A group of bankers from Scotland visited a community in Niger they support through an employee partnership with World Vision.
Here, they reflect on their time in the west African country.
When we landed at the airport in Niamey, Niger’s capital, we couldn’t see the terminal anywhere. Eventually, we were taken to what seemed like an old motorway services and questioned by passport control. It took about five minutes to become abundantly clear that two members of our party, Anne (a French national) and Karen (a graduate in French) would be invaluable on this trip. Anything beyond “Ou est la piscine?” and it was over Anne or Karen.
We settled in at our hotel, and then set off into Niamey for a meal. There we met Late, the World Vision manager for Komabangou ADP (Area Development Programme) and our guide for the trip. We received such a warm welcome from everyone in Niger, but particularly the local World Vision staff.
Downtown Niamey is not quite what you’d expect from a capital city. Many of the roads are sand. Street sellers can be found on every corner.
Clearly football is a worldwide language with famous shirts everywhere. Didier Drogba seems a popular guy here.
Today we travelled west from Niamey to Tera, where the World Vision project is. The journey of around 100 miles took us through vast areas of desolate land, scorched by the sun, with very little vegetation. However even in these conditions it was difficult not to see a goat in every direction you looked!
Following our arrival in Tera, we were shown a presentation of the progress of the project.
What instantly struck me was the passion, belief, desire and vision of the World Vision Niger staff and their heartfelt solidarity with the villagers - not simply to help them with food but to work towards a long-term, sustainable plan to help them to help themselves.
What also struck me as I listened to them was how much they appreciated our support and the fact that we had come to see the progress ourselves.
The most amazing part of today was touring around Tera. We stopped at the edge of the river where people were bathing, washing clothes and playing.
As I approached, the children ran towards me saying “Bonjour!” and shaking my hand. Despite our diverse backgrounds and the language barrier, we all laughed and smiled and for that one moment forgot about the differences in our lives.
I woke up this morning to the sound of religious music from the adjacent mosque. A wonderful way to start the day.
Today we visited the villages where our sponsored children live. It took over an hour to reach the first village, Kokorou, through beautiful landscape with a multitude of animal grazing the dry, scorched ground.
We learned that animals are a status symbol and the more goats a person owns, the more respect they have. However, the sheer number of animals creates a bigger problem. The animals graze on any bit of vegetation there is and so when villages plant crops the animals regularly break through their stick and twig defences and destroy them.
The fact that the land is so vast and open means building a wall to protect the crops is virtually impossible.
Despite this, the villagers had an amazing array of vegetables growing: tomatoes, cabbages, spring onions and lettuces (just like an English allotment!). It was amazing to see this oasis of greenery tended to with such love and care.
We played a game of football with the local school kids. In 40-degree heat, it was not going to be easy! However I will remember that game for the rest of my life, especially my penalty miss – to the delight of the hundreds of villagers and the opposing team who performed cartwheels when the ball hit the goalkeeper’s arms!
At the next village we visited, I met my sponsored child, Harrieatou, and shook hands with her father. I found out that Harrieatou has six brothers. I wished I was able to talk to her, but the language barrier did not take anything away from the experience.
Today we drove for two hours across the most desolate landscape we have ever seen, to visit three more villages.
In the first village, Karbassey, we were greeted by children's singing as we visited a school. Outside the school, the children were being immunised through a government initiative.
I gave the teacher a world atlas, preceded by my stock French phrase for the week: “J’Habite en Ecosse. C’est frois. Il pluie et Il niege”. (“I live in Scotland. It’s cold. It rains and it snows.”) The villagers were starting to feel a bit sorry for us. They could not understand how anyone could live in freezing temperatures!
All the teachers we came across were very impressive. This was a common theme we found throughout the project. Passionate, committed leaders were making a real difference to their community, whether they were teachers, chief of the village or the mayor – and none more so than our guide and host from World Vision, Late. We could see just how much respect he inspires across all the villages, from the chief to the children. In business we talk about leaders; this guy is the ultimate leader.
Next, off to hell on earth: the Komabangou gold mines. On approaching the area we could tell that the vibe here was not good. Late seemed unusually tense. We stopped at the first mine, where four men were frantically winding up what turned out to be a large sack of rubble from the bottom of the shaft 100 metres below.
The guards quickly ushered us along. At the next mine we watched a miner preparing to be winched down the mine. I watched his face for any signs of apprehension or fear - none at all. He seemed calm, but vacant, almost as if he had accepted his fate. I later found out the full story from Anne, our translator. The miners have to be drugged up before they go down the mine. They have to be. They simply can’t do it without drugs.
The mines are up to 140 metres deep, a hole around 1 metre in diameter. The miners work alone for a five-hour shift. There is only room for one person. It was awful seeing this poor guy being winched down the mine, but I’m so glad it was not a child. I did meet three lads whom I was told were recuperating before going back down the mine again. They looked no older than 12. World Vision said it’s now illegal to send children down the mines – but I can see it still goes on.
I asked what World Vision can do to help. The main thing the project can do is to help educate the children in the villages, through child sponsorship, to keep them out of the mines in the first place.
The agriculture projects have shown the villagers that they can be self-sufficient in even in the harshest of climates, and provide for their families.
We ended our trip with a meal with staff from World Vision, who were interested to hear our reflections on the visit.
We explained that it had been humbling to receive such a warm welcome from the community. Even though the people in the villages were living in poverty, they were not downhearted.
Late mentioned that the community have low expectations. It is a key objective of the project to change people’s mindsets to welcome change and see that just because their forefathers lived like this, things can and will improve for them and their children.
Going forward we hope that World Vision and the villagers will see us as one of them, part of their team, playing our part in turning the villages around.
We had a tearful goodbye. We will miss this place. This is probably the warmest welcome any of us have ever and will ever receive.