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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Nicholas D. Kristof - On The Ground

Oct. 6, 2005
My African Diet
I'm headed off in a few hours to Niger in West Africa, so I'm not sure how much I'll add to this in the next week. But I'm traveling with Naka Nathaniel, my partner in multimedia columny, and he'll be preparing some video and sound presentations from Niger.

By the way, since everybody looks blank when I say Niger, it's properly pronounced Nee-jair, the French way, not as if it were Nigeria with the last two letters lopped off.

Oh, and if I find any of Saddam Hussein's agents in Niger, looking for uranium, I'll be sure to tell Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, not to mention the Veep. Now that would be a fine column.

Oct. 11, 2005
It's True: I'm 'On the Ground!'
So here I am, actually on the ground in an interesting place – Niger – and I’m not filing much for “On the Ground.” My apologies. I’ve been bouncing over roads all day, and the only way to get an Internet connection is with a satellite phone. And that means sitting around outside at night when the malarial mosquitoes are most active. If I get malaria again, I’m going to sue “On the Ground.”

Niger is actually a lovely place to visit, aside from the wrenching poverty. People are very friendly, and there’s much less of the theft and corruption that make other countries in Africa sometimes aggravating. And although right now I’m in the provincial town of Zinder, the hotel is perfectly okay, clean, with electricity and no large rats.

Naka Nathaniel is traveling with me, shooting photos and video, and he has an audio slide show that (if I have figured out how to do links) is here: audio slide show.

In talking to villagers, you get an overwhelming sense of how hard life is. Sometimes people have to travel 20 kilometers to a well to get water, and then bring it back by camel. In one clinic I met a teenage girl who had an obstructed labor and had to be carried by camel for 60 kilometers while she was in labor to get to the nearest trained midwife. As a result she lost the baby and developed a fistula. Now she has to come up with either $14 for a public bus fare to Zinder to see a surgeon to repair the fistula, or pay $50 for an ambulance to take her.

Oct. 11, 2005
So What Is This Place?
Watch: On the Ground Video Journal

In a previous entry, I made a somewhat pompous assertion that Americans tend to mispronounce Niger, calling it "Nigh-ger" instead of the more proper "Nee-jair." I immediately got an email from an Africaphile saying, "Right on!"

So imagine my surprise when, on my arrival in Niamey, the local AFP correspondent, Natasha Burley, welcomed me to Nigh-ger. Oops.

I asked Natasha, and she said that although in French everybody says "Nee-jair," in English it's often referred to as Nigh-ger. She doesn't really know if either is officially right. Since then I've asked a few others, and while it's clear that in French and Hausa, people say Nee-jair, and that that's the more acceptable pronunciation, there are a fair number of people who say Nigh-ger when speaking English.

Meanwhile, another crisis when I filed my column last night. I had a line about "We are all Nigeriens," stolen of course from the famous Le Monde headline after 9/11: We are all Americans. The copy editor told me that the New York Times Stylebook says that the term for the people of Niger is Nigerois, and not to use Nigeriens because of the risk of confusian with Nigerians.

Unfortunately, the people here are adamant that no one ever says Nigerois, and that the proper term is Nigeriens. So I broke style (that's the rare privilege of a columnist) and used Nigeriens.

Oct. 13, 2005
Tangling With Readers
Here are some of the comments on my Tuesday column from Niger. Martha from Seattle writes: “Are you condoning that these famine prone African nations be propelled toward farming techniques of the mid-20th century, using techniques such as fertilizer, herbicides and genetically modified seeds that have ultimately proven detrimental to the environment?”

Yup, Martha, I am – to some degree. Look, there are real problems with factory farming techniques, particularly for hogs. But fertilizer has been a huge lifesaver. When scientists figured out how to make Urea, to put Nitrogen in the soil, they saved a billion lives or more – it may have been the greatest discovery of the 20th century. And the fact is that everything we eat is genetically modified. Just compare regular rice with wild rice, or a steer with a wild buffalo. If you deny people in Africa access to Urea, you’re consigning them to famine.

