Professor Antoinette Tidjani Alou: Voice of Nigerien Women

by Elsa Sichrovsky

Looking only at statistics, it is easy to misconceive that Niger is a nation that cannot produce great literature. Literacy rates among young people aged 15-to-24 years old are 36.43% and 17.15% for males and females respectively[1]. Literacy rates are especially low for women; just 11.04% of the adult female population.

But Professor Antoinette Tidjani Alou has proven that Nigerien women have their own unique female narrative to share with the world. She is widely known for her research on African oral literature, African studies and gender studies at the Universite Abdou Moumouni de Niamey in Niger. Her literary focus over the past twelve years has been on female Nigerien authors. In fact, in 2017, she was the first Nigerien to participate in the International Writing Program, a writing residency for international artists in Iowa. She also participated in “Women Writing Africa” [2], a literary research project that featured songs, poems, and significant oral texts by African female authors. “Women Writing Africa” brought female African literature out of obscurity and into the limelight, allowing African women to reclaim their stories from the stereotypes and prejudices that had obscured the brilliance of the African female experience.

Born and raised in Jamaica, Professor Alou completed her doctorate in France but has lived and worked in Niger for most of her adult life. Her multicultural background and diverse experiences don’t detract from her platform as a spokeswoman for Nigerien women. Rather, they are representative of Niger’s racially diverse population and multicultural society. She considers herself “a Global African whose adult life, work experiences, struggles, hopes, and dreams have all evolved in Niger, among in Niger and people of whom I consider myself to be a normal everyday citizen”[3]. Her most well-known French novel[4], On m’appelle Nina[5], portrays Nigerien women struggling with issues of race, femininity, and motherhood in the contexts of interracial marriage and cultural conflict. A story collection, Tina Shot Me Between the Eyes and Other Stories[6], explores the joys and pains of marriage and motherhood as African women cope with a society plagued by uncertainty and violence.

Professor Antoinette Tidjani Alou encourages those who are not familiar with Niger to focus less on the statistics. In a 2012 presentation for the Library of Congress (watch it here), Professor Antoinette Tidjani Alou discussed “The Secret Faces of Women from the Nigerien Sahel: Agency, Influence, and Contemporary Challenges.” Although Niger is a little-known country that faces many humanitarian crises, these dismal statistics should not be allowed to darken people’s view of the latent potential of this nation: “What we should not do with the statistics and which–what I propose not to do with them–is we shouldn’t deny them. But we should not claim and diffuse them as the whole story about Niger or Niger’s women[7]”. For instance, Professor Alou pointed out that Nigerien employers are required by law to allow nursing mothers to have an hour-long breastfeeding break before and after work[8]. She highlighted Niger’s consistent record of giving fourteen weeks of paid maternity leave to pregnant mothers[9], which is partially subsidized by the government. These encouraging steps of progress show that Nigeriens are striving as a nation to care for their women, so there is hope for continued progress in women’s rights.

Like Professor Alou, Wells Bring Hope shares the same determination to enable Nigerien women to reach their fullest personal potential. Wells Bring Hope organizes a microfinance education program wherever a well is drilled. When women don’t have to spend hours walking to access fresh water, they have time to attend microfinance training sessions. Within six months, these women are able to launch their own micro-businesses and gain financial independence. If this seems incredible, remember Professor Alou’s words: “It’s…extremely important to remember the indigenous wellsprings of power, agency, and resilience that are part of Niger’s identity and part of the identity of Nigerien women. I think we need to use these wellsprings, these foundational wellsprings of power and agency and role models of women made at home as inspiration for action…[10]” Be inspired by the Nigerien women who are working towards a better life, and get involved with Wells Bring Hope today!

