We arise from our night of camping. Intinikar, a retired school teacher, is head of our education programs. He is a dignified and religious Islamic person. He and I are the early risers. He kneels on his prayer mat, facing east to Mecca, reading his Koran, praying. I am on a mat, facing east too, doing a series of yoga sun salutations. We are both, in our own ways, meditating, preparing for the day.
We are in a korry – a gravelly river bed which only holds water for about two weeks each year, after the rains. There is a rainy season in Gougaram, which starts in late July and ends in late September. It’s not a tropical rainy season with daily showers, but a cloudy period with occasional rains. It probably only rained five or six times here during the entire season. Now, in October, the sun is shining and will continue to shine with no interruption; there won't be another drop of rain here until July or August. October is the hot month that falls after the rains, but before the arrival of cool northern breezes. It was cool in the night, but the blazing sun soon brings the temperature up into the 90’s.
Back to our dry korry -- to our left is a low series of hills of black volcanic rock. There are scattered trees and shrubs, though the overall impression is the tan color of the sand, which is everywhere. Straight ahead the korry continues. Around the bend and out of sight are gardens. They are an unlikely sight in a place with no rain – made possible only by the water brought from wells for irrigation.
Intinikar and I are soon joined by RAIN staff members Oumou and Malam. Oumou is about 26, from a relatively well off family. She has finished college and wants to be a doctor. In all of Niger there is only one university and its quality is very poor. Oumou, who had lived in the U.S. for many years growing up, is having a hard time getting into an American medical school. She'll work with us until January, teaching children and their parents about health issues and training the RAIN staff, who in turn teach nomadic communities about AIDS and how to prevent it. Malam, 35, our chauffeur and mechanic, is from a much more typical family. He is a smart and talented person, but has never attended school and can’t read or write. For people like Malam, the majority here in Niger, life is difficult. He is my good friend and takes care of all of us while we are traveling. We hope to teach him to read and write so that he can have opportunities for a better life.
Our work day begins. Today we're visiting a village new to us, one we hope to work with – that is, if the parents and teachers are interested in partering to improve their children’s school. It's a small village called Tefis, remotely located in the Air Massif region of northern Niger. When we arrive, after following dirt tracks and dry river beds for several hours, we find an old village, unlike any other we’ve seen. While nomadic Tuareg people usually live in an igloo shaped house made out of wood and straw, in Tefis they are small stone houses of one room, with an additional room attached to store feed for their animals.
Tefis is the site of the Air Massif's oldest mosque, and it's a very traditional Tuareg community - the men spend nearly half of the year on caravan. They travel across the Sahara, east towards the Chad border, to Blima, home of Niger's salt mines. There, they trade animals for salt. They then return west across the Sahara to sell the salt in the city of Agadez, where they then return home to Tefis breifly, only to head out on their camels again - this time, south to Nigeria. Nigeria is a more developed country, with more goods available at cheaper prices. There, the men of Tefis stock up on a year's provisions, then finally return home from a shopping trip that essentially takes two months.
Tefis has a ghostly air right now; there is no one here, the houses stand empty. We meet the school director who tells us that people live in these houses only during the rainy season, the rest of the year they live in typical Tuareg homes, out in the bush with their animals.
In a classroom at the school, we sit down for a meeting with the chief of Tefis, who is also the school secretary. I'm surprised at these titles, as he is quite elderly, but sure enough, he takes out pencil and paper and begins taking notes. I later find out that he was one of the first in the Air Massif region to attend school. His dedication to education was known by people throughout the region.
The chief encouraged all parents in Tefis to send their children to school, but there was not nearly enough room for everyone in the single room the state provided. In response, the community had built a post and straw classroom, and the chief volunteered to teach the children. The teachers and students sit in the wind and dust with few materials and do their best to teach and learn.
The school director sets out to locate the residents, and before long we are joined by about twenty children and parents. They would like to work with RAIN, and we find that Tefis truly needs our help. We agree to help build a school garden. The parents will begin the project by digging a well – they will gather stones whenever they have time and dig by hand to a depth of probably 30 feet, until they find water. We will then bring cement and a mason to finish the well. Everyone -- students, parents and teachers -- will help to install the garden, as they have with our other RAIN gardens. The garden will grow food for the students and will eventually have fruit trees and other crops that will be sold to raise funds to help the school.
RAIN for the Sahel and Sahara is a nonprofit 501(c)3 working to make a lasting difference in Africa.