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Diema, Mali

The one thing about driving through Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, besides the bumpy roads is, speed bumps. Large enough to make you drop your speed to about 5 mph. They are everywhere and each village has their own at both sides of the village, to slow traffic down. What I really love is the ingenuity of the people when there’s a new road put in and the speed bumps are not put in. The villagers will bring, drag, and roll anything into the street to slow you down. This village decided to make you slow down by making you turn. Every village seems to have their own ‘personality’.

( All Blog Post Photos:  © Bartay )

There have been so many village health workers working in the field, weighing babies, measuring their height and arm circumference. I really was wondering how so many people knew what to do. The other day we stopped at the health clinic in the town of Banamba, to see the program where they actually do the teaching. They had classroom training and practical training in all the arts of discovering malnutrition.

Then on Friday I was going north and what I noticed driving north to the town of Diema (pronounced Joy mah), up near the border of Mauritania, is I’m starting to closer to the Sahara again. The trees are thinning and the soil is becoming that sandy soil I saw in Niger. Not to mention hotter and the direct sun is so intense, it’s hard to explain. Just walking in it, it’s like being 2 feet from a heat lamp, direct and hot. I was informed by the staff at HKI in Bamako, that the food might not be good for ‘me’ up in Diema, so when we went to the Shell station to gas up, I went in and stocked up on water, juice, crackers, anything I could get — packaged!

We are going up to Diema to visit the local health clinic and to meet and watch two of its doctors at work. Dr. Sy Ousmane and Dr. Felix Dembelé.  Dr. Felix does eye surgery to repair Trachoma, a disease of the eyelids. This is actually part of the Neglected Tropical Disease’s program that HKI has been working on, teaching the kids to wash their face and hands regularly, to avoid this problem. Then they wouldn’t have to go through the surgery or go blind. I first met up with Dr. Felix in the afternoon, when he was visiting a village to check up on a patient he did surgery on last July. Then the following morning I was invited to go to a village to watch him perform the surgery.

When we got back into Diema, it was getting a bit late and I came across a very large group of kids, right in the middle of the street. I started watching and you should have seen the adults trying to control this large a group of preteens and teens. Total chaos for at least ½ an hour. They were actually doing a little play, teaching the kids the importance of washing their hands and feet. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But it really is a problem and they are getting diseases from not doing it. The kids were all lined up at least 8 deep, just trying to get a place in the crowd. Well, you know I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, it was in French, but the kids were yelling, screaming, and laughing their heads off.

I saw one little girl, probably about 6 or 7, and she was running around and crying because she couldn’t get past all the big kids and see what was going on inside the circle. Well, seeing a little child in emotional pain is a killer for me, and this little girl pushed my button. I bent down and started showing her the photos on the back of my camera, that I was getting by reaching over the other kids heads and she just started to smile. Just made my day.

So the next morning I’m going out to the village of Tinkare to watch Dr. Felix perform the eye surgery on a patient. Zana, Amadou and I were driving out around 7:30 and we came across the large bog, I’d call it. I could see the village on the other side, but we needed to find our way around it.

I took a video on my iPhone to show how we are getting to these villages. All the bumping going on, running into women and children walking along the path, children driving their ox carts, but I’ll be damned if I know how to get it from my iPhone to computer, to the blog. Someday! Then we needed to stop and let the locals fill up…

We get into the village, fairly large for the ones I’ve been in and we’re driving through past the mosque, kids playing and finally end up near the back of the village. We get out and they’ve already slaughtered a goat and are laying it out for the day’s shoppers. Of course Zana and Amadou go check it out and decide the meat they saw beside the main road was better, so they’ll wait until we’re driving back to Bamako.

So now I’ve caught up with Dr. Felix and he introduces me to the gentleman he’s going to perform surgery on. We chat and then we follow him on foot, through a bit more of the village back to his home. So they bring out two blankets to lay out in front of his home, under the shade lean-to. I must tell you, that the next time you may be having surgery, ask your doctor if the O.R. is sterile. Dr Felix spent quite a bit of time washing his instruments with alcohol and laying things out, but I think the neighbor’s horse was as interested as anyone.

