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Child Brides

Five Days in Niger
 by Amy Bucher
About the Program Child Marriage Facts Maria's Journey Five Days in Niger Girls' Voices Education Take Action How You Can Help For Educators React Send an E-Card

Amy Bucher is the producer of "Child Brides: Stolen Lives." She shared the following journal with NOW that chronicles her time shooting the documentary in Niger.

Sunday, July 15, 2007
11 p.m.
First night in Niger.

I've heard Niamey, the capital, called a "sweet" town. I can feel that. The streets are paved in terracotta powder and are as clean as can be! This surprises me so much. No garbage, no flying plastic bags, no cans, no snuffling dogs in sewers. It's as if they've outlawed littering—far cleaner than the streets of my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Can the whole city be this way? Hard to say, we've only just made the short journey from the airport to the Grand Hotel and tonight to an Italian restaurant (highly recommended, and for good reason!) called Le Pellier. That route was short, and "very sweet."

Amy Bucher
Producer Amy Bucher
Everyone in good spirits and holding up well after 24 hours of travel. I can't say it was grueling, just long. Strange early morning experience at Charles de Gaulle, trying to make our way from one part of Terminal 2E to another. Despite assurances back in New York that we would arrive directly where we were taking off (Terminal 2E) we still found ourselves shepherded from one shuttle bus to another, across acres of empty tarmac, circling lone Air France mega jets, pearly in the dawn, lonely and massive, way out on the edge of the airport. Clearly, the ticket operators at JFK have never been to Charles De Gaulle Airport.

But the flights were uneventful, and we slept and we woke in Niamey, the sweet city. The Grand Hotel is in a lovely spot, high above the Niger River, with a buzzing terrace of NGO reps and diplomats quietly sipping beers and murmuring business in the sunset. Dry as a bone here, no rain though the season should be upon us. This is good for travelers—no mosquitoes and the roads are dry—but very bad for crops and livestock. I expect a dusty drive to Maradi. Spoke to Mo [field producer and cinematographer Maryolive Smith] tonight and she said brace ourselves for 11 hours—that's 2 more than the 9 we were ALREADY bracing ourselves for. C'est la vie.

I'm sure I'll be trashed at the end but can't wait to get out and see the country. Hope to do some filming of Maria's journey, I'll put her in the front passenger seat of our Toyota land cruiser and should be able to get some very nice traveling shots, first reactions to the land and the people. If we have time, I'll try to get some tracking shots, and some drive-bys.

Traveling with us will be Oumou, a great 25-year-old Nigerien med student who will be our translator. We had dinner tonight with Oumou and Ghaichatou, two modern ladies atypical of Nigerien women (according to Barb Margolies of IOWD). Both unmarried, career-driven professionals. Ghaichatou is the most remarkable juxtaposition of contrasts - she arrives dressed in traditional Islamic head scarf, flowing pants, long tunic - head to toe, all in pink! And this beautiful 32-year-old woman is a doctor of social services, works for UNFPA, is unmarried and completely outspoken about her opinions. She is bold! I like her very much. We'll interview her after our trip to Maradi, for her perspective on how education is the key to combating early marriage.

Frustrating report from Mo from the field, complicated story about a girl who ran away from her marriage, but when the Emir interceded her father said she had gone back to her husband, everything fine now. Hard to get to the truth...Mo following up on two additional cases, hopefully more straightforward...Hard to know if working through UNICEF is the best way to get into this—is their profile too high? Will people really open up? We shall see. Can't want to meet the Emir, regardless of complexities he sounds like an extremely important fellow in the world of changing cultures. OK, eyes blearing out...must get up in five hours for the big trip to Maradi.

