Oxfam in West Africa
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Education, peace, food and water: A mosaic of tales from Niger – Part 2

March 17th, 2012 Posted in Uncategorized

By Muyatwa Sitali, Coordinator Essential Services

Refugee Camp

After the prayers, we return to the refugee camp. I am still contemplating on the reality of life and wondering just when mankind will stop thinking of conflict as a solution to anything. My mind flies back 9 years ago when I spent 3 weeks in a refugee settlement for my University research in Zambia. I stayed in a small cabin which had neither a light nor a window. My bed was made of logs and did not have a mattress. Nights were horrifyingly long and I yearned for daybreak. On day break, I would be overwhelmed by fatigue and was always too tired to go through the activities of the day. Night fall was another nightmare as I dreaded the loneliness of my dark, cold cabin. This was a cabin made of mud blocks and now it was going to appear like paradise when compared with the sight of the refugee camp before me.  It was as though I had spent all my time whining and complaining that I have no shoes and now in front of me is someone without feet.

Tents are scattered in the sands under the blistering heat of the uncompromising sahel sun. They have gathered just enough dust to begin to lose their original colour but generally still looking good. Sticks of scarce wood try to hold each tent together but some are clearly giving up. On any good day, the temperature can range from 35 centigrades to 39 and this is set to hit mid 40s in the coming months.  The nights become the complete opposite as sands do not return the heat and the cold of the night is as blistery as the heat of the day. The dust is perpetual as the Sahel is generally prone to periodic sand storms. It is as though the purpose of the tent is nothing more than showing each inhabitant where home is. The tents are nowhere near sufficient to shelter them from the blistery and dusty days or provide cover from the chilly and dusty nights.

Stories here are horrifying but one man says something that profoundly paints my mosaic. He says, ‘peace is better than food.’ His point is simple, ‘with peace you can look for food’ he adds, ‘but without peace it is difficult to look for food’. He is right I can’t argue but it is also clear that even with peace you need at least a basic level of your needs met. In this place there are almost 2000 people. Each family, which could be anything between 3-8 people, gets 20litres of water per day. The standard is 15 litres of water per day per person in such circumstances. The clinic is just being set up but it will take time for other key facilities to be in place especially toilets to keep diarrhoea and some of its deadly allies at bay.  Otherwise, children’s lives will continue to be wasted by water and sanitation problems which could be completely avoided.

The mere thought of diarrhoea invokes feelings of disdain for it is here in Niger, a country that I have come to like that I was taken ill and kept at hospital for more than 48 hours –thanks to a seriously uncompromising stomach that made me spend much of the night in the toilet than on my bed. By morning I felt there was little life remaining in me, quickly called my very good friend who had been checking on me every two hours in the night. He takes me to the clinic and straight away they put me on intravenous (IV) injections. They tell me later I have malaria and another IV is prescribed now with quinine. It leaves my ears continuously ring but I must say that I received excellent support from my colleagues including from some of the local partners from local organisations.

On leaving the clinic, am geared to go and finish up some work with some of our colleagues from the local organisations. They have been keen to design an advocacy strategy and their motivation alone makes me forget the IV injection which is still dangling on my left hand. It’s still there as I have to return to the clinic for possibly the last dose later in the day.

I want to do my best so we can define a realistic and achievable plan and this seems to be the highlight of all the activities. The energy is exuberating, there is excitement in the room and very genuine sympathy for me when sometimes the IV makes me take a rest but I really want to be here than anywhere else at this time. The work progresses beautifully well. Challenges facing the education sector are well defined again bringing to the fore poor quality of education, lack of an inclusive approach, and inadequate financing among many. Objectives  are set, activities begin to form up and what looks like a beautiful plan begins to shape up.

During the break I go back to the clinic for the next dose, the Doctor prescribes some tablets and the dangling thing on my arm is removed. A feeling of liberation overwhelms me but I still have to fully recover and so I will stick to the tablets for the next three days.

On my return to the Palais du sport where the planning for the advocacy strategy is taking place, I marvel at the progress and the energy in the room. We look at the national budgeting process and have some heated debates about some of the tools and plans for monitoring national budgets. Often participants agree but occasionally they agree to disagree. Before we know it, the day is far spent and we have to deal with the all important question, ‘what next? Soon we develop the roadmap for the next steps and who will perform what role, we close the day and my mosaic is painted bright with this image of hard working women and men full of zeal and commitment.

Sitali in his Niger traditional headscarf

I am not sure what and how my mosaic will look like if I had a chance to return to Niger in a year or perhaps sooner but my mind is positive. My mosaic may have different colours and pictures next time but am sure to add images of success and positive changes in the education sector. After all, Niger seems to be on the move. It is no longer at the bottom of the Human development index a spot it had become accustomed to for many years. It has moved to second position from last, its previous spot now taken by the DRC. As they say, ‘Rome was not built in a day’ am hopeful that Niger will keep going further and further up but action and concerted action for that matter will need to be sustained for the vision to be achieved.  Here Mandela makes the last image of my mosaic for he said, ‘Vision without action is merely a dream, action without vision is merely a waste of time, but action with vision can change the world.’ Yes change can happen when action meets the vision.

I pick up my newly acquired Niger traditional headscarf, the turban and look forward to Dakar where I hope the elections in the next few days will guarantee education for all!

 

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