 

 

[1]                http://countrymeters.info/en/Niger#literacy

[2]                http://www.wrei.org/WomenWritingAfrica.htm

[3]                https://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=5525

[4]                http://www.presenceafricaine.com/romans-litterature-africaine-caraibes/986-on-m-appelle-nina-9782708708983.html

[5]                https://repeatingislands.com/2017/05/22/review-of-antoinette-tijani-alous-on-mappelle-nina/

[6]                http://www.amalion.net/catalogue_en/item/tina_shot_me_between_the_eyes_and_other_stories/

[7]                https://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/transcripts/2012/120524ame1200.txt

[8]                http://mdm.wageindicator.org/chart/maternity/562

[9]                https://www.globalization-partners.com/globalpedia/niger-employer-of-record/

[10]                https://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/transcripts/2012/120524ame1200.txt

 

Guérewol, a Celebration of Love and Beauty in the Desert

by Lilia Leung

September marks the end of the rainy season in West Africa. Some West African nomadic tribes, such as the Tuareg and the Wodaabe, commemorate this event with festivals and rituals. One of these festivals is the Guérewol, a week-long courtship ritual that takes place at particular gathering points in West Africa.

The Woodabe people are a subgroup of the Fulani ethnic group in West Africa. Traditionally, they were cattle-herders and traders in the Sahel region who traveled from pasture to pasture when the season changed. Today, much of their population is in Niger, though they can also be found in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and the Central African Republic. Normally, Woodabe families and clans live in isolation in the desert, but for a week in September, Woodabe clans gather together for the Guérewol festivities at a location that is only disclosed a few days before the event.

The Woodabe are a polygamous people, where both the men and women have sexual freedom and are allowed to pursue new partners. It’s common for both men and women to have multiple marriages, and for many individuals, their first marriage is arranged by their parents. Guérewol is an opportunity for these individuals to seek a second marriage partner based on love.

The main event of the Guérewol is a beauty pageant, but not one that is anything like the beauty pageants we see in the western world. The main difference is that the participants in this West African beauty pageant are men, not women. Woodabe people hold physical beauty in high regard and have strict criteria for what can be considered beautiful, including height, white teeth and eyes, a well-defined nose, and good posture. To prepare for the pageant, the young men take a painstaking amount of time (sometimes up to six hours!) to apply makeup and accessories that accentuate these features. Clay in bright pigments of red, yellow, and white is used to paint their faces, and black eyeliner and black lipstick are used to outline their eyes and lips. Lastly, they put on a traditional dress that shows off their physiques.

Once the pageant begins, the young Woodabe men perform the customary song and dance Yaake as a group in an attempt to impress the young women in attendance. While the winners are officially determined by three female judges, the men are also being evaluated by every young woman in the audience. The ultimate victors win fame amongst the Woodabe clans as well as their choice of a new partner. After the pageant, clan meetings, marriage negotiations, and other social event take place for the remainder of the week.

While the Guérewol is a much-anticipated time of celebration for the Woodabe people, this ritual has actually been occurring less frequently in recent years. Guérewel can only take place when there is enough water in the area to sustain the hundreds of people who will turn up, and the increasing frequency of droughts has forced cancellation of the in drier years. This phenomenon illustrates the importance of water in every aspect of life, from the health and livelihood of people to the preservation of their art and culture. By working to ensure that everyone in Niger has access to plentiful safe water, we may be able to help preserve long-standing customs practiced by the indigenous people of West Africa and bring love back to the desert.

 

Read more on the Guerewol festival and girl power here.

 

Resources:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wodaabe
  2. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-12215138

Look for the Helpers

by Jennifer Dees

A few weeks ago, lightning struck a tree in the mountains near my town. A fire flared up, greedily devoured the tree, and then roared through the range, leaving behind the blackened corpses of trees. Smoke blotted out the blue sky and filled mouths and lungs. Those who could stay behind the walls of their homes did; the 5,000 who lived near the fire had to snatch a few belongings and leave their homes behind. The fire is still churning, although the unflagging firefighters have stopped it from descending any closer to the cities nearby. At night, I watch the flames, and my heart sinks for the dying land and animals.

As I write, I turn my thoughts to the east, to Niger. In the Sub-Saharan region, much of the land is barren, claimed by the heat. And they can’t exactly splash some water on the problem and call it good, especially considering that a lack of water is one of the problems. Shockingly, an abundance of water can also be deadly. Those who live in the Niger Riover Basin suffer regularly from flooding that leads to death and displacement.

