Category Archives: Sahel Region

200 days since Nguelewa… Do all lives matter equally?

Today marks 200 days since 39 young women and girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants in the village of Nguelewa in the region of Diffa in Niger. It was the first Boko Haram mass kidnapping in Niger. It is a tragedy that 39 women and girls would be violently removed from their families for an uncertain fate, probably ending up as slaves, abused sold or married off by force. What is also tragic is the silence surrounding the disappearance of these women in international as well national media. All those lives that disappeared, are they not human? Does one need to be French, American, Norwegian or a schoolgirl to garner international outcry when you disappear? An Amnesty International report found that in the span of a year (2014-2015), over 2,000 women and girls have been abducted. I could not find current numbers on how many have been kidnapped since the conflict started in the early 2000s. This testifies of the sheer difficulties associated with tracking who has been kidnapped and who has returned when so many of these movements go unheard. We rarely hear about them – they are women and girls (but also men and boys) from villages spread across the Sahel region and at the margin.

I recently attended an interesting talk by a friend and colleague from Adamawa State (Nigeria). She argues that Boko Haram casualties in schools is not a bi-product of the crisis; in fact, schools, as sites, are at the heart of the struggle. When looking at the outcry garnered by the kidnapping of over 200 girls in Chibok, I couldn’t have agreed more with her. Militants know that they make a clear statement, not only about their ideology but also about their power, when girls in school are involved. However, when the group wants to grow its ranks and make revenues, they simply kidnap women whose lives have institutionally been left at the margin of their societies. Women and girls in rural areas are often the poorest, the least educated (speaking here about formal educated), and the least embedded in formal political processes. They are also the ones most affected by the lack of basic services from health to education and water access. Therefore, when they disappear, it shakes their families, their villages…. but sadly, not more than that. The multiple marginalisations they face in their daily lives and the institutional inequalities they endure daily translate into a deafening silence when their lives are curtailed forever.

It is true that Security renders any analysis much more complex because security concerns are so dynamic and therefore often unpredictable. There are large scale efforts such the newly formed UN-backed G5 Sahel Force involving Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania (like you, I was shocked that like Nigeria was not part of the ‘GX’ Sahel Force…. but that’s a topic for another day). However as many experts point out, these military efforts must be matched with social development programmes and most importantly with creating a counter-narrative to militant groups with speech, action and real alternatives.

If women are being kidnapped, enough men, especially young men, are joining in the ranks of these groups swayed, for some, by their targeted messages or ideology but most because the grips of poverty are so dire on their daily lives and future prospects that they see joining a militant group that pays them a regular income as the only alternative. In a way, some of the forces leading African youth to pay significant amount of money on an uncertain journey on through the Sahara desert to the shores of Italy or Spain are similar forces throwing them into the hands of militant groups: poverty and lost hope that they can “make it” there.

While I am cognisant of the fact that the issues will not be solved on a one-to-one or village-to-village or even country-to-country basis, when such tragedies happen, when 39 lives (and with them families) will never be the same again, our collective responsibility is to never forget the ones who have gone and break this politics of silence when certain African lives suffer. None of these women will read this, but someone in their family might and must know that their lost ones are ours too. #JeSuisNguelewa

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Why has Chibok captured the imagination of the world while the women and girls of Ngualewa seem lost in a whisper of demands by the relatively small Nigerien twitter community?

 

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10 reasons why Niger should have been in the news (beyond Tongo-Tongo)

This past October, Niger Republic came to new prominence in international news when five Nigeriens, four Americans, and twenty-one militants were killed in an attack in a village named Tongo-Tongo near the Malian border. Most of the Nigerien friends I spoke with had no idea where Tongo-Tongo was and neither did I. However, this singular event had come to define how the international media, especially in the United States, would remember Niger in 2017. Several friends from the US wrote to ask about how my family was doing in light of what was happening in Niger (or as I corrected what they perceived to be happening in Niger, a vast country, more than twice the size of France, larger than Texas and California combined). I have purposefully refrained from writing on this particular issue for various reasons, for now.

