By Ann Carswell, volunteer
Ready or not, in late October off I went to Niger, Africa. I had no idea what to expect… But nothing prepared me for what I witnessed firsthand…the people were incredible. In my almost 3 weeks there, I never witnessed any sign of despair or of conflict. The adults were going about their business and the children were happy, at least the children in school were. The schools were a joy to visit and to see the students eager to engage and to learn.
The national language of Niger is French, but most of the children (and a lot of the adults) spoke an indigenous language. So besides learning the alphabet and numbers and all the things little kids learn in school, they have to also learn it in a second language – French! Many of the people I met there were fluent in several languages. I was more and more jealous of this as the time went on. English is NOT widely spoken.
The classrooms were bare-boned, with not much more than a chalkboard and well-used desks. But the children were polite and respectful to us and to each other. It’s hard to imagine going to school in a building with no electricity or running water, but these schools make it work. In one primary grade where we were observing, it was heartwarming to watch the students who would answer a question correctly get a round of applause from the other children. There was definitely pride in learning!
At several other schools, I often got to hold hands with 10 kids at once. They would surround me as I got out of the car and vie for one of my fingers. We would walk or jump around like a clumsy elephant, all shouting “bonjour” to one another. It would be hot and sticky and loud, and I loved it.
Food is a precious commodity in this part of the world, and many private schools provide meals for their students. Niger has seen famine in recent years, and receives aid from relief agencies. Even so, malnutrition is far too common. Many meals consist of little more than rice (or other grain) with sauce and perhaps some fruit. There are some new farming initiatives that we saw in some of the rural areas, hoping to supplement the local diet.
On one visit to the school in Tsibiri, we were doing a coloring project where the kids were to draw a picture of themselves. Before we got to the instructions, I looked around and saw to my dismay that I was the only adult in the room. With about 40 students looking at me expectantly I was at my most awkward. But I pantomimed and explained the project as best as I could, using all ten of the words I knew in French, and even resorted to drawing an example card in which I drew myself. After a few minutes their puzzlement turned to laughter. And in a “glass half full” moment, I realized that about half the class had drawn a picture of themselves, and the other half had drawn a gray haired white woman. Who was in serious need of a makeover.
The time I spent in Niger was wonderful. It renewed my awareness of how blessed we are, and how even small acts of kindness truly can make a difference. The students want to learn techniques and professions that will help lift their country to its full potential. Change needs to come from within the culture and citizens of an affected area, and education is the key. I have no doubt that the children in these schools will have a lasting impact on the future of Niger.