Thursday, May 24, 2012
Late for School After a Long Journey for a Drop to Drink
Children as young as 10 trek for miles to get water for their families from wells in Niger, where droughts are frequent.
Wars keep children out of school. So does sickness. But in Niger, a sun-baked land where drought occurs with alarming frequency, a major impediment to education is thirst and the long trek required to quench it.
The school day had already begun on a recent morning as a procession of small children on donkeys, school-age all, made their way over a sandy field, joining other youths gathered with their animals around deep holes in the ground.
As low rainfall has dried up the countryside, the search for water has become ever more difficult. The job of securing water frequently falls to Niger’s children, some as young as 10 or 11. They ride donkeyback as much as five miles out of town, with giant plastic jerrycans, half as high as the children themselves, strapped to the animals’ sides. The more they work, the emptier become the classrooms of eastern Niger.
“It is my parents who send me,” said Sani Abdu, 11, a boy in a blue T-shirt, squinting through one eye in the bright morning sun. Swelling had closed the other. It would be 10 a.m. before he made it from the muddy wells in Baban Tapki, at the edge of Zinder, to his rural school, two hours late. He envied those not burdened with “water duty,” or “corvée de l’eau,” as it is referred to here — the trek, and then the lowering of bowls or buckets, by rope, into the deep wells. It is laborious and treacherous, with children sometimes losing their footing and falling in.
“The others are more advanced than me, but I have to get the water,” Sani said of his classmates who escape the chore and get to school on time.
Niger is next to last on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, and is subject to droughts and near famines. In the last decade alone, there have been three serious food shortages related to low rainfall and insect attacks, and this year perhaps a third of the population is facing hunger.
A rainfall deficit last year — the short rainy season ended early, and rains were rare and irregular — left the land without the surface ponds that many of Niger’s 17 million people, most subsistence farmers, depend on. Nearly a third of the population now faces a food deficit. But more immediately, the people must have water, and with good wells ever harder to find, the quest for it falls to the next generation.
In rural districts around Zinder, Niger’s second-largest city, officials say, a third to one-half of students have abandoned classrooms, which are no more than simple huts of dried reeds planted in the sand. “It’s the water that is keeping them out of school,” said Salissou Sahirou, an education official in Baban Tapki.
“All the schools here are paralyzed,” said Sylvain Musafiri, a top United Nations official in Zinder.
In makeshift classrooms sticking up from desert scrub in Garin Gona, nearly all the children raised their hands when their teacher asked how many had come in late because of water duty.
Oumaraou Lawali, 11, drawing his eyes wide open, explained how he had awakened at 4:30 a.m. to walk three miles for water; later, after class, he would repeat the trip. “In the evenings, I’m tired,” he said. “Worn out.”
Often, said the teacher, Maman Boukari, the children fall asleep before his eyes.
The search for water is a constant, in good years and bad, since 80 percent of the population has no running water. But this year, “it’s worse, and it’s not getting any better,” said another teacher, Barki Hima. “It’s the sun, always the sun. This year, really, it’s difficult. The children are coming in two hours late.”
In Zinder, a dusty metropolis of around 350,000 near the Nigerian border, there were riots this spring over the lack of water. Angry residents have burned tires and erected barricades of rocks in the sandy streets of this historic city, once the capital of both a powerful Hausa sultanate and later of the French colony that became Niger. In late March, the offices of the state water company were attacked.
At street corners with public fountains, the water is bottled and sold, causing the fountains to run as dry as everyplace else. On a recent afternoon, men and boys were collecting water from a filthy rainwater lake at the edge of the city.
Everybody worries about the lack of water, but it is the children, principally girls, tasked with searching for it. The poorest of the poor send their children out. So do their leaders, who are thirsty too and desperate every day for water.
“It’s my children who get the water,” said Titi Malla Adamou, the village chief of Tsoungounia, where camels bearing jerrycans roam the village’s edge amid packs of donkeys ridden by children. “This is a problem for everybody, from the smallest to the biggest.”
Few question this system in a country with one of the world’s highest birthrates and one of the fastest rates of population growth, where women have around seven children on average.
With so much scarcity in Niger, two-thirds of which sits in the Sahara, there is an abundance of children. “I had to send my own children out to look for water,” said Ado Louché, a top school official for the Zinder region.
With more and more children on the hunt for water, their futures grow more precarious. After one year of schooling in a village outside Zinder, Zuero Mutari, 13, had to quit nine years ago during a previous drought to fetch water. School “interests me, because I see others go,” said Zuero, who drives a cattle cart loaded with jerrycans and spends her day hunting for water.
At the Baban Tapki wells, three little girls, sisters, said none of them had ever attended school. “We are signed up, but we don’t go,” said Maria Bugagi, 12, next to her younger sisters Balik and Rahila. “We have to look for water.” The long searches for water bring on the fear of sexual assault.
“To have water, we must mobilize our children,” Yunfa Adaga said, lamenting the practice. “Our children are late for school. So, they are not learning.” Mr. Adaga used to manage a public fountain in Zinder. But it has run dry.