Looking at the poverty, disaster, and suffering that plagues millions around the world, it’s easy to feel bleak. But then I read, for example, about youth efforts to digitally plot flood-prone areas throughout Niger. The data is publicly available and sent to the government so Nigeriens can not only be warned about areas vulnerable to flooding but also learn safer places to grow food and when to start planting. They’ve already collected 15,000 data points in Niamey and are expanding to other areas of the country. The work means long days of trudging through mud, counting the number of buildings, inspecting construction materials, and locating electric poles, but as one volunteer said, “We’re young and keen to help. The working conditions are tough, but worth it.”

The articles on the Wells Bring Hope blog show numerous examples of community members looking out for each other, developing agriculture, disaster preparedness, financial, and women’s groups. Farmers who learned about FMNR, discussed in Lilia Leung article, have taken to the radio to share the techniques beyond their communities, eliciting so many callers that the radio show went half an hour over time. Outside organizations as well are flocking from all over the world to provide relief through medicine, education, and water.

I see the same thing at home. When people had to flee the fire, others opened up their homes, donated everything from toothbrushes to the cost of an entire wedding. So many supplies were donated to the firefighters that they couldn’t use it all. You’d think that when things go wrong, it’d be like the movies—people shoving each other out of the way to get to safety, breaking windows to get to food—but that’s not reality at all. I think that selfishness stems from prosperity, and that kindness comes out of hardship.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence I’m writing this on the 51st anniversary of the production of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” A popular quote by Fred Rogers sums up how I feel about humanity itself: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” While it is important to acknowledge problems, seeing how communities, organizations, even nations are banding together to support each other offers hope and direction. Focus on what’s being done, and then focus on what you can do, and the world will look a lot more neighborly.

Wells Bring Hope’s 10th Anniversary Celebration and Fundraiser

On Sunday, September 23rd, philanthropist, Stanley Black welcomed Wells Bring Hope back to his home for the fifth year in a row for its 10th Anniversary Celebration and Fundraiser. Under twinkling lights and the night sky, WBH celebrated not only its 10th anniversary, but also the achievement of reaching a milestone goal – the drilling of 500 wells in ten years.

It was an exciting, festive evening that included entertainment by the Dafra Drum and Dance Ensemble, musicians and dancers from West Africa.

Guests nibbled on delicious food from Craig’s Crew and sipped wine donated by the Hood Wine Company. Also featured was the “Stanley Special,” a refreshing vodka drink topped off with fresh strawberry puree and mint.

While everyone mixed and mingled, the very capable volunteers enticed guests to bid in the silent auction.  This year we offered enticing restaurants like Nobu Malibu, Cassia and BOA as well as getaways to Santa Fe, Santa Barbara, Chicago, and Scottsdale. Thanks to everyone who bid and made the auction lively and fun!

Our event was a huge success, thanks to our generous donors, capable volunteers, and especially to Board Member, Carol Rosen who choreographed it all, and Michelle Chan of Ella Mae Productions who lent her event planning skills.

At the close of the silent auction, guests moved to the back lawn, where they were welcomed by Founder and President, Barbara Goldberg. She told the story of how Wells Bring Hope started as a grass roots effort, inspired by Gil Garcetti, and acknowledged the women who helped to start it.

She also acknowledged WBH’s corporate and event sponsors and partners, including Bliss Car Wash and its owner/founder, David Delrahim who was joined at our event by his family and team.

We were also delighted to have first time sponsors, City National Bank, with a donation initiated by Michael Zells in honor of Stanley Black. Other corporate partners included Noosh Brands, and Merrill Lynch.

Documentary filmmaker Mellissa Tong of DuckPunk Productions introduced the video she shot on her trip to Niger last February. Guests were very moved by her powerful images and the story that she told. She was followed by Gil Garcetti who told the story of how he began his journey to Niger and what that has meant in his life.

This year, WBH was proud to honor its long-time supporter, Stanley Black, at whose home we’ve held our annual fundraiser for the last five years. To make this event even more special, Councilmember Paul Koretz declared September 23rd to be “Stanley Black Day” in perpetuity, honoring him for his lifelong philanthropic work and service to the community.

