Written by Richard Simpson, Africa Humanitarian Coordinator, Oxfam Australia, and Eveline Rooijmans, Humanitarian Policy Advisor, Oxfam Novib in Niger – 14 June, 2012
We had never seen a river of sand until today. After flying for 1.5 hours eastwards of Niamey, we arrived in Maradi, a town cut in two by this big river, which only has water for three months a year.
We are visiting AREN, an organisation that has worked with pastoralists for the past 22 years. Hassan, AREN’s regional director, comes to welcome us in bright blue flowing robes. Welcome to the Sahel! The Sahel is actually a rather thin stroke of land just under the Sahara; literally meaning ‘shore’, or ‘where the trees start growing’.
Forced to sell
AREN supports the rights of pastoralists to have an equal position in society. For pastoralists, their animals are everything, and the more they own the higher their status. So they’re not inclined to sell their livestock — except if absolutely necessary. Unfortunately this means that when the dry seasons sets in (as it did last December) and the pasture and water starts to dry out, the condition of their cattle starts to deteriorate, and they are forced to sell — at a low price.
It doesn’t help that many pastoralists don’t know how to read and write. According to Hassan, this puts them at a disadvantage when negotiating a good price with the traders who also sell them underweight cereal. For example, if in January they can trade a goat for the equivalent of one month’s food; by June, they need three goats for the same amount. And even then they are only eating one meal a day.
On the road trip from Maradi to Koni we passed through many small villages, mud brick houses and cone-like structures resembling cupcakes where people store food. The landscape over the next couple of hours’ drive changed a few times. As the rains had just started, some of the areas had actually become quite green. However, it wasn’t green enough for most people to start sowing their fields. Other areas were dry and empty (and hot!), dotted with cattle here and there. Reflecting on the discussions we’d had earlier about pastoralists, we were amazed at how resilient these people are.
At one point we passed a wedding party, with people in the back of a truck dancing and cheering. Some 20 to 30 motorcycles were trailing behind them, tooting their horns.
We have to be realistic: Oxfam can only strengthen and build upon the coping mechanisms of the people affected by this crisis; it is they themselves who know how to deal best with these harsh living conditions.
Next: Wrestling with cash
Find out more
Read about what Oxfam is doing in West Africa