The seldom-mentioned West African nation of Niger has been in the news in recent weeks when four US soldiers and five Nigerien soldiers were killed in a firefight along the Malian border. The US military is in Niger to train allies in counter-insurgency techniques—part of the wider US strategy to fight global terror. One element of the initiative in Niger includes the construction of a 100 million dollar drone base in the desert town of Agadez.
It is still unclear who attacked the soldiers, but the US government and media were quick to blame violent, religiously inspired terrorist groups connected to al Qaeda and ISIS.
The flurry of media stories focused on the details of how the US soldiers were killed, speculation of who was responsible, and the political implications for US anti-terror strategy. One immediate outcome was the Nigerien government announcement that US drones could now fly armed missions. Until last week they were restricted to surveillance.
Not surprisingly, amidst all this attention, there has been little attempt to understand the history and context that created the conditions in Niger and even less concern with the deep insights and abundant resources the people of Niger have to address these conditions.
One example of the rich resources Niger possesses can be found about 100 kilometers east of the capital in a small town called Kiota. A thriving Sufi Muslim community, Kiota is also home to two of West Africa’s most influential religious leaders, Sheikh Moussa and Sheikh Saida Niass (known as Mama Kiota—read an interview between her and the Kairos Center here).
Sufism traces its history to the earliest days of the Islamic tradition. Sufi communities, or orders, are commonly characterized by distinct, intense devotional practices and are organized around the leadership of inspired spiritual leaders, known as Sheikhs. Tijanism is the most popular Sufi order in West Africa. The Tijani have a long history of social engagement and resistance to the destructive colonial and post-colonial forces that have exploited resources and impoverished the people of West Africa for over a century.
For the past 60 years the Sufi community in Kiota has worked creatively and tirelessly to improve life for the people not only in Kiota but across West Africa. They have built schools and health clinics, initiated farming and gardening projects, and helped the town of Kiota become one of the most important centers for scholarship and religious devotion in West Africa.
The work of Mama Kiota is especially notable. She is the daughter of the late Ibrhaim Niass, an even more influential Tijani leader from Senegal. Mama Kiota is a prodigy who at a young age achieved the highest levels of knowledge and authority within the Tijaniyya order. She arrived in Niger around 1960 as a young woman and ever since has worked relentlessly to improve conditions in Niger and across West Africa, especially for women. In Kiota she helped establish a women’s health clinic, gardening and farming projects, and numerous schools—including a 1000-student complex that draws students from all over West Africa. Not long after Mama arrived in Kiota she founded a women’s leadership organization, which today claims over 200,000 women leaders all across Niger and West Africa.
The very existence of this community in Niger contradicts the dominant narrative propagated by those in power and the media that repeat it.
In Kiota and the surrounding rural areas she has helped transform the male-dominated culture and understanding of Islam. Her influence led to the end of the once common custom of cloistering (confining women to their homes after they marry). Over the course of decades she has radically shifted the attitudes of male leaders toward women and women toward themselves. Most village chiefs now require girls and young women to attend school and women openly discuss the use of birth control, access numerous maternal health and education services, and engage in small farming and gardening projects to generate extra income.
The leaders of Kiota, Mama, Sheikh Moussa, and many others, focus their spiritual authority and material resources on improving the lives of those in the community. Their authority and talents are not aimed at accumulating wealth or converting people to Islam. Their actions are a response to a world that mistreats life and a deep devotion to a God that takes the side of the poor and grants humans the power to realize a world free of the indignity and injustice of poverty. Sufi prayer and devotional practices do not serve to distract or cover up the pain and hardship of life in Niger. On the contrary, prayer practices are intensified through and given deeper meaning by the daily struggles and commitments to improve life.
The leaders in Kiota work patiently and openly with anyone who demonstrates a similar commitment, including Muslim and non-Muslim organizations, Nigerien government agencies, and international institutions and non-profits. Not all Nigeriens are Tijaniyya, but their leadership is trusted and respected far beyond the Tijaniyya order and far beyond Niger’s borders.
The very existence of this community in Niger contradicts the dominant narrative propagated by those in power and the media that repeat it. That narrative holds that the rich and powerful nations of the world have the economic, military, and political solutions that will save the poor. Mama and the leaders in Kiota show that the poor themselves possess the resources, understanding, and vision to lead the way out of poverty. They also demonstrate how through the context of struggle religions take on liberative qualities that sustain people and provide a vision of a better world.
Mama and the leaders in Kiota show that the poor themselves possess the resources, understanding, and vision to lead the way out of poverty.
Far away from Niger, the poor in the US are taking up the struggle to end poverty through the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. While the context and history of the struggles in the US and Niger differ greatly, they are fundamentally linked by their opposition to a common systemic enemy. This enemy speaks of global peace and security, the values of democracy and human rights, and the boundless opportunities of Capitalism. In practice this enemy viciously exploits people and their land, marginalizes or excludes billions from the economy and the political process, and is mired in and benefiting from endless war.
These struggles of the poor in Niger, and the US, are hidden and marginalized, not because those struggles are insignificant, but because they defy the narrative of the powerful and challenge its morality. The unity of these struggles presents a solution that would undermine and undo the current system. In the US, the Poor People’s Campaign is a sign that the poor are organizing and beginning to move. By uniting and learning from communities like Kiota and leaders like Mama that movement will only continue to grow and gain strength.