Giraffe in Niger
Giraffe surprise
Monday, July 16, 2007

Thunderstorms in the night, heard through a haze. 6 a.m. wheels up. Fresh air, cool pools of rainwater, and on the road to Maradi. Sunrise, giraffe, surprise us not an hour outside of Niamey! An omen of rarity and hopefully grace and good fortune for our work. Not prepared to shoot quite so early but Maria and all crew jumped out of the car to check out the giraffes and I had the camera up and was checking anyway so ran and tried to grab a scene, microphone dangling! Thought it was a bust, but back in the car, checked it out and found voilá, a sweet little moment. A good omen after all, it seems. 9 a.m. stopped for breakfast in the little roadside village of Doutchi. Couscous, tomato sauce and a few pieces of precious meat for flavor—delicious. Oh, and of course the ubiquitous Nescafé.

Sirin brought up the question of traditional music and rap and Oumou shared that her friend was a Nigerien rapper who often incorporates child marriage in his songs! Big excitement. We are going to try and track him down. A slim chance that he is actually in Maradi performing! Tried a few times on cell, no luck so far.

1 p.m. stopped for petrol in Konni. Spoke to Mo on cell, who scouted two stories today—one girl too shy, the second, she says, seems great so far. We'll see when we arrive. She told us to drive straight to Tibiri, the home town of the Emir, as the "Queen Mother" has arranged a traditional dance welcome for us. The Queen Mother apparently is not related to the Emir, but is still a very powerful woman, the head of ritual animistic fetish traditions that co-exist (somewhat confusingly) hand in hand with Islam.

Along the way, scenes of men prepping millet fields, the littlest goat herder. A funnel tree...women pounding millet - their arms powerful, their backs bent, their bodies an L-shape in bright colors. Our car chokes when we slow down for potholes, sudden and deep. It's a bit of a relic, our Toyota Land Cruiser, but our driver Abdou nurses it along. He claims the air-conditioning has nothing to do with the sudden deaths. I wonder, but am too grateful for the cool blasts of air to suggest we turn it off.

Outside, baking heat. It's dry and quite lovely, but the wind through the windows turns the car into a dust bowl when we cross paths with trucks bearing monster loads. The dust is red and fine and insidious. Cloud bursts of green in the redness. Lushness and dust, repetitions of life and death in the desert.

A sudden realization: The confusion of the story that Mo reported last night is actually the relevance! In that confusing stories must make the job of the BBC [Brigade de Bonne Conduite—Good Conduct Brigades—group that is
fighting early marriage in Niger] and the Emir that much more difficult. And probably quite common for mother and daughters, fathers and husbands to have conflicting stories when it comes to early marriage and interference or intervention from outsiders. Everyone has an interest and a perspective and surely they don't all match up. So all is definitely not for naught in terms of the time spent filming.

Arrived in Tibiri at the palace of the Emir around 4:30 p.m. What a scene had been prepared for us! Beneath the arching limbs of a vast tree, the queen mother and her court, elderly ladies in waiting seated at her feet. Dancing in the shade, cowry shell bedecked dancers - tall, lean, and angular, feet pounding the red dust, a drummer pounding the rhythm. It was lovely. Maria was thrilled and so excited! We miked her on the off chance that we could catch a conversation over the din and filmed her greeting the queen, and watching the dancing. Not sure how much "journey" will make it into the final film, but these are priceless scenes and worth the tape for the possibility.

The Emir of Gobir
With the Emir of Gobir
Of course, the color and the sound, the music, all anchor us in Africa. Then, time to meet the Emir, in a cool stuccoed palace we approached the most distinguished man, not so old, not so young, with a finely featured face, a tall red felt rounded fez and flowing white robes that glowed in the dimness of his receiving hall. And on his cheeks, scars like cats whiskers! Not the least bit cute, somehow, just added to his sense of rightness and stature. A lovely, intelligent, progressive man - so articulate.

