisis enveloping the environment. Climate change has made the rainy season less predictable. Periods of drought now occur more frequently. Simultaneously, the growth in population is putting a greater strain on the soil. More people are keeping more livestock and the pastureland becomes overgrazed. As it is not given a chance to recover, it becomes worn out. In addition, more and more trees are cut down for firewood.
Slowly the people of Yatakala are realizing that they are partly to blame if nothing grows any more. For 60-year-old farmer Gambina Birma this is the worst drought she has ever experienced.
"We pray that this year there will be enough rain so that we never have another season like the last one ever again Now, we have a disaster here every second year. Two years ago we were hit by flooding. Things were different in the old days, there used to be a lot more trees and hardly any sand," she says.
Learning to treat animals
In a school building in Tera, there is a class in which all the students are adult men. Rows of tables are covered with medicines and medical equipment. The students are being trained to become veterinary assistants. Two cattle breeders from Yatakala are also taking part.
Welthungerhilfe's Willi Kohlmus gives a short introductory speech. "We are not here just to offeryou emergency aid, instead we want - together with you - to lay the foundations for a better future," he says.
Everyone completing the course will be able to run their own pharmacy, which will supply famers with the medicines they need for the care of their animals free of charge. They also learn that a small herd of healthy animals is far more valuable than a larger one, which cannot be fed adequately in times of drought.