The better part of the Nigerien highway from Niamey to Maradi. Photo: humedica
African Adventure – project visit in Niger.
No matter at what time I was on my way in Niger, there have always been plenty of people on the streets. Today not. That must be due to the early hour when even the Nigerians still sleep. For us, it was a six-o’clock-departure – with a bit of an African serenity and an hour of delay.
So, getting up at 4:30am, quick breakfast and then – here we go, 660 kilometres want to be travelled. In Germany, that is approximately as far as from the humedica headquarters in Kaufbeuren to the Ruhr area. For me, as an expert of this particular route, it is manageable in five to six hours on the highway. In Niger, the dimensions are different. The 660 kilometres from Niamey to Maradi take easily nine hours or more. Depending on how well you can handle the rutted road. Although the road between the two cities is one of the better in the country, as far as I can tell.
The better part of the Nigerien highway from Niamey to Maradi. Photo: humedica
Maradi is located in the South of Niger, not far from the Nigerian border, and it is the third biggest city of the country. Here, we would like to visit another project that humedica runs together with the Dominikus-Ringeisenwerk and our partner Hosanna Institut de Sahel. A workplace that gives people with disabilities a prospect again.
Here in Niger, barely anyone is caring for them. To the contrary: at the entrance to the villages, especially old and fragile people reaching out their hands or little cups begging for a donation, are catching my eye– and also people with disabilities.
But one after another. As soon as we leave the capital Niamey, a rope suddenly hangs over the road, blocking it off: a Nigerian toll station is in front of us. Here, we have to pay money for being allowed to drive onto the rutted road. We receive a receipt, the rope is lowered and we can pass.
In Niger, nearly everything is paid cash – ATMs are quite rare. The possibility to pay with card is even less common. We are going to need the receipt from the toll station quite a few additional times on our way to Maradi. Because almost in every place here, there is such a post with a rope. If you can prove, as we can, that you have paid the whole distance in advance, you will be let through quickly.
So we drive on. To the right: countryside. To the left: countryside; now and then a village. The region here: sand, rocks, a few trees. And that is as far as the eye can see. And it goes far, as there are hardly any mountains here between Niamey and Maradi. The air conditioning tries its best to make the ride at least a bit bearable. Even though is clearly struggles to fight the heat. The felt interior temperature: about 30 degrees. Outside: 40 degrees.
The landscape between Niamey and Maradi is shaped by sand and bushes in particular. Photo: humedica
Suddenly, I spot a sign: National Park. Here, the last wild giraffes of whole West Africa are supposed to live. I am craning my neck. "Giraffes are tall, you cannot overlook them here in the width," I think. One can! Apparently, the animals stay away from the main road, somewhere they can hide – good for them, too bad for me.
Instead, I discover other animals. For example, a huge herd of cows drinking at a waterhole. Or one who seeks shade under a tree. Or one that crosses the street right in front of us. Anyway: in addition to the potholes, you have to pay attention to many things on Nigerian roads – also to animals. Sometimes, a goat is standing in the middle of the road, sometimes a donkey, and then a camel again. Or just a cow.
Can encounter you on the street in Niger: camels, sometimes with load, sometimes free-roaming. Photo: humedica
A lot of children also walk on and next to the main street: in the morning, often on the way to one of the village schools, which – according to the many signs – only were realized through the support of many European and American relief organizations.
Suddenly we have to stop. A truck with a flat load space is standing in front of us: children climb onto the loading area – school bus in Niger.
If there is no school bus, you will see whole hordes of children going to school in the morning and coming back from there at noon. Most of them are laughing and are happy. I have rarely seen such a joy of life as they express it here in Niger; especially amongst children. And that despite all the hardships they face. From a European perspective: I am impressed!
The average Nigerian family has seven and a half children. Niger has the highest number of child births in the world. A cause why it is also one of the poorest at the same time. People often live in self-built huts, mostly made out of clay and straw or corrugated iron. Thereby, the huts are as big as a bedroom in our place. The whole family lives here, life takes place outside. When you are on your way at night, you can see that some even sleep outside.
There is not much space in a Nigerian hut. Photo: humedica
The new day starts early: getting up at six o’clock, departure at half past six. Destination: Kollo, a city with some 20.000 inhabitants, roughly 45 minutes South of Niamey. Here, humedica operates a health care centre together with the Hosana Institut de Sahel that is taking care of the hardships of mothers and their children.
A part of the clinical team comes from Niamey and due to this fact, we first pick up quite a few people on our way before the cramped off-road vehicle is making its 35 kilometres towards Kollo. Our driver is going, in my opinion, a bit fast on the narrow and poor streets, but here in Niger, this seems to be normal. Everyone drives where and how he or she can. That, at least, is the impression. Order within the traffic? – for us Europeans just hardly noticeable. But anyway, confirmed by multiple drivers, it does exist.
The health care centre is especially taking care of mothers and their children. Photo: humedica
Arrived in Kollo, some women are already waiting in front of clinic. Some even camped here to be the first in the cue in the next morning, we were told. This is showing that the health care centre is desperately needed in a country which has the highest birth rate in the world. At the same time, the level of health care here in Western Africa is not comparable to Europe at all. A health insurance does not exist. People that have to stay overnight in the clinic often have to organise their care on their own, for example through their family members.
We get a short tour through the little clinic. Mothers and their ill children come here; but also pregnant women for check-ups or if there are complications. Exceptional severe cases are referred to Niamey. In all other cases, the team here in Kollo is in charge. Also during childbirth.. That’s why neither mothers nor children died lately – anything but taken for granted in Niger.
