In Niger, more than 2.6 million people suffer from food insecurity. Poverty, hunger, and climate shocks all directly affect farmers and herders there. As much as 90% of the country’s population makes their living by working the land or caring for livestock. If the harvests are bad, everything collapses.
The last few years have been particularly challenging: the 2018 drought ruined crops and livelihoods for many families, and the consequences of their poor harvests hit children hardest. Without access to a diverse diet, young children will lack the nutrients necessary for growth and development, and quickly fall ill.
“The Mother of All Children”
Dr. Maryam Abouacar has seen Niger’s high rates of hunger and malnutrition firsthand where she works with Action Against Hunger in the Mayahi Rehabilitation Center. In just two years – between 2016 and 2018 – the 38-year-old child psychologist has treated 4,500 cases of acute malnutrition. Using a holistic approach, Maryam helps children not just survive, but thrive.
When she first graduated with her master’s degree in child psychology, Maryam nearly gave up her career before it began. Her colleagues did not see the value of her specialty. “Playing with children is not part of your job,” she often heard them say. She tried to explain that play is part of treatment, but they did not understand.
Then one day, she had a revelation. A child she was treating, who was thought to be terminally ill, opened his eyes wide and said, "Mom, I want milk."
These four words made a big impact on the psychologist:
"I saw in him the desire to live and, at that moment, I understood that the fight is never over. Until the last second, there is still hope."
Her small patient eventually recovered and, ever since, Maryam has been nicknamed “the mother of all children.”
Saving Aisha’s Triplets
30-year-old Aisha has 12 children. She and her husband work the land, growing millet and sorghum. Providing for their family became harder and harder due to poor harvests and insufficient supplies. When Aisha found out she was pregnant again, everything got worse.
"My husband was very worried. He no longer slept, no longer ate. He was out all day, until the day he left in the middle of the night and never came back," says Aisha. After a month, Aisha's husband called her. He was in Libya, and he said he planned to go to Europe to work and send money to the family. But she hasn't heard from him since: "I don't know if he's alive or not.”
As her belly grew bigger, Aisha kept working the land. She gave birth at home – a long and painful birth of not just one, but three babies. While she recovered, the older children helped with the housework. But, just a day after the birth, the family was out of food. Aisha got up, still weak, and put one of the triplets on her back. Her older children carried the other two. Her only option was to walk the streets, begging for money to feed her family.
One day at the market, Aisha and her very thin babies caught Dr. Maryam Abouacar’s sharp eye. She approached the mother and examined her triplets.
"Beyond their extreme thinness, their condition was worrying. They were very weak, and one had trouble breathing," recalls Maryam.
With no time to lose, Maryam called the hospital and asked them to urgently come and get the woman and her babies. The malnourished triplets were immediately admitted for treatment.
In addition to the medicines the babies received, Maryam worked with Aisha and her babies to help with their emotional and psychological needs.
"As doctors, we have cutting edge medicines and techniques, but what we can't give them is the love of a mother, " she says. Through counselling, play, and more, Maryam strives to restore the emotional connection between mother and child because in some cases, this bond is broken when the child is admitted to the hospital.
“You have to keep in mind that a lot of women who arrive at the center have never set foot in a city before, and even less in a hospital. The shock can be huge, and they are worried about leaving their other children in the care of their husbands or family,” says Maryam.
One of the most difficult parts of the triplets’ recovery was helping them regain their psychomotor capacity, according to the child psychologist. “They took longer to learn to sit or crawl than other children. These games stimulate them physically and emotionally,” she explained.
In the three weeks Aisha spent in the hospital, she participated in several education sessions and understood that begging was not a long-term solution to her problems, but the opposite: if she continued, her children could fall into malnutrition again.
On the day the triplets were released, Maryam accompanied Aisha to the Office of Child Protection in Mayahi. They spoke with the manager and procured a dairy goat to help Aisha feed her babies. Together, they developed a plan to help the mother of 12 start a small business that would allow her to work and earn an income at home while taking care of her family.
Finally, they returned to the village, and Aisha’s family ran out to greet them when they arrived: “It was like a party. They laughed, sang, and shouted, ‘Mommy is back!’
Aisha never stopped smiling, hugging children, and telling stories.