Working with the nomadic Tuareg in Niger

by Ian and Jenny Hall.

The work of JEMED (Youth With A Mission) in Abalak, Niger, uses a  holistic approach to development. It demonstrates the Christian faith by helping to meet the physical, social and spiritual needs of the community. 

JEMED has worked in Abalak since 1990. The witness of project staff in a very challenging environment and even through civil war, has laid a foundation of trust and respect which is now starting to bear fruit in a very traditional culture. The Christian church is still very small but is growing.

Encouraging permanence

In any new area, our first activity is always to dig or repair a well to provide a reliable water source. This encourages a group of families (up to 150) to remain within a given ten-mile radius for nine months of each year. Without this degree of permanence it would be impossible to find these nomadic animal herders often enough to achieve good community development.

People are now realising that they can achieve far more working together as a community than in their traditional isolation. We are even seeing people building mud brick houses and creating villages for the first time at the older sites. This allows a place for the elderly and sick to stay while the majority travel with their animals on their traditional transhumance during the rainy season. Two Tuareg primary schools have also now been built at sites where such a small village exists.

Planning ahead

An animal loan programme allows the Tuareg people to replenish livestock lost during two bad droughts in the 70s and 80s which have pushed them into absolute poverty. They keep the animals for about five years and in that time keep the offspring produced. They then pay back the loan (as animals) to the next group of beneficiaries at the same site. This helps to ensure repayment and means that the initial investment keeps helping the poorest in the area in a sustainable way. As well as the physical benefit of milk and meat (to sell for grain), this loan programme helps to give back self-respect to a very proud people, who depend almost totally on their livestock.

Grain banks have been built in most of these sites. In the hot season the market price of grain normally doubles and the poorest often cannot afford to buy grain. JEMED simply buy millet after the harvest when prices are low and store it until the hot season. As well as providing practical help by selling this grain at low cost, JEMED has also helped introduce the idea of forward planning.

Growing crops is alien to a nomadic lifestyle. However, people who have stayed at the sites during the rainy season have tried growing crops such as millet and sorghum, with some success. Contour mounds or low walls of stone have helped to hold more water in the soil.  Some plains, which had stopped producing pasture, are now becoming more fertile. Areas of naturally growing wild wheat are now fenced in. This protects the crop for local people and prevents passing herds of animals eating it. Trees have been planted where people have settled and are actually cared for by local people. This is another long-term activity, which shows real progress in changing people's attitudes and views.

All of these techniques have practical benefits, but they also give a sense of achievement as people see their joint efforts visibly changing their local environment in a positive way.

Education for all

Education has always been important in our work. We are really pleased with the success of the primary schools and know this long-term investment will help the future generation to have a wider world-view. After considerable opposition in the beginning, adult literacy classes in Tamasheq have been set up at most of the sites.  Each year men and women are taught, using the national literacy programme. Most continue to improve each year.

We now need to go beyond what the state provides, so that there are new resources for men and women to use and continue reading all year round. The women at the village of MiniMini were the first to ask for literacy classes in French for those who had reached a maximum level in Tamasheq and wanted to learn something new. This is wonderful and we praise God for real and positive change.

Access to healthcare

The state health service is quite good. However, the poorest people are unable to pay for the transport needed to have access to treatment. Every year men, women and children die from malaria, chest infections and diarrhoea for lack of basic affordable treatment. So JEMED has begun a sustainable healthcare programme.

We have tent-to-tent health education campaigns, helping people to understand that there are ways of helping sick children. We now have local men and women trained to diagnose and treat basic illnesses.  They sell the treatments from their medicine boxes at cost price so they can replace the stock in a sustainable way.

In the last two years there have been very few deaths due to diarrhoea and malaria. Women can also have treatment against anaemia  (iron deficiency), which is very common. Babies have since been born to women who were previously infertile for lack of iron and folic acid.

The physical and social impact of this is wonderful. The spiritual message which accompanied the work was that it was done in Jesus' name. People have learned to trust something (medicine) that they would have previously refused out of suspicion.

JEMED believes that Christian holistic change in our communities fulfils the covenant given to God's people through Abraham to bless the nations of the earth (Genesis 12:2-3). If we also see a spiritual harvest while we are doing it, then that is even better.

Ian and Jenny Hall worked with JEMED in Niger for two years with Tearfund. They are now in Nottingham, UK but hope to return to West Africa in the future with Tearfund.

Helping people help themselves

The relationship of trust, which has built up over many years, is vital. Other projects may introduce the same practical activities but without success. Development succeeds best when people's world-views are challenged. Only then will they understand they are doing it for themselves. Often in the early stages, people will agree to do new things if they are paid in some way - but in effect they are just working for the programme.

We use the French word animation to describe the long process of helping people to understand how any new activity will help them and their families in a sustainable way. All our project activities have the joint goals of changing people's world-views (increasing openness to new ideas) and also to be a sustainable way of meeting the needs of the community. To encourage ownership, these needs are always identified by the community themselves. Each community elects a management committee that also learns problem-solving skills as they support the development work. Our ultimate desire is to empower people.