In 2005 I was sent to the West African nation of Niger. A country that vies for the bottom spot on the UNDP’s Human Development Indicator, it remains one of the world’s most impoverished countries. It has one of the lowest childhood survival rates in the world. Women give birth to seven or eight children, and it’s commonplace to find women who have lost two or three children to malnutrition and disease. Although official figures are hard to come by, it’s estimated tens if not hundreds of thousands of children die each year from malnutrition, disease, the lack of public health care, and poor child care practices such as nutrition and hygeine.
In 2005, a combination of crop failure due to poor rains and locusts, skyrocketing prices and predatory merchant behaviour led to a widespread food shortage across the nation. Niger is largely made up of desert and dry scrub, with a thin band of land in the south of the country which flourishes during the rainy season, and has just a single growing season. The main cereal crop, millet, is low in nutrients essential to strengthen young children. Hundreds of thousands of children were malnourished, and several million people were considered to be at risk. A large humanitarian operation was launched, ostensibly to respond to the ‘famine’ that was touted in the media, although in actual fact this was not a famine, but a nutrition crisis that targeted the very young (in fact not a single case of excess adult mortality was recorded due to food shortages during this time). Feeding centres were established and tens of thousands of food aid was transported into the country.
I was stationed in Maradi for the first few months of my deployment, a small town on the Nigerian border (note the confusable adjectives- Nigeria/Nigerian; Niger/Nigerien), working as a program officer, helping to set up and support the running of some of our relief projects. I was then moved to the capital, Niamey, and when our response manager left shortly before Christmas, I took his position.
It was a difficult time, professionally and personally, but one rich in experience. I did a fair amount of writing at the time, and I thought I would post some of my pieces here. Although they’re a little out of date, they fit the bill of travel pieces and observations on the aid world.
The first of these I’ve already posted. The next few I’ll publish over the coming weeks. I hope you enjoy reading through some of my memories.
As always, living and working in Africa is a swirling series of irreconcilable dichotomies; a strange blend of privelage and want, of elation and exhaustion, of adrenaline and bitterness. I have found this before during my shorter visits, but living in one of the world’s very poorest countries, one of the most dysfunctional, frustrating, fascinating and enchanting places I have come across, I find these feelings enhanced and confused.