Both translators, Roukia first and then Oumou. Roukia very deferential, much too long between interpretations - Oumou younger, faster, more fluent in English. We learned so much, too much to set down, but the highlights: his kingdom has lasted 5,000 years, he is the 430-something'th king in the lineage, selected in 1998 specially from 29 candidates. He is a man who loves his people, you can see it truly. Tomorrow, Maria will interview him in depth. So tired now, must crash in this beautiful room - the Maradi Guest House. I think there is nothing so romantic on this earth as a bed draped in mosquito netting. Early call to light the throne room!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A day that feels like a week, but in a good way. No, an extraordinary way. Can it be that we just arrived in Maradi yesterday afternoon? C'est not possible. We have had such a rich, full day - it really feels that we've accomplished as much in 24 hours as one could in a week (surely an exaggeration, but a reflection on how good we all feel about what has happened since we got here). The day started back at the palace, with the Emir's address to his chiefs - there must have been 50 or 60 tribal chieftains from throughout Gobir to hear his message about delaying early marriage. The men sat beneath a thatched shaded open-air courtyard, the women (of course) in the hot sun on the perimeter. This is a mighty progressive king (and king, it became very clear today, he is!) but the women still don't get the shade...old women, too...

But, not a time to complain about the Emir. He is truly a rarity. A visionary one might even say, in a traditional world he is striving to change the rules - rules that have left young girls with no options save early marriage, early childbearing, and a life of labor...a man with sounds silly, but it's true and how can one say? His facial scars give him the dignity of a lion, not a pussy cat. He is riveting. Maria's interview was deep, long (an hour and a half - well, I've done longer, but something about the lack of air conditioning when it's over 100 degrees outside changes your sense of time passing.) Fortunately, the Fan Man was on hand. The Emir has two guards who stand behind his sofa/throne, and one of them fans him continuously with ostrich feathers. Wow. Very thorough, insightful responses. It was a high when we finally departed at 3. We'll see him again tomorrow at the BBC sensitization brigade.

Sopping with sweat, we decamped for the Maradi Guest House and a quick lunch...and then on to meet Soueba, the girl whose mother was so horrified by a case of fistula in their neighborhood that she begged her husband not to marry their daughter at 14. Soueba is stunningly beautiful and so full of dignity, a strange word for a young girl, but true. On the verge of womanhood now (somewhere between 15 and 16) the marriage, which was supposed to take place when she was 14, delayed until 18. She was poised and decisive in her responses, and even though we were all of us a bit sun-struck and exhausted, a collective effort by all elicited another great interview.

Maria is amazing, indefatigable and endlessly patient. You can see that her heart is totally into this, and that as a mother, she is relating on a personal as well as professional level. Called Lesley to report in that all was well - love the modern world where a 4,000-mile phone call sounds like right next door.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Will have to flesh this out later, but notes: Woke early to find one of our crew had a rough night with food poisoning. I warned Erin (our associate producer/sound recordist) about those tomatoes but she insisted! In this heat, dehydration is your worst enemy if you've been throwing up, so we gave her some rehydration salts (nasty, but necessary) and banned her to her air-conditioned room for the day. One down, we set out to another rural village to interview women at a well and talk to them about their marriages. Found several who thought they had been married at 13. (Age is relative here, no one really knows exactly how old they are. They count in rainy seasons.)

Filming the well
Filming the well
Many had several children, all around 18? Hard to say. One very beautiful girl said she was 40 and had 7 kids and it was absolutely staggering - she looked in her late 20s. Not sure of the truth there. I shot this scene as Mo is off shooting more b-roll [non-specific footage for coverage, like scenics] with Soueba. So gorgeous, all the colorful women, and the buckets of water hauled hand over hand up the deep round well shaft...but a bit like an oven, the well area is enclosed in a mud courtyard with no roof in the middle of a field. No hat, no sunscreen, everything moving too fast to remember to apply...not smart (also forgot to white-balance, so later, reviewing footage, noticed an overall bluish tint. Nothing a little post-production color correction won't be able to fix, thank goodness).

