Maybe I should explain a bit about how this trip works…
My team’s main goal is to find compelling stories and photos that illustrate both the need and success of our organization’s work. Since there’s only one photojournalist among us, that leaves the two guys and me — the marketers — to make ourselves useful. I often assist with the interviews, asking questions that I feel our donors would be interested in hearing the answers to. Other times we’ll talk with local staff about how the programs work. Frequently I’ll ask the guys to distract large groups of children (the kids really gravitate to the two big white men as soon as they exit our vehicle!).
At our first site visit, we noticed that it seemed a bit overwhelming for a family to have four of us strangers listening to their story. And it was hindering the women from opening up about their lives. So we devised a plan. The guys would go to another part of the yard with the father and any other local men who had congregated, while the gals conducted the main interview with the mother. This is when we truly began to learn of the women’s hardships.
The stories are depressingly similar. Daily, the women walk three hours EACH WAY to fetch water from the nearest source. They leave immediately after eating in the morning, since that’s when they have the most energy. They might not eat again that day. On the way back home they gather tree branches that they’ll burn into charcoal in order to have money to buy food. If they aren’t able to sell the charcoal, they won’t eat that day. I glance around their yards and notice the lack of possessions. The children sit near their mother — partly because they’re shy, but mostly because they’re too weak to play. Some days the mothers are too weak themselves to collect water. I can’t imagine what quiet, sad days those must be. No food to prepare. No friends nearby to empathize with. No laughter from the children. No belongings to distract from the hunger and thirst.
“And what about the husbands?” we ask. And that’s when we realize our strategy is a good one. Many of the women admit that theirs was an arranged marriage; arranged at a very young age and against their will. One lady even told us how she was circumcised, and then given immediately in marriage once the wounds had healed. Many of the husbands had multiple wives, and favored one family over another. Or, at least, they weren’t full involved in supporting both, if either. Men don’t fetch water for the family. Men don’t gather wood for charcoal. Men don’t care for the children. Even our staff admit that the general development understanding is, “If you help a woman, you help the family.”
I was getting discouraged. I mean, I’d seen this a lot in Niger, but I guess it is more painful now that I know how it feels to have a loving husband who cares for my family. So as we drove to the next village I had to ask my teammates, “Don’t these men and women love each other?” I believe we’re created with an innate desire to love and be loved, and that this is what drives our desire for companionship in a spouse. So, shouldn’t that be a universal drive? What we were seeing, at least on the surface, didn’t seem like love. At least not a love that I can understand.
Then we met the couple photographed above. At first I thought this was the same story — an arranged marriage, a life of poverty and hardship. But as we prepared to leave their home I saw a tenderness between them, and then I heard what the guys had learned in their side of the interview. The wife recently had a miscarriage and was hospitalized. For two weeks, her husband stayed by her side in the hospital. When they returned home, she was still too weak to work so he fetched the daily water and cared for the children. Even though “men don’t do that.” He loved her.
And he gave me hope.