Grant Snyder, auctioneer extraordinaire, took the stage for the sixth year in a row, helping us raise lots of money for wells.  He auctioned off exciting trips to Belize, Puerto Vallarta, Santa Fe, and a choice of five Colibri Boutique Resorts. Once again Turkish Airlines gave us two business class tickets to any of their Africa destinations. They’ve supported us for the last six years, and we so appreciate their generosity.

This year we were fortunate to have two matching donors, Marsha and Mark Hierbaum who contributed $30,000 in matching funds for Raise the Paddle, along with the Margaret M. Bloomfield Foundation, which contributed $10,000 in matching funds.

This year we are proud to have raised enough money to fund 39 wells!

Thank you to all who came to support Wells Bring Hope’s ten great years!

To view and download all of these photos and more, please check out the album on the Wells Bring Hope Facebook page. It was great to welcome back photographer, Tatsu Ikeda whose incredible photography will, along with video shot by Michele Morris, help us to memorialize the event.

Niger’s Ancient Rock Art

by Elaine Wallace

The Sahara Desert is one of the driest, harshest environments on Earth. With sparse vegetation and very little rain, only the hardiest, drought-adapted plants and animals survive there. But the Sahara was not always a desert. 10,000 years ago, it was a lush grassland with rivers, lakes, trees, and abundant wildlife. It’s hard to imagine how different it must have looked back then. Fortunately, we can catch a glimpse of that greener time in the ancient rock art of the region.

The Sahara region of Niger contains thousands of prehistoric engravings and paintings, some up to 9,500 years old. Ancient peoples chiseled the images into the rock using stone tools or painted them with paints made from local minerals and brushes of feathers or animal hair. They include extraordinary images of animals that we don’t associate with the Sahara, such as elephants, hippos, and monkeys. Little is known about the people who created them, but the images provide clues as to what life was like for them and how things changed as the Sahara transitioned from wet grassland to the desert we know today. They also show the vital importance of water and the dramatic impact on people and animals when water is scarce.

Most of Niger’s rock art is located in the Aïr Mountains and Djado Plateau in the northern part of the country. Archeologists classify it into different historical periods, beginning with the Early Hunter Period 12,000 to 9,000 years ago. This is when rainfall was at its peak and the region could sustain hunter-gatherer societies, which need lots of plants and animals to survive. The Early Hunter Period is characterized by engravings of large animals such as elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, and buffalo. Humans are often shown as tiny figures dwarfed by the animals and hunting with boomerangs, sticks, clubs, axes, or bows. One of the most celebrated sites is at Dabous, where over 800 images are carved on a sandstone outcrop. The most impressive are two giraffes, thought to be around 8,000 years old and known for their beauty, life-sized scale, perfect proportion, and expert execution.

Next is the Pastoral Period, which began around 7,000 years ago when the Sahara began its transition from savannah to desert and images of cattle and other domesticated animals appear for the first time. At the beginning of this period, the region was wet enough to sustain permanent communities with subsistence economies based on fishing and hunting. But as it grew drier, these were replaced by nomadic herders. During very dry periods, people left the region altogether.

The Horse Period began around 3,000 years ago and signals the arrival of horses in the region. Images include hunters in horse-drawn chariots holding weapons and reins. Figures known as Libyan Warriors are also common, usually forward-facing figures with raised arms and splayed fingers, depicted with weapons, shields, headdresses, and clothing decorated with geometric patterns, often with stylized bodies consisting of two triangles or tulip-shaped heads and hourglass bodies. About 1,000 engravings of Libyan Warriors have been recorded in Niger and neighboring Mali and there is debate among historians about their origin and meaning.

Finally, there is the Camel Period, which began around 2,000 years ago. By then, the Sahara was as dry as today and the appearance of images of camels indicates that the region could no longer support horses. Niger has relatively few images from the Camel Period, suggesting that lack of water had forced people to leave the region and that it was visited only occasionally.

Niger’s rock art is a vivid reminder of the importance of water to the lives of the people and animals of the Sahara. Even the future of the art itself depends on water. Rock art sites are under constant threat from vandalism and unmonitored tourism, and they’re hard to protect because lack of water means that they’re mostly uninhabited. Only the Dabous site is fully protected, thanks to the drilling of a well that has enabled custodians to stay at the site full time.

