Reflections on Service Work in the African Nation of Niger

by Felicitas Samtleben-Spleiss, former Secretary, Christian Jewish Dialogue of Augsburg and Swabia in Germany

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Note: Felicitas has visited Dayton a number of times, and she has attended meetings of the Dayton Christian Jewish Dialogue.  She has many friends in the Dayton Christian Jewish Dialogue.  Following is a very touching description of her recent service work in Niger.

December 2005

Dear Friends,

After a stay of four weeks in the Sahel region with all its aridity, I am quite happy to be back home again. It was rather a cultural shock when in Munich I left the plane and found myself in the midst of light- and colorful Advent and Christmas decorations. Within the time of 6 hours from the desert to the snow, from petrol lamps to neon lit advertisements, from short sleeves to wool and fur! It took me a few days to “come back” to our style of life.

In retrospect of the work we did in the village, Bani Bangou, Niger, I am convinced that we could help many children – at least for the time being. If the nutrition and educational situation does not change to the better, our presence will be just like a drop on a hot stone (German saying). Knowing that the illiteracy ranges at 94 % of the population, there is still a very long way to go. And again the people in Niger have very little positive outlook for the future since the past was hardly ever better. Little water resources, missing rain falls, antediluvian agricultural methods, few crops but cattle and goats, etc. etc.

We were a group of two medical doctors (pediatricians) and two nurses. After a short stay in Niamey, the capital of Niger, we were taken to Bani Bangou, a village 250 km north-west of Niamey near the Mali border. Getting there was an adventure. We were in 2 cars heavily loaded with drinking water, food stuff, medical supply, repair materials, and the local staff, altogether about 10 persons. The “road” was a sandy track. On the way we had 6 breakdowns which had to be repaired directly. The drivers have to be mechanics at the same time. After a trip of 10 hours we finally arrived in our “home”when it was already dark. The next day was our first working day, one team worked in the clinic of the health center in Bani Bangou, the other team was again on the road with the mobile clinic to a village. There we treated children. The program included also an assessment of the children about their nutrition condition, and accordingly their families were supplied with food. After the first week, the teams changed. The work in the health center was very hard, we had a number of heavily sick children which had to be treated by intravenous infusions and i.v. medication. During three nights we stayed there in shifts, each of us taking over 3 hours of night watch.

The second weekend we returned to Niamey, surprisingly only with one flat tire. Somehow we had the feeling of returning into plain luxury – after the living conditions of Bani Bangou. But I missed the starry sky and the moon.  And then, well rested, on Monday we returned to our village. We had hardly passed the last larger town Ouallam about 90 km from Niamey when a spring broke on one of our again heavily loaded cars. The spare part had to be brought from the capital (luckily there are cell phones!), the damaged car unloaded, the load and we were to return to the town Ouallam where we stayed over night. Early next morning, the repair was done, the cars again loaded and we continued the remaining 150 km to Bani Bangou. In the afternoon we took up our medical work in the health center; we managed to see and treat about 50 children.

The two remaining weeks were marked with hard work in the health center as well as in the villages with the mobile clinic. At the end of our 4 weeks turn we had medically treated about 1500 children. 

One of the problems was the hygienic “standard” which – according to my understanding – caused the bad health situation of 3 team members. Two of them suffered of a heavy gastro-enteritis with dehydration, so they had to be treated with i.v. infusions and the medication we had on stock. I myself had ONLY a cough and cold, which did not bother me. The youngest of our team developed malaria during the last week of our stay; therefore our coordinator decided to return to Niamey one day earlier. It was a wise decision because the conditions in Niamey were so much better than in the village: a regular toilet, a shower, electric light, fresh vegetable and fruit, email-possibilities. They are invaluable after missing them for a longer period of time.

The locals who worked with us in the nutrition center, the drivers and the translators were very engaged in their job. We could rely on them, we slept under the same sky, we shared the food, and we prayed together. Most of the people are Moslems, only 2 % of the population are Christians. Knowing that the engagement of Humedica in Niger will end during the next year, the regular income possibilities for the local staff will end, too. I feel sorry for all those who showed much responsibility and engagement, and who will have to make tremendous efforts to feed their families. For some of them it really would be a good investment to offer them a professional training. Sheila, a real jewel, will take up a nurse’s training which is paid for by some German sponsors. And I also think very much of a young man with family who would be a wonderful male nurse or health officer if he had the chance for training. This is an aspect of our short-term appearance which I never reflected on: we give room for dreams, we show people different possibilities of life, but when leaving we let them fall back in their old restricted pattern and chances.

Back to Stadtbergen in its bright seasons decoration and kitsch and Überfluss. Although I do not agree with and understand our demonstration of abundance yet complaining at the same time, I cannot completely withdraw from the customs, so I, too, decorated my home with lights and candles just to remind me of Christmas and the weeks before and after. On the 30th of December I will be again up, up and away, this time to Tanzania and Kenya for about 6 months. I am looking forward to it!!!

Dear friends, I wish you all the best, and considering the festive days ahead, peace on earth to all of good will. And I know, you are!  May your paths always be blessed.


Felicitas Samtleben-Spleiß

Ahornweg 15

D-86391 Stadtbergen




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