We are entering the treatment room. A seven-year-old girl is laying here and cries. She burnt her whole leg a few weeks ago during one of those many fires that burn here in Niger everywhere. Her burnings blaze deep red, partly almost white. Currently, she cannot move her knee. Will it be possible someday again? I got a lump in my throat. Since the accident, she comes regularly to the clinic: for the post-treatment. At the beginning daily, now every three days. The treatment will take several more months.
It is Sunday morning. Yacouba Seydou, founder and leader of our local partner organisation Hosanna Institut du Sahel, takes us with him to a Christian mass. The majority of the people in Niger are Muslims. Roughly only seven percent of the population are Christians. A few of them assemble here in an inconspicuous backyard. „Here, the people may forget about their sorrows of the daily life for a short time every Sunday,“ our hosts tell me.
The church service is held outdoors, sheltered by some kind of a tent. When there is electricity, the fans are spinning and provide for some cooling. However, black outs are part of the daily life in Niger. As we arrive in the yard, we hear music. People dance and greet us cordially. Some reach out their hands to us and welcome us. Rarely have I experienced such a kind and relaxed atmosphere.
People of different tribes celebrate church service together. Photo: humedica
In Niger there are different tribes. They all have their own language. Only a few can read and write. French is, in theory, the official national language. In practice, however, it looks quite different. „How do you want to celebrate a church service together under this circumstances?” I wonder. How does the communication work?
The community has its own choir. The special thing is: in the choir, members of all six tribes sing together – namely songs of all ethnic groups. The church service participants are dancing along, and also altogether. The atmosphere, it is difficult to describe. At some point, it is read from the bible. First in French, then representatives of the respective tribes translate the spoken into their languages. I learnt that the bible was translated into the language of the Tuareg just last year. Would you have known?
Our journey begins at the humedica headquarters in the early morning. There is no non-stop flight from Germany to Niger. At our stopover in Moroccan Casablanca, we can already scent a bit of the oriental air – even if this is not really comparable to the air in Niger as we discover later on.
On the way to Niger we leave the snow-covered Alps, Pyrenees, and the Atlas Mountains behind us. Photo: humedica
Until shortly before the arrival in the Nigerien capital Niamey, you barely spot any light on the ground. A first jint how sparsely the Sahara that we overflew is inhabited. And how little electricity there is, which could light streets and paths on earth.
As we get out of the plane in Niamey, the nightly heat hits us hard. “Now I am here,” I think, “now I receive an impression of what is expecting me.” The stress of the journey and the uncertainty completely gave their way for curiosity by now. My thoroughly chosen luggage gives me an additional safety: sun screen, mosquito repellent, medication against diarrhoea, vomiting, and malaria. Even though there is no rainy season now and, therefore, there shouldn’t be that many mosquitos – I am better safe than sorry.
We get picked up. An employee of our Nigerien partner organisation Hosanna Institut du Sahel already awaits us. Surrounded by a crowd: everyone would like to carry our bags or drive us to the city for a “little” money.
The streets that are leading us away from the airport could also be anywhere in the South of Europe – they are past their prime. But nevertheless they are still asphalted, although there are potholes all over the place and the driver therefore suddenly breaks several times. He apparently is doing the trip quite often and knows every hurdle.
The first houses are emerging at the roadside. Well, they are rather huts, provisionally knocked up out of clay and wood, sometimes also out of plastic sheets. They seldomly would withstand a thunderstorm. "Welcome to Africa," I think. People are sitting in front of their houses, talking or simply laying and sleeping on the floor.
We turn at the next cross-way. Abruptly, we are on a sandy track. On the right and left of the road, you see all different kind of things lying around. Again and again, unlighted vehicles cross the road. I notice a boy on a bicycle, about eight to ten years old, also without light. "Pretty dangerous," it flashes through my mind. But here in Niger, many things seem to be different.
50 degrees – that is the difference in temperature between Kaufbeuren, the headquarters of humedica, and my travel destination, the West African Niger. The thermometer shows minus 10 degrees in the Bavarian winter at the beginning of my journey. More than 40 degrees is forecasted by my weather app for Niger, destination for my colleague Johanna and me. She lately took over the Niger projects within our development cooperation department and wants to learn more about the country, the humedica projects as well as our local partners. I am happy to accompany her on the journey.
The humedica employees Johanna Bischoff and Sebastian Zausch are on a project tour in Niger where they meet Dr Israel Ribeiro Da Sousa (on the right) who is responsible for the humedica project in this area. Photo: humedica
Among others, humedica runs a mother-child-clinic with a local partner here in Niger, which offers the rural population a good health care. Anything but taken for granted in a country, which the UNO declared as the second poorest in the world.
Niger is a landlocked country and located in West Africa; surrounded by Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Algeria, Benin, and Chad. The country is named after the third biggest river of the African continent which runs through the southwest. It roughly spans four times the size of Germany and lies to a great part in the Sahara. The rest of the land is in the very dry and hardly cultivatable Sahel zone. Here, the rural population lives by the harvest of their soil – which often is scarce . About 80 percent of the Nigeriens have to get along with less than 1.90 Euro a day.
The Niger is the third largest river in Africa. Now, in February, it holds less water than during the rainy season. Photo: humedica
“When you get out of the airport of the Nigerian capital Niamey, you get out of your comfort zone,” is stated in a document that I read in preparation for my journey. It is my first visit to Africa. So what is expecting me there? How do I get along with the heat? And how with the food? Will I be able to communicate with local people? In fact, French is the national language – but the majority of the population can neither read nor write and speaks only one of the many local languages. I am a bit nervous. But particularly curious: let the African adventure begin!