The Middleman’s Quandary: Niger’s Role in African Migration To Europe

by Hannah Lichtenstein

There are some countries that are thrust into the global limelight, becoming the subject of great discussion and the bearers of intense responsibility, not through any action of their own but merely because of their geographic location. Take the famous case of Panama. The Central American country garnered a lot of attention for its potential as a connector between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. After a lot of hubbub between the world’s superpowers, the Panama Canal was built just over a hundred years ago. Another example is Iran, the only country to border the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, giving it unique access to massive oil reserves.

Niger, while not to the degree of these other nations, has become increasingly aware of just what “location, location, location” can really mean. Dubbed by some as “Africa’s gateway to Europe,” Niger has become a key player in the ongoing European migrant crisis.

Niger’s geographic importance becomes clear when you look at a map. The West African country is a critical passageway to neighboring Libya, which migrants must cross to reach the Mediterranean Sea where they hope to begin the treacherous journey to Europe. Approximately 100,000 people from Sub-Saharan countries are estimated to pass through Niger each year with the goal of making it to Europe. Facing poverty, violence and other injustices, they leave in pursuit of a better quality of life.

However, in the past couple of years, the number of migrants who successfully make it to Europe has declined dramatically. Europe is, to put it mildly, not exactly rolling out the welcome mat for the hundreds of thousands who risk it all to land on its shores. The efforts to stop the influx has led European nations to make deals with and funnel a lot of money to specific countries that seem to play a key role in the passage. Niger, say hello to desperate, wealthy European countries.

The European Union pledged to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Niger to help in the project of deterring migrants. Much of this money goes to militarization, infrastructure, and the creation of new policies. Such efforts have taken the form of, for example, a contract with one of Niger’s big bus companies that ensures that migrants attempting to get to Libya are stopped and transported in the opposite direction.

The aid from the EU, in conjunction with a 2015 law that criminalized human trafficking in the country, has resulted in a dwindling number of migrants passing through “Africa’s gateway to Europe.”. Whereas some 5,000-7,000 migrants per week traveled from Niger to Libya a few years ago, that number is now estimated to to be around 1,000. Niger’s role in ameliorating what has often been deemed a migrant “crisis” has not gone unnoticed. The country has been applauded for its dedication and hailed as one of Europe’s “best allies.”

As the statistics come in, it’s quite clear that Europe has benefited from these new policies and partnerships, but what about Africa? It seems that EU money, much of it intended for job creation along these routes, would help poverty-stricken Nigeriens quite a bit. However, as the story often goes with foreign aid, it hasn’t helped in the ways people hoped it would. Money doesn’t always trickle down to those who need it most, particularly in vulnerable countries, instead it falls prey to mismanagement and corruption. What’s more, European migration was big business prior to the crackdown, and that income stream has been eliminated. For example, there were communities near the border, such as Dirkou, that provided services for migrants. Now, the migrants don’t pass through like they used to, and it seems the foreign aid has not been able to offset the economic losses incurred.

The issues don’t end there. With the military presence increased on the traditional paths to the border, determined migrants drive dangerous routes, through mines and miles away from water, to get to their final destination. Unsurprisingly, many do not make it and have to be rescued. Others die trying. Then you have those who made a living driving migrants to the border who have found themselves out of work. What do they do now? Many have resorted to criminal activity — smuggling and robbery — to make money.

Though ensuring migrants get back to their home country has been an explicit mission voiced by the Nigerien government, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and others, it doesn’t always happen. Instead, thousands of migrants end up stuck in Niger, a country with its own population pressures, fighting for jobs in an already-struggling economy.

With people coming in rapid waves by the thousands, carrying with them so many unknowns, putting strain on society and infrastructure, one can perhaps see where the EU is coming from by putting money towards addressing an obvious source of the problem. Once a situation becomes dire, that is the instinctual reaction. However, there’s always an urgent attempt to stop the bleeding when a bad situation unfolds in one’s own backyard. People start to care about crime, disease and a fight for resources when it starts to affect them personally.