Name a More Iconic Duo: Understanding the Relationship Between Women and Nature Through Ecofeminism

by Hannah Lichtenstein

The association between women and nature is a long-recognized means by which societies have sought to understand an unpredictable and powerful earth. Looking to mythology, the Greek tradition describes the goddess Gaia as the personification of Earth. In Hindu narratives, she goes by the name Bhūmi or Prithvi. Secular discourse too, spanning centuries. is riddled with prose of those cowering in fear, thanking and praying to a natural world that is distinctly coded as feminine — “Mother Nature” as we so often hear it used. Women, like the Earth, are reproductive, harboring the ability to give life. In addition to these conceptual associations, we may also look to lived experiences to identify these connections. For example, the division of labor in many societies, particularly those with subsistence economies like in Niger, classifies a woman’s domain and work to be within the domestic sphere of such endeavors as traveling to collect water or weaving baskets. With this understanding of a feminine nature and women’s aptness for the natural world, it is unsurprising to think the destruction, domination, and management of Earth is often deeply tied to the marginalization and subordination of women.

It is precisely this issue, the critical linkage between gender and environment, that lays at the heart of the academic, political and philosophical movement known as “Ecofeminism.” The term was coined in the mid-1970s, as a school of thought that pulled from various anti-oppression movements at the time. Environmental disasters such as those at Love Canal and Three Mile Island were painful examples of deadly events spawned by science and the cost of growth paid by communities and their environment. Women were often the first to speak out about the damage.

By the 1970s, modernization and industrialization were proving to be malevolent tyrants, and it was unclear what human or environmental events would be sufficient enough to finally trigger regulation and control. It was this issue, in part, that influenced a body of literature that began investigating how culture — technology, science, materialism — was so harmfully triumphing over nature and in turn, how this dynamic might be further understood and addressed through a feminist approach. Here we begin to see the roots and underlying theory of ecofeminism: “These women conceptualized the earth as an oppressed being, which was exploited for the economic and political gain of others. They saw similarities in men’s treatment of the earth and their treatment of women” (Harkness). The seeds of ecofeminism were planted and have been flourishing ever since, coming to encompass a wide and multifarious range of issues that speak to not just the oppression of women but others marginalized by deeply ingrained social, economic and cultural values.

Theoretical considerations aside, it is useful to give concrete examples of ideas that have been analyzed from an ecofeminist perspective. Pollution and environmental contamination have been taken on by ecofeminists. Discussion of agricultural pesticide use, toxic waste removal, and other issues implicitly raise questions of who exactly faces more physical and psychological long-term damage from these decisions. While no one can escape a changing global climate, women are disproportionately affected by the effects of this phenomenon. In Niger, since most men travel to work in the city, rural women are forced to grapple with and manage the effects of climate change first hand in their day-to-day tasks. The arduous undertaking of traveling to obtain clean water is one major way Niger women bear the brunt of a changing climate. Women have to travel anywhere between 4-6 miles to find (often contaminated) water in Niger. Considering the rising temperatures and that drought is “by far the greatest risk facing the country”, that commute is likely to increase as areas with water shrivel up.

Take the top of the biomagnification chain, for example, which traces the increasing concentration of a substance in the tissues of organisms in successively higher levels of the food chain. The highest concentration of a potentially harmful substance in our environment ends up being concentrated in the female body, within the child-rearing relationship more specifically.

As a movement, ecofeminism does not merely seek to identify and articulate these issues. It is also a call to action. As Mies describes, “whenever women acted against ecological destruction and/or the threat of atomic annihilation, they immediately became aware of the connection between patriarchal violence against women, other people and nature, and that: In defying this patriarchy we are loyal to future generations and to life and this planet itself” (Mies).  Women who are at risk see environmental injustices first hand every day and ultimately have more to lose should their voices be stilled. Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, India’s Chipko movement and dozens of other environmental justice campaigns sprouted and continue to gain energy from women and their unique experiences/position.

