Moving about in this vast country, which is four times the size of Italy, means putting up with a temperature ranging from 40° to 50° in April and May; it means accepting the dangers of the roads, lanes often made by the women and men who walk along them every day for tens of kilometres to find food for their families. Visiting four of the one hundred and twenty villages that benefit from the services of the Fraternity of the Servants of Christ, one finds oneself before the problems of the 15 million inhabitants of the country, in which the Christians only make up only 1% of the population, against 90% of the Muslims. The food crisis and illiteracy are the most serious calamities to which an urgent solution must be found. To all this are added afflictions which seem from another age, but which are still rooted in the customs of the inhabitants, like early marriages that force young girls of 11 to marry middle-aged men whose family nucleus already numbers two or three women and numerous children. This is the story of hundreds of girls in one quarter of the city of the city of Maradi: they managed to escape from their husbands but now work as prostitutes to survive.
Poverty drives 70% of the families of the villages to get rid of their daughters by offering them in marriage and thus reducing the economic burden for the family.
For some months now the poverty of the family has had to reckon with the return of thousands of Nigeriens who have lost their jobs abroad in Libya or Mali. To this poverty is added the insecurity that destabilises the small businesses and the exchanges with the North of Nigeria. While moving around the country we had to be escorted by the military. The humanitarian organisations have drastically reduced their programmes in a region that is actually of little interest and entails risks that are too high for their staff. For this reason the deposits of the World Food Programme are empty today and will be for a long time to come. The nuns, who twice a week distribute food and medicines from their surgery in Saé Sabota in the bush to over 800 people, also risk having to suspend their activity if they do not find funding.
In this poverty the criminal groups, some of which are associated with Boko Haram or al-Qa’ida, find fertile and favourable ground for the spread of an extremist Islam that is often aggressive towards the small Christian community. This is a new challenge for the Nigerien Church which, until two years ago, had never had to deal with physical persecution. This rise of Islamism has already caused the destruction of churches and the attack on Catholic schools in various towns of the country, in Zinder where some children, following Friday prayers, hurled stones against the Catholic church. And yet the Christian presence in the country is nothing new, as it is made up above all of Africans from the bordering countries who, even though residing in Niger for many generations, have never obtained its citizenship. The Nigerien Christian is essentially a convert who is inevitably subject to being outcast by their family and friends. For some months now those who have converted risk their lives. We met many of these heroes, some of whom have even become priests or nuns. While the most intransigent Muslims see an apostasy in the conversion to Christianity, it is not always the change of religion that upsets the parents. It is having to give up marrying a son who becomes a monk, priest or consecrated layman, which they cannot understand in a society in which the men are married even to four women.
Ossena and Ibrahim became Christians and entered religious orders, their conversion developing by means of the personal discovery of the Gospel. A Christian faith that appeared as a pure gift of God. A direct discovery of Christ that took shape in the providential meeting with the Christians working with sister Marie-Catherine, who left Senegal to witness Christ’s love through concrete acts of charity, carried out in the name of Christ. The sister’s project to serve above all women and children is always carried out in the respect of the local authorities, with their agreement and involvement. This is surprising in a context that is impressive for the hard uncooperative words of the Marabouts, who are in fact the local imams.
This desire to involve the local chieftains in all the projects has allowed the sister to reveal what the Nigeriens most want in order to get out of poverty: to fight against ignorance and to support the women in their education programmes. A claim that a man like the sultan Balla Marafa clearly perceived among the population of his province. This explains the success of the awareness sessions organised by the nuns on the dangers of early marriages, and which each time attract no less than 200 women. Or the sessions on other topics like hygiene, family and the education of children.
The provinces of Niger have been sultanates for three years. In the town of Tibiri, not far from Maradi, lives his majesty the sultan Balla Marafa. The meeting with the sultan creates a certain amount of apprehension, perhaps because his title inspires the imagination, with the sultan’s story inscribed at the entrance of his palace. Sultan Balla Marifa is the 480th sultan of Gobir, a dynasty that goes back more than 5,000 years according to a document exhibited in the grand hall. The sultan of Gobir is a man who likes to communicate and who, despite the awesome court surrounding him, is careful to put his interlocutor at ease, whether it be couples who ask for a hearing to settle their martial problems, a Muslim in a dispute with a Christian over questions of property, or Europeans – as in our case – who come to Niger to support the projects of the Catholic Church.
Proud of the several-thousand-year-old dynasty of his sultanate, the sultan stresses the connection of his descent with the Prophet. The name “Gobir” comes from “Birnin Goubour”, the name of a town in Saudi Arabia from which at the time of the Prophet, some members of his family are said to have crossed the Red Sea and Egypt to reach the present areas and propose Islam to the natives. A Sunnism that sets out to be respectful of religious freedom and is, in his very words, the expression of a God ‘of love and charity’. What he says could be just words fitting the occasion, but the facts show the authenticity of his intentions. Various relations of the sultan’s family are Christians, a cousin of his is even a pastor. The young community of nuns of the Fraternity of the Servants of Christ has found the ground to build its house in the sultan’s province thanks to his backing. ‘I welcomed the nun because she had a project and was inspired by God’s love to help my people’.
Today the community is active in the sultanate of Gobir, in Niger, with a number of projects: to fight ignorance and give hope is the common project of a sultan and a nun. A hope that in a poor country like Niger is the only wealth which the Islamists still cannot attack.