My Journey to Baroua

June 15, 2024

Diffa Region, Niger

UNDP Niger

My journey to Diffa started early in the morning as we headed straight for the airport in Niamey, Niger’s capital, where our UNHAS[1] flight awaited. We flew for about four hours, making multiple stops at other parts of the country to pick up and drop off passengers, embarking on the journey with around twenty other passengers.

Although I had mentally prepared myself for weeks, flying over the region as we approached the airport and seeing the desert between the clouds was a starker experience than I expected. Taking a deep breath, I braced myself and took my first steps once we landed. What followed was a dry scolding heat on my face and in my chest, almost as if Niger was welcoming me and warning me at the same time. I quickly realized this was my home for the next few days.

Working at the regional level within UNDP gives me a bird’s eye view of the organisation's efforts across the region. However, it also puts some considerable distance between what I do and the impact it leads to, and I’d often ask myself, "Does what I do, in some ways, make a difference?"

It was this question and my wish to see this reality that took me to Niger and, specifically, to Diffa. I wanted to see how all the data, pictures, excel sheets, and even stories translate into something meaningful in a place where UNDP invests a significant portion of its resources in advancing development amidst difficult and sometimes risky conditions. 

Although mentally prepared, nothing could have fully readied me for what I saw and the impressions I took away from the trip.
Ugochukwu Kingsley Ahuchaogu, Head of Communications and Regional Communications Analyst, UNDP Sub-Regional Hub for West and Central Africa and UNDP Senegal

Once settled in, we got our briefing on the security conditions in the region and how to stay safe. A day passed, and we carried out several activities around the city and closed out the day in preparation for our mission to Baroua.

The following morning, just as we were stepping out of our rooms and into the vehicles, I realized the cars being used were bulletproof, and the first “uh oh” went off in my head. Shortly after, we arrived at the rendezvous point, where we had a quick briefing and received turbans to wear – which came in handy later in the day. While changing, I noticed the cars being loaded with bulletproof vests and helmets, and this was when I mentally woke up. The realization that we were going to a red zone – an extremely dangerous part of the region – shot through my body like a jolt of electricity. 

As we left the gated premises of the rendezvous point, we were joined by additional vehicles with 17 military personnel escorting us to Baroua. At this point, what was a standard security procedure, something required by the government to safeguard lives, looked a lot different to me, and I started to see “SAFEGUARD” in capital letters. 

Heading to Baroua in what now turned out to be a convoy, I sat quietly, tense and unsure of what to expect. My colleague beside me was on a call and multitasking, which surprised me. I wondered how anyone could multitask at a time when it felt like the only thing we could do was mentally “zone in”. I put on my headphones, trying to quiet my mind with music. However, this was short-lived as there was a sudden change in terrain from a tarred road to uneven sandy fields.

Driving through, we encountered IDP settlements and sparse areas of greenery. Soon after, the drivers began to employ tactical manoeuvres and varying routes to avoid potential ambushes. One colleague saw this as a “tourism” opportunity for Niger, comparing the drive to the Dubai Dune Bashing experience – but that’s another blog.

As we drove deeper into remote parts of Diffa, internet connectivity started to fail, and radio signals became our only means of communication.

We stopped at a checkpoint to get reinforcements, and 17 military personnel quickly turned to 34. With heightened security, we continued our journey through the desert and a whisper of reassurance, "You’ll be fine, it’s alright," kept me going.

Upon arriving at Baroua, the air quickly changed, and suddenly, a sense of urgency enveloped us. Stepping out, we were met by community members and invited for a dialogue. The village chief shared a bit of the community’s history with us, detailing how, after a 2015 Boko Haram attack, the community was severely impacted by the crisis, and residents only began returning after five years. A return, driven in part by improved security and living conditions through the UNDP Regional Stabilization Facility for the Lake Chad Basin, which helps to stabilize communities impacted by the Boko Haram crisis, offering a much-needed lifeline to thousands.

We filmed the village chief as he shared this story and planned more filming opportunities during the dialogue, but security quickly marshalled us to the next point, disrupting our production plan and forcing me to pack up and move hastily.

We moved to a location where UNDP and partners had built a school and other essential infrastructure, such as water points, solar panels and more, to help restore normalcy for many affected by the crisis. Throughout, an armed soldier shadowed me, always wanting to stay ahead of me, which heightened my sense of danger and sent my mind into overdrive. “Am I stepping into the wrong place?” I wondered. The lack of internet connection and the fear that something could happen without anyone knowing added to the tension, and the thought of using my drone was out of the window as my situational awareness peaked.

The heat was unlike anything I’d experienced, as temperatures circled 45-46 degrees, causing my gear to overheat and shut down consistently. My colleagues, normally based in Diffa, devised a creative cooldown method – wrapping the gear in a wet turban – giving us brief 2 to 3-minute windows to capture essential footage.

We then visited a market UNDP[2] had helped rebuild to revitalise the local economy and foster income-generating opportunities. Here, we met a woman trader, one of the several community members who have been impacted by the project and can now cater to her family and sell her goods in the local market.

After the interview, my colleagues and I headed back to the vehicles, trying to cool ourselves and the equipment down when suddenly, the woman approached us and gripped our hands. Although I didn’t understand what she was saying as she spoke in her local language, her body language, eyes, and tone communicated much more to me than her words could. The heart behind her words tugged at me as I welled up with emotions of my own, realizing just how much the stabilization facility felt like a source of hope in an area almost forgotten and left to the whims of Boko Haram.

As we returned to Diffa, the community's full story came to light. On one occasion, the village chief we had spoken to was kidnapped by Boko Haram, and for years, the community had lived in constant fear of another threat and very little hope. Over breakfast the next day, while sharing our experience with colleagues, we were met with expressions of shock and dread once they learned where we had been.

At the end of the trip, I was left reflecting on why we needed to work and visit communities like Baroua if security threats persist for the community members and staff supporting programme implementation efforts and my question was met with a straightforward and concise response - “If we don’t go there, who would?”

This was enough. It was enough to remind me why addressing the Boko Haram conflict remains important, as no one deserves to live in fear, and no one deserves to live without hope.

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About the Regional Stabilization Facility

The Regional Stabilization Facility is a UNDP funding mechanism supported by international, regional, and national partners. Launched in 2019 in the Lake Chad Basin region and 2021 in the Liptako-Gourma region, the facility intervenes in targeted conflict-affected areas, supporting the efforts of governments and communities to reduce the risk of violence and implement longer-term peacebuilding, recovery and development programmes.

Learn more at: 

Learn more about UNDP in Niger:

[1] United Nations Humanitarian Air Service

[2] UNDP’s job in areas such as this is to help bring more life and sustenance to these communities. Through the UNDP Regional Stabilization Facility for the Lake Chad Basin, UNDP’s efforts are helping to rebuild communities and provide a foundation for sustainable development.