Looking ahead, Europe’s money would be best spent on addressing the root causes of migration. Why do people want to get out of these parts of Africa so badly? Funding for education, crime prevention, and economic development is money that would go along way toward alleviating the problem. And those who think these issues don’t fall within Europe’s realm of responsibility should think again. A lot of the problems African countries grapple with are a direct result of European colonization. Europe’s haphazardous administration of these countries, their stoking of racial, tribal, and religious grievances, and their stripping of resources, followed by their essential abandonment in the 19th and 20th centuries have had long-lasting and devastating repercussions across the continent. In the end, EU money that addresses problems from a more systematic, proactive standpoint would ultimately redound to the benefit of Africa and Europe.


Claudet, Sophie. “Niger: Europe’s Migration Cop?” Euronews, Euronews, 26 Oct. 2018,

Penney, Joe. “Europe Benefits by Bankrolling an Anti-Migrant Effort. Niger Pays a Price.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Aug. 2018,

Niger’s Critically Endangered Animals

by Lilia Leung

Many of us have seen the viral video of the brown mama bear and cub that was recorded by a drone around one of Russia’s snowy mountain slopes. While it has raised concerns that such drones may be disrupting the wildlife, there are ways that drones can be used appropriately to help ensure the wellbeing of animals. The government of Niger has recently commissioned the drone surveillance for use in monitoring the status of endangered animals in the Termit and Tin Toumma reserve. With the help of the French conservation group Noe, Niger hopes to maintain a close eye on the animals that are at imminent risk of extinction.


The Termit and Tin Toumma reserve is a 100,000 square-kilometer park located in southeastern Niger. It includes the entire Termit Massif and Tin Toumma desert and is one of the largest reserves in Africa. It was formally established in March 2012 as a protected area, and it is home to over 30 species of mammals and 150 species of birds. These species include many that have been categorized as “vulnerable,” meaning they are likely to become being endangered. The following species have already been categorized as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Saharan addax antelope

The Saharan addax antelope is a native North African mammal that was once partially domesticated in Egypt. It is now very rarely seen in its natural habitat, with likely fewer than 100 individuals existing on unprotected land. There are around 300 in the Termit and Tin Toumma reserve, which makes it the only self-sustaining population in the world. A total of about 600 Saharan addax antelopes can be found in zoos around the world, which may be helpful in restoring the overall population.

The threat of extinction of the Saharan addax antelope is partially attributed to unregulated hunting and poaching. Because of their slow pace, the Saharan addax antelope is easy prey for lions, cheetahs, leopards, and of course, humans. The antelope’s endangered status is also attributed to habitat loss caused by the oil industry, which has been destroying the land that the antelope forages on.

Dama gazelle

The dama gazelle is a sub-species of gazelle that has become the national symbol of Niger. Found predominantly in the Sahara and the Sahel region, the dama gazelle has evolved to survive in extreme desert conditions. It has exceptionally long legs to give it the extra surface area it needs to dissipate heat, and it can sustain itself for a moderate amount of time without drinking water. Unlike many desert animals, however, the dama gazelle cannot go for extremely long periods without water, and it is most active during the day.

There are currently fewer than 250 mature dama gazelles in the world. Their endangerment is due to overhunting, poaching, and habitat loss caused by extensive livestock grazing. In addition, what remains of their habitat has been affected by climate change as available sources of drinking water are decreasing. Due to the , this shift in their environment is further reducing their chances of survival.

Saharan or Northwest African cheetah

The cheetah is categorized as a vulnerable species by the IUCN, but its Northwest African sub-species is already at the ‘critically endangered’ level. The Saharan cheetah lives in the Sahara and the Sahel region, and is mostly active during the night. It can subsist for long periods without water. As long as it is able to catch fresh mammals, it can get its water from their blood. Its main sources of food are the aforementioned Saharan addax antelope and dama gazelle as well as other mammals found in the area such as other sub-species of gazelles and rabbits.

The causes of the Saharan cheetah’s near-extinction include poaching and habitat loss due to the expansion of land for livestock. The fact that many of the mammals that the Saharan cheetah preys upon are becoming extinct as well is also a major contributing factor to its endangerment. It’s believed that there are now fewer than 250 of these cheetahs left in the Sahara.