The stories we hear about “far away” places shape our perception and in turn how we choose to engage with these “far away” places. This, along with stories of migrants crossing via Agadez, has somewhat painted a single story of an otherwise vibrant country with diverse communities defying limits to recreate a new reality. Because I believe tragedies alone should not define any single place, here are 10 other reasons why Niger should have made the headlines but of course did not.

1. The Cissé Laboratory 

A Nigerien scientist, Professor Ibrahim Cisse, holds a major laboratory at the Massachusetts Institue of Technology (yes MIT) and is its Principal Investigator. The Cisse Lab started in January 2014. Prof. Cisse has since received several recognitions including the 2014 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award… and a presidential visit!

The opening page of the Cisse Lab reads “Welcome to the physics of life… at the molecular detail. We use physical techniques to capture highly dynamic – weak or transient – biological interactions, with single molecule sensitivity in living cells. We seek to understand the general principles by which emergent phenomena from these elusive interactions may help regulate genome function.” The research group has researching coming from several countries including Germany, India, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, and the U.S.

2. SahelInnov

An international gathering for start-ups of the Sahel region held in February 2017 brought together African youth from seven countries with the hope to create an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs. SahelInnov was organised by Cipmen, an incubator for small and medium enterprises. A young Nigerien inventor presented “Tele-Irrigation” which would allow farmers to control the supply of water to their plants from their cellphones. This technology uses solar energy and in a context where drought could be recurrent, this present a remarkable step-forward towards sustainable farming. If well-tapped into, I believe this technology could disrupt in the manner MPesa (Kenya) changed the way people share (and receive) money via mobil transfers.

3. A flourishing cinematographic industry

This year has seen the cinematographic industry shine for its ingenuity and the pertinence of the films and documentaries made by a new breed of Nigerien filmmakers. I would cite “L’Arbre sans fruit” (“The Fruitless Tree“) by Aicha El Hadj Macky. This autobiographic documentary touches on the sensitive issue of infertility and motherhood in a country where a married woman’s worth is often measured by her ability to procreate. This documentary has won international recognition including the award for the best documentary at the Africa Movie Academy Award in Lagos and at the Mashariki African Film Festival in Kigali. Other documentaries and films (non-exhaustive) contributing to the vibrancy of the industry in Niger are: “Le Mil de la Mort” by Jaloud Zaino Tangui coming out this December and “Solaire made in Africa” by Malam Saguirou which traces the life and contribution of Niger’s foremost scientist and pioneer of solar energy research, Abdou Moumouni Dioffo.

Mali has announced 6 billions CFA Francs fund to boost the cinematographic industry. With the bourgeoning cinematographic industry in Niger, a similar investment would be a serious push to a promising sector of which Niger had been a pioneer in the past with filmmakers such as Oumarou Ganda, Damoure Zika, Zalika Souley, and Rahmatou Keita among many others.

 

 

 

 

4.  Research hub in the heart of Niamey: LASDEL

During my PhD fieldwork this year I was housed at LASDEL (LASDEL: Laboratoire d’Etudes et de Recherche sur les Dynamiques Sociales et le Développement Local) a regional research centre with offices in Niger and Benin. In light of surging global interest on the Sahel region, LASDEL welcomes a plethora of researchers from universities worldwide seeking to do research in Niger. It has a small but rich library and is a vibrant intellectual space which hosts regular conversations on some of the most salient issues facing Africa. LASDEL’s summer school sessions often bring researchers from all over the continent. This space is one of the hidden gems in Niger’s capital and houses  some brilliant minds including Professor Tidjani Alou, former Dean of  the Faculty of Economics and Law at Abdou Moumouni Dioffo University.

5. Niamey, fashion capital of the Sahel

Against the backdrop of a certain “westernisation” of everyday wear in most African capitals, Niamey is home to some stylists who are shaping the national but also international fashion scene. A young woman, Hadiza Maiga, has started a yearly festival of fashion entitled Hadyline Creation which celebrates Nigerien cultures and creativity. Niger has nine main ethnic groups each of which has a recognisable identity. In the footsteps of internationally renowned Nigerien stylist, Alphadi who created FIMA (“Festival International de la Mode Africaine”) which brings on the same platform young stylist such as Samira Ben Ousmane as well as more seasoned ones such as Jean Paul Gaultier.

