The life of an aid worker is necessarily made up of contrasts. I deploy from a suburban home in a wealthy western city and find myself, seventy-two hours later, standing in a dusty village where people sleep outside and struggle to survive if the rains don’t bless them. I swap material comforts for long hours in a bumpy four-wheel drive, a temperate climate for one of the hottest on earth, and the companionship of friends and family for those of strangers- or nobody at all.
On the other end of the spectrum, of course, the newness and exoticism of the experiences we expose ourselves to form their own sort of extreme. My commute to work in the morning lasts about the same amount of time, but instead of driving down multi-lane highways, I walk on a sand footpath through a bustling African market lined with silversmith workshops, stalls selling used clothes, and a bird vendor with a giant cage full of pigeons (yum) and several smaller ones housing grey parrots. I immerse myself in the chatter of foreign languages- some of them known to me, most of them not- and equally foreign cuisine. The harsh semi-desert landscape is just another reminder of how different this place is from the one I currently call home- and how far.
On Thursday we travel to a second nutrition centre, again a couple of hours along sand tracks. The health centre is based out of a fair-sized bush town, and the place is teeming with women when we get there. We’ve timed our arrival earlier this time, and get there just as activities are starting.
It’s more of the same. Much more. Although the program has been running for a little while, we’re adding dozens of new cases of malnourished children to our roster in this location today, child after child meeting our criteria for malnutrition. The screening point is under a lean-to, a small patch of shade in the middle of the sand, and the women form a tight mob around it despite the best efforts of our staff to keep them in an orderly line.
While Mike and Cam go looking for stories, I watch the proceedings. I check out the screening point where the children are weighed and measured, all bustle and activity. I walk around to where the health workers are handing out the ration of nutritious paste for the severely malnourished kids from a darkened room- oddly quiet after the cacophony of squawking voices and wailing babies. Out under the trees, a second distribution is taking place for moderately malnourished children, where they receive a reinforced meal-mix which is poured out into a piece of cloth which the mothers then tie into a bundle and carry home on their heads.
I’m back to feeling a fraud again. Wandering from post to post, watching, asking a few questions, taking the odd photo and smiling at the mothers, some of whom try to engage me in conversation, which peters out quickly because I speak precisely no Hausa. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything useful. Just a token white guy with a camera. I feel like the mothers see my inadequacy. I’m a voyeur. A disaster tourist. Wretched insecurity.
Standing near one knot of mothers, I’m pulled aside by a couple of women who show their companion to me. She’s a young mother of twins, and herself looks haggard and unwell. She has two tiny infants, one strapped to her front, another to her back. They both look ill. The one on her front can’t hold its head upright, and it flops back unnaturally, eyes half-open and milky. I palm its tiny brown skull in my hand and lift it, and it feels both heavy, and terribly fragile. The difference between life and death is just a frail thread here.
I talk to the nutritionists, but we can’t help this woman. The children are too young- four months old- and the only thing we can do is press on the mother how important it is that she keep breastfeeding them. Her milk is far healthier and nutritious for them than any artificial produce we can give her, and at any rate, her little ones are too small to be able to safely digest the food we give to the kids in our program, who have to be a minimum of six months old.
The nutritionist spends some time talking to the woman, driving home how crucial it is that she keeps breastfeeding. It’s a huge challenge in Niger, where breastfeeding is seen as undesirable, and children are weaned far too early onto foods their bodies are not able to digest. I hope and pray that this mother hears the words and puts them into practice. It’s a terrible feeling to step away from a situation like that and feel utterly unable to help, but to leave these children’s chance of survival in the hands of somebody who may not want to take the action she needs to take.
The others are following up their own story, the case of an eight-month old boy who weighs what Mike’s son did at birth. He is so visibly emaciated that we all wince at the sight of him. He has spindly arms, so skinny that the definition of his bones stand out. His skull is round and bulbous, his lips drawn back over his teeth in a sneer, and there are vertical scars cut into the side of his scalp, a traditional talisman to hurry healing. Days later, we’ll still be talking about him.
We move on from the village in the early afternoon. It’s baking hot out in the open, and we retreat to another compound to have a brief lunch, struggling with an element of guilt as we do so. We’re all feeling a little flat after witnessing the morning’s activities. On the one hand, there’s an element of rejoicing that the team have managed to identify nearly a hundred new malnourished children who will now be able to receive treatment. On the other, it’s hard not to feel a heaviness seeing that volume of sick children. And although there are kids I’ve seen today that have their progress marked on their health-cards in ever-increasing weight-gain, the ones that haunt me are the ones, six weeks on, whose weight has continued to slide downhill.
We load up into two Land Cruisers and head back the way we came from Maradi. There’s a village, Zakara, about forty minutes from here we passed through in the morning. Mike and Cam really liked the look of it as a place to get what they call ‘GV’, or ‘General Vision’. Those are the background shots that help the viewer get a feel for what the place is like while the narrator, out of sight, talks about what is going on. Where the road enters the village, it narrows and passes between two mud-brick walls, a unique and atmospheric feel that the cameraman wants to capture.