Aside from these species that are deemed critically endangered, there are a number of other species in the Termit and Tin Toumma reserve that have been categorized as vulnerable (the Barbary sheep, Dorcas gazelle, lappet-faced vulture, and the African spurred tortoise) and near threatened (sand cat, and the Nubian bustard). which will ward off poachers and allow for a close count of the endangered species in the reserve over the next 20 years, the Nigerien government hopes to bring these animals back from the brink of extinction and preserve the diversity of African wildlife.

On Challenging Norms

by Jennifer Dees

Fact: Saying “bless you” after someone sneezes is believed to have originated during the sixth century plague, in hopes that it would ward off death.

The plague’s gone, and we still say “bless you” when someone sneezes.

We do a lot of strange, unnecessary things, and it’s hard to explain why other than “It’s polite” or “It’s what everyone does.” Still, shaking hands has always felt off to me. And “How are you?” feels insincere.

These social norms are fascinating. Some of them are so embedded in our culture that we don’t even realize they’re there. When’s the last time you thought, “I think I’ll eat dinner on the floor tonight”? These silent agreements aren’t exactly bad (otherwise we wouldn’t have things like traffic and schools). They keep us safe, communication clear, and make navigating new situations fairly simple. But anything that doesn’t fit into normative culture is labeled as deviant and unbroachable.

I think a big distinction between the U.S. and Niger isn’t the distance or even the wealth gap. It’s culture shock: these tiny, arbitrary differences that make people feel alien. In rural Niger, for example, punctuality isn’t the default expectation that it is in the West. What’s important is waiting until everyone arrives. I know some people who would be driven insane by that norm, but I can see why it exists. During that time before everyone arrives, people are given the opportunity to mingle and catch up on each other’s lives. They value conversation so much it’s considered rude to ask someone a question without greeting them. And when bad news has to be given, it’s usually given towards the end of a conversation. You might see male friends holding hands while talking to each other, a sight that would make some people in the U.S. feel uncomfortable. And, like in Asian culture, taking shoes off before entering a house is considered polite.

Learning about other cultures, like those in Niger, helps us see just how arbitrary social norms can be and show that, in most cases, one way of living is no better or worse than another.

Of course, norms extend far beyond cultural differences. It’s sad, but in parts of the world, the norm is that women and girls forgo income-generating work and school in order to spend hours every day walking for water that is often contaminated. Since I was a kid, I’ve known these things, but I could only accept them and move on. It’s a norm that I expect to feel safe going to work, that if I get sick I have access to medicine, that I’ll never have to worry about unclean water. For some in rural Niger, these expectations would be completely foreign. The girls who walk miles for water each day don’t expect to get an education because that is the cultural norm, and they’ve never experienced anything different. That’s part of why Wells Bring Hope’s work is so vital—it opens up previously inconceivable opportunities and lets people know that there’s a different way.

As I’ve said, norms aren’t necessarily bad; many are worthy of celebration. However, they’re often arbitrary and should be challenged and reconsidered. We make up life’s meaning, after all, and every interpretation is unique and beautiful. What I want to get across is that the norms we follow are constantly evolving. The philosopher Michel Foucault was one of the people who understood that norms are discursive and can be critiqued: “A critique does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based…To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy.” Everytime we say “please” or shake someone’s hand, we’re reinforcing a norm. But it can work the other way, too. Everytime we discuss the difficulties happening in Niger, we remind ourselves that that doesn’t have to be the norm. And everytime we do something about it—by bringing awareness, donating, or innovating—we are instituting a new standard by which to live. That standard is a culture of compassion.




Why Undocumented Births in Niger are a Big Problem

by Anna C.

Niger, the poorest country in the world, is home to 19 million people. It borders Nigeria and is named for the Niger River. In 2017 alone, the population grew just over 3 percent, with an average of 44 births for every 1,000 people.  Nearly 20 percent of the population live in cities, with the remaining population living in rural areas.

With those statistics in mind, it’s important to remember that these are just the documented births.  Many Nigerien births are undocumented, meaning that children born in Niger grow up without a birth certificate – which is legal proof of their identity, including their given name, country of residence, and their birthdate and parent. This is a prevalent problem in developing nations, and Niger is no exception. According to UNICE [2013], one in three children under five does not legally “exist” since there is no birth record for those children.