No Dr. Felix didn’t mind me, he let me do what I needed. I was even shooting with the macro, so I’m getting like 12” away and all’s fine. I will show a bit of decorum here in the blog and save the real graphic images for Jennifer at HKI in New York.

Now the patient and Dr. Felix are sitting on two rugs laid out on the dirt in front of the house. I’m walking around and getting down on my elbows and knees to get in low and close. Dr. Felix jumps up and starts slapping his butt and the patient kept slapping the rug. Seems as though there were black ants all over the place. Then I soon found out because they had crawled onto my elbows then up my arms to inside my shirt and were biting me on my back and under my arms. Yes they hurt! But we kept going, this is a surgery after all, and Zana and Amadou kept walking around trying to get rid of them.

I was asking Dr. Felix how many of these he does, thinking maybe 5 per week. Then he tells me he may do as many as 100 per week. Seems as though trachoma is a major problem here in Mali and a lot of West Africa.

There was another gentleman sitting and watching the entire surgery and I found out later he was waiting for Dr. Felix to look at his eyes when he was done. So the surgery was about 45 min. and then he bandages up the eye and starts to clean up.

Then the prescription ointments and bandages are given the patient along with instructions. It’s all done and over.
So later that morning before heading back to Bamako, we stopped off at another village, Kolokani. We were going there to see some more farming HKI is teaching the women how to do and to grow and feed their children better and more nutritious food. We first went out to their farm where a few things planted erlier are just now starting to come in. Now that the rainy season is ending, they are starting to plant more new crops.

These women are placing an elevated layer of dried millet stalks. This is to keep that horrible direct sun from burning the baby lettuce until it has a chance to germinate and start growing.

Here’s some produce that’s been growing for a while. The fenced off garden had all kinds of produce and grains growing.

Afterwards on the way back to the truck, I stop to see again the checking up on the children in the village. I do find it amazing that wherever I’ve been, there seems to be a never-ending supply of malnourished children that need this help.

But I really wanted to end this on a happier note, so I would like you to see a happy mother and her baby. I met them at the hospital yesterday were I was watching the students learn how to track and help the malnourished children in the villages. She was just so happy and willing to let me snap her photo.

So it’s now Sunday and I got back to Bamako last night. I was actually able to sleep in this morning for the first time since I’ve been in Africa. Heaven, if only till 7:30. I did make it to the le Grand Marche this morning and even for a Sunday it was very crowed. A lot like the souks in Morocco, with all its twists and turns, and stalls everywhere you turn. I first went with Amadou, and then later today I went out on the street grabbed a cab and went back. When I went to get a taxi to return, they wanted 2,000 CFA’s and I was told no more than 1,000, so I walked away. They called me back and said oui. I get in and then 5 guys pushed us to get the cab started, but I did get back to the la Chaumiére. I leave for the airport around 8 tonight, right after dinner.

So I have to say it’s been a very interesting, enjoyable, and educational 3 weeks here in West Africa. Not to mention how happy I’ve been the entire time. I am sad to see it come to an end but when I finally get back to San Francisco this Wed., I’ll have been gone a full month. I will be glad to be home, happy to see everyone, but I will once again miss Africa and I will return again.

I hope for those of you who have been able to make it once or twice or more to the blog, that it was enjoyable and maybe educational for you too.

I would also like to thank everyone at the HKI office here in Bamako. Marjon, Letitia, Christian, Vanessa, Berthé, Dr. Touré, Dr. Fainke, and Zana. Out in Diffa, a thank you to Robert and Christine. Thank you to Ken and I wish you the best upon your return to UC Davis. A special thanks to the drivers who have been so nice and patient with me, Oumar, Sangare, and Amadou. I thank you all and everyone else here at HKI, Bamako.

Now if I may say a blanket Thank You to all at HKI, in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and New York City. A special thank you to Douglas in Dakar and Jennifer in New York, for all your hard work with me during the last 3 months putting this all together.

Merci Beaucoup. Ça Va!

