"There's a mystery at the heart of it, an attraction I don't completely understand." -Bess Palmisciano
RAIN founder Bess Palmisciano was a lawyer with Fleet Boston Financial when she first visited the Sahara desert of Niger, West Africa in 2000. Passing through the barren landscape, she was mystified and intrigued by the ability of the nomadic peoples to survive there. Bess and her husband, John Ahlgren, asked their guide, Moussa Haidara, if they might spend some time near a nomadic encampment. Moussa took them to stay with his family, where they pitched a tent and spent the evening. Bess was moved by how Moussa distributed clothes and food to all the children in the encampment. Families shared their stories of how they followed the traditional lifestyle of nomadic herders - moving when necessary to seek pastureland for their herds of goats, sheep and camels. Moussa took Bess and John to the now abandoned state-run school and explained how nomadic parents wish for education for their children, but without teachers, supplies or food, children cannot stay there to learn. Bess found it hard to sleep, inspired by the joy of the people she met, laughing and singing by the fire in spite of the daily struggles for survival. She was impressed by their love of their stark home and loyalty to their traditional ways of life. She knew then that somehow, she had to help these joyful and fiercely independent people not only survive, but thrive. She would become part of their story.
Back home in New Hampshire, Bess raised a modest amount of money to rebuild a school for a Tuareg community. She wanted to do more.
With no knowledge of either French or the nomad's native languages, no connections save Moussa, and only the vaguest idea of how to find funding, Bess returned to Niger many times, digging deep to learn all she could about the intriguing culture, harsh lives and dire needs of the nomadic rural poor. She traveled across the remote Air Massif of the Agadez region, visiting several nomadic encampments to talk with Tuareg parents about their dreams of better futures for their children - futures that include education and access to health care as well as food and water security. Together, they talked of how they might partner to overcome the barriers preventing their children from attending school and their communities from thriving. Through extended sessions, they forged unique solutions with small budgets and big community investment - fostering participation, cultural self determination, and sustainability.
Now celebrating fourteen years in Niger, RAIN has grown a great deal since those early days. Thousands of parents volunteer in RAIN programs - digging gardens, leading committees, forming enterprises to support schools, and empowering themselves with literacy. More children are attending and succeeding in school, mentors provide guidance and practical skills to round out children's education, and school market gardens provide food to the children and greater food security for all. RAIN's grassroots, integrated approach has fostered trust and galvanized community involvement across the Sahel and Sahara. With Bess at the helm, RAIN continues to reach out to Tuareg, Wodaabe and other nomadic peoples into the next decade.
The mysterious pull that the desert of Niger exerted on Bess has resulted in deep connections. Bess, RAIN staff and volunteers have forged long lasting friendships and memorable experiences. Often, Bess is not just checking in with nomadic communities and their progress, but visiting those who have become cherished friends, warmly inviting her into their homes and hearts. RAIN has become a network of people forging meaningful connections that span continents and last lifetimes.
Click the photo to follow Bess for a day en brousse - in the bush - as she and RAIN staff come upon the wholly unique community of Tefis.
RAIN for the Sahel and Sahara is a nonprofit 501(c)3 working to make a lasting difference in Africa.