My summer in Niger: Lessons learned by an undergraduate student in the depths of Africa

Jessica Khauv/Staff

Pop quiz: Where can you find mosquitoes, peanuts and an astounding abundance of adorable baby goats? Niger is a landlocked country in West Africa, with more than 80 percent of its surface covered by the Sahara Desert. The more fertile south, which shares a border with Nigeria, is home to many different ethnic groups. Niger is a developing country, with the highest birth rate in the world, poor educational outcomes and often insufficient agriculture in the harsh climate. Most of the population resides in rural areas, where a variety of factors often lead girls to be married early and bear many children throughout their lives. The effects of global warming, combined with high fertility rates, are expected to exacerbate the effects of overpopulation in the future. This is where I am spending seven weeks of my summer researching women’s empowerment.

Over the past year and this summer, I have had the incredible opportunity to work with Daniel Perlman, a medical anthropologist affiliated with the OASIS Initiative at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. I’m helping with studies on early marriage and women’s empowerment in rural Hausa communities in southern Niger and northern Nigeria. The studies are conducted for the Centre for Girl-Child Education in Nigeria, which is a program started 10 years ago by Perlman, Habiba Mohammed and Mardhiyyah Abbas. The program uses girls’ education as a means to delay early marriage and increase a girl’s ability to take charge of key decisions in her life. This approach has proved incredibly successful, delaying early marriage by more than 2 1/2 years and increasing secondary school graduation 20-fold in the communities it has been implemented. The secret ingredient? Meticulous ethnographic research: participant observation with the researchers living in the communities, in-depth interviewing and casual group conversations followed by systematic analysis.

Perlman, whom everyone here insists on calling “Uncle Daniel,” spent the past year carefully guiding me as well as a group of eight other undergraduate students in analyzing field notes on early marriage. While the collection of field notes is conducted in the communities of interest by local Hausa researchers, Perlman commonly trains UC Berkeley students to help with analysis. The preliminary analysis is then sent back to the Nigerien team for its correction and feedback.

This summer, my work in Niger continues along the same lines, but for a different study concerning women’s empowerment. Women’s empowerment can be defined as the increase in a woman’s ability to control important decisions in her life. Such decisions include when and to whom she gets married, when she will bear children and how many children she will bear, and what educational and livelihood goals she will pursue. I am working with Chiabou Sanoussi, who is the Nigerien anthropologist (and co-investigator for this study) overseeing data collection. My job is to apply the analysis process I’ve learned and also transfer some of those skills to him so that he can pass them on to others on the team in Niger. Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned a lot about the work I am doing and its significance.

One of the first things I learned is that life here is not easy. Many people struggle to feed their families and/or do not have good educational opportunities, and people get malaria as often as once a year (which is often fatal, especially for young children). And yet, the people here are amazingly resilient, kind and welcoming, and they are able to find great joy in life. One of the Nigerien field researchers told me, “Even if you go to bed hungry, when you wake up, you will always find something to make you smile.” The culture here is of great community and sharing burdens. When the mother of one of our co-workers was sick, everyone in the entire office stopped what they were doing to go visit her at the clinic. I found out that I am not here to make these people happy. The people are already happy. And yet, there is a lot of work to be done to address some of the very real challenges these people face every day.

The second lesson I have learned is the value of ethnography. Coming from a family of engineers, it took me a little time to warm up to qualitative research methods. However, I soon realized that qualitative research is often necessary. This is especially true for someone like me, who knows nothing about Hausa culture and is all too eager to jump to conclusions. For example, when I first started my work on early marriage, I was furious at the parents. How dare they pull their girls out of school to marry them off? However, after reading interview after interview, I started to realize that education held little promise for the girls because of the low quality of schools and poor employment prospects. Parents therefore preferred to marry their girls young in order to secure their futures with husbands that could take care of them. Ethnography is necessary to understand underlying issues that have to be taken into account to create an effective program.

So as I wrap up my time here and prepare to head back to the States, I know I will be bringing home more than a handwoven basket and colorful clothes. I have many people to thank for an incredible summer, and I am excited for future experiences I may have.

Anna Boser is a campus junior majoring in public health.