By Marie Pfeifer
Despite poverty, malnutrition, high infant mortality rates and the spread of HIV, the people of Western Africa seem determined to turn their lives around.
That was the takeaway by Noreen Connolly, 67, a journalism educator at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark who won a contest to visit Mauritania, Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof last year.
Speaking last week at the Morristown & Township Library, Connolly said she left West Africa “deeply inspired by the utter lack of complaining by the people we met.”
Kristoff has been taking winners of the contest on reporting trips since 2006. “Ideally,” wrote the Washington Post, “Kristof hopes to teach his companions . . . about the value of witnessing the world’s atrocities and scintillating them into stories that will call on people to act.”
“We encountered plenty of heartbreak…,” Kristof wrote in the Times. “Yet my travel buddies and I also found something far more significant on our journey: hope. One of the best-kept secrets in the world today can be found in thatched-roof villages like the ones we passed through: Africa appears to be turning around.”
A young medical student from Atlanta, Saumya Dave, accompanied Kristof and Connolly to Africa.
In their travels they encountered many resilient and resourceful African women, who identified the kind of help they needed for their families and proactively asked for it.
“In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, we met two HIV positive women at an HIV/AIDS support center run by Reine Fati Saoudogo, a tough, energetic woman who referred to herself as a tiger. Both women now take anti-retroviral drugs,” Connolly said.
One of the women nearly died from the virus but has recovered beautifully, remarrying and giving birth to 19- month-old twins who are not infected. The other woman, who tested HIV negative at the beginning of her pregnancy, along with her husband, thought she might have contracted the disease from an unclean delivery table. Despite a culture where HIV diagnosis is a significant social stigma, they were willing to share their stories.
The group also visited a health center in Dogon Doutchi, Niger, where the high newborn infant mortality rate was traced directly to contaminated water. The women gave their infant babies water instead of breast milk immediately after birth because of erroneous customs and beliefs about early breast feeding.
“The government actually paid midwives to bond with the mothers and teach them to beastfeed their babies immediately following birth until they were at least six months old,” Connolly said. “The infant mortality rate dropped dramatically.”
Women also helped themselves by joining a savings and credit union established with the help of CARE and Helen Keller International, a non-government organization (NGO). A woman in a village near Dosso, Niger, told Connolly that her family had suffered from lack of food in the past. Only three of her seven children had survived. With the advent of the credit union she was able to join and open a business making food. She also raises sheep, which her husband sells. She has become a modern woman with a cell phone, a motor bike and dreams of the future. Next on her list is a house.
The visitors had a long and spirited conversation about Al-Qaeda with Mauritanian writer and activist Abderrahmane Weddady, while relaxing in the lobby of the Hotel Tfeila in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
“It‘s enlightening to talk about Al-Qaeda with someone who lives near the area where Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) is operating,” Connolly said. “I was surprised that Weddady fears the group far less than many people I know. He adamantly insisted the AQIM can be defeated in Mauritania – but only by democracy, not by armies.”
The Mauritanian activist believes the U.S. plays into the hands of AQIM when it supports governments like his own, whose officials take kickbacks while the unemployment rate remains at 40 percent and people lack food.
“Wedaddy believes the real stability is democracy,” Connolly said,
Niger is a Muslim country and Burkina Faso is a mix of Christians and Muslims who cohabitate in a friendly fashion, she noted.
Connolly expressed gratitude to Kristof for choosing her. “Kristof specifically writes about women’s issues and furthering the education of women who in turn will help children survive,” she said. The trip will help her teach students the reporting skills required of a journalist. Many of her students come from different parts of the world.
“This is my way of paying tribute to my own students,” Connolly said.