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6. Taekwondo and the Alfaga Factor

Issoufou Abdoul Razack Alfaga ended a 45-year old “medal-drought” by bringing Niger its second Olympic Games after Issaka Dabore in 1972! Alfaga is also the reigning world champion in his category – he won gold in his category (>87 kilos) this year at the world Taekwondo Championships in South Korea. Needless to say, many Nigerien boys and girls dusted off their Taekwondo gears to head to training centres across the country. His journey and victory have truly brought the country together. I was in the crowd (outside the Stade General) when he returned with the Olympic Medal – I was standing with an elderly woman on her way to Goudel after selling food in Katako market and her daughter, a boy who usually begs by the side of Grand Marche, a young man dressed for the occasion, a woman with strong amber perfume and a light shiny veil who was upset the road was blocked (so she was stuck with us), and a massive crowd where  notions of class, gender, age did not seem to exist as everyone (or most) was just there to welcome a national hero. Most importantly, Alfaga is an example of what could happen when young talented Africans get the opportunity to hone their talents, home or abroad…. they shine.

 

 

 

 

7. Bringing Africa together to erasing Africa’s Borders with CFTA

Niger’s President has been designated by his peers to lead the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) to fruition. This is a major development – Mayaki notes, a study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) estimates that, with the CFTA, intra-African trade would be 52% higher in 2022 than it was in 2010. Current stats show that interAfrican trade remains low when compared with trade between Africa and the European Union and Asia. The latest African Economic Outlook 2017 found that trade between Africa and the rest of the world has expanded four-fold in two decades with the E.U. as Africa’s top trade partner (accounting for 30% of Africa’s global trade in 2015 down from 40% in 2000). If current trends remain, Asia will soon overtake the E.U. as Africa’s top trading partner – already at the country level, China and India are respectively the first and second largest trading partner of the continent (see report for more info). The CFTA, if well-implemented, will erase borders between African countries and hopefully improve inter/intraAfrican trade. My Fulani cousins have long understood that Africa’s prosperity resides in opening borders to allow free movements of people and goods.

8. Niger’s vibrant youth

Niger is the country with the highest fertility rates in the world. According to the latest estimate, a Nigerien woman has on average 7.3 children. Such a spectacular population growth rate certainly presents serious challenges given the high dependency ratio (which measures the pressure on those typically in the labour force). However, what this also means is that Niger could tap into this youth to rip the benefits of demographic dividend as the age structure of the population changes. Some of Niger’s youth have used their talent to tackle environmental issues in the likes of Mariama Mamane with Jacigreen, redefine architecture in the likes of Mariama Kamara with United4Design, create a university (ADU, African Development University) dedicated to prepare young people to lead the development of their nations in the likes of Kader Kaneye, or get PhD with flying honours in the likes of Fadji Maina who was awarded the Kepler prize for the best thesis in science & tech at the University of Strasbourg in France. Niger’s s future is so bright… and we, its youth, will write a new chapter in Africa’s success stories.

9. Vibrant cultural festivals from Niamey to Iferouane, Agadez to Ingall

The SAFEM (Salon international de l’Artisanat pour la Femme) just closed its doors in Niamey. It is a yearly gathering where close to 1,500 artisans, mostly women, from around 35 countries showcase (and sell) their products. My mother who is a community organiser at heart never misses the SAFEM and below are some of the photos she has shared. The SAFEM celebrates the best of Africa’s women’s craftsmanship, talent and creativity.

Other notable festivals across Niger are the Cure Salee where Fulani and Touareg herders meet to share information, trade and reinforce links, Bianou a 835-year old festival that celebrates unity among Touareg, or the festival of “cousinage a plaisanterie” (“joking-cousins”) which basically binds every ethnic group to another and gives me permission to tease Fulanis, Bagobiris and Kanuris alike with the expectation that there will be no hard feelings. Niger is rich because of all these manifestation of “zumunci” (i.e. brotherhood/sisterhood/familyhood) that, in a way, preserve social cohesion even in turbulent times.

