It’s day three in the field. For the last two days, we’ve been spending most of our time looking at the nutrition program. It’s been a mixed mission. On the one hand, we’ve still got Mike and Cam, the journalist and cameraman, with us doing their story on the Niger nutrition crisis- and me (oddly enough). On the other hand, I’ve been using this opportunity to spend time with the field teams, check up on the work we’re doing, and orient myself well for the next three weeks of work here in-country.
Today, though, we’re all about the media stories. It’s been an interesting experience for me, watching how the news is made. Mike and Cam are both at the top of their respective fields and they’ve been a pleasure to work with- even if there are moments when I cringe at the thought of what the villagers who watch our antics must be thinking.
We going a little more into the background of Niger- and my background as well. It’s a nice angle for the story- an aid worker who was here in 2005 during the last crisis, returns in 2010 and comments on his journey, and what he’s seeing. So I’m doing a few pieces to camera, usually interviewed by Mike, either beside me, or perched to one side of the camera. When I’m not on camera, and because most of the things we’re seeing today are not part of my program responsibility, I’m a little off-duty, which is nice because I’m free to take photos. Which of course I do.
The work aid agencies like mine do is built around both long- and short-term realities, and each has to take the other into account. For example, although my focus is on acute malnutrition and how to make sure that hundreds of children in our areas of operation don’t die between now and November, the team also has to be aware of the long-term context. There’s issues of chronic malnutrition, health care, disease management, clean water, hygeiene practices, breastfeeding, and a host of other trends, changes within which are measured in years, yet which have a direct and tangible affect on our work. Likewise, when our colleagues in the development wing of the organization are designing their fifteen-year program cycles, it’s essential that these programs are built around the emergency contexts that are likely to arise during that time (such as acute malnutrition) so that the root causes of these emergencies can be tackled over the long term.
So the first place we stop is outside a small village on the horrendous road to Dakoro. I say horrendous, because the Senegalese are funding a road project to pave it all the way up. I remember this road from my time here. It was laterite- a bright red dusty unsealed track running due north for several hours. It was one of the more uncomfortable journeys to make, as the road was marred by rock-solid washboard, and you spent the journey trying not to let your teeth grind down with the jarring.
Ah the good old days.
Today, the road is under construction. The first few miles are now metalled, and the rest is undrivable. In fact, we spend most of the journey not on the road, but on a set of sandy tracks which drivers have been forced to forge off to one side of the road because it’s gotten so bad.
It’s a relief to branch off straight into the bush when we do. We’re accompanying a wizened farmer who’s one of the more entrepreneurial types. Instead of just growing millet, he’s planted acacia trees to stop soil erosion, as well as cassava (an edible root crop), melons, hibiscus, sorghum, and a bunch of other things too. We walk around his plot and he shows us what he’s doing. This is all good for the long-term growth of the rural areas, and the health of communities, if what he’s doing can be replicated to others.
I take a portrait of him which I love. He’s wearing a red-and-white chequered headscarf in the bright overhead sun, and his face is full of lines, evidence of a life lived hard. He’s looking at the camera, and I’ve stopped the 85mm lens down to f/1.8 so that the background is thrown out of focus and the details on his face are extra sharp. It’s one of my favourite types of portraiture, and one of the most satisfying when it works.
Our next stop- and photographically my favourite- is further north at a village with a second-chance school. In Niger, many villages don’t have schools, and those that do are often understaffed. Children who don’t enroll into primary school at the correct age are not allowed to enroll at a later age, and therefore if they miss registration one year (or in some cases, if they have no birth certificate) they miss out on being able to gain a formal education altogether.
These schools have been set up as a safety net for kids who’ve missed out through the normal channels. They teach the national curriculum, but teach it over four years instead of six, so that the kids can catch up sufficiently to be able to attend college (secondary school) when they graduate. The children themselves understand the importance of education (I always enjoy visiting schools in rural communities, because the kids understand what a privilege it is to be at one, unlike so many classrooms in Europe, the Americas or Australasia).
The children in Niger are beautiful. They’re graceful and have elegant features, and are a joy to shoot. I mean, kids are great most places, but I’ve always found the Nigerien children particularly endearing. These ones are no exception.
Mike and Cam set up some interviews with some of the children, and again I’m free to do some shooting. Which I do. Some more from this shoot (and some of my favourites from this trip- and for a long time) will show up on a later post.
From here, we visit a cereal bank. I was involved in setting up our cereal bank program back in 2005 (when I knew very little about them; the advice was coming from our local staff who had worked with them before). The principle is, you provide some sacks of food to a village committee when food is at its cheapest (right after harvest). The committee then keeps this food in a central location. If people in the village need food, they can buy food from the cereal bank at rates cheaper than the market rate- a benefit to the community- but still more expensive than the food was purchased for at the start of the year. If the bank is managed properly, the committee should have enough money to replenish the store when the next harvest hits the markets and grain prices are surpressed again. If they’ve done a good job and market prices have worked in their favour, they may even gain some profit which they can then invest in their own community development.
The cereal banks have come under fire at different times. When they’re not managed well, communities expect NGOs to top them up for them, so it can become a hand-out project if not carefully supervised. They’re vulnerable to market shocks and food shortages. However this one we visited had done well for itself. Over the last five years, only this year had they come to us for help to restock it, and that because the food crisis was so severe. We gave them a few extra tonnes of food- not a huge amount- and they reckon with that they’ll go back to being able to replenish their store again in the next harvest, in a few weeks’ time. Meanwhile, over 800 families in the community benefitted in some way from the bank’s work over the last year.
It’s nice (and remarkably rare) to be able to step back into a country many years after leaving it, and to see a project that you’ve contributed to in some small way having made a difference to peoples’ lives. I can assure you, it doesn’t happen often.
(And obviously, when the chats and the interviews are over, I head off and take a few photos of cute kids. 🙂 )
On the drive back to Maradi, Mike and Cam want to recreate some background shots from the Dafur incident. Part of their piece on me will involve a brief re-telling of the ambush. They shoot some stylised footage of the vehicle in the bush, of us taking cover behind the dashboard, and of Idi, our driver, wearing my turban and menacing the vehicle. It’s all rather hilarious in its own way, four guys with expensive gear playing Cowboys and Indians making light of a very serious situation. But as we watch the sun start to kiss the tops of the millet stalks, we settle back into the bumpy ride and muse on yet another good day in the field. We’ve been lucky with the times we’ve had, and we all know it.
Tomorrow we drive back to Niamey. Ten hours. It’s going to be fun.