I’ve been in Niger for just over sixty hours when we board the flight in Niamey. It feels like my first time back in the field in a long time. I did some trips in Fiji back in June and had a brief trip through parts of Typhoon-devastated Manila this time last year, and before that, a few days in northern Sri Lanka at the climax of the war in early 2009. So it’s not surprising I’m feeling a little starved.
The day starts in typical third-world travel fashion. A dawn departure from the hotel, an arrival at a near-deserted airport where the only passengers were the dozen scraggly expat-types boarding the UN Humanitarian Air Service flight, and the mind-numbing bureaucratic protocols that are one of the great legacies the French left behind in West Africa, together with the French Foreign Legion, and great bakeries.
We squeeze onto the little 15-seater turboprop. The pilot is a ruddy-faced eastern-European. He might be Russian, he might be Bulgarian, but either way I do a nasal sweep for vodka before I’m happy to buckle my safety belt. I’ve heard the stories.
The flight is gorgeous. Ninety minutes at four thousand five hundred feet. The morning air is dead calm and we don’t bump once. In bright sunlight we see the Nigerien heartland laid out beneath us, everything from barren scrubland to fields dotted with vivid green, from round-hutted villages to monsoon-flooded wadis. We get a great view of Maradi town as we sweep low over flat-roofed mud houses arranged in tight grids. I can see garbage strewn down the familiar dirt streets where rain has washed it out.
We travel straight to the field, just time to swing past the Guest House to dump our bags and grab breakfast to go; Mike and Cam are still funneling omelette into their mouths when I usher them into the vehicle and we’re heading bushwards. It’s a ninety-minute trip to our destination.
The mission is two-fold. Mike and Cam are journalists from New Zealand reporting on the nutrition crisis. They’re using our program as a springboard to tell the story. As well as accompanying them as the interim manager of the program, I’m taking the opportunity to familiarize myself with our activites in the villages and see the context for myself.
For me, the trip out of Maradi is a series of flashbacks, a journey I’ve done countless times from my time here in 05 and 06. It hasn’t changed much, though maybe it’s a tad busier, and there are more broken-down trucks than I recall. It only takes us twenty minutes to lose the tarmac, and then we’re jarring northwards on rutted tracks into the bush.
We’re late to the village, and the program activities have waited for us to arrive. We pull up outside the health centre where the nutrition screening is taking place, and it’s all a bit daunting. There must be over a hundred mothers with children gathered beneath the shade of spreading green trees, not to mention the prerequisite hoard of older children who are there for the excitement of seeing the foreigners. They already know something’s up because a team’s gone ahead of us to get things set up for our arrival. Mercifully, we don’t get a song and dance to welcome us, and the screening starts straight away.
While the boys get their camera gear out the back, I wander over to the main screening point. Siradji is there, managing the operation. I haven’t seen him since 2006, when he was doing exactly the same job. His face lights up and we share an enthusiastic hug in front of a hundred bemused mothers still waiting for us to start weighing their kids. Most of them smile at the exuberance.
Mike and Cam work with Ann and George, our media reps, looking for interesting stories, while I check out the different parts of the nutrition program. We screen the children who’ve been referred to us by the health centre as exhibiting likely malnutrition. They’re measured and weighed, and then either dismissed or added to the program, depending on their health status. In the program, they’ll be given a weekly or fortnightly food ration, and their progress documented by health workers. Different activities happen at different stations, and it’s a setup I’m familiar with from five years ago. It’s all eerily familiar- except that there are far more women here than I ever saw in ’05. Plenty of sick kids too. One of the first on the scales is a visibly emaciated youngster eight months old who weighs 3.2 kilos- or what I did when I was born.
It’s a hot day. Which goes without saying. It’s Niger. The village is mostly sand, and that sand is white and burning. I have my camera and inbetween talking with staff and health workers, I take some photos. I haven’t done much of that recently either, and it takes me a little time to work into it, but the kids get a kick out of it every time I point the camera at them, so that makes the job easier, and a lot more fun too.
As always happens on this sort of exercise, after a while I start to feel a little awkward. I manage the program. My training is at a fairly high level. I’m not a technical specialist, and my role there is to get a feel for what’s happening, identify any problems that the operation might be experiencing, and make sure that they get solved. I’ll do much of that in meetings, trainings and from behind a laptop in a scuzzy office in Niamey. But out here in the field, I’m the token white monkey, just an odd foreigner walking around talking to people, taking notes and the occasional photo, and feeling utterly useless.
In fact, I feel like poo.
And then something funny happens. Siradji comes over. There are a lot of women, and some of them are impatient. They’ve been there for a while, and the screening is taking too long. Our two volunteers are totally overstretched and can’t get through them quickly enough. So Siradji grabs a measuring tape, and passes me a pen and a card, and we set up a second screening point under the trees.
I have a stack of cards. Siradji reads out the measurement, and if the child’s arm is below a certain diameter, they’re admitted to the program, in which case I note down their name, village and measurement on a health card and give it to the mother. I speak no Hausa and the women speak no french, so as he measures, Siradji asks the women the child’s name, and often as not he then needs to spell it out for me because it’s been a while since I’ve come across quite so many Abdoulayes, Fatoumatas and Ibrahimas.
