BY MID-FEBRUARY, Catholics everywhere will be thinking Lent. It’s a time of the year when we aren’t squeamish about being Catholic, whether it’s wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday, observing meatless Fridays, or giving up something special and not fretting if people know about it. It’s a time when we repent of our usual ways and reflect on who we really are—and who we are to become.

This Lent, I want you to follow me on a trip to Niger, the poorest nation on earth. I went to this West African nation and neighboring Burkina Faso with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) last October. I came back with reams of notes, interviews, photos, and videos. We visited about 15 program sites in all. In the following pages, I want to share with you only a few highlights.

Faced with great poverty, I saw an incredible response to Jesus’ command to feed the hungry. CRS is our Church at work, doing incredible good. In a time when the Church in parts of our country is weary of argument, scandal, and shortcoming, I thought you’d like to know that.

Three CRS staff were among our guides, and I’ll depend upon them to help tell this story. They know the ins and outs of CRS’ work in these two countries. But more important, their own commitment says a lot about what our Church is doing in West Africa.

It is not an easy thing. There’s the decade-old drought and resultant widespread hunger in the Sahel, this region just below the Sahara Desert. And the US nemesis, al-Qaeda, has fomented political instability to the north and south of these countries. War is brewing even now, as the United Nations is assembling a multinational army to run al-Qaeda out of northern Mali, which borders both Burkina Faso and Niger. Refugees are fleeing without water, food, or shelter.

We journalists, in fact, wound up with an armed military escort for part of our visit and had to change plans to avoid a dangerous area near the Mali border. We’ll get to that as our story unfolds.

Working Together

After flying for a day and a half from the United States, our small group of journalists— three of us from Catholic publications, a few others from CRS’ headquarters in Baltimore— meet Bill Rastetter and one of his working partners, Ousseini Sountalma.

Bill, I’m surprised to learn, grew up near my own hometown in northern Ohio. He has devoted his life to serving the poor through CRS programs. Now 58, he’s spent much of his 35-year CRS career in one part of Africa or another. A turning point in his career came during the infamous famine of the 1980s in Ethiopia, where Bill directed CRS’ relief efforts.

“I remember we had a CRS poster that had a picture of a child standing at the blackboard, writing over and over again, ‘I will not let them starve. I will not let them starve.’ It was motivating,” he says, a bit choked up. It’s the only time during our days together that I’ve seen this side of Bill.

He grew up on a farm and plays his cards like a lot of American farmers, without much outward emotion; just a matter-of-fact, friendly demeanor—and a passionate, can-do attitude. “I’ve often told myself that I have the best job in the world,” he says. “I’m inspired by the people we help. I’m inspired by the people we work with in countries, people in the Church, and my colleagues. I consider myself so lucky.”

At one point Bill directed programs in all of western Africa. After his wife died of illness some years ago, he returned, with his growing children, to an office job at CRS’ headquarters in Baltimore. But now, children grown and settled into adulthood in the United States, he’s returned to Niger as the director, the “country representative.” And he’s remarried. Somewhere along the way, Africa became his home.

One of Bill’s several key CRS managers in Niger is Ousseini, a Nigerien. CRS has always forged partnerships with the local community. In Niger, for example, there are 165 local staff working with seven international staff, such as Bill. That’s one thing I didn’t know about CRS: it’s a huge organization, running many programs, with scores of staff in each place, worldwide.

As you get to know Ousseini, you realize that this talented project manager could have been a national leader here in Niger. His brothers, in fact, include two foreign ambassadors and Niger’s former defense secretary. He himself has a graduate degree in economics. Questioned about his brothers’ work, he jokes, “My work is more important than theirs because I’m helping people!” Of course, they are, too, as are most observant Muslims. Ousseini is in this with as much humanitarian passion as Bill’s. This partnership between a Catholic agency and Niger’s majority Muslim population is what makes the CRS programs here so effective.

“Almost all religions have the same vision of serving the most vulnerable, without any other consideration,” says Ousseini. “My main motivation for this work is to demonstrate that to those who think otherwise. We work in great harmony of hearts and minds—in the office, in the field, with all stakeholders.” Notice the word stakeholders, a key concept for the CRS workers. There is a tremendous respect for the people of local communities.

Opening Sesame Opportunities

One of these programs is helping farmers in Niger to improve their farming practices and to become more independent by growing new crops. “Millet is one of the basic crops in this region,” Ousseini explains as our jeep hurtles along a dirt road, behind a machine-gunmounted military jeep with six soldiers aboard, heading for a village a few hours’ drive from our base in the national capital, Niamey. Caroline Anderson, a Marquette Universitydegreed American expert on local economic development, translates Ousseini’s French into English (French is the common language in this former colony) and helps explain. Millet is a cornlike grain, a staple in the local diet.