Ecofeminism asks us to re-evaluate, to look at issues we have examined for decades, through a different lens. It challenges us to re-conceptualize our thinking about an oppressed earth by looking closely at who and what creates and perpetuates harmful mores and whose bodies suffer the most at the hands of these perpetrators. In turn, it also seeks to empower and mobilize those who have been mistreated by calling attention to their potential power as leaders in ameliorating these concerns.

 

Sources:

Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat a Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Harkness, Jane. “Ecofeminism 101: Women Going Green – Athena Talks – Medium.” Medium, Augmenting Humanity, 12 Feb. 2018, medium.com/athena-talks/ecofeminism-101-women-going-green-910d72f7295f.

Mies, Maria, and Vandana Shiva. Ecofeminism. Zed Books, 2014

“Tackling Climate Change in Niger.” World Bank, www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2013/04/03/tackling-climate-change-in-niger

 

 

Omara “Bombino” Moctar: Musician of the Desert

by Elsa Sichrovsky

The world outside Niger has come to recognize and enjoy Nigerien Tuareg music because of a musician from Niger, called Omara “Bombino” Moctar. Bombino, a member of the Tuareg Ifoghas tribe, was born in 1980 in Tidene, Niger. The Tuareg, nomadic Berbers who travel in the Sahara Desert in North Africa, have had frequent conflicts with national governments in their recent history. In 1990, Bombino and his family fled to Algeria during one such Tuareg rebellion. During this time, visiting relatives left behind a guitar, and Bombino started teaching himself how to play by listening to pirated cassettes of Ali Farka Touré, Dire Straits and Jimi Hendrix.

The guitar became Bombino’s passion, and he later studied with renowned Tuareg guitarist Haja Bebe. Bebe invited him to join his band, where he gained the nickname “Bombino”, from the Italian word “bambino”, which means ‘little child’. In 1997, Bombino returned to Agadez, near his hometown, and began life as a professional musician.

Due to another Tuareg uprising in 2007, Bombino lived in exile in Burkina Faso. While there, filmmaker Ron Wyman, who had heard a cassette recording of Bombino’s music, tracked him down and helped him to record his album Agadez, released in April 2011 which debuted at the top of the iTunes World Chart.

Bombino’s unique style of singing in his native language of Tamasheq while combining blues and rock with traditional Tuareg musical elements has brought him worldwide recognition. In May of this year, ahead of the release of his new album Deran, the music blog Noisey called Bombino, “the World’s Best Guitarist™.” Bombino’s music deals with the struggles of the Tuareg people and the hardships of their desert life, as well as the encroachment of modernization on their traditional culture. You can find more information about Bombino’s music and worldwide tours at www.bombinomusic.com

Bombino strives to use his success and platform as an international celebrity to promote education as the way to preserve Tuareg culture: “We fought for our rights, but we have seen that guns are not the solution. We need to change our system. Our children must go to school and learn about their Tuareg identity.” He believes that it is important for children to learn Niger’s diverse languages, which represent Niger’s multicultural society: the Tuareg language of Tamasheq, the local Haoussa language as well as French and Arabic. Bombino himself speaks all four of these languages fluently!

Wells Bring Hope helps children in Niger to have access to clean water, which enables young people to be able to attend school and start a small business. When essential needs like clean food and water are provided and children gain access to education, the youth of Niger will have an opportunity to break out of the cycle of poverty. Who knows how many Nigerien children could be talented young musicians in the making? The world needs more people like Bombino, who can sing of their nation’s beauty to the world. Donate to Wells Bring Hope, and make it possible for more children to reach their full potential!

To hear some of Bombino’s music, click here!

 

Turning Over a New Leaf: Land Regeneration in Niger

by Lilia Leung

In 1960, Niger gained independence from France after a nation-wide referendum, and the country celebrated its 59th Independence Day on August 3rd, of this year. Freedom and self-governance weren’t the things being celebrated on August 3rd, however, as Niger also observes Arbor Day on the third of August. In 1975, the Nigerien government decided that Fête de l’Arbre would be celebrated on the same day as Independence Day to signify the importance of trees for Niger’s future and independent identity. The Nigerien government encourages every citizen of Niger to plant a tree on this day in the hope of staving off desertification, the degradation of fertile cropland and forests caused by droughts and deforestation.

