The Makings of a Future: Finding Purpose in Diffa, Niger

Woman on the Maya site, among a group of women sweeping the site where 133 new transitional shelters are being built right now. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

It’s been four years since the Boko Haram insurgency hit the Diffa region in Niger, which displaced more than 249,000[1] people. As more and more people are forced to leave their villages behind to settle in Diffa, the old-timers are working towards creating a future for themselves in Diffa.

The Maina Kaderi site, situated in the commune of Chetimari in the Diffa region in Niger, is comprised of over 400 households amounting now close to 5,000 internally displaced people, returnees and refugees. The site is located a mere 18 km away from their former village, but these 18 km have drawn the line between life and death for the villagers. Close to 80% of its inhabitants used to live in the original Jaidam Tchoukou village, 40 km from Diffa town. “It may be the Maina Kaderi site for displaced people, but it’s still our village at heart,” declares Malam, 47.

[1] DREC-R report dated July 2018

Villagers reunite for a meeting on the Maina Kaderi site. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

The Jaidam Tchoukou villagers were the first to arrive and set up camp on the Maina Kaderi site four years ago. Boko Haram stormed their village during the night, forcing close to 4,000 people to flee by foot or on motorcycles looking for shelter. The villagers camped in wilderness a few kilometers away, and then waited patiently for the situation to calm down. Four months later, they returned to Jaidam Tchoukou to assess the situation, but there was nothing left.

That same night, Boko Haram raided their homes and took most of their possessions, from furniture to livestock. Some villagers were lucky enough to be away during the night with their cattle, the only possession they were able to bring to the new Maina Kaderi site in Diffa. They tried to work around their misery for a year or so, until authorities told them they would have to leave their village indefinitely due to the lingering Boko Haram threats. They packed what little they still had and left for Diffa, where other displaced communities already had taken shelter.

Maina Kaderi site with its transitional shelters. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

The villagers were gone, but the curse upon them persisted. Floods soon hit the region affecting several villages, including Jaidam Tchoukou. Every rainy season, villagers tried to protect their former homes by placing hundreds of sandbags around the village perimeter to secure the ground from the rain. But this was to no avail. To this day, their houses remain submerged.

With the fishing ban now lifted for local commerce and consumption, the residents still visit their former village to fish before the curfew strikes at 5 pm, or to cultivate the few groves still standing, such as their palm trees. But the village, now deserted, has become easy prey for wondering shepherds and their herds. Where once corn fields were cultivated, today villagers find only desolation.

Amarcia, Malam’s second wife. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac
“There used to be wealth in our village, but there is nothing left for us there now.” — Malam
Aissa, Malam’s first wife. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

In the beginning, life on the Maina Kaderi site wasn’t easy. There was no running water when they first arrived, let alone emergency shelters. Little by little, aid agencies came to their aid and the site began taking shape. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) was the first agency to assist with emergency shelters and non-food item kits when displaced villagers first arrived. Last year, this was the first site to receive 400 transitional shelters from IOM.

Malam and wife Amarcia proudly admire their cabbage garden. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac
“We have roads now! It’s the little things that make you realize you live in a community.” — Malam

Malam hopes the town hall will give them a new land nearby where they can cultivate onions, corn and rice peacefully. He wonders whether the attack, the flooding and everything that followed, were nothing but a blessing in disguise. The 24 square meter transitional shelters they now own pale in comparison to the houses they had in their village. “It wasn’t sustainable. In a way we were lucky to move out before the flooding hit,” Malam explains.

Following an initial assessment, IOM offered the Maina Kaderi residents a choice of 38 types of income-generating activities, aimed at meeting the daily needs of the households while making them truly self-sufficient. Each household received an income-generating activity of choice — or two, for polygamous households, such as Malam’s. His first wife Aissa, 43, chose livestock breeding; Amarcia, 40, chose commerce. Between the three of them, the family raises 15 children. Their well-being is their top priority.

“We are proud of what we built in such a short amount of time.” — Malam
Amarcia sits outside her family home every morning selling fritters and patties, making roughly 4,500 FCFA per day. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Amarcia makes fritters and patties which she sells every morning to Maina Kaderi residents. In the meantime, Aissa sold some of the male goats and bought a few more females to increase milk production, while Malam has invested into further improving their home. Their goats provide milk for the little ones and their vegetable garden augments the family’s daily meals. Malam has also planted two lemon trees which he hopes will represent only the beginning of their abundance.

Indeo, 35, chose peanut oil extraction as his main activity. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Fantaou may be 60, but she is a force to be reckoned with in her community. Part of the former Jaidam Tchoukou community, Fantaou also arrived on the site with nothing but her bare hands. She now lives with her two grandchildren and provides for them by selling sweet and salted peanuts. She renders her own palm oil, while her peanuts come from a local market. Commerce between fellow Maina Kaderi-ans has further boosted the small-scale economy of the site.

“This is the place I call home now. I can hardly remember a time when it wasn’t.” — Fantaou

A bargain at 100 FCFA per bag, this sugary snack is a hit among the villagers. With the money she makes from her business, Fantaou has been able to improve her shelter and tend to her vegetable garden. As we taste the peanuts and tomatoes, Fantaou sits back and watches us with a satisfied grin.

Fantaou poses with her famous peanuts. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Two months from now, neighboring villagers in sites Maya, Zarwaran and Chétima Wongo also will be proud owners of 400 new transitional shelters (133, 152 and 115 respectively). The plots have already been assigned to the residents, keeping in mind the initial settlement pattern of their village. The ongoing construction process has created various jobs for the local community and displaced people alike. Popular pursuits are brick making, transportation and masonry. Moreover, this time around, the villagers have received their income-generating activities before the construction process was finished.

Women on the new site in Diffa are sewing rice bags to patch up their shelters

Close to 40 km away, a new group of refugees has just arrived in Diffa, having fled their village in neighboring Nigeria following a Boko Haram attack. Still dazed and confused, these refugees have set camp on the outskirts of Diffa town, awaiting further instructions.

Protection from the elements seems essential right now. Despite their bleak situation, people are optimistic and determined to improve their shelters, by using their personal items of clothing or by sewing rice bags together to use as tarps. Their improvised shelters offer little resistance against the aggressive wind and dust engulfing Diffa right now, let alone the inevitable rainy season.

Displaced woman prays in her improvised shelter after having just arrived to Diffa from Nigeria. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

IOM has been distributing shelter and other aid items to the most vulnerable populations in Diffa since 2013. To support the humanitarian coordination, IOM also supports the Ministry of Humanitarian Action and Disaster Management in the coordination of the Shelter/NFI working group. Over 249,000 displaced people are still in need of assistance in the region, while over 20,000 people are at risk of displacement because of floods this rainy season in the region of Diffa.

IOM’s humanitarian emergency response in Diffa is supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

This story was written by Monica Chiriac, IOM Niger’s Media and Communications Officer.