The Hidden Hunger, By Margee M. Ensign
The women and children filled the Cathedral, an ocean of beautiful colors. They were all packed together, and although there were 1100 people there, it was disturbingly quiet. They were all very hungry.
One of the most serious consequences of the violence in Northeastern Nigeria is the increasing number of internally displaced people, or IDPs. They are leaving regions of violence to come to places of peace and stability. Yola is one of those places.
Last week, students, faculty and staff from the American University of Nigeria went to the church in support of the relief efforts of Bishop Steven Mamza, one of the members of our Adamawa Peace Initiative (API).. He is the Catholic Bishop for our region. Bishop Mamza has registered several thousand of IDPs in the Cathedral, and more than 800 are living on church grounds.
He has organized two food distributions: one three weeks ago with over 2,000 families, and a second one last Friday with over 1100 women and children. Why only women and children? He thought that by just having women, the food distribution would go more smoothly. He was right. The first distribution took close to 9 hours and the second one only three. The women helped each other and were cooperative. When an older or sick woman entered the line for food, her sisters near her helped her. The women received the food with great thanks.
AUN and API have done three additional distributions: one at a local mosque in Yola where we fed about 800 people, a second in a neighborhood near the university, and a third AUN conducted for our own employees.
But why are we doing this? Hasn’t the Federal government budgeted millions of naira for the IDPS? What about all of the various international organizations and donors supporting IDPs in Nigeria? Where are they?
Bishop Mamza asked every one in the church–and who had registered as IDPs–to raise their hands if they had received food from the government. In the vast sea of 1100 faces, only ten women raised their hands. Where is the relief food going? Why is it not reaching the hungry and those in need?
Why have we reached this crisis point? There is a huge mismatch between where the supplies are being sent and where the hungry are living. As one of our API members said, about 2% of internally displaced people are living at the IDP camps; over 98% are in private homes. Most of the food that has been sent goes to the camps, then to local governments. The vast majority of the food targeted for IDPs–at least in our city–is not reaching those in need.
Nigerian culture is a generous one. When an extended family member needs help, they are not turned away. I have talked to so many AUN employees, employees who have 20-50 people living with them in their small homes! When I ask them why these refugees aren’t living at one of the the camps, they recoil in horror. “We don’t allow family members to do that,” one said.
In any situation where there are large numbers of IDPs, it is often difficult to target food and supplies to those who need it the most. This is happening in our area and it is unnecessary. There are ways to locate, register, and monitor IDPs–wherever they are living–and AUN is using its ICT infrastructure to do just this. Our Chief Information Officer, Julius Ayuktabe, is leading a team of AUN faculty and students who are identifying the homes where IDPs are living .
We are working to collect this information with the Red Cross, IRC, Oxfam, Kinjir Foundation, IAD, Assemblies of God, the Catholic church, Chief Abdul-Mumini of Bole, Turai, Imam Dauda Bello, Bishop Peter Makanto and Bishop Stehpen Ransom.
By Friday, statistics for 6954 persons will be uploaded into a Google map. The map can be used not only to show where food and supplies need to be sent, but INEC could also use this information to ensure that all Nigerians are able to vote in the next election. We should not compound homelessness with disenfranchisement.
Last week as we were distributing food in a Yola neighborhood, a severely malnourished mother and her baby joined the line for food. The neighbors were shocked; they had never seen her before and we all very worried about her and her baby. They were both rushed to the hospital. The Mother improved, the baby died last night.
Nigeria cannot and need not allow this hidden hunger. It is urgent that the Federal Government and international donors make absolutely certain that food resources and relief materials are going to those in need. In our city, we are anxious to help.
Dr. Margee M. Ensign is President of the American University in Nigeria, Yola