Posted in Africa, Humanitarian, Travel, West Africa | 4 Comments

Dioila, Mali

Welcome to Mali. I don’t think the African soil gets redder than this. It’s green, lush, and the rivers are full. I guess you could call this spring? The rains are ending, not stopped! just ending. I think it is so hot and humid now, but I’m told this isn’t the hot season.

( All Blog Post Photos:  © Bartay )

What I’ve noticed driving across the three countries here in West Africa, is a somewhat changing sign of the Islamic faith. Niger, which is about 90% Muslim, had mosques everywhere and very prominent. Burkina Faso, which has about a 50% Muslim population, was a lot less visible. Mali is more like Niger with a 80% to 90% Muslim population. The mosques are a lot more prominent here and can be quite beautiful. The interesting thing to me is that the Islamic design and style is different than that of the Moorish design, I saw in Morocco and Spain. This mosque was in the village of Bancoumana. With the market out in front, it just was very strong and prominent.

Today is going to be a bit more of a ‘technical’ posting. I’ve been out to the city of Dioila (pronounced; Joy lah) about 3 hours east, southeast of Bamako. I was out there to see the MMAM program (Management Moderate Acute Malnutrition) with joint investigators: HKI, the World Food Program, and UNICEF. It’s a study being conducted and overseen by HKI and the University of California Davis.

First though, I must tell you Dioila is not a big city, really quite small. So at the end of Monday evening, it was time to go to our respective rooms. Some were at the HKI office building, the others went to get their ‘hotel’ rooms before dinner, I waited till after dinner. Big mistake, I think I got what was left. Now I’m not saying any one else had it much better than I, however I think I didn’t get a suite. There was no ceiling fan, no window screens, and no mosquito net, just a mattress and 4 walls. I opted to sleep with the window closed, after I heard stories at dinner about the little bugs that just fill the room by flying through the holes in window screens. I survived to write to you now!

I happened to get to Dioila the same time there was a Steering Committee meeting going on. There were people from HKI, UC Davis, WFP, and UNICEF there to see the progress of the study. So while they were in meetings, I was driven out to the village of Wakoro and dropped off. The driver went back to Dioila and waited for the meetings to be over. So I got the village and the HKI field workers and the village all to myself for about 5 hours.

One thing I’ve noticed so far in Mali (along with everywhere else I’ve been) is how happy most of the people are. Whether they’re young or old. When I first got there, early in the morning, I was walking around and ran across this young girl. She was so cute and happy and it reminded me of the Elder of the village I saw and talked to the day before. Both ends of the life spectrum.

When I was walking back to the village clinic, I ran across this little girl getting water out of the well. What caught my eye, besides her being so cute, was that at an early age, the women in Africa already have this sense of colour. Her dress is just fabulous native African vividness.

So onto our technical post. This little baby girl and boy are in for a rather long morning. They are exactly 1 year old and they are enrolled in this study. Which means they are going to get poked and prodded and samples taken from all varieties of that prodding. The data is taken, recorded, transported for lab work (contracted to the local hospital), and meticulously handled by trained HKI field workers. I’m only a photographer, not a nutritionist nor researcher, so I’m not even going to try to explain what exactly they’re researching.

We started around 8:30 and I followed these two babies through their entire regiment, lasted until about 1:30 in the afternoon. On to the study. The first thing is to get baseline saliva samples. Now this is one of the things they disliked the most. Having little cotton wedges in their mouths until they filled with saliva. Not one, not two, not even three, but usually 4 or 5 samples taken and then labeled.

Then they were given a dose of Deuterium. Again I’m just a photographer, but it has something to do with being able to tell what the water retention is of the baby by before and after saliva testing. They didn’t have any trouble with the first drop, but there were two eyedropper full’s to go.

Then of course we have the urine sample. As an adult you just get a cup, but a baby needs a little bag with a glue edge to hold it in place for a while!

No comes the hard part. The blood sample. There are a lot of adults that don’t like needles, but they know what’s coming. These little guys didn’t. But with mom holding them, three very gentle adults doing the work, it does get done. And I might add, the babies didn’t mind it as much as the saliva gathering.