But so absorbed by scene, shooting, etc., then some more stable shots with tripod. Interesting how mood changes on the sticks [tripod] from very present and now, to contemplative and pastoral. Reconnected with Mo and headed out to a field to film women pounding millet. Glad to have all these "women working" shots. Then, plan was to have a picnic in a field but pushing well over a hundred degrees we all agreed to head back to the hotel and get out of sun for a bit. Then, after a brief lunch, it was time to head out to the Emir's "sensitization session" in another small village. An army of small children assembled on the highway to greet the Emir with song and clapping.

Interview with Ya-Hya [President of the Good Conduct Brigades] - could tell it was very powerful even though my French caps out at one year, seventh grade. Got translation after (great that Maria knows French, keeps the flowing going). Next, filmed the girl group - singing a song about child marriage. Supple lead singer, model face—a future for everyone of these girls who could move to New York, but probably they'd end up doing coke and disconnected to everything they once knew. Seemed about 100 women seated on the ground, clapping with approval at the song and the messages of Ya-Hya and the last orange Fanta with the Emir and the Fan Man and then that day was done.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Baked in the car for 12 hours back to Niamey. Hot, slow, Toyotas persnickety in the heat. Thank god for drivers who are also skilled mechanics. The giraffes were there to welcome us back, four of them this time! Unbelievably pretty, flirtatious lady giraffe waltzed gracefully nearly up to the road to check us out, watching us curiously take her picture while munching on some tree top the time we got to the hotel we were all a bit heat exhausted. Standing in a cold shower I felt the heat waves radiating off my scalp through cool wet hair. That was a strange sensation.

Dinner tonight with the director of the Niamey Hospital. Our other guest was the daughter of First Lady of Niger - Yagana. Incredibly bright, beautiful, works for a world immigration office, interesting conundrum of being a president's daughter in an African country. Democratically elected but also rumored to have assassinated the last pres to get the office...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Breakfast on the terrace overlooking "the big muddy." We shot some lovely scenics of the Niger River, almost pink in the morning light, with the dark lean bodies of fishermen throwing their nets, poling their pirogues. This is a bonus as for all the men we saw working in the fields from the car during the drives to and from Maradi, we didn't actually get much footage. I thought, too, that it was nice to see men at work, while in Ethiopia it seems that we only saw women...women carrying mountains of wood on their backs while men strolled along behind them, swinging their walking sticks, having a chat. This is most probably inaccurate, and there were indeed men off somewhere, getting the job done, but we rarely if ever saw this...digression there...

After breakfast, and a tussle with the management over the state of our rooms when we checked in last night (the waste baskets had not been emptied, and the showers not cleaned) we got ready for our last day of shooting in Niger. This was to be the day of "the highest to the lowest" in terms of interviews - Madame Tandja, the President's wife, and 15-year-old Habi, a fistula patient at the National Hospital who Mo and Erin had started filming before Maria and I arrived. But first, off to the palace. Madame Tandja's bodyguard met us at the Grand Hotel, to escort us to the Presidential Residence. The first family's palace lies in an extensive compound, filled with military guards, and their families. Interesting to see women pounding away at their millet just yards from the most powerful family in the country.

We were escorted into a kind of audience chamber, with overstuffed leather sofas and chair ensembles (de rigueur for royal families, from the President of Niger to the Emir of Gobir, though his were covered in maroon plush) pushed against four walls, fake plants, and Tuareg wall hangings. We moved just about every piece of furniture in the room, rotated all the wall hangings, and accidentally separated a fake potted palm from its planter setting up the interview, but in the end, it looked lovely. Satisfying as it looked, the First Lady's responses were pat and predictable...she had no idea that married girls were not allowed in school (Roukia, our interpreter is a school teacher, so she should know) but Madame Tandja claimed this was the choice of the families, not the academic institutions. She did tell us there is a bill on the table for raising the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, but was a bit vague on when the legislation would be voted on. Honestly, though, I sincerely doubt that changing the legal age would make much difference out in the villages, but as at least as a symbolic gesture it would be a big step in the right direction. It seems clear that the real change is coming from the Ya-Hya's and the Emir's, and mothers like Soueba's, not the palace.

