Communities Creating Change in Niger

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In 2002, the people of Djiliki, Niger, were struggling. Insufficient rainfall had stunted their crops, and families worried that they would not be able to harvest enough food to see them through the year. Purchasing food was not an option. It would take many hours of traveling on foot, by bicycle, or by donkey cart to reach a market, and none of the families had enough savings to buy food even if they got there.

After hearing that the neighboring village of Kiembanga was producing much better crops, people in Djiliki sent two men there to find out more. There they heard about an organization called ACEN—the Association Chrétienne Évangélique de Niger (or Christian Evangelical Association of Niger), which works in partnership with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC).

Reducing Dependence

Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its economy relies primarily on subsistence crops, but frequent periods of drought make it hard for farming families to survive. As a result, 63 percent of the people live below the poverty line and emergency food distributions are common.

Dependence on foreign aid is so prevalent that the streets of Niger’s capital, Niamey, are filled with Land Rovers driven by North Americans and Europeans representing a host of nonprofit organizations. These organizations drill wells, build schools, distribute food, and assist in a variety of ways to help poor families survive. This provides temporary relief, but the basic needs of many families remain.

CRWRC and ACEN use a different tactic to serve the people of Niger. Rather than importing large amounts of capital and technology, CRWRC teaches its partner organizations to focus on relationships and community-building.

In Djiliki this started when men from neighboring Kiembanga came to Djiliki to help them form groups.

“Djiliki had asked Kiembanga to introduce them to ACEN,” explained CRWRC-Niger staff member Ary Vreeken. “But the Kiembanga group decided to first help Djiliki set up its own group, choose leaders, develop bylaws, start saving, and make some plans for improvements in their village. They wanted to do this before introducing the Djiliki folks to ACEN.

“You see, in Africa we often approach others through an intermediary who brokers the relationship on our behalf. If Djiliki had turned out to not be serious, then Kiembanga would have had egg on their face, and they weren’t going to run that risk.”

Seeking Local Solutions

After the Kiembanga men were certain that the people of Djiliki were serious, they asked ACEN to come to the village. A short time later, ACEN community workers Marie Ouari and Banjamine Ouoba arrived.

They met with the village men and helped them ask tough questions about their life, their problems, their resources, and their abilities. Marie and Banjamine emphasized to the group that it was up to them to decide how to start, identify the needs they would address, and choose programs to meet those needs. ACEN was simply there to provide advice and support.

After some deliberation, the men decided to work on improving their fields. They met together regularly to search for solutions. During this process, Marie and Banjamine showed them how to use zäi holes to improve crop production.

To make a zäi hole, farmers dig a hole three feet (one meter) deep and fill it with compost and manure. Crops are then planted in the hole.

“We saw that our fields were not producing. There was not enough rain,” explained Soumana Samba, the group’s president. “Even if you had some manure to use to fertilize your field, the wind would take it away. When you dig zäi holes, the manure is in the hole so the wind cannot take it away.”

The zäi holes worked. Farmers produced a larger crop the following year.

The success of the zäi hole project encouraged the people of Djiliki to try other programs, including a micro-loan program, a cereal bank, community fields, wells, soil conservation, and testing of new millet varieties.

The community group decided on the programs and provided the labor while ACEN gave them advice. Occasionally, ACEN provided loans to purchase tools or seed, but these were always repaid within a few months’ time.

Working Together

If ACEN or CRWRC had given the people of Djiliki handouts to pay for new technology or new tools, progress would have come faster. However, the community group model allowed the community to take ownership of the projects and experience pride in the results.

For example, in 2005 the women of Djiliki decided to form their own group. Today, with ACEN’s advice, they are cultivating a community field and are pooling their savings to provide each other with loans. They are also working alongside the men’s group to test new varieties of millet to find one that will grow well, resist drought, and taste good in local recipes.

“Before, we did not know what to do with a bad field, how to feed a goat or treat it; we did not know how to improve our lives,” explained one woman.

The groups have also led to a greater sense of community. “Before, men and women worked apart. Now we work together. Before, some people had no goats. Now everyone has goats.”

This community is now an example to others. Since beginning its work with ACEN, the village of Djiliki has helped two other villages start forming community groups.

“What is exciting about this is that it introduces a village-to-village dynamic that runs independent of ACEN,” said Vreeken. “Rather than ACEN facilitators starting new groups, the villages are actually helping each other with this phase of the development work. That’s a key indicator of local ownership.”

The village of Djiliki is still isolated and subject to seasons of poor rainfall, but its people have found a new sense of pride in their ability to create change. They also have confidence that they will be able to support their families better, even in times of drought.

That is what development is all about.

CRWRC at a Glance

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) is the relief and development organization of the Christian Reformed Church.

Since 1963 CRWRC has helped people around the world live out the gospel in word and deed. CRWRC partners with people from 190 churches and Christian organizations in 30 countries to address poverty at the community level.

Each year CRWRC helps more than 300,000 people discover the resources and abilities to improve their lives through reading and writing, child health, environmental protection, crop production, small business development, income earning, access to clean water, AIDS prevention, and justice awareness.

CRWRC also seeks to help CRC congregations develop an understanding of and involvement in the issues underlying poverty at home and abroad. Recently, more than 1,500 people gave 194,100 hours of their time to disaster relief projects, church work teams, internships, tours, and other volunteer opportunities.

One way that churches across North America participate with CRWRC each fall is through the World Hunger Project. This year, the focus is on the connection between hunger and AIDS. Low income, poor nutrition, and inadequate health care all contribute to the spread of AIDS.

On World Hunger Sunday, Nov. 6, consider how you and your congregation can help to counter the HIV/AIDS pandemic by contributing to the offering recommended for CRWRC or the “Keep the Promise” AIDS campaign. For more information, visit www.crwrc.org.

Robert’s Smile

Robert is six years old and weighs only 24 pounds. But he’s alive.

When Robert’s parents died of AIDS, his Aunt Betta took him in. Community-based health workers from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) and staff from Plateau Mission Hospital in Kenya first met Robert shortly after he went to stay with Betta, and they were concerned that he seemed to feel such misery.

Robert’s extended family took little responsibility for his care. Some even questioned why Betta should bother with Robert when “he was just going to die anyway.” But Betta didn’t take those comments to heart.

Since CRWRC health workers started Robert on anti-retroviral drugs, Betta has faithfully paid for his monthly treatments. Her consistent provision of healthy, vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables can’t entirely protect Robert from opportunistic infections, but they have helped to boost his immunity. One indicator that Robert is making progress is that he is starting to smile.

Robert wants to go to school this year and, if all goes well, he’ll finally be able to start living like other children in his village. Not only is his health improving, the family’s income is improving too. Betta recently used a small start-up business loan from CRWRC to build an extension on her home, where she sells everything from soda pop to soap.

AIDS is one of the great health challenges facing our world today. Ninety-five percent of the 40 million people currently living with AIDS live in poor or developing countries, where malnutrition, poor sanitation, and the lack of access to clean water create greater vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.

Especially on World Hunger Sunday (Nov. 6), consider how you can be involved with CRWRC in responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis:

  • Pray for a CRWRC missionary or write a letter to your elected representative.
  • Make a special contribution to your church’s World Hunger offering or CRWRC’s “Keep the Promise” AIDS campaign.
  • Think about visiting one of CRWRC’s project sites to see the ongoing work first hand.

In whatever way you give, you will be an example of living out God’s call to justice and mercy.

—Wendy Hammond, CRWRC staff

About the Author

Kristen deRoo VanderBerg was part of the World Renew Communications team from 1999-2016. She now serves as director of Communications & Marketing for the Christian Reformed Church.

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