A California artist works to bring health care and education to nomads of Niger
Leslie Clark, a California artist, creates ‘fixed points’ along nomads' routes to bring health care and education to Niger.
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At Doli, for example, the Nomad Foundation dug a well, set up a cereal bank, built a two-room school, and hired a teacher to manage it. Also in the works is a program to hire nomads to dig small earthen dams, an effective way to irrigate that prevents rainwater runoff.Skip to next paragraph
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With plentiful water and well-irrigated pastures near the school, the nomads should roam closer, encouraging attendance at the school.
A visit to the school in March proved the approach is working. Twenty-three students, all under age 10, shouted "Moi, monsieur!" ("Me, sir!") when asked who would like to come to the board to count to 100 or read from a booklet.
One year after the school opened, the young children already have more schooling than any of the adults in the Iherherane tribe, who nonetheless are enthusiastic that education will help their children adapt in a changing world.
"What helps us most is education for the children," says Badta Ibag, the Iherherane tribal chief, his wizened face hidden by Ray-Bans and a large turban, as befits his stature. He cannot conceive of any other life for his people. "Nomads cannot become other workers, and other workers cannot become nomads," he says.
Despite the success of schools like Doli, Clark's greatest legacy is likely to be the Tamesna Center, a work in progress at the nexus of several migratory routes. So far, a clinic and a volunteers' house have been opened there.
In February, Clark brought Bob Skankey, a retired medical doctor, to treat patients at the clinic and examine students at Doli and other satellite schools. During Dr. Skankey's two weeks at the clinic, 827 patients were treated, some of whom had traveled more than 100 miles.
The work of Clark and her volunteers is often draining and difficult. They spend long hours driving off-road in the heat. Recently, a journalist traveling with them feared an Al Qaeda ambush after a soldier's gun accidentally discharged in the early-morning hours.
But the joy in Clark's face as the girls and boys at Doli break into song is palpable. When she isn't shepherding Americans around the bush, Clark serves as an ambassador for nomadic art and music from her Nomad Gallery in Ojai, Calif., arranging embroidered leather and silver jewelry made by nomad artisan cooperatives next to her own art.
"What she has done is extraordinary," says Hasso Akotey, a Tuareg musician and close friend of Clark's. (Clark helped her enter the US to record a track with the Rolling Stones.) "It is so rare to see someone who lives with a people in order to understand them, and who tries first of all to integrate with them – because a social and cultural integration is what's necessary and that's just what she did."
For her part, Clark sees continuity between her forebears' frontier living – in the Wild West days in California her grandfather was a six-gun-packing sheriff and her father spent summers herding cattle – and her own attachment to northern Niger.
"I know that it is in my blood to want … that freedom and adventure," she says.
•For more information: www.nomadfoundation.blogspot.com