Africa, Week 1

Africa, Week 1

John Feister, editor in chief of St. Anthony Messenger, is in Africa to see firsthand the work of Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

We took a day off after an abrupt change in plans. There was a kidnapping of a Doctors Without Borders group, in a remote, ill-advised location. Medecine Sans Frontieres is prone to working in such areas—kind of a macho thing, say our guides. So CRS in Baltimore would not permit us to travel out of Niamey until the situation was clearer. 

The other day we took in the sights of Niamey. Had a briefing at CRS main office here, then the staff scrambled and came up with a day-off plan. After waiting around at CRS I conducted a few interviews, though my wife said my hands were shaky—“Blair Witch effect” (I have a hereditary a tremor). We had a long, late lunch at an ex-pat’s restaurant. Kind of like a nice hipster place. I had ratatouille. Bottled water. Lots of conversation.

Then off to the bazaar, teaming with people. Lots of craft vendors, each in a small stall, all coming up to us, trying to persuade us, one at a time, to come into their stall and see their crafts. I picked up a few small items to remember Africa by—a small cloth with images of giraffes (we should see them soon), a few very small things. $5 here, $2 there, all measured in local currency, thousands of whatever the denomination is called.

Then, after a quick stop at the hotel, back to a place just outside the city to watch the sun set atop an incredible, desert-like dune (we couldn’t get the car to the top, so we walked), with a vista of the countryside.

Niger river valley; small farms with thatched huts, local children coming a half mile across the valley to watch us. As the sun set we could hear one woman calling a full half mile to the woman at a nearby farm. Back and forth they hollered. We are in a quiet place outside of the city, though one can hear occasional motorcycles in the distance. And the dirt road that we came on is slowly yielding to pavement.

We had dinner at a very nice restaurant. I had a pizza. No black people there—someone who works locally commented on how strange that was, especially compared to Dakar, where there is a strong black middle class.

CRS does amazing work. I asked Helen Blakesly, a British CRS staffer with whom we ate dinner the other day, why she chose to work with CRS. Her answer was immediate: “We hear from people on the ground all of the time, how effective CRS is. After a disaster, for example, CRS assesses one day, and delivers help the next. Other agencies just keep assessing and assessing.”


About the Author

John Feister is editor in chief of St. Anthony Messenger magazine. He has a B.A. in American Studies from University of Dayton, and master's degrees in Humanities and in Theology from Xavier University. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, and was previously an adviser to the Communications Committee of the U.S. Catholic bishops (2000-2006). His latest book, Thank You, Sisters: Stories of Women Religious and How They Enrich Our Lives is available from the Franciscan Media catalog. He has cauthored four books with Richard Rohr (Franciscan Media), and coauthored, with Charlene Smith, the biography of Thea Bowman (Orbis books).