10…… What would you add?

 

 

Women’s Day, A Daily Act.

 

In 2015 I attended a deeply enriching conference with Prof. Tariq Ramadan in Niger, and a woman in the audience spoke. She spoke about how she felt full of potentials, had great dreams, thrived and was happy to be useful to her society. She added that today, she and many women around her felt they had to bury their dreams because our society imposes difficult choices on them. Many women in the room were in tears listening to the cry of a woman whose voice spoke a truth that consumed her. Many in the room nodded. It was a sad inconvenient truth. This is the reality of many women even as they tried to be bold and strong. The emancipation of women will not be complete if in their daily lives they are diminished or “contained” by the very people who are closest to them, the very people who are supposed to uplift and support them. For married women, that person closest to them is their spouse. This is neither a bashing nor a fight; it is the continuation of a conversation worth having. Being “bold” for women sometimes comes with heavy social costs. It is therefore, understandable that many women (un)consciously construct their lives in a manner that sometimes bury, diminish or contain their potentials. And when that happens, everyone loses. Prof. Ramadan’s response demands us all to start an internal adaptive work because change demands efforts. Change also demands that we deconstruct the idea of our own individual comfort for ones that also account for the other.

Unearthing dreams…

Being in support of women achieving their highest potential is a daily act. It starts at home, and while the occasional Facebook posts or public statements from men help, I would wait to see how he treats the women around him before I press “like”. Some call women all the ‘sweet’ words there are but are not willing to lift a finger to share responsibilities of taking care of the house, or supporting their wives in achieving their dreams, or in simply giving her reason to believe in herself. The examples are endless. Just this week I visited the Ministry of Education and one guy (a military man) came for help on a “dossier” for his wife (a physics and chemistry teacher). He bluntly said, “what I tried and didn’t succeed, there was no way she could do any better”. Thankfully, the women at the secretariat explained to him that the wife was the one who was the teacher, and the one in the best position to explain her situation… Everything he was saying was ‘approximate and incomplete’, and that he should really send his wife to come and defend her case. The guy concluded that he would come with her accompanied. Everyone laughed. Another highly educated and accomplished man (who claimed to be a strong defender of women’s rights) told me that he reserved his “feminism” for his daughter and his employees, not his wife. I wonder how this man expects to raise his daughter into a strong and confident young woman when he treats his wife as if she were devoid of any potential or as if she didn’t have voice. How many men see “women’s empowerment” as an external thing that would not happen in their own home? Being in support of your daughters and wives achieving their potential begins with you being honest about how much support you give your partner of life. I am grateful and salute the men who do value the women in their lives, with their words and with deeds…  these men are many, but if we are still talking about how few women there are in certain space, it is because there is still much work to be done together.

Mismatch of expectations for ambitious women

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article found that even though Harvard MBAs valued professional and personal lives, women’s satisfaction with their professional growth was much lower than that of their male counterparts. Unsurprisingly, (desired) career outcomes were much lower as well. This is not necessarily because women “opt out” to care for their families (although some choose to) or because women want less opportunities for career growth. There is a serious mismatch of expectations about life objectives and aspirations… I would argue that in many African cultures, this mismatch is known from the onset, hence there is very little ground for conversation between potential spouses because duh, obviously… Even when couples try to navigate different sets of arrangement, societal pressure may thwart their efforts… in many Nigerien cultures, the woman would be called to order (the family may summon a second or third wife to put this wife back to her place), and the man would be teased as “mijjin hadjia”, the husband to his wife. Although there is some noticeable change. A guard in a company in Maradi who depended on a small salary explained that he managed to send his daughter to nursing school. After she married, her husband decided that she would no longer work because he wanted her at home all the time. The father opposed this decision because he knew how much he invested to have one of his eight children be financially stable and independent, and how much he also counted on his daughter’s financial help after he retired. This is not to say that every single woman aspires (or must aspire) to a (high-profile) professional career, but for those that do, we ought them as our sisters, wives, mothers, and colleagues our support.