Growing sesame and other new crops provides an opportunity for the villages to become more self-supporting. “A lot of these farmers weren’t doing anything with sesame before, or if they were, it was kind of a small-scale thing,” Caroline explains. Sesame is one of the keys to improving the quality of life in these tribal villages.

“Before the project in that area, people had the misconception that if you planted sesame you would prevent the rain from coming,” Ousseini picks up, as Caroline translates. “So they only ever put a small amount, for cooking, in the gardens next to their homes. CRS came in and explained that this is something that people would actually want and would buy in Asia and the United States.”

In fact, sesame requires far less water to grow than does millet. The farmers misunderstood that—because it looked healthier, they believed the sesame was hogging scarce water. “In order to convince the men and the women of the village,” Ousseini explains, “in 2006 we took a small group of women in each village and did a school field for an example [CRS had built schools in the villages], where they had a little plot of land.” On one small plot they produced 600 kilos [1,300 pounds] of sesame. The women then took the lead. The men, who have been farming millet for generations, “think that they know everything because they’ve been doing it forever. For the women, it’s a new beginning when they’re given a chance to do a small portion in their husband’s field.”

I wondered if there was a market for the seeds. “A large market!” exclaims Ousseini. “There were merchants from [neighboring] Benin, Burkina, and Nigeria who would come and buy it. In the first year, they would buy it for 50,000 francs.” Then numbers roll off of this economist’s tongue in rapid fire. In short, they made about $600 for a relatively small (2.5- acre) plot. “If that had been [2.5 acres] of millet, you might have had about $200.”

We spent the day in and around the village of Ouaga. There we saw sesame growing in the fields, next to the traditional millet and sorghum (for animal feed), and talked to villagers, gathered in the 95-degree shade under a nema tree in the village center, to hear the story of lives changed.

Ousseini tells of how the women have become sesame exporters. CRS located a Lebanese merchant who worked with various villages to develop processes and standards that would establish a steady supply chain. “What we want to do is to improve value chains,” Ousseini explains, “to let each actor have more information about all of the different steps and put them in touch with one another so that they can take advantage of the best situation.”

Then the money started pouring in—minuscule by US standards, but life-changing in these villages. “It’s amazing! We’ve never seen anything like it,” says Seyni, a local woman. “I can help my family members, and, thanks to this project, when we pass away our children will be able to carry on.” Respect for women, now more significant players in the community’s economy, has grown accordingly. The women demonstrate for us how they process the seed into sesame oil, using machines primitive by our standards, but effective.

In village after village, we learn of new agricultural projects and the comparative prosperity they have brought to the people, even with the drought, which, thankfully, ended last year, yielding a rich harvest. One village leader tells us, “They didn’t just give us food; they taught us how to feed ourselves.” In another village, a man named Guma Toubu, who had migrated to a faraway city in despair but now has returned, tells us in English, “Before CRS came, we were doing some of these things, but the machines made it profitable—now the kids have clothes, food, and the things they need to go to school.” When asked by one of our group if he has any message he would want Americans to hear, he says, “Tell the Americans, ‘Thank you.’ We have everything that we want now.”

The Church Takes Root

I thought I had gotten plenty in Niger to write this story. Then we went to neighboring Burkina Faso, where we saw the Church booming, and even paid a visit to a Franciscan parish. It took about an hour to fly to Burkina’s capital, Ouagadougou (Timbuktu, in Mali, is only hours away). Burkina Faso, simply called Burkina, the world’s seventh-poorest country, feels developed compared to Niger. And it has a thriving, growing Catholic community.

Before starting our village treks, we caught the 7 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish. When we got there, the 5:30 a.m. Mass was just wrapping up. The parish has 15,000 members, worshiping here and in two mission churches. The 7 a.m. Mass was packed, and everyone sang. There are 156 seminarians in the region.

Jacques Kabore, whose mother we met by chance in front of church, is one of the most joy-filled men I’ve ever met. Jacques, who directs community-finance projects in the villages, is our guide. He wanted to be a priest when he was young, and his younger brother did enter the seminary. Jacques found his calling elsewhere: “When I heard about CRS as a development institution, I wanted to come and be a part of it,” he says.

Jacques’ specialty is microfinance, a breakthrough in changing the future for many Africans. This father of four, now 42 years old, a student of finance and law with a graduate degree in project management, explains why. The principle of microfinancing is simple enough: people in villages pool their meager savings into locally governed savings pools— small-scale credit unions.