What amazed me was what they did with the samples they were taking all day long. They have this icebox in the truck that runs off of the car battery. They can get it down to 33º F and keep it there all day. Couldn’t believe it.

On to the next test. This I found out is a BIA test (Bio Incidence Assay). It does quite a few things. I know this because after the reading, the field worker kept clicking buttons and getting more readings to record. Body fat, water content, on and on.

Then after waiting 1 ½ hour from the eye droppers of Deuterium, they needed to get another saliva sample. I think by now, the babies are just saying ‘Alright, already!

Finally after the testing is done, there usually is a small cooking lesson for the mothers and sometimes a father. They learn how to make a hot meal concoction that is produced with a fortified bag of meal and nutrients, given to them, to help the nourishment of their child. Then the reward… the kids finally get to eat and did they love it.

So I’m still going out to villages around Bamako, then on Friday I’m going to be driving about 4 hours north to the city of Diema (pronounced: Joy mah). On Saturday I will be going out to see what is being done with NTD’s (Neglected Tropical Diseases) before driving back to Bamako. My time is getting short here in Mali, I hope to get back to you one more time from West Africa before heading back to the states.

Posted in Africa, Humanitarian, Travel, West Africa | 1 Comment

Orodara, Burkina Faso

Well it’s now Sunday and I’ve made it to Bamako in Mali. Plans got change a bit and I was driven to Bamako today. I wrote the following post yesterday then tried to get on the internet. The power was out when I arrived in Orodara last Thursday, due to the rain and normal problems. They do have some internet there in Orodara, but when they do it’s very slow. Just modem dial up via cellular service. So after writing the post Saturday, I tried to use the cellular sevice at my hotel, it didn’t work. But now in Bamako I have internet and can post the last part of Burkina Faso. So you can read it in present tense, one day late!

Today I have my first day off and I’m in Orodara, in the southwest corner of Burkina Faso. Very small town, I’m guessing around 8,000. I got out my little French book and found out how to ask to see if I could get some laundry done. Ah! simple and even getting it done today, which could have been a problem. They do the laundry by hand and then hang it out to dry and it’s been overcast and raining on and off since I’ve been in Orodara. But today it’s sunny! Voila!

What I noticed on the drive down here from Ouagadougou last Thursday, is that I’m getting further south and deeper into the tropic zone and the rainy season still isn’t, just quite over yet. So the landscape has become a lot denser, way greener, tall tall grasses, palm trees have started popping up and there’s mud. I’m also getting a little closer to the headwater area of the Niger River, I think it’s mostly in Mali, but I’m getting close. So the terrain has also become a ‘little’ hilly, it’s nice.

(All Blog Post Photos: © Bartay )

Boro, who drove me to Orodara from Ouagadougou, and I stopped off at a supermarket in Bobo on the way here. It was a huge (for Africa) supermarket with all kinds of stuff. I stocked up on drinkable yogurt, pineapple juice, crackers, mango juice, water! I found out later that it’s the big supermarket there in Bobo, mostly for the ex-pats and NGO people working there, Westerner’s!

So we finally get into Orodara and find the HKI office. Boro is just dropping me off, then he’s heading back to Bobo to spend the night before going back to his home in Ouagadougou. So I get introduced to the group that is there in the office and we got acquainted with my lacking French/English situation. I was able to understand when they told Sara, the woman who’s the ‘temporary’ field coordinator / supervisor, wasn’t in the office yet. I was just getting settled into my confusion when this woman walks in (I had to presume it was Sarah) and she says “Hello, welcome. How was your drive?” The look of surprise on my face? It was in perfect English. Well, she’s a native Californian, albeit she’s been in and mostly out of America for a long time. It was the first easy English conversation I’d had in over two and a half weeks.

She came to Orodara via Dakar only a month or so ago. To temporarily supervise the beginning of this project in Orodara I came here to see. Then another surprise, Lea came into the office and I was introduced to her. She lives in Emeryville just across the bay from San Francisco. Wow, three native Californians all in this little corner of Burkina Faso. I am in language bliss! Lea is working on her thesis (UC, Davis) and is doing a study on the health financial structure, cost analysis, et al, here in Orodara for this study. (Sorry Lea, if I did not get that exactly right). She’s been in and out of Burkina Faso a few times in the last year and just got here about 3 weeks ago.

