Desert holidays: Helping Niger's nomads
22 August 2006
by Claire Spiegel
Our local garment district turned out to be the best place to buy thimbles in bulk. A stockbroker donated 100 small flashlights, penknives and calculators with the Morgan Stanley logo. We scoured sporting goods outlets for deflated soccer balls and bought 20 pairs of sunglasses at a 99-cent store. If the cashiers were perplexed, they hid it well.
Not surprisingly, the logistics of hauling about 350 pounds of supplies to Africa are complex and are likely to be further complicated by heightened airline security. A week after our scavenger hunt began, we finally loaded up five supersize sports duffle bags, paid about $200 in extra baggage fees (the vitamins alone weighed in at 200 pounds) and boarded a flight to Niger.
That was the start of a two-week trip to a nation that the New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof recently called “the most wretched country in the world,” and a venture that grew out of a question our 16-year-old daughter, Leslie Brian, posed after hearing yet another news account of suffering in Africa.
“So, is there anything we can do about it?” she had asked.
For seven nights during an extended spring break, our family joined Wodaabe and Tuareg nomads in the Niger desert in an immersion experience offered through a small nonprofit organization, the Nomad Foundation of Ojai, Calif. Our itinerary hinted at the remoteness of our destination: “Most of these locations refer to wells and will not mean much to anybody but the people who live there.”
The plan was to hand-carry supplies to remote encampments, returning with handicrafts to sell in the United States to generate profits to help build schools, restore wells and support women’s cooperatives. The nomads do beautiful embroidery and make colorful, leather-fringed bags that they hang from their camel saddles. We were told they could be sold here as hip purses, and a Beverly Hills shopkeeper agreed. So we ordered 200 bags from a cooperative near Iferouâne, a village in the Sahara. “They are thrilled,” said Leslie Clark, president of the foundation, in an e-mail message from Niger. She had arranged our trip and told the group of 40 women we would pay each of them $100 for five bags. “They’re planning to throw a festival in your honor.”
On March 21, after a direct flight from Paris to Niger, we began our trip, traveling north from Niamey, the capital, into the Sahara. As our S.U.V. navigated a narrow road studded with potholes the size of mattresses, the landscape grew starker, and tiny villages of mud-brick huts with conical thatched roofs disappeared altogether. We passed only two gas stations, but scores of shacks that fix flat tires, including several of our own.
It was pitch dark when we finally came to a stop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. As we sat in silence, concluding we were —at best — lost, it seemed maybe this adventure was a mistake. Then a boy clad in a turquoise tunic bounded out of the darkness, hugging our guide and leading us the last few miles to his home — an encampment of stick huts covered with fabric.
There, in an remote area of the Sahara known as the Azouag, about 50 families of Wodaabe nomads are trying to survive, scrounging for vegetation for their herds and looking for water from wells dug 100 feet deep by hand. The five wives of the tribal leader, Peroji Danieri, welcomed us; as the night wore on, children drew closer, examining our folding chairs, testing our flashlights and playing with our daughter’s long blond ponytail. As we mingled, we stretched our minds to fathom a new world where a family can own only what can be carried on a few donkeys, where a two-wheeled cart is a rare luxury and where starvation and privation are reality.
The first morning of our encampment near Mr. Danieri’s well, we awoke and looked out our tent at a herd of long-horned, hump-backed zebu parading by in single file, followed by a tiny shepherd in a turban topped by a distinctive pointed hat with wide brim and ostrich feathers. We naïvely donned our tight-fitting American clothing. By day’s end we eagerly traded it for turbans and loose, gauzy tunics and turbans.
After breakfast of coffee, cereal, bread and mango preserves set out by the crew, who knew that Americans aren’t much for sour goat milk and millet, we settled down on a mat with Mr. Danieri’s wives — the mainstay of the woman’s sewing cooperative. They were thrilled with the huge cache of colorfast thread, needles and scissors and eagerly tried out their new thimbles.
Cash from the cooperatives softens the blows of drought and famine that periodically sweep the country, and when herds are too small or sickly to produce milk or to sell for millet, the income is essential. How the women find time to embroider is unclear because they work to the point of exhaustion, moving camp as often as once a week, preparing food and hauling water — often walking barefoot to the well several miles away, with a baby tied on behind, a bundle atop the head and heavy jugs in each hand.
Halima Jerno, Mr. Danieri’s first wife of about 25 years, said the other four wives were a blessing because they were good help as well as good company. She is a happy woman, she added, because Mr. Danieri is a good husband “with a good heart who does not lie.”
It proved awkward to ask about her hopes for the future. “Their language is not really set up to ask about it. They live in the moment,’’ said Ms. Clark, who accompanied us and translated for us.
