Desert nomads ask for, and get, help via e-mail

DESPERATION: Although the nomadic herdsmen of Niger live as if in another century, a hunger crisis have prompted them to turn to the Internet for aid


Sat, Jul 30, 2005 - Page 6

The Tuareg and Fulani herdsmen of northeastern Niger live as if in another century, without electricity or running water, roaming the remotest regions to find pasture for their cows.

But when the hunger crisis that has devastated Niger reached them, they found a 21st century way to call for help: They sent an e-mail -- and say donors responded with cash the nomads traded for food for their families and their cattle.

"Science has evolved these days and we knew that we could reach out to the world via e-mail," said Amadou Doutchi, a Fulani leader and chairman of an association of herders and farmers in Dakoro, a region of sparse vegetation, sandy dunes and scorching sun some 750km from the capital, Niamey.


Most nomads have never seen a computer -- unsurprising in a desperately poor country where only 17 percent of adults can read. But Doutchi is computer savvy and he and other literate members of the association approached local government officials with the idea of sending an e-mail.

Doutchi who already had his own account on a free, Web-based e-mail service, came up with a list of governments and aid groups to approach.

"Please help!" Doutchi wrote. "A catastrophe is currently in the making in the northeastern part of Niger among the nomad community and unless something is done we'll be heading to the worst."

Hunger is perennially a problem in Niger. But a locust invasion last year followed by drought have made the problem worse. Almost a third of Niger's population of 11.3 million is in crisis, with its children the most vulnerable. Some 800,000 children under the age of five are suffering from hunger, including 150,000 faced with severe malnutrition.

The crisis struck at the nomads' most precious possession. Some 3,000 cows perished in the region of Dakoro in June alone.

"Some herders who possessed between 30 and 50 animals woke up with none," Doutchi said, adding despair led one nomad to kill himself by diving into a well and another slit his own throat.

In mid-June, Doutchi traveled 132km south to the regional center of Maradi to send the e-mail. When he checked his box a week later, he said, several organizations had responded asking for more details on the community and its needs.


Doutchi believes a 125,000 euro (US$150,000) cash donation from the Canadian government can be traced to his e-mail, though Canadian officials could not immediately comment. Canada has contributed a total of US$1 million to the World Food Program to combat hunger in Niger.

The nomads used the 125,000 euro to purchase 200 tonnes of millet and 100 tonnes of animal feed. Doutchi's organization, which includes Tuareg and Fulani groups representing 55,000 nomads, also has received 100 tonnes of food aid from the World Food Program.

"Of course, we are happy to receive this aid, but at the same time, we are trading our dignity for 5kg of sorghum," Doutchi said. "The Fulani man has never counted on anybody for assistance, just Mother Nature."

Shaken by the hunger crisis, some of the nomads in their flowing robes and giant turbans in blue and white are considering the prospect of abandoning their traditional way of life.

"When you've been living in a certain way for decades and it is not working, then you have to change," Mouloud Almahadi, a leading member of the community, said with a nervous smile.

With a burst of laughter echoed by six others in the shade of a makeshift tent, Almahadi said he could even consider settling in the capital.