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Niger Flood Washes Up Troubles and Memories

By Lane Hartill

In a village in southwest Niger, a son and his father are taking stock of their lives.

One wants to flee the present, the other can't get out of the past.

Issaka Sampari

Issaka Sampari lost his house and most of his millet crop to heavy rain in September 2009. A voucher fair organized by CRS helped him purchase household necessities. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Issaka stands in the grass, staring at his wife, wondering how she's going to feed their seven children. He thinks about how hard the rain came down a few weeks ago, how they turned his mud-brick home into a pile of mush. He thinks about where he's going to get the $1,800 to rebuild.

Sampari sits in the beehive-shaped hut, hissing away a bone-thin dog that's nosing around his feet. He can't see him, though; his eyes are rheumy and clouded white with age. His cough is soupy, his voice raspy. He wonders how life could come to this: blind, sick, frail. He thinks back to the days when he was strong and debonair and wealthy, when he lived a dream life on Africa's Gold Coast, in present-day Ghana.

While his father reminisces, Issaka recounts the worst flood that ever hit this part of Niger. The water was up to his chest, he says. His wife, Tchiliyabidi, carried Omar, their 4-month-old, on her head to safety; the water was up to her sternum. Issaka followed her with a goat around his shoulders. But he wasn't able to save the guinea fowls—they'd already drowned or been swept away.

Sampari, who lives with his son, couldn't see any of it. He felt around for his glasses, but his room was already waist-deep in water, the glasses swept away. But he didn't need to see the rain, he could hear how it came down, he could feel how deep it was. In his 93 years, he'd never felt anything like it.

Then Issaka came into the room. He lifted Sampari up and draped him around his shoulders like an old coat. He put his hands under his thighs, which were as thin as the barrels of two baseball bats. Then he carried him to an old oil drum in the yard and sat him on top of it. He quickly gathered up the kids and lifted them and the goats into the elevated grain shed. Then he tried to save whatever he could. But by that time, much of it was already gone.

Help Without a Handout

That's why, a few weeks later, he's here, standing patiently with his wife outside the Catholic mission. Catholic Relief Services, along with our partner Caritas Development Niger, will give them $75 worth of vouchers and they will redeem them for things like kettles and ladles and old vegetable-oil jugs used for hauling water. Caritas Internationalis, an umbrella organization of some 160 Catholic groups, helped finance the fair.

Tchiliyabidi Lompo

Tchiliyabidi Lompo shows off the water kettles she received at a voucher fair organized by CRS. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

This isn't a handout. Unlike some emergency distributions, nobody is forcing them to take items they don't need. Issaka and Tchiliyabidi can choose what they need. Issaka will also get items at the voucher fair for Sampari, who doesn't stray far from his hut these days.

The rain also pounded Issaka's fields. He lost most of his millet, the staple food here. They've already started to occasionally eat wild leaves, which taste like boiled spinach, to supplement their diminishing millet. When that runs out, they'll start into the dried baobab leaves friends gave them. And when those are finished, they'll start eating wild leaves for most meals.

"It's difficult to know how we're going to manage," says Issaka. "We'll do something so we can see the new year."

As the sole breadwinner in the family, the stress takes a toll on him. Does he fear the impending lack of food?

"Fear," he says, "is when you have doubts. But this [lack of food] is a sure thing. We are already in [a desperate situation]. Now, it's how to get past it."

The hardest part, he says, is telling the kids there's nothing to eat.

"The children say they are hungry," says Issaka. "But when you tell them you have nothing, they think you are lying. They say, 'You just don't want to give it to me.' "

Sampari knows hunger, too. He's lived through droughts and epidemics. But he's also lived a life most Nigeriens can only dream of.

Whispers From the Past

"Every time I come and sit down on this thatch mat, I think about my former life," he says. "I never would have thought I would end up here."

How could someone who once rubbed shoulders with ambassadors and dined in a starched shirt and a tie in fine restaurants end up here?

Sampari Gueba

After fleeing forced labor in his youth, Sampari Gueba, 93, returned to Niger 40 years ago and began farming. A CRS voucher fair helped him after his home was flooded. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

In the 1920s, thousands of Nigeriens left the country for the Gold Coast to escape forced labor.

It became a kind of rite of passage to travel on foot the more than 900 miles south to the Gold Coast to work in the gold mines. In Zarma, Sampari's language, they became known as kurmizay, or children of the south.

When he was in his 20s, Sampari was forced to haul bricks for road construction in the desert heat. He was given warm water and dry millet and hard beatings for his efforts. When he could take it no longer, he, too, decided to leave. He set his sights on the Gold Coast.

When he arrived in the capital, Accra, he quickly found work as a porter with a bus company. He was soon making a good salary and saved enough money to open two shops selling sundry goods. He was eventually chosen as the spokesperson for the Gourmantche, his ethnic group, who had flocked to Ghana from Niger in the 1960s when Ghanaian Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah hoisted his Pan African banner and threw down the welcome mat for immigrants.

Sampari took his countrymen to the Nigerien Embassy where they were registered and given identity cards. He soon got to know the ambassador, and became a respected member of Accra's burgeoning middle class.

"At night," he says, "you'd wash, put on your finest clothes, go out and go to a restaurant…and you'd order the food of your choice. I had enough money that I could eat at the restaurants I wanted to.

"The waiter would ask you if you wanted to eat with a spoon or your hands," he continues. "Either way, they brought you soap, warm water and a hand towel. If you chose to eat with your hands, they would clean your fingernails."

After a night on the town—listening to Ghanaian highlife music under the moon at Labadi beach—he returned to his rented two-room apartment with a spotless bathroom, a comfortable bed, and, something he still marvels at: running water.

"You had your own spigot in your courtyard," he says, the memories starting to catch fire. "You went out, turned it on and filled your bucket."

Sampari stares into space. "That life," says Sampari, "was really tremendous."

But it didn't last. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers were evicted. The Nigerien Embassy told Sampari he was targeted. Collect your things and get out, they told him. Sampari and many other migrant workers had supported Nkrumah and now were labeled as opposition. But Sampari didn't believe it.

"No, that's not possible," he said. "Everything will be fine."

But he waited too long. His stores were taken from him; he and thousands of others were forced to leave for Niger, a country that left a bitter taste in his mouth. He fled with nothing.

He returned to Niger a poor man. He married, had four children. And for the rest of his life, he farmed the land, barely scraping by.

Tomorrow, Issaka and Tchiliyabidi will get on with life. She'll use the cauldron she got from the voucher fair. They'll sleep on the mat and use the blankets they received. The household goods will take the sting out of their daily grind.

Issaka knows he'll get through this. He knows he can look forward to a better life.

His father, Sampari, will be content to look back on his.

Lane Hartill is the western and central Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.

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