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Assessing risks, and benefits

Trish Newport Special to the News Zinder, Niger Two weeks ago, in Niger, two French men were kidnapped and killed by al-Qaida. One of the men worked for a medical NGO in Niger, and was scheduled to get married this week.


Two weeks ago, in Niger, two French men were kidnapped and killed by al-Qaida.

One of the men worked for a medical NGO in Niger, and was scheduled to get married this week.

The other had recently arrived from France to be the best man at the wedding.

The kidnapping happened in a restaurant in the capital city, on the same block as the Medecins Sans Frontiers office.

The risks involved in our job have suddenly become much more apparent.

Al-Qaida targets the French in Niger, and so Medecins Sans Frontiers has evacuated all the French staff. The rest of us live with very tight security rules, especially as Medecins Sans Frontiers is perceived as a French organization.

In times like this, you examine the risks.

I ponder the importance of us being here, and our impact on the population.

The questions are infinite, but the answers always become clearer to me when I walk through the malnutrition centre.

The centre is made up of a number of large plastic tents. The tents are divided into ‘phases’ and children progress through the phases depending on their health and nutritional status.

This week, after reading too many al-Qaida reports, I was struggling with whether we even have the right to be here.

I left the intensive care tent, which houses incredibly sick malnourished children. I walked across the sand to the tent of the final phase.

The first mother I saw was beaming, and packing up her few things. I recognized her from her two-week stint in intensive care, but I didn’t recognize the child in her arms.

Little Bashir, who had been horribly emaciated when he arrived, had gained so much weight that his cheeks were a little chubby, he had a bum and I couldn’t recognize him.

His mom was packing them up to head home, and to continue treatment in an ambulatory program.

As I was walking back to the intensive care tent, our right to be here was walking towards me.

Her name is Zara. More than five weeks ago, Zara’s grandmother brought her to the centre.

Zara was three years old and weighed five kilograms. She was incredibly emaciated, and couldn’t even lift up her head. She had to be tube fed for a number of weeks because she was too weak to sip the therapeutic milk.

Her malnutrition was caused by TB, which is not an uncommon story here. She was started on treatment, and slowly we watched her improvement and development. We saw the first time she sat on her own. Her first sip of milk from a spoon. The first time she waved goodbye. And today, little Zara, who is still extremely thin, took the first steps of her life.

She is still sick, and still vulnerable to so many things, but seeing her make her first timid little steps under the sun made our reason for being here so clear.

There are risks everywhere in life. The possibility of a Nigerian dying of malnutrition is much higher than the possibility of one of us being kidnapped and killed by al-Qaida.

So as security rules get tighter for us, and it seems like a liberty to go to the bathroom on my own, I wish that there were also security rules for children like Bashir and Zara - security rules to protect them from malnutrition and all of the other risks that come with being a child in a poor, underdeveloped country.

In this time of questioning, we can question the risks of being here, but we can’t forget to question the risks of not being here.

Trish Newport is a Whitehorse nurse who works for Medecins Sans Frontiers/ Doctors Without Borders. The article was written between November 2010 and May 2011, during a mission in Niger.