Aside from the founding of Arbor Day, there have been other practices put in place to encourage the planting and preservation of trees and greenery in Niger. The Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) is an approach created by Tony Rinaudo, an Australian agriculturist. Rinaudo has worked with local farmers to identify useful tree species and develop ways to prune and protect them. The goal of FMNR is to educate farmers to promote sustainable land restoration techniques that would ultimately increase tree growth and food production. In turn, this will help to alleviate hunger and poverty.

FMNR has been a massive success in Niger. The land regeneration technique has been used on over 50 percent of Niger’s farmland, and the results can clearly be seen in aerial photographs and field surveys.

One of the tree species that was identified as useful for land regeneration was the gao tree, which is now seen as “magical” by local Nigeriens. It has large roots that draw nitrogen from the air and fertilize the surrounding soil. Its leaves fall in the rainy season, which allows sunlight to shine through to the surrounding crops during a crucial time for their growth and development. Crops nourished by gao trees tend to hold water better and generate more produce. The trees also create a cooler microclimate and attract animals. Local Nigeriens can even crush the gao tree bark into powder for medicinal use.

A program with the goal of fighting desertification on a grand scale is the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI). The implementation of this project involves planting a “wall” of trees that spans over 20 countries, from Gambia in the west to Djibouti in the east (including Niger). This program was originally envisioned as a project that would restore the deteriorated landscape in the Sahara and Sahel regions while providing jobs for residents of the countries involved. If the program succeeds, both food security and resilience to climate change would be increased for the participating regions.

Because Niger has shown its land regeneration technique to be such a success, GGWSSI has now redirected its focus to sustainable land and water management, rather than strictly forestry. Since the launch of GGWSSI in 2007, it has evolved into an effort to surround the entire Sahara region with a belt of trees. Along with other tree planting programs around the world, FMNR and GGWSSI are demonstrating results in their attempt to “greenify” our earth once again, and Niger is playing an instrumental role in this endeavor. In addition to bringing wells into villages that provide easy access to water for gardening, Wells Bring Hope strives to play a part in sustainable skills education by teaching locals drip farming techniques and ways to use gray water for watering plants. Through hard work and perseverance, we may be able to provide a better environment for our future generations.

#CoupleGoals: How Social Media is Changing Marriage Culture in Niger

by Shayna Watson

We scroll past it daily on our timeline. That girl we did a group project with from middle school just got engaged, under the Eiffel Tower, with the biggest diamond ever. We like the picture and keep scrolling, but if many of us are honest we indulge in a bit of “Instagram .vs. reality” comparisons as we celebrate her excitement. For those living in the major cities of Niger, the requisite engagement ring shot is replaced by “brideprice photos,” images of suitcases filled with money that announce the upcoming nuptials. In many cultures, prospective grooms are expected to give a sum of money or quantity of goods to the parents of their intended bride. This is typically done to provide the family assurance that the groom-to-be is capable of providing for their daughter. Thanks to social media, what was traditionally a very private exchange has become very public.  These brideprice photos generate in Nigerien women the very same pressure and anxiety that ring-selfies can bring out in women in many other countries and a worry that they are falling behind in the marriage race.

With 75% of women in Niger married before their 18th birthday, there is increasing concern that these displays of wealth and prosperity will lead young women to think marriage is their only chance at success. Many fear that social platforms like Facebook and Instagram are having a negative impact on how some women in Niger view marriage and increasing the risks they are willing to take in order to attain the security they think marriage provides.

Increased use of social media is impacting romantic relationships in other ways as well. Women in Niger are forming connections with women abroad who they perceive as empowered in their careers and relationships. Traditionalists in Niger fear that this glimpse of a different way of life is ruining marriages in Niger. In an article published by The Guardian, marabouts of Niger speculated that social media has a direct influence on the increasing divorce rates in their country. Their anecdotes assume a correlation between how easy infidelity has become on social media platforms, and how women in Niger have started to assert their authority over men – going against the tradition of Niger gender roles. A leader of the Islamic association, headquartered in Niger’s capital, commented, “Most of the time, the women are the problem. They watch TV series from abroad and see how women earn money and are equal to men. But here in Niger men look after women and they are superior.” Thanks to the expanded worldview that social media provides, women in Niger are being exposed to a wider range of models for modern relationships. In response to this change in culture, Niger-based social media initiatives have developed in response to this rise in female empowerment and equality.

