I liked Imam Abdowlaye Boukary as soon as I met him. He was about my age, calm, gentle, quietly spoken, with an easy smile. I met him outside the tiny shelter he was sharing with his wife and two children. To call it basic would be an understatement: it was built out of sticks, plastic sheets and cardboard boxes.
The Imam told me that he and his family had left their village because of a disastrous harvest. Today they are living in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Niamey, Niger’s capital.
“We didn’t have to leave in previous seasons,” he said, “because we managed to harvest some beans. This year there was nothing. I am very attached to my village, and there is no way we would have left if we hadn’t been forced to.
“My village is 95km from here. My wife and I started off on foot with the kids. You can find people who drive you some of the way, but it took us almost two days. Now we have been here for four months. We didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
One meal a day
Today Imam Boukary earns a little money through doing casual labour in the city when he can find it. His wife goes from door to door asking if people can spare any leftover food.
“If my wife finds some food, she prepares it for us,” he said, “but it’s only one meal a day anyway. If there’s nothing, we don’t eat.”
When he can’t find work, he plays a vital role in the camp, looking after young children whose parents have left for the day to search for work or food.
“Because the children are not going to school, they come to me for half a day every day. I teach them the Koran and talk to them about what it says. I tell them about the love of God, the teachings of the Prophet and how God fits into people’s lives.
“As I was taught by my teacher, I instruct them to pray for peace in my country, for security and for everyone, including myself, and for the wellbeing of all the people in the world.”
A permanent home?
After we’d spoken, the Imam took me around the camp, and introduced me to other families living there. Despite the incredible hardships they were facing – the lack of food, the basic conditions, the heat that left me dripping with sweat – the people I met were living with great dignity. They talked about the sense of solidarity in the camp, and how they were sharing what little they had. But, more than anything else, they all wanted to return to their villages.
The rainy season is starting now in Niger, and if the people in the camp are unable to go home in the next few weeks, they will miss their opportunity to plant seeds. If they can’t plant seeds, they will have no harvest in November. And if that happens, they will have no food for the coming year – and the camp in Niamey is likely to become their permanent home.
I asked the Imam what would need to happen for people to return to their villages. He said that there needed to be “activities to help us survive.”
Working with our local partner CADEV-Niger, we have launched “cash-for-work” and “food-for-work” programmes in hundreds of villages like the Imam’s. Through these schemes, people are paid in money or food to work near their villages, improving their land and planting crops in the crucial weeks while it rains.
These programmes mean that people are able to survive near their villages: they are able to plant seeds, and they will have enough to eat until the next harvest in November. A cash-for-work project for a family like the Imam’s costs £32 in total. It’s a small sum to ensure that he and his family don’t live on one meal a day, in a shelter made from cardboard, for years to come.