Traditional leaders in Niger: “The virus is real.”
As part of the COVID-19 Diaries, UNICEF Niger accompanies the President of the Association of Traditional Chiefs of Niger during a sensitization campaign in Niamey.
These are not easy days in Niamey.
The arrival of COVID-19 has not been unnoticed in the capital’s neighborhoods. Communities are mobilizing to face the spread of the virus. Neighborhood chiefs, traditional and religious leaders, and respected people in the communities are taking action to sensitize the population of Niamey.
Amirou Albade is 82 years old. Despite being at high-risk from COVID-19, he has no plans to stop his personal fight against the virus by respecting the prevention measures.
We met him early in the morning under the scorching sun of Niamey while coordinating one of the awareness campaigns. Amirou is an institution in Niger. He is the President of the Association of Traditional Chiefs of Niger; one of the most respected positions in a country where the weight of socio-cultural norms is strongly felt. In Niger, social relations are very hierarchical, so traditional leaders are a fundamental catalyst to involve the community in the fight against COVID-19.
“We are mobilizing the maximum number of chiefs in the neighborhoods of Niamey. The message to the population is clear: there is no medicine against the virus, the only way we save lives now is following the preventive measures. These are times for solidarity, not division. Everyone individually and collectively must act to prevent community spread,” says Amirou, sheltered under the shade of the awning.
Amirou has stories to tell as a traditional chief. His career is well known throughout the country. He started in the Tillabery region, near the border with neighboring Burkina Faso. There he was the Chief of the Canton of Tagazar. Years later he became a Commander of the army and later was nominated president of the Association of Traditional Chiefs of Niger.
Community leaders will also use community radios, mosque speakers, town criers and vehicles equipped with speakers as transmission channels for the transmission of community information prevention messages.
“We are also encouraging our brothers and sisters to pray but to do it at home. We tell them to avoid grouping in mosques and prayer rooms – to stay home. In these times we pray, hoping that God will protect the people of Niger,” he says. “It is important for the population to understand that small actions such as social distance and handwashing can save lives. We ask all the imams and religious leaders to help us in raising awareness.”
The traditional chiefs are considered as the guardians of Niger’s traditions and customs. As such, they are essential partners for behavior change in Niger. They receive unfailing respect from the administration and communities.
Traditional leaders like Amirou have administrative authority at the community level and work closely with religious leaders. These two groups are the most respected in both households and communities.
Therefore, in COVID-19 times, they play an essential role in sensitizing communities. They inspire other leaders to take action, spread the message, and help contain the pandemic. This is why UNICEF works with the Association of Traditional Chiefs of Niger (ACTN) to support communities in the fight against COVID 19 and its harmful effects.
The partnership aims to raise awareness in communities and set up mechanisms for health monitoring and mitigation of the effects of the crisis.
As of April 19, 2020, the country has had 648 confirmed positive cases – including 20 deaths. The first case in Niger was reported on March 19, 2020, in Niamey. Six out of eight regions are affected. However, the hotspot remains Niamey with about 98 percent of cases.
Across the country, 12,728 villages, neighborhoods, and Tribes will be sensitized by awareness-raising and social mobilization activities under the leadership of traditional and religious leaders.
In addition to the national campaign waged through traditional and new media – including community media, UNICEF is carrying out a series of actions at the community level by mobilizing town criers and social mobilizers, traditional and religious leaders, and youth.
Juan Haro is a Digital Communication Specialist and photojournalist at the UNICEF office in Niger, West Africa. On the ground, he leads creative content projects for digital media with a particular focus on storytelling.
Rosman Gosmane is a C4D Specialist at the UNICEF Office in Niamey, Niger. He is specialized in community dialogue approaches and social mobilization through traditional and religious leaders.