Reasons why birth certificates are not provided vary based on circumstance, but there are a few possibilities:

  • – Although countries generally have a legal right to register births of children within a mandated time period, this rule is not always enforced.
  •  – Lack of resources – due to the costs incurred to provide birth registrations – may allow for many children to be born in the hospital without a birth certificate to identify them
  •  – Location of births – many births occur away from registration locations or hospitals, often in rural areas, so no documentation is available.

A child without a birth certificate faces a myriad of challenges.  Not only does the child have no record for proof of identity, age, and family relationship, the lack of a birth certificate prevents children from claiming a nationality, traveling, opening a bank account, and voting. In addition, being undocumented increases the risk of abuse and exploitation, as there is no paper trail to track the child’s identity. This lack of documentation also means there is a fundamental misrepresentation of a nation’s birth and death rates. In order to provide humanitarian aid and support services to developing nations, it is essential to have an accurate picture of these statistics, and undocumented births grossly skew the data.

Governments and humans rights groups are attempting to address the problem through awareness campaigns and the issuing of fines if parents are caught not registering their child for a birth certificate. Unfortunately, the efforts have failed to make an impact in the rural areas.

My hope is that with the technological advancements, social media, and public awareness campaigns, the message will continue to spread and more parents will recognize the importance of ensuring that their children have the documentation necessary for successful adulthood.




The Power of Hope

by Elaine Wallace

Psychologists have long been aware of the importance of hope in helping us achieve our personal goals, but hope isn’t just a feel-good emotion that prompts us to work towards a promotion or try to lose a few pounds. According to economists, hope also plays a vital role in reducing world poverty.

One such economist is Dr. Esther Duflo, a professor at MIT and one of the world’s leading authorities on international development. Dr. Duflo argues that hopelessness is a key reason why poor people remain poor, and programs that provide hope for the future can make a big difference when it comes to escaping the poverty trap.

Dr. Duflo developed her theory after discovering that some anti-poverty programs have far greater economic benefits than expected. As one example, Dr. Duflo points to programs that give families a small productive asset, such as a cow or goat. Economists expect that a cow or goat will provide a family with a certain amount of benefit in the form of increased income and food consumption. But studies show that the benefits are often much greater and last far longer than expected. In fact, the benefits are so great that they can’t be attributed just to the value of the initial asset; even if they had made maximum use of their asset, families could not have earned enough from a cow or goat to account for their subsequent income gains.

Dr. Duflo and her colleagues studied anti-poverty programs to determine the reasons for the unexplained gains. What they found has far-reaching implications for the role of hope in overcoming poverty.

According to their research, the sense of hopelessness that comes from extreme poverty has a profound effect on how poor people perceive their situations and on the decisions they make. When people feel hopeless, they become fatalistic and forgo even small changes that could improve their situation, believing that any step they could take would be too small to make a difference. They avoid thinking about the future and become risk-averse, forgoing even small investments with potentially large benefits – such as the bus fare to a nearby town that offers more employment opportunities – because they’re afraid of losing what little they have.

Anti-poverty programs counteract these tendencies by dramatically improving mental health. By reducing depression and relieving some of the stresses of poverty – such as hunger, sickness, and worries about their family’s health and future – anti-poverty programs give people the mental bandwidth to do more than just survive. Dr. Duflo argues that these programs, by providing hope, allow poor people to realize their potential. They work more hours, explore new lines of work, think of ways to improve their situation, make better decisions, and invest time and resources in their futures.

I learned about Dr. Duflo’s work from a lecture she gave at Stanford University a few years ago, available on YouTube. As I listened, I was struck by how much of what she says applies to Wells Bring Hope. Drilling wells is just the beginning; ready access to clean water does so much more to help relieve the stresses of poverty, from improving health, reducing worry about child mortality, helping communities survive drought, and freeing up time for girls to go to school and women to work on new income opportunities supported by microfinancing. Wells certainly do bring hope, and hope really does matter.

