06/26/2012 02:34 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

A Life-Changing Visit to Niger

If you've never heard of the Sahel, you're not alone. I myself had to double-check my world map. It's a region of Africa that includes Senegal, The Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and parts of Sudan. There is a drought across these lands -- the kind so severe, women are boiling leaves to feed their children -- compounded by half a million Malian refugees searching for safety. There are 18 million people in the Sahel without enough to eat. Some one million children, born with bright eyes and promise, are now becoming skin and bones.

In early June, I traveled to Niger with Maria Kasparian, Edesia's Director of Operations, who has been with me on this journey to manufacture Plumpy'Nut and other Ready-to-Use Foods from the very beginning. Two years after we opened the factory, it remains a priority for us to connect what we do every day in Providence, Rhode Island with the people it serves. It was also an opportunity for us to meet up with our PlumpyField partner, STA, who, from the capital city of Niamey, supplies Plumpy'Nut for all of Niger.

We visited clinics and hospitals in Niamey and Maradi (reachable only by UN plane) with Ismael Barmou, STA's Deputy General Manager, to see how Plumpy'Nut is impacting human lives. As I stood in the malnutrition ward of a regional hospital, my chest tightened, and I had to work hard to keep my composure. There were no welcoming smiles, only blank, empty stares. My camera, normally always at the ready, dropped down to my side. I couldn't bring myself to snap images of so many children and mothers in despair. To my left, a little girl lay on a bed, emaciated, listless, and very alone. I didn't know her story. "Where is her mother?" I asked myself. All I could do was watch her chest rise and fall -- as I did with my own newborn girls -- and I clung to the possibility that, in this place, because of the nutritional peanut-paste we make, her life would continue.

It is almost impossible to tell the ages of the many children we saw. To me, they often looked like infants, maybe about three months old, when in fact they could have been two years old.

It was heartbreaking to see so many children with feeding tubes filled with therapeutic milk, and so many lost, overwhelmed, and tired, young mothers beside them. In Niger, as in many developing countries, girls are forced to marry at young ages. One mother, who looked 16, saw me walking by and lifted up her baby for me to take. Without enough food, without nutrition, this is what life becomes.

The number of malnourished children -- too weak to even lift up their heads -- will soon increase dramatically as we enter "the hunger season" in this place of sandstorms, little-to-no rain, and 120 degree weather. In two months, the health system will be strained. But the experts we met from the World Food Programme, Save the Children, UNICEF, and the government gave us hope. They said that this year may be different for Niger, and hopefully for all of the Sahel. Better, more-sophisticated early warning systems have led to faster mobilization of funds and placement of lifesaving supplies. If health clinics have good stocks of therapeutic milks, Plumpy'Nut, and other nutritious foods, the peaks of the crisis can be weathered for now.

The Sahel is not just a place on a map for me anymore, but a place I have been, if only for a short time. Now that I am back home in Rhode Island, where temperatures are moderate, rain and food plentiful, children healthy and playing upstairs, when I read the headlines about the Sahel, an even stronger urgency rises up from inside. I see a mother holding out her baby for me to take. In that gesture, I carry with me her pleas for a better life.

Crossposted from