“I want my children to eat,” Ms. Jerno said. “I want the old people to eat. I want everybody to eat.”
By noon, our guide, Sidi Muhammad Mamane, a former Tuareg rebel leader who still carries a three-foot-long sword, reported that a young woman at a nearby camp had suddenly died. He was driving to get supplies when he stopped for three nomads who told him that the young woman had lost too much blood from a prolonged nosebleed. We were told that this could probably be traced to severe anemia. Nomadic women of childbearing years are often affected by an iron deficiency in their meatless diet, and in one camp we visited, three women had recently died in childbirth.
Health statistics in Niger are appalling: there is about one doctor for each 33,000 people; one woman out of every 20 dies in childbirth and about a quarter of all babies die before age 5.
In addition to iron tablets, we brought chewable vitamins for the children, all donated by Vitamin Shoppe and Nutrition Now. For the nomads, it seemed these bottles with colorful labels, tightly wrapped in cellophane, must hold supernatural power.
Other gifts, especially the flashlights and sunglasses, set off a clamor. But it was our Polaroid camera the nomads loved most of all. Physical beauty is revered among the Wodaabe, who carry little mirrors in pouches dangling from leather necklaces and are renowned for their gerewol festival, an annual beauty contest for men.
Mr. Danieri, a tall, elegant man who frequently sniffs an empty French bottle of cologne, said he would not trade his life for any other. Yet he says his people need help and that they were grateful for a new well and school financed by the Nomad Foundation.
“My family, my grandfather and his fathers always lived in the bush,” Mr. Danieri said. “We used to hide if we ever saw a car, and we did not want schools. But now I am divided in two. I really want cows, but I also want school for my kids.’’
A good well, a place to store grain, a small garden and a school are the beginnings of a nomadic community. “Then, at least, they have an address,” said Ms. Clark. Without an address, the nomads are beyond the help of any aid group.
A desolate spot called Aboye is the beginning of such a community for another group of nomads, the Tuaregs. The Wodaabe and Tuareg nomads face similar challenges for survival, but they are culturally and linguistically very different.
The cattle-herding, polygamous Wodaabe are known for their relaxed affability, while the camel-herding, monogamous and matrilineal Tuareg are, by tradition, fierce warriors and shrewd entrepreneurs who for centuries led camel caravans across the Sahara to the Mediterranean, transporting salt, gold and other luxuries. Often called blue men because the indigo dye of their clothing rubs off on their skin, they resisted dominion by the French and later by Niger’s government, finally laying down their arms when a peace accord was signed in 1998.
The Tuareg are scattered across northwest Africa, and many have moved to villages. But Tuaregs like Iknane, chief of the nomadic Ifarayene tribe near Aboye, say they will never leave the area.
Five months ago, the Nomad Foundation offered help. The men were given a cart to haul rocks to build a small dam to restore pasture that was being eroded by flash floods. Near their well, a temporary school was erected and a teacher hired. Several large groups of nomads have come together to enroll their children, with the annual tuition fee being a goat. When the rains come and better pasture beckons, the camp splits up, with some nomads taking the herds to graze while others, including the old people, stay to tend the children going to school.
To reach the school at Aboye, we crossed a stretch of desert so endlessly flat and bleak that mirages appeared as crystal blue lakes in every direction. This unforgiving landscape nurtures little besides malaria-carrying mosquitoes, scorpions and an occasional jackal. It was hard to believe that life or learning could happen here, let alone that the soccer balls we brought would be greeted by such astounding energy.
When school opened last year, the children were so frightened that their parents had to herd them into the classroom. Now, they beg the teacher not to leave on break. Their schoolhouse is a forlorn, one-room hut with a dirt floor, but it is a refuge from blistering heat and violent sand storms. As we ducked to enter, a class of 37 little children sat earnestly behind rows of desks, eager to show how much they had learned.
“They are learning to read and write and do math,” said their teacher, Issoufa Safane. He proudly called upon them to approach the blackboard one by one and, using the pointer, they read off the day’s phonics lesson in French and recited their verses. The teacher opened an empty metal cupboard and we unloaded two huge sacks of school supplies, including a small tape recorder with French songs. The children took the shiny soccer balls, now inflated, outside into the high noon sun for a wild, rather unorthodox scrimmage.
To build a temporary school costs $1,500; an additional $1,200 pays a teacher’s salary for a year. Digging or repairing a well costs from $2,000 to $7,000, and the Nomad Foundation has identified more than 100 that are on the verge of collapse. “Water is life for the nomads,” said Ms. Clark. “Such a small investment here yields so much.”
Our very small investment began with the trip but did not end there. We brought back reams of embroidered fabric and 200 colorful purses, and one by one, the bags are selling — each in return for a $125 contribution to the Nomad Foundation.