Source: “Esther Duflo: Hope, Aspirations and the Design of the Fight Against Poverty,” available on YouTube at

Bridging the Gap: Empowerment and Education in Niger’s “Husband Schools”

by Hannah Lichtenstein

An interesting tension exists in the socio-cultural plane in Niger as it does in many West African countries. Nigerien men generally operate outside of the household as the “breadwinners,” making a living toiling in economic spheres such as agriculture or mining. Women, on the other hand, are the nurturing caretakers, responsible for critical tasks in the home such as cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and gathering essentials like water and wood. Though much of Nigerien men’s time is spent in the “public” sphere, they are also the primary decision-makers in the home. Men have the final say in all aspects of the marital relationship, the rearing of children, and how home life functions. The disconnect is clear – it is women who spend nearly all their time in the home, responsible for all of the domestic duties, but it is the men who dictate how things run. How, then, can men make informed choices about such issues as reproductive health or child care? Furthermore, as decision-makers, how can Nigerien men be more physically present and active in the home?

Enter “husband schools.” In 2004, the United Nations Populations Fund started to implement husband schools as a way to bridge the gap between responsibility and experience – providing the male head of the house with the critical knowledge he needs to support and attend to the needs of his partner, family, and community. The initiative spread in Niger’s Zinder region, educating men on reproductive health, family planning, nutrition, the importance of sharing responsibility for domestic chores, and other topics (Women Deliver, 2016). Nearly fifteen years later, the positive outcomes produced by these schools prompted outside organizations to jump in and establish their own, and now, it is estimated that there are a couple hundred such schools in villages throughout Niger.

Each husband school (HS) is comprised of approximately 10 members and meets twice a month. Seeking to engender fruitful discussion and meaningful long-term results, schools target married men with good morals who are at least 25 years old and can read and write (Ali, et al). Husband schools use a model based on peer support and discussion. This ensures that meetings are centered on members’ sharing of personal experiences, thoughts, and feelings. There is no one leader of the group, however, sometimes specialists (e.g. teachers, ministers) are brought in to speak on a particular issue if timely or necessary. In addition to being a space for dialogue, husband schools also aim to help men to develop practical strategies and techniques for addressing the various issues affecting their families and community. For example, an HS might “devise strategies to encourage more pregnant and breastfeeding women to attend Integrated Health Centers,” figure out ways to make the most nutritious meals or design the ideal mosquito net for their home (Women Deliver, 2016; Anderson, 2018).

The goal is to not just have this important information conveyed by members to their families but to ensure that it is disseminated to the community at large as well. It is the hope that HS members feel knowledgeable and empowered enough from their time at the HS to reach others with the lessons they have learned. This spread of knowledge may be casual in everyday interactions or more specifically directed. One school, for example, “writes and presents sketches or plays on the themes that it promotes in public places, during ceremonies or any other opportunities in the community to raise awareness. The model husbands also promote hygiene and regularly organize public health days in villages, install ‘tippy-tap’ handwashing stations and build indoor toilets in houses.”(Ali, et al). Husbands from one school have “constructed a midwives’ residence, an observation room for women in labor, and a prenatal consultation room” (Women Deliver, 2016).

Though noble in mission and continuing to improve in efficacy and structure, husband schools have not come without challenges. One obstacle the initiative and its members have faced is that the very premise of husband schools is in direct opposition to the traditional beliefs about marriage, parenting, and family life in Niger. This had led to skepticism and reluctance to participate by many Nigerien men. Alhaj, a longtime HS member and father of eight living in a Nigerien village known as Angouai Gao, explains, “There were people saying this was a bad thing…but I never cared about what they were saying. I was excited to join the group and I stayed” (Anderson, 2018). In addition to this cultural pushback, there is the obstacle faced in retaining members who first and foremost shoulder the responsibility for their family’s survival in, particularly harsh living conditions. One organization describes, “the main challenge in operation of the HS is the exodus of members during the ‘hungry’ or lean season” (Ali, et al). A desire to talk about and learn the tools to improve family welfare understandably falls to the wayside when a husband is not even sure if he can put food on the table every day.

Despite these issues, research shows that there are positive impacts within individual homes and long-term gains in the communities served by these schools. Members describe how communication and cooperation in marital relationships improve after attending husband school. One says, “I’ve learned how to give my wife advice about exclusive nursing. I help her with housework. I take the child[ren] when she is cooking.” Another student reported, “When [my wife] has a lot to do, I take the children so she can be free to do another activity…I do whatever I can to help the children” (Anderson, 2018).