This is a bit of a different situation here in Orodara, than I’ve seen in my visit to West Africa. This is a joint project with HKI, IRSS, and the University of California, Davis. It’s a Zinc research study being done to see what the effect and benefits might be with a Zinc supplement for the children. I went across the street to Sarah’s house, had lunch and got my layman’s explanation of the study. It was a bit complicated, for a photographer, but I got a great explanation and I had a good understanding of what I was going to see.

I don’t want to complicate things for everyone with the details of the study, it’s just now getting started here and so they are still in the beginning stages of the research study. I’ve been out in the field seeing the process they’re going through to set the standards up to track the study, which is very detailed and needs to be very precise and specific. They need to get detailed information of the children for the study. So the first thing they do is give a short explanation of the project, to educate the mothers what they are trying to do and hope to achieve, so they can help their babies.

Then the field workers will spend time, one on one, with the mothers getting all their background information. Talking to them, asking questions, writing down their history.

They’ve already picked the first large group of mothers and babies, so now they need to find the ones that will fit the study. So they need to get consent forms signed and fingerprinted. Yes, this is a formal research study.

One of the next steps is taking the medical statistics of the babies, so they need the baby’s temp, respiration, weight, and height. Which I might add, is a bit more modern than the process I witnessed out in the villages of Eastern Burkina Faso and Niger!

They also take the medical history of the mothers. ‘I think’ they’re charting the correlation between mothers and their child too. It’s one of the pieces of the puzzle.

Then all the technical work still needs to be done and it’s just the beginning. All the data entry, scanning the data, and marking the Zinc for the study needs to be done. Colour coding the doses, because the tracking codes are in code and the content of that particular pill is a secret. I was told, only one person and the Zinc manufacturer have the codes, no one in Africa does. So no one can tell who’s getting what dose of zinc or a placebo, until the end.

It’s been very interesting and fascinating how this is done. I continue to be in awe of the time and patience the staff and workers have and give in navigating a rather difficult process.

Now I really must say, one of the benefits of my time here in Orodara has been the hospitality of Sara and Lea. I’ve had dinner with them every night, I’ve watched them cook in their ‘kitchen’. We’ve walked at night down the road and through the back paths, to see Orodara and to buy fruit and vegetables. We sit for dinner or lunch and talk, an English conversation. Sarah and Lea … I thank you both! I hope your projects and remaining time here, goes well and is successful.

A driver from HKI in Bamako is driving across the border to Orodara today, then first thing in the morning we’re crossing over the border into Mali and driving to Bamako. The plan is to travel to the village of Diolia on Monday, then to Bancoumana on Wednesday, back to Bamako for day trips and then the last weekend of my trip here to West Africa. So I say farewell until the next time, from Mali.

I would also like to say to all my new friends here in Burkina Faso, THANK YOU! To Boro, Boubacar, Olivier, Rasmata, Régina, Tonde, Sara, Lea, and everyone else in Ouagadougou, Fada, and Orodara.


Posted in Africa, Humanitarian, Travel, West Africa | 1 Comment

Fada, Burkina Faso

Well, I’m now in the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou. I am only going to be here overnight and then I’m leaving in the morning to drive to the Southwestern corner of Burkina Faso and center out of the town of Orodara.

I will try to have a more upbeat posting this time over the last post. Last Friday in Diffa was a bit of a hard day. So Monday morning I drove to the border (called the frontier here) of Burkina Faso and walked across and the first thing I saw was a big white Toyota Land Cruiser with a HKI sticker on the side. I never had a second thought HKI would leave me at the border stranded! I met Boro and then we took of for the town of Fada, where HKI has an office and they work in the surrounding villages. My French, or lack there of, is being tested this trip. There isn’t someone traveling with me who speaks English this time.

