Every time I tell someone that I was in Niger, whether on email, chat, or in person, they think I was in Nigeria. Last night, I was talking to a man from Guinea-Bissau; he told me that it’s normal. Even he remembers the first time his teacher distinguished Niger from Nigeria for him, and he was in Guinea-Bissau.
Niger was an eye-opening experience for me, as an understatement. There are 3 countries in Africa (all Francophone) that I have wanted to visit as I consider them to struggling slightly more than the others—DRC, CAR, and Niger. Niger and the CAR are both landlocked with struggling neighbours, resource-rich, and conflict-sensitive (CAR is going through conflict now and Niger had a military coup in 2010). In various development country rankings, Niger is often the penultimate country next to the DRC, both for the world and Africa. So I was intrigued to see what was going on in the country. As well, it was going to be my first visit to a Francophone African country so I would get to practice my French.
When, I arrived, I was in for a shock. Most of the country (80%) is in the Sahara desert. But the southwestern and south central portion of the country where the capital, Niamey, is located in the Sahel. The Sahel is this type of semi-arid transitional region between the green coastal areas of West Africa and the huge Sahara desert. What this means is that most of the capital where I was looked very barren to me. There were trees, yes, but there were less trees than you would find south in Nigeria. And there was sand. Lots of it. Everywhere. I begin to understand the culture that I read about during 1st century Israeli times. Phrases like “shaking the dust off your feet” and the need to “wash another’s feet” made perfect sense. I still have dust and sand on my clothes.
I was there to visit Kristine who could no longer spend Christmas in the UK. So I went down there. It was so interesting to hear and see the commonalities with other African nations, West African Nations, and Nigeria specifically. The two countries share a few similar tribes and languages across their borders. Even some of the food is similar: I had an okra stew on rice that tasted similar to okra stews I’ve eaten growing up. The one huge difference was the French. Not being in Ghana or Nigeria, the colonial language is French with which I’m not comfortable but can fake it. The strange thing is that people thought I spoke French well. I always had to correct or interpret what they meant. I think they meant that I speak French with a French accent (not that I speak it well) which I guess sounds impressive to people who speak French with varying West African accents.
Just like Kristine’s first weekend in Niger found her as a hairdresser and photographer for a wedding, I was immediately inundated into Nigerien society. I went to a Nigerien white wedding and I went to a baby-naming ceremony. They were all quite interesting and cool. The white wedding was the same as other West African white weddings. The only difference is people came up to the seated bride and groom and took pictures and videos the entire time, even separating the bride and groom from the speaker/preacher. It was a bit hilarious. The baby-naming ceremony was cool. It was nice that they fed us dinner for breakfast (it started at 7 AM on a work day!). We had bread, chicken, and red stew (again similar food). I went to various people’s houses and was able to eat with a Tuareg family whose most charming daughter laughed at my French. I ate on the floor at another Tuareg household (luckily they had mats—it’s dusty) and the man had Kristine served me! And then he said jokingly “Isn’t Africa great!”
I also was able to go to the sand dunes, which are really peaceful and beautiful. I wish I had more time there to see the life there and how people live. One of my favourite parts of the trip deals with a USAID food security grant for a few million dollars. I helped an organization there with the economic prognosis and market analysis for the grant proposal and they won it. That grant doubled their building space, their staff, and their annual budget. So it was wonderful to attend the opening ceremony of the first food distribution in a village to the north. It’s quite amazing to see what your work actually goes to do. It was also meaningful for me because I begged to go out to the field to see our work when I worked for USAID, and I was never sent to any country. So now I was actually in the field seeing food distribution happen but through an NGO that won USAID funding. It was really interesting. Here in Niger, it really underscored to me the question of the long-term effectiveness of helping people survive in such harsh conditions. As Kristine pointed out, when you look around at that village we were in, you could never imagine that anything could grow from that ground. My faulty understanding is that this Sahel-Sahara region was inhabited by nomadic peoples (some still are semi-nomadic and pastoral) who could move around from place to place in search of water and food. But the contemporary culture of settling in one place doesn’t go so well with the barrenness of the land. Sometimes you wonder if it’s best to move people. In social work and community development, anyone will tell you, moving people from their home is the hardest thing to do. It’s often discouraged in social work; you help people where they are. So it brings up tough questions.
Another problem arose with trying to decide what to do: they have a system where you must pay before they do any treatment or help or work or bandages, even in the emergency room! It’s a sad policy because I saw a woman who I believe was dead being taken out of the emergency room on a stretcher. In the end, it was decided that I had to go to her office to alert her staff (I handed her phone to one of the village people at the accident who was helping me and I didn’t get it back). So I had to make my way by taxi to her office. This sounds normal, but there are two problems: I don’t speak the language, and they don’t have addresses in Niger. I could only give the neighbourhood. And everything, every street, every corner looks the same—it’s just sand everywhere. Somehow I got a taxi to take me because no on wanted to go to that part of town. Finally I got the guy to take me to the right neighbourhood. He couldn’t find the location I was telling him so he dropped me off and I ran until I found the office. We then got help and got back to the hospital. Her office sent people to the site to secure the vehicle and we were able to make medical decisions. An American doctor was called in; we got X-rays revealing a fracture for Kristine in one arm. But because the Nigerien resident was treating her badly, we left. The American stitched her up and then the next day applied a plaster splint. We made sure to leave money to help the motorcyclists (imagine how many poor people have an accident and can get no emergency care because of money). They seem to be doing good and recuperating fine. Our people have been checking on them and, before leaving that night, the family of the two guys would sometimes check on us. We gave reports to the military and then we left.
We got CAT scans revealing 4 or 5 breaks in the nose but no swelling in the brain. She got stitches to close up the wounds on the arm. The next day she got a plaster splint. And on Monday, she got new X-rays that confirmed a clean fracture that had already started healing. The worse part was working with her organisation, which was more concerned about insurance, payments, lawsuits, and disciplinary action than her health. In the end, between emailing her family to mollify exacerbated emotions and trying to get internet diagnoses, we were finally able to convince her organization to do a medical evacuation, so we got her out of the country and on to her family about a week after the accident. So my Christmas was spent celebrating and my New Years was spent caring and tending.
I do hope to go back again to the country. It’s plagued by period drought and advancing desertification (the Sahel is advancing) which is not a good thing. There’s so much work that needs to be done from poverty alleviation, health care improvement, education improvement, infrastructure building, water security, etc. The economy is mostly subsistence farming and agricultural exports. Uranium is the big raw material export that I think could do a lot for the country if properly managed well. There is huge opportunity here. It’s just a challenging place to live and to develop true, integrated community. But with great challenges come great opportunities to live better stories and love well.