Irish Echo, February 20-26, 2008
Irish past replayed in West-Central Africa
By Peter Duffy
In his piercing introduction to the The Irish Famine: A Documentary, novelist Colm Tóibín wrote, “It is difficult to imagine Ireland in detail before or during the Famine.” Indeed, the multi-year tragedy, which killed a million Irish and forced another million or so to flee elsewhere, feels like part of the hard-to-picture past. This is particularly so when one considers the Ireland of today, a rich, still-growling Celtic Tiger that is a (sometimes uneasy) beneficiary of immigrants rather than one of world’s principal contributors of them.
But it isn’t necessary to strain your imagination too hard to visualize the Ireland of long ago. You just have to focus on other parts of the globe. Take the country of Niger, the sub-Saharan nation recognized as one of the world’s poorest. The similarities are downright eerie.
Like Ireland then, Niger’s population is significantly made up of small farmers who rely on their own crops to survive. Further, its population is growing at an extraordinary rate. In the hundred years before blight struck the potato in 1845, Ireland’s population had risen from 2.6 million to 8.5 million. In the last fifty years, Niger’s population has ballooned from 2.5 million to 11 million. Nigeriens struggle to procure enough land to feed their large families, suffer through an annual “hunger gap” during the summer before the harvest is culled, and escape to more hospitable climes if the opportunity arises. Such exactly was the plight of the poor Irishman on the eve of the Famine.
The uneasy parallels continue when you review the response to the food emergency of 2005. In the fall of 2004, locusts and drought damaged Niger’s agricultural crops, although production was only 7.5 percent below the national food requirement. By early 2005, the aid organization Doctors without Borders was reporting that twice as many malnourished children were being admitted into its health centers as had been admitted during all of 2004. After making requests for international aid, the Nigerien government decided against distributing free food, feeling that it would disrupt market forces. Instead it offered subsidized food for sale and set up programs to provide money in exchange for work. So did the British government, with top officials arguing that the food shortage (which was far more severe than Niger’s) would provide an opportunity to turn subsistence potato farmers into wage laborers who would purchase blight-free grain in the market. In Niger as in Ireland, food exports continued.
By July 2005, it was clear that the Nigerien government’s plan wasn’t working. The international media descended to transmit images of starving children back to the West. CNN’s Anderson Cooper broadcast several wrenching reports. Many noted that the marketplaces were stocked with food that the poor were unable to purchase. On July 31, the (U.K.) Guardian newspaper headlined its story about Niger, “Plenty of Food – Yet The Poor are Starving.” Such was the case in Ireland, although the nation was so dependent on the potato that even if all of the country’s grain were distributed to the poor the Famine would not have ended. Still, the phrase “starving in the midst of plenty” became one of the tragedy’s grim slogans.
With a marked increase in foreign aid brought about by the widespread press exposure, the Nigerien government reversed itself and distributed free food starting in the late summer of 2005. The British government finally did the same thing many anguish-filled months after the second failure of the potato crop, partially motivated by heartrending accounts of starvation printed in the world’s newspapers that inspired fundraising efforts even in places without Irish immigrants.
Mercifully, the fall harvest of 2005 was sound enough to bring Niger back to its usual precarious but not dire condition and to allow the media’s attention to shift elsewhere. A graver catastrophe had been at least temporarily averted. In Ireland, the world’s attention also veered to other matters, even though the disaster remained ongoing. Soup kitchens were up and running for five months in 1847 before the government decided to switch to a more constrictive relief scheme that privileged long-term reform of the Irish economy over the simple provision of relief assistance. The system remained in place even after another failure of the potato crop (the third in four years) pushed the death toll to a million.
Following a decent harvest this past autumn, Niger is not currently threatened with a food emergency. But the future, as always, is uncertain. Swarms of desert locusts of the kind that did so much damage to the 2004 crop have been forming across the continent in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. Experts say it’s impossible to predict where the locusts will travel next and if they will destroy crops when they get there. This kind of precariousness precisely mirrors the reality of our ancestors’ existence.
So forget the heritage tours, the commemorative plaques, and the museum displays. Old Ireland lives in the west-central Africa.
Peter Duffy’s new book, The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland (HarperCollins), is set during the Great Irish Famine.