NigeriElles is one such platform. Dedicated to supporting Nigerien women’s want of something other than the traditional path of early marriage, the organization aims to push women in Niger to “take on womanhood” through training programs, events, and business clubs. NigeriElles offers training and support for female business owners and anyone who hopes to create their own means of income as an entrepreneur. The group’s objective is for every woman in Niger to find success by becoming her own boss.

NigeriElles also provides eye-opening statistics about how much women contribute to the total economy on the continent of Africa and throughout the world. A poll conducted at the end of July revealed that 69% of women in Africa exert an economic activity rate (the workforce supply of the labor market) higher than that of the other economic zones in the world. In Africa specifically, women produce 90% of the food goods consumed and sold. The food and agriculture economy in Africa would not exist without women, and NigeriElles is making sure that they are getting the training, support, and resources that they need to succeed. Education and empowerment allow women all over the world make decisions for their relationships and futures based on their own needs and wants, not from a place of fear or survival. NigeriElles is continuing this very important effort of women supporting women and working together to create a healthy future for girls in Niger. Social media may always be flooded with images of envy-inducing courtships and success attached to relationships, creating a sometimes dangerous expectation of marriage. Thankfully, organizations like NigeriElles are working hard to ensure that photos of empowered, independent businesswomen will also have a prominent place on timelines across Niger.

 

Sources:

https://www.facebook.com/NigeriElles/

https://twitter.com/pollniger/status/1024326290793537536

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/jul/23/how-social-media-is-revolutionising-marriage-in-niger

Charity versus Solidarity

by Jennifer Dees

It’s safe to say that Wells Bring Hope is charitable. But I don’t think charity is the best word to describe what’s being done. Charity is akin to pity, to feel sorry for someone. While pity can be benevolent, it can also stem from negative perceptions. When you take pity on someone, you’re regarding them as less than, as separate. You have something the other person lacks, and their existence must be less because of it. In this frame of mind, the other person is a victim. When someone is labeled a victim, they may feel defined by that label, stuck in whatever circumstance life put them in. So on one side is the victim, and on the other is the hero, an archetypal story playing out through countless charities.

Big change doesn’t happen through charity, but through solidarity—unity in feeling or action. Change happens when we recognize that everyone has wisdom and resources to make the world better, including those who receive “charity.” This mindset is more respectful because the recipients have a say in the solution. It’s not about giving handouts and expecting nothing. Wells aren’t handouts. Wells Bring Hope isn’t just giving rural villages water; it’s giving them a resource. With it, the villagers can work more productively to improve their own lives. With the microfinance program and drip-farming workshops, women have built their own businesses, which provide them with money they can use for food, healthcare, and education for their children. This kind of impact ripples through generations, changing the world.

Global solidarity is already apparent in Niger’s giraffe conservation and in efforts to harbor and support refugees. They have the ability and the desire to do great things; many only need resources, knowledge, or encouragement. By drilling wells, Wells Bring Hope is sharing a resource that will help others to do their part.

Of course, compassion is also key to solidarity. Empathy is not enough. I can search for a point of commonality between my air-conditioned life and the life of a Nigerien woman who has to walk miles for water. But I’ve never been in her shoes, so I can’t claim to really understand her experience. Rather than wallowing in guilt, I can channel my emotions into compassion. When you feel compassion towards someone, their type of suffering doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are suffering. Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” What makes compassion different from pity is shifting from a victim-hero relationship to one of mutuality. I at least recognize what it’s like to be sad and to want help. Even a thousand miles apart, the woman drawing water from a dirty pond and I can nod and hope better for each other. That is where I find my point of commonality.

By shifting the mindset from charity to solidarity, it’s easier to see how everyone is important in making a change. To get to where we need to be, we must raise each other up every step of the way.

Read Shayna Watson’s post on “doing well by doing good” for an example of this kind of solidarity in action.