Guy Des Aulniers and Kelly Di Domenico, Communications Officer, are currently in Niger, one of the hardest-hit countries in the food crisis which is sweeping across West Africa. Our team is also in the company of three journalists from Salt and Light Television, who have traveled to witness first-hand, the situation and the emergency relief programs we are supporting in the country, in collaboration with the Canadian Food Grains Bank (CFGB).
The team arrived in Niger on July 23rd and will visit a number of humanitarian projects being implemented by local partner, CADEV (Caritas Niger), including refugee camps, food distribution sites and agricultural relief projects. They will meet and speak with beneficiaries and local leaders and share their stories with us, so we can help others to better understand the scope of the current crisis and what we can do about it.
We are in Maradi about 650 km away from Niamey, Niger's capital. Maradi is the country's breadbasket, which also makes it its economic capital. However, we are also 25 km from Nigeria and everything from sugar to cars here comes from Nigeria. Boko Haram is also rampant in northern Nigeria and its influence in the area is very much felt, for example with the full veil being predominant. Tensions with the Christians are such that the Church failed to issue its traditional pre-Ramadan greeting on July 21st this year.
Upon arrival, we were met by Bishop Ambroise Ouedraogo, the Bishop of the second-largest diocese in the country. There are 250 Catholics in Maradi and 3,000 in the entire diocese (that’s right, 250 and 3,000, Niger is 99% Muslim). Commenting on the disparity, Bishop Ambroise remarked that "I was able to raise money for Church infrastructure by pointing out that there were 7 million Nigeriens in the diocese that had yet to be converted!” By the same token, the Bishop was not reluctant to appoint a Muslim as head of the Catholic schools in the diocese. Much to our amusement, the Bishop went on to somewhat jokingly point out that "the education director is more rigid than we are”. Bishop Ambroise, who is responsible for Muslim-Christian dialogue in the country, was quick to point out that "Niger couldn't survive without Nigeria and that the problems that the country faces and their solutions are essentially political. There needs to be dialogue if there is to be peace".
At the end of the day, Bishop Ambroise returned to see us and used the opportunity to ask us if it wouldn't be better if the beneficiaries had to make even a very small contribution in exchange for the free food that they would be receiving. He believed that "we need to avoid creating dependency". I responded that in the present situation, where people’s very survival is at stake, the rations are destined for those that would die without them. He responded that, "we need to protect people’s dignity as well as their lives." A debate that brought us right back to the importance of the link between emergency relief, rehabilitation and development work, all issues that we have repeatedly raised with our funders.