06/19/2012 11:31 am ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

The Faces of the Food Crisis, Up Close

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

The food crisis currently affecting the Sahel is a result of several causes including drought, high food prices and regional instability. Certain factors might have a bigger influence than others depending on geography, people's livelihoods or even personal choices. Every region, every village and every house in Niger attributes their situation to a different combination of reasons, but the result is invariably the same: this year, people don't have enough to eat.

In the last few weeks, as a regional communications manager for the humanitarian organization CARE, I have talked to families in several regions of Niger, while traveling on my own or when taking journalists to the field. Despite the variety of personal circumstances, certain elements appear often in people's stories.

Life has never been easy for these people. They've increasingly got used to enduring what others would consider unbearable. Their ability to eat has been highly dependent on weather and rains since they can remember. Most families have lost children because they couldn't feed them and they fell ill easily.

This cycle of poverty has become the 'new normal' for them.

This is also the case for the people I talked to in Saran Maradi, a village in the region of Maradi, southern Niger.

This year has been harsher than usual, and crops were insufficient to feed their families. They couldn't afford to buy food in the markets, either, because of the high prices. Only a few people in the village have grain left, but it's only for planting. Many sold their goats or sheep to buy food, but the prices are low, up to half of the standard price.

CARE is providing income to 61 families in Saran Maradi so they can buy food during what is commonly known as the 'lean season,' the gap between the time people run out of food stocks and the next harvest. "It's a support that came at the right moment," says Achirou Inoussa, a 42-year-old man from Saran Maradi. People receive cash in exchange for part-time work in projects identified by their community, or as a handout in the cases where nobody in the family is able to perform manual labor.

The cost of this type of emergency project is relatively low, but it has a very tangible impact.

"Normally, around this time of the year, all the young people are gone," says Moussa Garba, an elderly man who claims to be over 80, although he doesn't know exactly. Sitting under a tree, he and other men explain to a visitor that during the nine months of the dry season most men in the village go to Nigeria to work in low-qualification jobs; as porters, water sellers, or emptying septic tanks. This year, however, some came back when they found out about CARE's project and the opportunity to earn a living in their doorstep.

Apart from preventing seasonal migration, cash-for-work projects bring extra benefits to the communities. In Saran Maradi, people are turning an unused piece of land into pasture. After removing weeds, they sow grains which will germinate during the rainy season and create a new area for cattle to graze.

I was interested in knowing more about the impact of this project in the homes, so I talked to women; they are generally the ones who face directly the difficulties to feed their families in times of hardship. I wanted to know what they were eating before and after this project started.

Delou, Halima, Maka, Mariama, Sahara and Sakina benefited from this project. They are mothers and grandmothers between the ages of 25 and 80.

All combined, they have 41 children, although their families could have been larger. Through the years, these six women have suffered the loss of 24 sons and daughters in total. Sahara Mahama, 40, lost four children; one of them was only 14 days old. "I lost the youngest one during the rains, in the lean season. I didn't have enough to eat," she laments.

All of them emphasize that this year there wasn't enough rain, and little to eat. "Two years ago at least there were people who harvested spikes of millet, but this year the crops have been worse because of the drought and the leaf miners," says Delou Ibrahim, 70.

CARE"s support has allowed them to feed their families at a critical time.

"Before this support, I couldn't; I was eating leaves," explains Maka Ali, an 80-year-old widow. "Not only can we buy millet and sorghum now, but also corn and condiments," explains Mariama Oumarou, 55.

"With this support, we get to eat abundantly," explains Halima Abdou, 25. She and the other women I talked to are now able to give their children two daily meals; porridge in the morning and sorghum paste in the evening.