I’d heard Burkina Faso was an easygoing place, not with the stress of Niger nor the troubles up north with rebels, so I was rather surprised that after crossing the border we stopped for over a half an hour on the side of the road. We waited until 9 am and then we, along with 4 or 5 busses and a few other cars went in caravan all the way to Fada. Oh! with a military person and weapon at the front and another at the end of the caravan. Seems as though it’s a rather tough stretch of road for bandits. They like to carjack and steal. Anyway it was a very easy trip, no bandits seen along the way.

Burkina Faso is west and a bit south of Niger and the difference is rain. The soil isn’t as sandy and although it’s still savannah, is a bit lusher and with many more trees. The millet and maze is taller and denser. Forgive the indulgence here, but ever since I was last in Africa, I’ve always loved the Baobab Tree.

( All Blog Post Photos:  © Bartay )

My first stop was in a village called Fonghin and then onto another village by the name of Tibga. In both villages we were seeing the women learning how to farm. Simple right? Not if no one has every showed you how to till the soil or use tools. I think this kind of does double duty of work and day care, but they were the happiest group of ‘farmers’ I think I’ve seen.

The next day we went to see the health clinic for the village of Tanwalbougou. It is three or four buildings where anyone can go if they’re sick, need any health care and there are medical staff that will give free consultations. There is also a maternity ward and an area for monitoring the health and nutrition of the young babies. Most of the buildings do double or triple duty. I am only going to show you the ‘maternity’ clinic. Which seems to triple duty as a birthing ward, a clinic for the ill, and the area that women can go for the monitoring of their babies health and nutrition.

As you can see, there is quite a line of mothers outside in the monitoring area. They get advice and get their babies weighed, and measured. Let alone, so many in need that they may wait for hours.

I went inside and found myself in the waiting room for those that were ill or injured.

I was just poking around and Rasmata, from HKI who was showing me around, told me about a woman who had just had just delivered twins in the next room, the night before. She asked me do you want to see? I mean, who can turn down seeing one-day-old babies. The new grandmother was there and was she proud.

Now I know I’ve been saying how we just take off and drive through the savannah, but for those of you who have never done this, this really is the case. It’s trying to squeeze down a footpath, passing the occasional cow, ox, child, bicyclist. I can only image the paint on the side of the cars doesn’t last long. Driving over the bumpiest terrain and never getting over 15 mph. You can drive for an hour, thinking you’ve gone 30 miles, only to find out it’s been about 8 miles.

Now we’ve gone out to three villages to see a particular program. It’s a bit different than most, where women will bring their babies to a central point to get the education, guidance, and skills to help keep their babies healthy. This program uses the grandmothers of the villages to go to the individual mother’s home and then spend time with them there teaching them the ins and outs of motherhood. Even some of the simplest things, like how to hold their baby. Kind of a mentoring program. Then the grandmothers all get together afterward and discuss what they’ve done that day.

The cool thing about this excursion into the couple of villages is, when I first get there, the grandmothers want to meet me and shake my hand. I love their shake; it’s kind of like an exaggerated western handshake. So I go around and great every grandmother, shake her hand and we all smile. Then after following them around and watching them have their discussion afterward, it’s time to relax. So we all become friends and once again they want to present me with a gift. It can be simple like some freshly baked corn on the cob, but one village offered me a present I had to politely turn down. I didn’t think U.S. Customs would let me bring back A LIVE CHICKEN.

So then the last thing is they really want to ‘rejoice’, so one will take a plastic water can and some sticks and start beating it. The rest of the grandmothers will start clapping, singing, and then they take turns and dance for me. You just gotta love these women.

So I had to get involved and for those of you who can’t tell, I’m the one in the middle.

So today . . . This isn’t Diffa in the far eastern edge of Niger, but unfortunately even here in Burkina Faso there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of babies in need of help. Whether they’re acutely malnourished or orphaned. I went to a clinic run in cooperation with HKI and the CRS for malnourished children. I was happy to see it wasn’t as full as the one in Diffa right now, but there were still quite a few women there along with a few orphans who most likely would die if they weren’t taken in.

