Did you know that the word Sahel comes from Arabic and literally means side or frontier? I didn’t until recently. Or at least I didn’t truly understand the meaning of this word. You see, in the Sahel, frontiers are sometimes more a conceptual construction than a reality for most people.
People living at the border with Nigeria considers Nigerians as their brothers. The only thing separating them is the Komadougou River, a geographical barrier symbolizing the very concept of sides. So when the conflict in Northern Nigeria broke and forced hundreds of thousands to cross the river to find safety in Niger, they were welcomed like long lost cousins and new friendships were made.
I met Koussou and Fanta just 10 kilometres from Diffa city, in southeast Niger. Before the attack on their villages (named Assaga) they were both living at the border. Koussou was living in Assaga Nigeria, the south side of the Komadougou River and Fanta was living in Assaga Niger, north side of the River.
Uprooted by Boko Haram, they now both live on separate sides of the Route Nationale 1, the main east-west highway across Niger, now a new frontier between Nigerian refugees and Niger’s displaced. Even more unsettling, their spontaneous site, one of more of 135 of this kind, is also named Assaga, after the name of their original villages. With the road as their new separating river, a certain familiarity in this new life is teleported less than 20 kilometres away from the border.
“We met at the water point,” explains Koussou. She’s the older one, the chatty one. With her traditional make-up and smiling voice, she’s very different from quiet Fanta. “We quickly became friends. We don’t go to school, so during the day and after our chores, we cross the road and find each other’s to play. It’s a bit of a walk but it’s okay,” she adds while Fanta silently nods.
If crossing the roads seem easy, it’s probably because the road itself is the reason why they’re here. Discussing with many children along Route Nationale 1, I’ve come to understand how much safer they feel with the road closer. Seeing the regular flow of military coming and going means that help can be sent faster in case of danger.
While we’re talking, Koussou and Fanta are sitting so close that I can actually feel the constant urge to be safe. The bond between them becomes palpable when protective Koussou leads the discussion on behalf of shy Fanta, slowly opening up and smiling.
“At the beginning, we talked a lot about what we’ve been through, how she fled, how I fled. But not as much anymore,” Koussou told me. “So what are now your favourite things to do together?” I asked, guessing on their tense faces that those talks were still not that far away.
“We draw henna on our arms and feet, braid each other’s, play. And three times a week, we meet with the youth peer educators committee,” lists Koussou. Both girls are indeed part of a youth peer educators programme implemented by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), UNICEF’s partner.
Peer education is based on the fact that many people make changes not only based on what they know, but on the opinions and actions of their close, trusted peers. The idea is here for young adolescents, boys and girls, to communicate and understand in a way that the best-intentioned adults can’t: to be the voice of other displaced or refugee children and serve as role models for change.
“We are the one who can tell the truth to children. We know our rights and can help others. We mostly intervene for child labour situation: if a child comes to us and complains that his or her workload is too hard, we go see the parents and ask them to alleviate much of it. Sometimes they accept, sometimes they don’t. If they don’t, we go to our elders or the chief of the village. We also tell adults to refrain from making easy money by using their children,” Koussou reckons.
Listening to Koussou talking, I clearly picture how this complementary duo of girls is an asset for the programme: living on both sides of the road and crossing regularly their new frontier, they’re a perfect bridge between two communities facing the same issues. Perceptive Fanta – the one easy to talk to – while caring Koussou is the confident one eager to talk to adults.
As the time to leave the girls approaches, Fanta finally concludes our discussion on an optimistic note. “Our parents are very proud to see us playing together. They even met, thanks to us,” she said grinning. Proof if needed that frontiers are made to be crossed.
Charlotte Arnaud currently works as a Communication Officer with UNICEF Niger.