The women usually stay on the fringes. Whether in Somalia or in Niger, they are hesitant, and blend into the background while the men talk. With their babies strapped to their backs and the elder children held by the hand, the women watch and listen, curious faces peering through the crowd. But more often than not, they don’t contribute.
Public space is men’s space, and I have learned that if I want to hear the full story about the challenges the women face in feeding their families, I need to ask for space to be made for them. As a woman working on the front lines of hunger, I have experienced this all across Africa.
Most recently, in the small commune of Hamdara in Myrriah, Niger, I met a group of men who had come out to talk about a project supported by the World Food Program. With an NGO partner, we are working with the community there to rehabilitate water sources so that crops can be irrigated and livestock watered — small steps intended to protect communities from the impact of drought and to build resilience and bolster food security.
“Something is missing,” I said when I arrived in the village.
“No, we are all here,” replied the men who had gathered around me.
“Ah, so you are the only village in Niger where there are only men?” I asked.
That prompted much laughter, and then slowly the women, who had been invisible until now, started to come forward, first one and then another until the men were hard to spot among all the mothers and children.
The discussion with the women almost always starts with laughter. A Western woman in their midst, asking lots of questions, makes for an interesting afternoon. And then there is the universal camaraderie among women. Somehow we find a way to understand one another through shared experiences: the emotional tug of a crying child; always having too much to do; the relentless demands of husbands. Whether one comes from Canada, Niger or Somalia, motherhood, at its core, is the same everywhere.
The women told me how they were going to make the most of the improvements to water sources — how they were planning to dig irrigation channels and then grow lettuce, tomatoes and carrots to add variety to their diet. We made a date in December for me to return and share a plate of their newly grown vegetables.
Before I left, the laughter was replaced by seriousness as the women explained the harshness of their lives in a country where the cycles of drought are accelerating. What more, they wanted to know, could I do to help them and give their children hope of a better future?
It’s a simple question. And it is one that I have faced many times in other countries across Africa where mothers worry about feeding their children, and anxiety grows amid fluctuating weather patterns and erratic rainfall.
Then there is conflict. Three years ago when I was working in Somalia, I came face to face with a mother who had fled the fighting in Mogadishu with her seven children. The surge in conflict had almost emptied the capital, and she was among thousands who travelled overland for days, walking or climbing onto the backs of trucks when the opportunity arose.
For her and others who are compelled to flee conflict, the relief we provide is vital for survival and has to be immediate. In Somalia, drought and conflict are the bullies on the block, joining forces to cause loss of life.
Women and children in Somalia. Women and children in Niger. Year after year, conflict after conflict, drought after drought, one problem after another.
Somehow I always feel ashamed. As an educated, Western woman, I often wonder if I could manage the way these women manage. I know the answer, as I don’t have their strength or their resiliency. But what I do possess is the desire and drive to work with them to build the foundations of a better life for their children.
In the seemingly endless public debate about the effectiveness of humanitarian aid, people often ask why we bother. “It’s too costly,” they say. “The world’s economy is not in great shape,” or “Charity should begin at home.”
Then there is the perennially alarming debate about whether we should just sit back and let nature take its course, a kind of inbuilt mechanism to manage population growth.
It is difficult working in an environment where you are trying to help, but where every action you take is questioned like this.
I am an aid worker. I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future of these countries and the fate of the people who live in them. What I do know is that the international community does care, can contribute and does make a difference. The child we save today has a future. The water pan fixed today can make life that little bit better by providing families with fresh vegetables to improve their diets tomorrow.
Droughts in Niger and Somalia used to be relatively rare. Crops withered, goats and cattle perished and families suffered, but there was time to recover before the next drought descended.
In the past decade the cycle has accelerated. The people of Niger are now facing the consequences of the third drought since 2005.
As the women in a small village in Niger called Louga Kalley in Tillaberi told me last month, life is tough, and it isn’t getting any better.
The small ray of hope this time around is that the alarm has been rung early enough so that we can work together, with the government and the international community, to contain the threat to the nation’s food security and take early measures to cushion the impact of the drought on vulnerable communities while actions designed to cope with chronic food insecurity are introduced.
This is a sign of hope for the women hovering on the fringes of those meetings I attend. These are people whose future still depends on the vagaries of the ever-changing patterns of rainfall.
Any one of those women could be me, or she could be you. The child strapped to the mother’s back, with the hacking cough and the tired eyes, could be my child, or yours.
We all share the same hopes, but without our help, many of those women and their children face a different, darker, and all too harrowing destiny.
By Denise Brown, the country director for the United Nations World Food Program in Niamey, Niger.