From there, we headed to a restaurant called Zanzibar's for a break and some lunch. Clear that everyone is wiped out. Mo and Erin have been at it for 9 days, Maria and I only five, but man, we were feeling it. And knowing that after we wrapped we were headed straight to the airport for flight to Delhi compounded the sense of fatigue. Lasagna and a few cokes helped us all rally for the last big push. We drove to the National Hospital and unloaded our gear while Mo and Roukia went to check on Habi. Habi was recovering very well from her surgery of the previous Friday—a week ago—and remarkably was up already and walking around, even after 4 hours on the operating table. ( I guess they get them up as soon as possible...seems inhumane but then again, Dr. Andrew, in Addis, held to the same theory that this was the best approach to recovery).

We took Maria over to the ward to meet Habi. A crammed room, with 8 beds and little space between. Three new fistula patients who had had surgery that morning in the beds closest to the windows. Habi was sitting on her bed, as beautiful a girl as all the many we have seen in this country - petite, though, very petite, with narrow hips clearly too narrow to pass a child through. Her cute face made even more so by the whisker like scars radiating from the corners of her mouth. Roukia tells us they get these scars when they are just a baby. I'm sure it hurt like hell, but then we circumcise little boys...digress again.

It was dim in the room, though enough light to shoot. Habi was overcome with shyness. Understandable, a new western woman who wants to ask her personal questions, and a room full of staring Nigerien women wondering why she is getting all this attention. It was tough going. Maria sat on the bed, Roukia translated, but the responses were brief, she smiled often with embarrassment and shyness. Outside, the sky got darker and darker and divine intervention came to save us with a violent thunderstorm and a deluge of biblical proportions. Our first real rain of the rainy season. At the time it seemed that we were screwed (the noise on the tin roofs created such a din that we couldn't continue the interview), but as it turned out, it was a blessing.

Amy with Maria
With Maria
We waited and waited for the rain to stop, a rain that drove giant water cockroaches out of crevices—poor Maria had one land on her foot (her little foot in an open-toed sandal for god sake and this was not your ordinary cockroach! It looked like a small dinosaur and must have been 6 inches end to end. Ghastly). The rain flooded the hospital, standing water everywhere and we were left with an unsettling feeling that in a place with such poor sanitation, who knew what was mixing in the soup? We had no choice but to wade through. We plowed forward to interview Dr. Abdoulaye, hoping the rain would end and we could go back and finish Habi.

A somewhat mad scramble ensued as we debated where to conduct the interview with Dr. Abdoulaye. In the rain, it had to be inside, but the offices were cramped and the O.R. too stark. Time was slipping away, Abdoulaye was getting impatient and we had to be back to the hotel by 7. Maria suggested the courtyard (the rain had by then stopped, at least temporarily). We took a chance with the weather and set up on tripods for this interview and it couldn't have looked more beautiful or gone better. Dr. Abdoulaye was articulate and concerned and warm and full of the whitest teeth. And behind Maria I framed women getting water, bathing a little naked baby, frequent passes of women in colorful wraps. At the end of the interview we looked up and there was Habi, who had hobbled with her large stick all the way to where we were shooting, curious to see what these white women were up to, and we were able to relocate Maria's interview with her outside, and she was much more comfortable.

The last shots of the Niger shoot were of Maria and Habi walking together back to her ward....very lovely. Then, a race back to the hotel to pack, grab a quick shower and head to the airport, where we encountered a baggage crisis. Delta Niger was having nothing to do with us checking more than the requisite two bags per person. This left us with almost 10 cases they refused to take, regardless of our offer to pay for excess. It got ugly. Everyone was very, very tired. The counter woman was arrogant and unsympathetic. We finally begged and pleaded our way to a cargo representative who agreed to ship our excess back to New York. By the time Maria and I crawled into our economy seats we were fried. We both slept all the way to Paris....