A struggle for life

Last updated 14:08 03/10/2012
HELPED: Fatima Illa, who lives in a small Niger village and has benefited from New Zealand aid.

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Kiwi journalist Kim Vinnell threw in the Auckland lifestyle to experience life in Africa - receiving an early insight into the poverty and tensions besetting one corner of the continent.

The eight-hour journey from Niger's capital Niamey to the small inland village of Koutoutourou feels a lot longer, after an unsettling phone call mid-drive.

“We are calling to inform you the latest risk assessment shows an increased threat of violence against Westerners in Niger,” a man bellows down the line, struggling to be heard over our groaning four-wheel-drive.

“All Western embassies are advising foreigners to remain in the capital, or travel through Niger at their own risk.”

The driver looks uncomfortable, but we are almost there and it seems a waste to turn back now. Checkpoint after checkpoint, the men huddled at each stop stare curiously from their West African turbans, smoking and spitting. They are more heavily armed the farther we go.

It's my first time on this side of the continent, having given up life as a TVNZ reporter in Auckland to start again in Tanzania. I arrived in East Africa with some idea of what to expect. I'd visited Kenya for a work assignment, becoming somewhat familiar with the striking sounds of Swahili, and the constant battle with dust.

In fact, it was on that trip I decided to follow my partner to his next assignment in Tanzania, planning to help the charity he works for and freelance as a journalist.

I had no idea I'd be in Tanzania less than a week before the first opportunity to leave presented itself. A flash of visa applications and several flights across Africa's dry expanse later, I set foot in a country that couldn't be more different to my new home in the east.

Which brings me back to the drive.

Swerving from the tarmac to a cracked, red earth road, the armed police are soon replaced by mud huts and millet fields. Children wave as we drive by and women carrying heavy loads on their heads smile cautiously. Navigating the increasingly pot-holed, obviously less-driven route, we arrive at our destination.

Gathered in the afternoon sun, hundreds of people are sitting on handwoven mats, beating off flies, waiting for us to arrive.

They've been there more than four hours, I'm told, wanting to thank the New Zealanders for their country's help.

Among the crowd is 50-year-old Fatima Illa. She has a black scarf covering her head, but everywhere else she is a shower of colour. Bright jewellery covers her softly lined neck, and a wash of yellow and magenta material swathes her from the waist down. Fatima's family have lived in this tiny settlement for three generations, but this year's lean season almost forced her out.

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“I don't know where New Zealand is, or what language you speak there, but no words will do justice to my gratitude,” she tells me through a translator.

Koutoutourou is one of 26 villages receiving some of the NZ$97,000 New Zealand's Government awarded to humanitarian agency Oxfam in June. Here, among thatched roofs and blackened cooking pots, distribution of that cash, which was matched again by the aid organisation, is under way.

Fingerprints are taken and the equivalent of $78 in cash is handed to each of the hundred men and women waiting. These are the people defined as Koutoutourou's most vulnerable. The cash is meant to last them and their families for at least the next month.

“Without this money from New Zealand, many in the community would not survive,” Oxfam Niger's Boubacar Soumare says.

Many of Koutoutourou's men are physically or intellectually disabled, while the women have been abandoned by husbands who have gone in search of work but who will not send anything back.

Koutoutourou is at the peak of the lean season.

That's the time between harvests, when desperation strikes.

“This money will help the community keep their harvests and not sell it at a low price,” the director of Oxfam's local partner agency, Mahamdou Djibo, tells me.

“If they don't have anything to eat or any money, they will sell their harvests for less than it's worth, and lose everything.”

Many in Koutoutourou know well the cycle Mr Djibo describes. Last year's drought pillaged the land, leaving only dry earth and dead crops as a reminder of what was lost. So people did what they could to survive - selling livestock and reserves of seeds which should have been used to plant this year. New Zealand's cash couldn't have come at a better time - helping locals to survive the lean season and reserve the little they have left.

More than 6.4 million people, nearly 40 per cent of Niger's population, are at risk of food insecurity. It's hard to comprehend, but in Koutoutourou the reality of life without basic necessities is confronting.

“I have 10 children and three grandchildren, but none of them have enough to feed me,” Fatima Illa tells me quietly. “With this money I will buy millet, and it will sustain me until harvest. I cannot thank you enough."

Niger's government has been quick to acknowledge the food crisis. The president, Mahamadou Issoufou, asked for international help during last year's drought and drafted a response plan focusing on replenishing stock levels and supporting pastoralists.

President Issoufou's plan was enacted in April, but in one of the world's least developed nations a gap remains.

Compounding the humanitarian crisis is an increasingly violent struggle between rebel Islamic groups and government forces in neighbouring Mali. Known as Ansar Dine and Mujao, the two groups have had control of Mali's north since March, having recruited well-armed fighters from the fallen Gaddafi regime in bordering Libya.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, almost 200,000 people have fled Mali seeking refuge in Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso since the violence began.

They arrive exhausted from the dangerous journey and bring horrific stories of looting, rape, child soldiers and murder.

Unlike the Tuareg rebels they took over from, Ansar Dine and Mujao are not fighting for an independent state in Mali, but rather to impose strict Islamic law countrywide.

One security expert, who cannot be named for her own safety, says Malians fleeing to countries like Niger know what is to come.

“Not so long ago they [Mujao] decided that the local radio cannot play any satanic Western music, so now they have the reading of the Koran only on the radio . . . They haven't asked women to dress more strictly yet, but it will be the normal evolution for them.”

Without adequate recording processes, it's difficult to know just how many Malians have set up camp in Niger, but the country is feeling the effect. Not only is a ballooning population putting pressure on already-low food stocks, but fighters from the deposed Tuareg rebel group - ousted by the stronger Ansar Dine and Mujao in March - are trickling through Niger at an alarming rate. That means more petty crime, outbursts of violence, and an appealingly savage career path for the young and unemployed.

Despite the challenges facing this volatile nation, the difficult journey to resilience in Niger is being negotiated.

In Koutoutourou, some of the money Oxfam is distributing on New Zealand's behalf is going into developing long-term strategies to alleviate suffering.

Cereal and seed banks, community farming projects and restocking livestock to pastoralists are some of the ideas being floated, but they won't be decided on without full community support and involvement.

On the way out of Koutoutourou, walking through the dirt paths that make up this village, I'm met by a woman with an infant on her back, and two more by her ankles. I'm struck by the gentle, open look on her face.

Samira is 20 and has three children. She had her first at 15, which is considered old for a woman to be married in Niger.

Growing up, Samira had planned to study to become a nurse, but there has been no money, and with her husband gone she has no option but to work to feed her children.

She knows there is more to life than the one she is living, but by circumstances beyond her control this will be her world, and it's unlikely she will escape it.

* Kim Vinnell is blogging about her travels on Africa on stuff.co.nz - look out for latest postings at Love in a Hot Climate.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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