I’m a glorified scribe. I’m ridiculously overqualified (and overpaid) for what I’m doing. In fact I’m probably thoroughly inappropriate, given my linguistic shortcomings (although as time goes on I get my ear in and can understand the names and villages straight from the women themselves).
But I feel useful. I’m doing something practical. I’m helping out. And I freaking LOVE it.
It gets intense. The women are all impatient, and as the line deteriorates into a mob, they grow rowdier. Children are being shoved at Siradji. Accusations of queue-jumping and unfairness are thrown about in banter which borders on being less than good-natured. I understand not a word of the chatter, but the tones speak for themselves. I’m not concerned beyond the fact that the disorder isn’t pleasant for the women. But as I sit there, I reflect on my situation. Sitting on a small chair in the sand on a roasting afternoon. Agitated women squalling in sharp tones in my ear. Screaming babies. We’re completely ringed in, hot bodies pressing so closely sometimes I can’t move my elbow to scribble on the little cards. The smell of sweat is a sweet odour that fills the nostrils with foreign scents. I am perspiring heavily myself, and can see the beads of moisture on the women’s scarified faces.
I’m a long way from my desk in Melbourne.
And I’m still loving it.
Perversely, most women want their children to be malnourished so they can get the food ration. It’s an understandable but tragic worldview. Siradji and I pantomime joyful celebration every time a healthy baby passes through our setup. However most are not healthy. The moderately malnourished get their name written on a register to come back next week for a ration, while the severely malnourished get a pink card and are sent round to collect their food. I pass the cards to the mothers with a smile and a thank-you, and their reactions differ. Some nod politely. Others withdraw shyly. My favourites are the ones who collapse into giggles and wriggle away.
After a while we learn things aren’t quite right. Women, seeing the white guy sitting on the chair taking notes, overestimate my station and think their kids will have have a better chance of being admitted to the program if I’m the one doing the assessing- so even those who have already been screened and overlooked are coming back around for another go. It’s time for me to move on, which is just as well because the journos have shot all they need to shoot, and I’ve collected all the data I need.
Mike and Cam have, however, found some women who walked here thirty kilometres this morning. It’s a triumph of perseverance and maternal care (assisted by the tantilizing promise of food), and we all agree that compared to these women, who have walked the better part of a marathon one-way since 3am, with little water and carrying sick children, we’re all lightweights. Mike and Cam, both athletic types, are in genuine awe of these skinny, resilient villagers.
We give them a ride back to their village with their children. The journos go to interview one of them, to get a feel for life in a typical Nigerien village. Typical it is. To western eyes its hard to compute how people live in such a materially-poor environment. Yet there’s an admirable sense of self-reliance out here too. They are a long way from a main road, even longer from towns and services. There are few signs of modernity. Everything they have they make and grow from the ground.
We visit one woman’s dwelling. It is a tiny mud-brick room about three metres by two, with a metal door that can seperate the place from the outside world. It is hot outside, but brutally-so inside, and whites and Africans alike are quickly sweating in the cramped quarters. Sunlight burns in the doorframe, casting the outside world into a curious white overglow.
In the room is a single bed which takes up half the floorspace. There is a mosquito net hanging from the ceiling. This is the woman’s indoor living space. She has five kids, all under the age of twelve, and she can’t age them except to tell us that they came at roughly two-year intervals. She is one of two wives married to the same man, and her co-wife has a mirror dwelling attached to this one, where they share the compound. They seem to get on well. This wife also have five children, and Adriane the project manager, and American who is fluent in Hausa, explains the local proverb that when it comes to children they are like a horse’s ears- always in competition, but never getting ahead of the other. Women in Niger give birth to an average of more than seven children each, so between them there are still four more waiting to be born if the odds play out.
We drive home at the end of the day, through late afternoon sunlight. Curfew for our teams is six pm, when we’re expected to be off the roads and back in Maradi. We muse on the day’s experiences. The Kiwis are struck by the gentleness and hospitality of the villagers we’d visited, as well as the difficult sight of so many seriously ill children. We settle into the dining room of the small hotel we’re staying in and work our way through several beers, and by nine o’clock were all pretty out of it. We’ve got two more days ahead of us in the field.
I’d nearly forgotten how much I enjoy this. I’ve been spending more and more time at desks lately. It’s the drawback of increasing professionalization. As you get older and more experienced, your skills are better put not to micromanaging a single site or overviewing a small project, but to working on ‘bigger’ issues. That’s not to give myself more importance than the guys on the ground. In fact, quite the contrary, I am deeply envious of the work they get to do- at least in the short-term. It’s just that my role has changed.
The enjoyment is a funny thing. It’s more a rejoicing in the intensity of experience, the uniqueness of it and how it differs from my usual grind. Many of the things we witness are hard realities. The program focuses on children on the cusp of death, in many cases, and when errors are made- even seemingly innocuous ones- some will in fact die. We are witnessing people who live in physical circumstances that we are inclined to call ‘suffering’- although, and not to patronize nor to belittle their reality, most have learned to take in their stride and accept with a startling grace. But overall, I come away from a day like today feeling infinitely more satisfaction than any day in the office. I wish I could have many more like it.
At least there’s tomorrow.
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