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Diffa, Niger

It’s been a couple of days and I’m back in the capital of Niamey. Actually have today (Sunday) as a day off, to get laundry done, post a blog, go out on foot to discover Niamey, and get ready to cross the border into Burkina Faso tomorrow morning. I read there’s hippo’s swimming in the Niger River, so I’m going to go check it out .

I do have to say, this is the only way to fly. UNHAS (United Nations Humanitarian Air Services) was started in the early 90’s for travel throughout Niger, due to the unreliable service that was there. You do need to be in the government, their contractor, or working with an NGO to be able to use the service. Zinder and Diffa we just walked out on the runway (no real terminal) put our bag on, boarded and took off. They take your bag off, set it on the ground and you go. So easy!

( All Blog Post Photos:  © Bartay )

Diffa is a bit of an extreme from the rest of what I’ve seen in Niger. Quite a bit smaller than Zinder, maybe only about 25,000 if that much. Sits on the Komadougou Yobe River, which flows into Lake Chad, with Nigeria right on the other side. The river is quite full now, seeing as the rains only stopped about 10 days ago. I’m told in another 3 months the river will be nothing but sand. Which goes to the point of the drought, famine, and malnutrition that is hurting so many people here. As I found out and as you will see in some of the photos.

Here in the far eastern part of Niger, it is nothing but savannah, which is turning from green to brown every day. It’s amazing how hot it is here so early in the morning. By 10 am it’s approaching 100 and very very high humidity. Everyone else is so dry and I’m so wet! And they dress up all the time.

What I’ve noticed is the further east I’ve gone, the harder the struggles for the people seem to be. In Zinder there was a bit more organization in the surrounding farmland, more of a structure. Here in Diffa, it seems the main concern most of the time is survival, food and water. There wasn’t much farming going on, which makes the absence of water and the famine more obvious. They finally had some rain here this year, but even in the states we know one year doesn’t wipe out a drought.

We spent one and a half days going out to villages driving some of the worst roads I’ve been on. That’s when we stayed on the road. Oumarou, our driver in Diffa, is driving along and he knows the village is ‘that way’, so he just turns and goes off into the savannah. (Note: the savannah is not smooth) He keeps driving until he hits a footpath then turns and follows it, leading us right to the village.

The villages here are built the same way as everywhere else, here in Niger. Except the soil here is very sandy, not such red earth as was the case in Zinder. We’ve come to these villages to see the programs HKI is doing to help them just have better lives, to monitor their nutrition and health and to give aid to those that need it. We were in this one village and they were very happy with their newly supplied by HKI (check out the license plate!), what I will call their ambulance. It’s how they transport the ill or injured to the health center a few km away. The Matron of the village and I really hit it off. She kept following me around and kept shaking my hand, Merci, Merci, when I showed her the pictures. I seem to be popular; rather my camera seems to be popular. Regardless, I’ve been given gifts at most villages I’ve visited.

At another village, Chetimasidiri, we saw quite a bit of ongoing change. They actually had a radio station, again supported by HKI, where they broadcast about 6 or 7 hours every day. Music, talk, they let the people speak their mind. Now this is a small two-room mud building out in the middle of the savannah, that has no lights and the DJ plays his music off of a ‘Boom Box’. They get 100% of their power by a solar system outside by the tower.

About 100m away from the radio station, they had this room where they were storing food. Millet grain, enriched oil, Plumpy Nut, all for distribution to the village because they weren’t able to grow their own millet due to the drought.

Now for a small collection of some of the ‘actions’ HKI has been teaching the locals to do, to monitor the health of the mothers and their children. I was reading in one of my books, that something like 1 in 4 children in Niger does not make it past their 5th birthday. The process of monitoring the children is they measure their arm’s circumference, weigh them, and measure them. They track that hopefully for 5 years, although Tchouloum told me, it’s a struggle to get the mothers to continue the process after the first 3 years.

You will see that the standard measure band has a ‘green’, ‘yellow’, and ‘red’ section. Green being the child is of normal weight, where the red means they are malnourished and underweight. The severely malnourished are urged to go into Diffa to the CRENI program at the hospital.

One of the last villages we went to on Friday was quite far out and away from the road. Over an hour bouncing through the savannah. There should have been one group at a time of just about 15 women, learning how to make porridge for their malnourished children, with fortified grains, oils, and flour. Well someone told the entire village to come all at once for their cooking class because we were coming. It was a rather large group, maybe 100 or so. They all made a large circle about 30’ wide and 150’ long. I started to laugh, how am I going to photograph that? Nothing I could do, I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I told Tchouloum I would go ahead and take pictures of everyone, knowing Jennifer wouldn’t use them for HKI! So I did and they all posed, smiled and were very happy. So then we, (me, Tchouloum, Omar, and the Volunteer teacher) were all sitting at the end of the circle (under the only tree) and I’m told it’s an honor and they are making lunch for me and bringing it out for all of us to eat. I tried the porridge they learned to make and a noodle dish that both were really quite good.

They saw some very malnourished children and started to measure their arms and check them out. I started taking photos and this one little girl was so frail. They were measuring her arm, which fell deep into the red zone. Well the people from HKI were trying to explain to the mother that she had to take her daughter into Diffa and to the hospital for treatment. (HKI does that program at the hospital) You could see it in the mother’s eyes, she was so scared, my heart dropped, it’s a look I will always remember. There were three babies there that they wanted to go to Diffa because of acute malnutrition.

Well we finished up the day shooting the CRENI clinic back at the Diffa Hospital. The sad part is I hear we saw it on a slow day. The rooms I saw were totally full, but there wasn’t a line outside today to get help. After finishing up, it was getting dark and as we were leaving I saw one of the three mothers and her baby from the village had already shown up. Then we heard the news that, that one little girl died on her way into Diffa.

This next little girl was my favorite. She was so enthralled with what I was doing, she never took her eyes off of me. I think I took 9 or 10 shots and this is the one she looked away… this to me says it all, for what’s going on in Diffa.

So now being back in Niamey, I’m going to the HKI office to give them some photos of the new awning and concrete floor they’re building in one village. Today is also my last day in Niger, early tomorrow morning I’m being driven to the Burkina Faso border. Walking across and meeting up with HKI, Burkina Faso, to take a look at their programs. We are going to be shooting in Eastern BF, working our way west to the capital, Ouagadougou. I’m quite sure I will not have Internet access out in the field, so my next post most likely will be around Wednesday when we get to Ouagadougou.

I would like to take a moment and give my special thanks to everyone in Niger with HKI, that made this a very successful trip. Ibrahim, Tshoulom, Issa, Omar, Oumarou, and everyone else I cannot remember their name. MERCI!

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