Tomorrow I’m off to Orodara and I don’t know if I’ll have Internet access out there. I think there’s a good chance I won’t but if I do, then I’ll try to post this coming Sunday. If not, then I will have to wait until I get to Bamako, the capital of Mali, which will be next Wednesday. Thanks for coming to read and look, I hope you’re enjoying the blog.

Posted in Africa, Humanitarian, Travel, West Africa | 8 Comments

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!

Posted in Africa, Humanitarian, Travel, West Africa | 7 Comments

Zinder, Niger

Well it’s been a couple of days, but I finally have access to the Internet.

It was a long drive to Zinder earlier this week. We drove for 9 hours on Monday and stayed in Maradi for the night. Getting out of Niamey earlier was a bit of a challenge though. The hotel didn’t take credit cards, so I needed to get some cash. No ATM’s on the corner in Niamey, but eventually found one bank that had one, only to be out of order. So ended up going into the bank and took out a cash advance. The hotel was offering 400 CFA’s to the dollar if I paid with U.S. cash. The bank gave me 479 CFA’s to the dollar, plus a commission for the advance. Finally went out on the street to the black market and got 500 to 1. That’s the way to go. Haven’t had anyone except a credit card since I’ve been here, cash only.

(all blog photo’s © Bartay)

I didn’t have any expectations of Niger, so I just accepted what I saw. It’s quite flat, more like a savannah. Grass, scattered trees, the roads come and go. Literally! There’s a new highway for about 500 km east out of Niamey, then the road start to fall apart. Tschoulou tells me the new one is coming, while Issa, our driver, is very good at avoiding the potholes. No patrols, but you do stop every so often to pay a toll. The toll stop is two 55 gal drums with rope and flags strung between them, even on the new road. One of the other speed controls is at the beginning and the other side of every village is a speed bump. Rather large and I’m told, made by the locals.

We got to Zinder and went to check in at the hotel before going to the HKI local office. Someone offered money for the room earlier, so they gave away the reservation and were full, all 8 or so rooms. Tried another hotel but they were full also. Finally did find one for two nights while in Zinder. For ‘those in the know’, this made Dungadhi look like a 4 star.

Most villages are similar in size and structure. Whether along the roadside or, as I found out later, scattered throughout the land away from any paved roads. All made out of mud and straw. Very well made, but the rains do eat away at them, so they need to rebuild or repair yearly. Very narrow streets, actually just walk ways between homes. Typical of the villages we would visit was a detour from the paved road, traveling though the savannah and fields of millet (their grain plant). Sometimes on dirt roadways made from other vehicles to driving the sandy soil between rows of 6-foot high millet. A village would just appear and we’d navigate through or around that one and continue on through more fields and savannah till another village would pop up. That would be where we were visiting, that particular moment of day. Did I mention the heat? The direct sun can be brutal. 10am and it’s already in the upper 90’s approaching 100, along with some outstanding humidity!

As I remember from the villages in Nepal, the first thing you notice about the villages in Niger is the children. They are very interested in seeing the stranger, but a little hesitant. Curious, but timid at first. As Tschoulou says, for the young ones, I’m the first white guy they’ve probably ever seen. However once you make eye contact or wave, then they all come running. Usually they will follow you for the entire time you’re there. After walking through the fields, my pants were covered with stickers so I bent down to pull them off and the kids surrounded me, took off all the stickers and would not even let me help.

We were in the villages to look at some of the programs HKI is doing and some they are partnering with USAID on. Women learning to grow certain crops for their use and to sell the surplus, so they might purchase goats or other necessities.

To keep track of nutrition, health, and growth, the children are weighed measured every 2 weeks till they’re 5 years old. This is done in each village by locals, HKI trains to monitor the growth. Otherwise it probably wouldn’t get done religiously if they had to walk to other villages to do it.

I am now in Diffa. Flew in this morning and when the UNHAS plane showed up in Zinder…                   MY SUITCASE WAS ON BOARD! Clean clothes, back-up camera and lense, electronics, and meds! 6 days of the same clothes, maybe now I can loose the flies!

Posted in Africa | 5 Comments