“By saving money—putting money away to where it’s harder to access—participants are able to improve their lives in ways unimaginable before,” he says. Jacques has helped build a program across the region that now has more than 42,000 member families among 700 villages. We stop in to see one firsthand.

As in Niger, it is the women who are first to change. A group of women are gathered in Ramsa village to demonstrate the savings project, with coins and locked boxes; the keys to each are held by two women. “I was able to buy another goat, better clothes for my children, school supplies,” says one woman. When asked how much she had saved, she coyly declines to give an answer. Clearly, she is doing well.

Nutrition is Basic

Among many other stops in Burkina, we visited the village of Tambidi to see a nutritionsupport program at a school that CRS helped to build. The community came out en masse to welcome back the CRS people, who had gotten the project up and running, then moved on to other villages. In a packed schoolroom, parent after parent gave testimony to how CRS has changed their lives. “It was here, but we couldn’t see it,” says one parent. “Someone who is educated is not the same,” explains another. “Even an educated farmer will do better than one who is uneducated.”

The children are more disciplined now; girls are a surprising and powerful new resource (“We used to think the boys were smarter than the girls,” says one man, “but now we know the girls are smarter”—everyone laughs.). After a round of similar testimonials, Mr. Fluissa, a spokesman for the group, steps forward and says, “It would take a whole night to list all of the benefits.”

At another school we visited, young mothers were sitting about in the shade, feeding their infants bowls of vitamin-enriched millet cereal. Inside a primary school classroom in a simple schoolhouse with desks, blackboards, teachers’ desks, and the rest, Jacques takes a seat in a child’s desk and gets everyone’s attention. “Do you see this?” he says loudly. “Every leader in Burkina Faso, from the president on down, owes their education to Catholic Relief Services. We all started in schools like this, with nutrition programs.” Several of the men in attendance, from various government agencies, nod in agreement. The difference between the stylishly dressed, energetic, and confident Jacques and these village children is staggering.

A Question of Faith

For Jacques, it’s a nonstop effort to use all that he has received. “I feel the real need of the people and want to do what I can do,” he says. He especially sees the opportunity to help women in these villages claim their human dignity.

“I have to use my talents for others. That’s why I’m running every day!” he says with a laugh. “People tell me I have a lot of energy. I’m just following my faith.” Among several favorite Scripture passages, he mentions the multiplication of the loaves, “when Jesus said, ‘Feed them yourselves’ [Mt 14:16]. That’s what we have to do in development work.”

The ‘Hungry Season’

On that first Sunday in Burkina, when we had gone to Mass and then drove to Ramsa village, we listened to 87-year-old Miriam Ganame telling us her experience of hardship over many years in Ramsa. There was a long drought. “I was hungry. I had no food,” she explains. Then she thanks us Americans for the assistance she got last year: a month’s supply of food and condiments. “If it weren’t for the assistance,” she says, “I would have died. We would have been removing leaves from the trees and cooking them.”

I ask, gently, what she means. She explains how they have survived many years during the “hungry season,” which happened annually when the drought-plagued crops were meager. The adults sent children to climb into the long-thorned cheglega branches to harvest leaves. The cooked leaves are “not nutritious,” says Miriam, “but they fill the belly.”

“Give them some food yourselves,” Jesus told his disciples. During this Lent I will be haunted by Miriam’s image, once hungry, now thankful, still very poor. I won’t think so much about what a hardship it is to give up meat on Fridays, maybe not even how difficult it is to fast. Who are we? I’ll ask in my prayer. Who are we to become?

CRS Rice Bowl

THIS YEAR tables around the United States will again host miniature donation boxes, where we can give up something for Lent. Once called Operation Rice Bowl, now CRS Rice Bowl, they’ve been around every Lent for decades. Pennies turn into dollars, which turn into help for developing communities.

But perhaps more important, they help us to consider the poor. “One out
f eight people in this world goes to bed hungry each night,” says Dr. Carolyn Woo, international director of Catholic Relief Services, from her Baltimore office. “That’s about 170 million people who wake up in the morning, weak, and the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Where will food come from?’”

Some of the Rice Bowl donations will go to Burkina Faso this year, as well as to four other nations in need of help, and to a US diocese. They’ll support all manner of development and emergency projects, including helping to operate refugee camps in Burkina Faso, growing as people flee the looming war across the Mali border. About a fourth of Rice Bowl proceeds, Woo explains, are used by participating US parishes for work with the local poor.