We reach the village and, as is always the case in Niger, our arrival creates a little stir. The men are often found resting in lean-tos at the side of the road, keeping out of the roasting afternoon sun. A pack of kids draws up around us as we exit the vehicles and go to greet the men, looking for the chief so we can ask his permission to film. Well before we find him, Cam is an instant hit with the kits. Blond, at six-foot-five, and lugging a gigantic TV camera on one shoulder, he’s like a magnet dropped into a pile of iron filings. Within a minute or two, there have to be over a hundred kids knotted around us generally, and him specifically, all wide curious eyes and big toothy grins.
It feels like the whole village has come out to see us.
This presents a slight problem. Cam was looking for an atmospheric shot of the mud-walled lanes. Quiet, shady, with perhaps a person or two walking in the background but otherwise, a scenery shot. Probably a couple of wide-angle takes from ankle-height. Right now there’s so little room to move, he couldn’t lower the camera from his shoulder without clocking two or three African children in the process.
We strategise. Cam isn’t the only one with pulling-power. I have a camera, and Mike’s famous in New Zealand. Surely that counts for something? I get people lining up for photos, and Cam tries to take a walk.
The crowd see the camera start to drift away and are onto him like a pack of Orcas on a wounded whale. Fail.
We take a walk up the street. By we, I mean the team, and the entire village. The mood is electric. People are laughing and smiling. We all think this is great fun. It’s not what we’d planned, but it’s totally out of our control and we know it. Trying to move this crowd would be like trying to stop a dust-storm.
I do a couple of walking shots with Mike when we get to one end of the street, and once again we try and draw the mob away from the camera to give Cam his shots.
“Let’s see what sort of pulling power we have,” Mike says, and we begin to trot away.
The crowd ignores us, locked adoringly on the fair giant with the funny camera, and we laugh hard at our total lack of appeal. When Cam starts to walk, the crowd surges with him. Their feet churn up dust which fills the air.
We reach the centre where the trucks are parked. I fit my wide-angle lens and climb onto the roof of one of the Cruisers to snap the crowd. This provides some entertainment, and the vehicle is quickly thronged. The colours are magnificent, and so are the grinning faces. Everybody is having a ball with these loony whites and their cameras, climbing all over vehicles.
Cam takes some more shots, ringed with children, then spies a donkey which a couple of kids have driven into the crowd. He kneels down to get some wide-angle shots of its docile face, and the whole village erupts in peals of belly-laughter. This is great sport. Children swarm the poor animal- and Cam as well, until he’s only discernable by the camera on his shoulder.
Finally, some of the men of the village work out that Cam wants some space, and let him into a compound, blocking the kids at the gate from following him. They then turn their attention onto Mike, George and I. We decide to try and create some space for Cam, so we take them for a little walk.
We start off, and the kids pour down the narrow street, running and shouting and having a great old time. They’re going to be talking about us for months to come. I’m feeling like a total cliche right now- a typical white guy in Africa- but actually, while village welcomes aren’t uncommon, I’ve never seen a spontaneous celebration quite like this one before. What’s overwhelming is the sense of innocent joy that’s being expressed in every direction. They’re genuinely thrilled just to have us.
We get to the edge of the village. We look at each other. “Now what?”
The kids are watching us expectantly.
“Okay,” I say, “Who’s going to dance for them.”
George looks at Mike, who’s a Maori and a rugby player.
“Mike,” she says, “Can you do the Haka?”
Mike shoots her a grubby look that says has no intention of doing the Haka in the middle of a dusty village, but it only takes a few moments of urging, and the expectant gaze of a hundred small Nigerien children to break him. He bends his knees, glowers at the crowd, and slaps his hands against his thighs.
“Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!”
The effect is stunning. These kids have never seen a Haka before, but they know straight away what’s going on, and within half a second, the ring closest to him are already mimicking him, slapping their thighs with much delight.
Mike does the Haka, and a hundred Nigerien village children are rapt.
When he finishes the war-dance with his leap, half of them jump with him, arms raised in exuberance, while George and I fall about laughing. Everyone cheers, almost giddy with excitement. The laughter is contagious. The joy is tangible.
We walk back to the cars. Dust billows into the air beneath the slap of two hundred bare and flipflopped feet. A couple of the braver kids reach out and touch the skin of my arm. It’s pale (by their standards, though I like my tan) and hairy. They giggle. I look down, and they are uncertain for a moment as to whether they’ve crossed a taboo. When I grin at them, the spell is broken, and a moment later my arm is seized by a dozen different hands, stroking it, pulling on it, giggles bordering on hysteria as they paw my skin.
We leave the village feeling like celebrities. The whole lot have shown up to see us off, lining the road, waving as we go. A bunch of kids chase the vehicles to the edge of the village. There’s a glow that remains in the car all the way back to Maradi- and for a long time after that as well. Days later, we all reflect on how Zakara was one of the best times any of us had ever had in the field.
We’d left the health centre feeling pretty broken by the heartlessness of life in the Nigerien hinterland. An hour later, and we were surrounded by happy cheering children and bouyed up by an unspeakable joy.
Every day in the field is special in its own way. I’ve had a lot, and a lot of them are memorable. Several of them I’ve written about on this blog.
This one was particular. Negotiating the extremes of sadness at the plight of critically-ill children, to the spontaneous celebration of Zakara, covered a spectrum of emotion I’ve rarely experienced in a single day’s work. And it served as a beautiful reminder of why, sometimes, being an aid worker can be an incredible privilege. Some days, I really resent what I do, torn away from friends, loved ones, simplicity and comfort. But not today. Today I know just how lucky I am.
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