Throwback post – One Woman’s Distribution

It’s not Thursday, but I’m going for a throwback post. I’ve been reflecting on my motivations recently and wanted to re-post this blog I wrote back in 2010, while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger working with an NGO on their response to the food insecurity crisis that year. My role here was to document the distribution process and its many stories. This is one of the stories that continues to motivate me. Not surprisingly it involves a personal interaction – brief but meaningful – with one of the people affected by the crisis and there to receive food rations. 

Personal connections can often be lost in development and humanitarian response, through the sheer scale of the work, demands of funding, shiny new innovations, and the psychological distance aid workers must often put between themselves and the constant tragedy and poverty they see. But I do believe these personal stories are important to remind us of our ultimate purpose, creating the conditions and capabilities to improve the lives of people with their own stories, joys, sorrows, and possibilities.  To remind us, in the words of former UNSG Dag Hammarskjold, that “without the warmth and humility you have to develop in your relations to the few with whom you are personally involved, you will never be able to do anything for the many.” 

 

One Woman’s Distribution
23-24 July, 2010, outside of Dosso, Niger

I went to a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Dosso city. This was the only urban area where we were distributing food rations, and here crowds were much rowdier compared with rural villages. But I was intensely moved listening to people’s stories of struggle and survival.

I first noticed Fatima hovering on the edges of one crowd, with her 16 month-old daughter Aicha tied to her back with a piece of cloth. She looked lost, unsure of which line to stand in. I asked if we could chat a bit, and take their photo. Somewhat shyly, she agreed.

This young woman lives alone in Dosso with her 4 children, and no regular source of income. “My husband went away to find work” she said. “He washes clothes.” Neither of them have a field to plant.

The distribution began Friday to over 800 families. They were split into three groups, but the large, loud crowds made it impossible for everyone to hear their name called.

Fatima hovered by the far-right line, listening & waiting. She seemed intimidated by the scale of the process, and by the other women attempting to push their way into the lines. Like most of the crowd, she had arrived early in the morning, having eaten nothing all day. By mid-afternoon, she was tired.

“I’m just going to leave,” she said to me at one point, “whether or not I get food.” I insisted she stay, promising that her name was there somewhere. I wondered if she really intended to leave – or if she just needed to hear someone tell her not to.

In her face, her eyes, her bearing, I saw a deeper fatigue. She was tired not only from the anxiety and physical exertion of today, but also from the months of struggling to feed her children with little support. But she persisted, despite her fatigue and frustration.

A rainstorm hit about 5pm, and those still waiting were told to come back the next morning. At 9 on Saturday, I found Fatima waiting in the rightmost line again. Yesterday’s frustration had worn off, but she still hadn’t heard her name.

Finally she followed my suggestion to check in the other lines. About 5 minutes later I saw her standing in the middle line. “I found my name,” she said, beaming and knowing that, finally, her children would eat their fill tonight. But how she would get over 50 kg of maize back home? “We’ll get it there,” she said, too relieved at this moment to be worried about that. “Someone will bring it for us.”

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About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

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