Steve from Los Atlos Hills, CA writes, “Hunger in Africa is no longer real news, one assume it is always there, if not in this country then in that. Bringing the more agricultural technology may or may not be the solution. As you pointed out, the land has almost no nutrients left.” The best parallel is with Asia. Countries like Bangladesh and China used to have great difficulty feeding their populations, and Kissinger famously called Bangladesh an international basket case. But new strains of rice and other crops were developed that were better suited to the monsoon season, and the upshot was enormous gains in crop yields. China has done much the same, with its own crop research. But Africa has never had the same research directed on its behalf – and that’s what it needs.

A reader writes: “You omit that it is even more difficult for some of us in the West to comprehend why Haroun Mani would try to bring 7 more children into the world after realizing that he has problems feeding his first child. Why isn't this listed as one of the contributing factors to the problem you attempted to analyze on your 650 mile voyage?” Other people made the same argument. As one put it: “Surely, you and Niger must learn that there can be no enduring solution to Niger's agony without birth control! Repeated shipments of food, without birth control, simply delay the reckoning a little while and enlarge the problem.”

It’s true that birth control is needed, but I think there’s a general recognition that the blind faith in birth control approaches of the 1960’s and 1970’s failed. First, it’s now recognized that there’s no clear correlation between population growth rates or population densities and economic growth rates or wealth. (Africa is very sparsely populated.) There is a strong correlation between the ratio of the working-age population and the total population, though, so you tend to get a strong economic benefit when you initially practice more birth control – you have few old people, and fewer babies, but a larger chunk of the population is of working age. That’s been one of the factors in China’s dynamism.

We also now understand that population-control strategies aren’t about supplying technology but about changing minds. Basically, in Africa women have the number of children they want. In Niger, they have seven or eight children because they want seven or eight – and supplying more condoms or IUD’s isn’t going to change that and won’t bring down birth rates. What you need to do is to change the psychology, and one way to do that is by improving child health. When families worry about losing one-quarter of their children, they have more. When their children survive, they have fewer.

In addition, one of the factors most closely correlated to smaller families is education, particularly for girls. If we can send more girls to school, they will grow up to have fewer children and more of them will survive. So, sure, population control is crucial, but we have to realize that it’s not so much about technologies as about, for example, educating girls. The World Food Program may do as much to bring down birth rates (by running school feeding programs that keep girls in school) as the UNFPA does by supplying birth control technologies.

Oct. 13, 2005
My Travel Bag
A reader asked what I pack on a trip to a place like Niger.

I always try to travel very light, partly so I don't have to check bags on planes. There's nothing more distressing than arriving in a remote country and find that one of your bags didn't arrive and can't come until the next plane arrives in three days. So I take only a few clothes, including some of my backpacking clothes that are very light and that can be laundered in a hotel sink and will dry quickly. I try to have one slightly nicer shirt that won't look to bad if I interview the president, and a pair of brown athletic shoes that go with my khakis (jeans are too hot) and don't look too out of place at a diplomatic reception. But I don't take a jacket or tie or dress shoes to a place like Niger.

Communication is key, so I take an international cell phone and a Thuraya satellite phone. And Naka Nathaniel, my travel partner who shoots pictures for the Web, has an R-Bgan satellite phone that permits data links at a reasonable speed (but no voice).

On this trip, I took a mosquito net, because of malaria problems, and DEET for the same reason. (Watch today's "On the Ground Video Journal" about malaria) I often take a sheet sack -- kind of a sleeping bag but made out of a sheet, to reduce problems with bed bugs. And I take loads of cheap Bic pens to hand out to kids and make friends in the villages.

I tend to use a waist pouch to put odds and ends in, but I don't keep money it because it's an obvious thing to be stolen if a soldier with a gun comes along. I keep my money in a hidden pouch that attaches to my belt and loops down under my khakis.

And when traveling to a place like Niger or Darfur, I take granola bars, since there isn't much food around. My base for Niger has been Zinder, an eastern provincial town, and it has an okay restaurant, but it takes at least an hour after ordering before you get any food. Granola bars are quicker.

Then I pack everything into either a duffel bag or an old blue pack I have that can be a backpack or a duffel.


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