Examples like these of satisfied students and knowledge being put to good use within a family have also shown up in the wider community. Global advocacy program, Women Deliver, reports on the larger results which include:

  • – Use of family planning services has tripled in communities where the schools operate.
  • – During the first nine months of 2013 in Maiki, approximately 1,700 women received prenatal consultations at the health center, a 95 percent increase from 2012.
  • – The number of childbirths attended by skilled healthcare personnel has doubled in communities where the schools operate.
  • – An increase in rates of safe delivery, from approximately 12 percent to nearly 30 percent in one community and from 16 percent to over 32 percent in another between 2008 and 2009 (Women Deliver, 2016).

Husband schools use a contextualized understanding of private relationships and social dynamics to effect change. By directing their efforts towards the individual who wields the most power and influence within the home, husband schools have had significant success ameliorating some of the deep-seated problems facing Nigerien families and communities.



Anderson, Maggie. “Why We’re Inviting Men to Husband School.” Mercy Corps, 4 June 2018,

“Husband Schools: Bringing Men into Family Planning – Women Deliver.” Women Deliver, 19 Sept. 2016,

Idrissa, Ali, et al. “Back to School: The Role of Husband Schools in Maternal and Child Health and Nutrition in Niger.” Management of Hypertension and Diabetes for the Syrian Refugees and Host Community in Selected Health Facilities in Lebanon | ENN,

“Schools for Husbands Gaining Ground in Rural Niger.” United Nations Population Fund, 17 June 2014,

Voting Power: How Women Leaders in Niger Changed History

by Shayna Watson

There are approximately 3.8 billion women on Earth. As roughly 50% of the world’s population, women are a powerful force across the globe – but what about in national-level leadership? As of January 2017, women accounted for only 23.3% of all national leaders globally. And these figures get even more disproportionate when we consider women of color in government leadership positions. This has been a hot topic of conversation as a major lack of representation was called out at the most recent G20 summit held in Hamburg, Germany. Of the 36 world leaders present at the conference, only three were women. This is a significant problem as a lack of diversity in leadership is correlated with a lack of attention to issues that affect underserved populations.

In response to these glaring disparities, the United Nations’ United Women group launched a “Step Up for Gender Equality” initiative, asking governments around the world to make a commitment to increasing representation of women in leadership and closing the gender equality gap. The group keeps track of which countries have agreed to this effort, all while setting the goal towards “Planet 50-50 by 2030.” Ninety-three countries have taken the pledge so far, including the West African countries of Senegal, Benin, and Liberia. While not included on the official initiative list, Niger is focused on minimizing the gender equality gap over the next 12 years. According to Alex J. Kang, writer and professor of political science, the country’s adoption of women’s rights policies is due largely to the work of women activists in Niger and abroad. In her book, Kang details the pivotal moment in Niger’s history when the president of the country’s largest women’s organization pushed Nigerien leaders to give formal consent for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (a convention adopted by the UN in 1979) following a military coup in 1999. Any state that accepts this treaty commits itself to engaging in and documenting measures to end discrimination against women. By ratifying this convention, Niger legally bound itself to putting these measures into practice and submitting national reports on their progress.

Eight years before the adoption of this treaty, women all over Niger banded together for the largest women’s demonstration post-independence. The women’s activist police commissioner at that time worked in connection with the protest leaders to organize a peaceful march through the capital city. Women in Niger were tired of the near-exclusion of women from leadership positions as the country transitioned from a military regime to a democracy. The organizers called out the underrepresentation of women, blamed the prime minister and political parties, and presented a list of demands which included voting women into leadership positions.

The timing of reform in Niger seems to be directly connected to the tireless work of women leaders of organizations dedicated to gender equality. Researchers have speculated that the gender quota laws that currently exist in Niger would not have come to be without the push from women leaders on the ground. The ripple effect of both the large and small protests of the lack of representation for women even trickles down to the well maintenance committees that Wells Bring Hope establishes in every village where a well is drilled. The law requires that at least 50% of the members of the committee be women. There is still a lot of work to be done to advance women’s rights around the world, but this moment in Nigerien history proves that every single voice counts.





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!














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.




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 River 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.