As a Muslim woman…

I look at the age-old yet so relevant example of Khadidja, the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Khadidja is the very definition of a woman who has successfully managed to balance her professional aspirations (expending her business into an impressive financial empire) with her family demands. She also made a timeless contribution to her community. And in the Seerah (Narratives of the life of the Prophet), you could see the balance and the immense support the Prophet (PBUH) and his wife mutually provided each other, both to grow personally spiritually and professionally. In a book by Jean Boyd, The Caliph’s Sister, we see Nana Asma’u a Muslim woman from the 18th century in the Sokoto Caliphate (present-day Northern Nigeria) who has carved dynamic spaces where both men and women could critically engage with developments in their communities. She trained an army of women teachers (jaji) who would systematically disseminate knowledge beyond the confines of her own community. Nana Asma’u was a poet, a writer, a philosopher, a policymaker and a teacher; she was also a wife and a mother. Individuals of the likes exist in contemporary Sahel societies. I see them in my mothers, my sisters, my ‘formal’ and Koranic school teachers, in Ms. Amina J. Mohammed (appointed deputy Secretary-General to the UN), and many others who navigate and negotiate complex social and familial structures to be examples worthy of emulation to their sons and daughters. We are in no means a monolithic group. Women’s empowerment is not a foreign concept. In fact, it has existed in the very fabric of our societies, but these notions have somewhat been colonised out of our minds. Changing these forms of injustice begins with meaningful respectful and compassionate debates, not just on Facebook or on e-platforms, but at home.

These are some reflections, not exhaustive, jotted down on paper with the hopes that they would begin/continue meaningful conversations on these issues. Any comments and suggestions welcome.

 

“School of Life”: Education during emergencies (brief reflections)

Today I read an insightful report on humanitarian response in Niger which prompted these brief reflections. In May 2012, I spent some time in Mangaizé in the region of Tillabery which by that time had welcomed hundreds of refugees from neighbouring Mali. While the various organisations in place in collaboration with the government have managed to cover basic sanitation and food needs, there was a missing link which if well-managed could provide opportunities for children to cope, to grow, and to fulfil their potential… and that is education. Most children under the age of 16 (estimate) had access to the local schools and could seat in the same classrooms as other students from the town.

However, I argue that emergencies as destabilising as they are could be an opportunity to innovate in the educational sector by providing these students with carefully tailored programmes. This may be a difficult proposition for already stretched resources. However, some research findings support that providing quality education could be cheaper than investing adamantly in a status quo that may not be suitable for a particular population. Providing quality education to communities faced with various emergencies could ease an eventual return to stability… most of the people I spoke with in Mangaizé talked about “quand il y aura la paix” – when there will be peace – as a condition for their returning to their own home countries.

In the (relatively) peaceful haven that Niger has become for nearly 165,000 people fleeing conflicts in neighbouring Mali and Nigeria (UNHCR data), the next basic need after providing a welcoming shelter would be to provide an education that is in tune with their needs… A quality education would also minimise the risks of the youth being enlisted in dangerous armed groups that prey on their vulnerability. Quality in this sense requires being practical, especially when resources remain scarce – it does not mean investing in expensive equipment, overstretching already overbooked classrooms, or paying hefty prices for international consultancies. Professor Abdou Moumouni in his pioneering work entitled Education for Africa articulates a vision of the very practical nature of education in formal traditional African systems,

The effectiveness of this education was possible because of its very close relationship with life. It was through socials acts (production) and social relationships (family life, group activities) that the education of the child or adolescent took place, so that he [she] was instructed and educated simultaneously. To the extent that a child learned everywhere and all the time, instead of learning in circumstances determined in advance as to place and time, outside of the productive and social world, he [she] was truly in the ‘school of life’ in the most concrete and real sense (Abdou Moumouni, Education in Africa)

This is not to mourn a glorified past, but such a system, when combined with practical steps such as teachings the younger ones in their mother tongue, introducing reading groups into the communities, and learning values from their rich heritage (by incorporating mothers, grandmothers or fathers into the curriculum) could capture these children’s imagination and develop their cognitive skills and maybe they would be the generation that solves the many ills that no child (or adult for that matter) should have to suffer, and they did.