Rayanatou Laouali: Peanut collectives, Islam and a UWC brochure

By Hazel Schaeffer

Rayanatou Laouali hails from Niamey, Niger in West Africa and studies Applied Math and Statistics. During her four years at Macalester, she has been involved in Afrika!, Muslim Student Association, the Sustainability Student Network and the Women of Color collective. The eldest of six girls in her family, she is the first one to leave Niger to start school at the United World College in Canada. After your third attempt, last year you won a $10,000 grant from the Davis Project for Peace to aid a women’s collective in Niger. What was your inspiration for the project? I wanted to do something that’s in my maternal place. I lived in Maradi since I was very young, and I would go back every summer because I have lots of family members there. It is the poorest of the eight regions in my country, so there are a lot of things to do there. I started applying in my freshman year for the grant. I wanted to do something about malaria because that’s a very serious issue there, but I didn’t get the project. Then the summer before my sophomore year I went to Maradi to ask people “what do you want?” If the president has money to offer to do something in this community, what do you want to use it for?” I got a couple of ideas and I came back and, with help from professors, applied again with those ideas sophomore year. I went back in my winter break and met with the women that I worked with at a cooperative in Maradi and I talked with them to see exactly what they want because when I leave, it is them being in charge. If it is something that I designed myself, it wasn’t going to be very sustainable, but if it’s something that they wanted, then it will be sustainable. And then I added to the proposal something from what they told me they wanted. One of the things that I added was that the women would pay the equivalent of $1 that they would bring back from their profits that would go into an account. But they decided what the amount would be. Typical microfinance companies, when they bring back the money, the money goes to the microfinance company, but in this case it goes to themselves. That money will be used for another project. Right now we haven’t decided. I’m going to go home this summer, so we are going to go through it again and see what we want the money to be used for. What is the cooperative? It is a group of women in this neighborhood Tacha-Nouhou who make peanut oil. We have 11 women, and most of them are in their late 30’s. Some of them are in their 50’s. They make peanut oil or peanut paste and then sell it to the community. They also make this peanut dough. That one sells very quickly. Before people would bring peanuts to the women and they would process it and get paid for the labor. But there are so many steps before you get the peanut oil and it’s very time-consuming so their kids also have to be involved. The children are not in school. This work is their way of surviving. One of the families is a widow with kids and this business is what she uses to feed them. The business is really their main source of income, but it’s really not very profitable, so it’s not practical for the kids to be at school because they help with the labor. One of the things that they told me is that it would be good if they had their own source of peanuts, so that’s what we did with the grant money. We got a peanut stock that the women would go to and each take out a large bag—called a 100 kilo bag—of peanuts, process it, and bring back the money that the stock has been bought. We bought 11 bags of the 100 kilo bags of peanuts, one for each woman. Then they process it and they sell their oil and sell all their products, and then they bring back the $104 for the bag of peanuts and $1 to be put into the account. We also made them official. The cooperative is now known by the government as Massou Nema Da Kanssou. It’s best translated as “self-sufficient woman” in the Hausa language. Why is it important to be official? That is important because now if the government is providing sources of income to organizations, they can benefit from that. Also because I wanted this to become a non-profit in the future. My next project that I have in mind is to also work with their kids and talk to them about the importance of school. This is so the women can work on their own without having the children involved in the business. They can take their product to a local business where they have grinders and then the grinders can do some of the work so that they don’t have to do it all with their hands and stuff. Then the kids don’t have to be as involved` and can go to school. I was also kind of an example to them because my family was also a part of that kind of community, and if it wasn’t for my schooling, I wouldn’t be back in that community and bringing the grant. And telling them that if you want your kids to succeed, then you have to put school as your main priority. Now that they have a secure business, the kids can concentrate on going to school. Why did you decide to go to college away from Niger? It’s really a privilege for anybody to go to a school in America or Canada or Europe because it promises a better education. I guess that’s why I went to a UWC in Canada. Actually, whenever I think about how I heard about UWC it’s very emotional for me. The process of how people get to the UWC is very different for every country. In my country you get selected to go, so my school selected me and another girl to apply for the interview. It was a Wednesday and I was in my bio lab. We went together and he gave us this brochure with information. He really didn’t tell us what the interview as going to be about. We thought that we were going to be questioned on the information on the UWC brochure. So we went home and memorized every single thing that was in the brochure. Then at the beginning of the interview they gave us the information we had memorized. I thought, wait, what’s going on here? Why are they telling us the information we are supposed to know? Then they asked us questions like, “What do you think of xenophobia?” just to see how we answered those questions. There were many other things to see how we see the world and what our future plans were. At that time I wanted to be a doctor. Now, I guess I want to do things in international development. What are you involved with outside of Mac? I’ve gone to a mosque on University Avenue since my freshman year. Many of the people are from Somalia and many other groups of people in the Muslim community. I take Islamic studies classes there now on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s like my second family. They make me really happy. Before finding the mosque, I really kind of wished there were more people who were religious because faith is a really important part of my life, and I really enjoy having people to talk to. That’s why I love the mosque because I can go there and talk to people about the faith. I’m not saying there aren’t Muslims here on campus, but in my year there weren’t Muslim women. Now I work around campus and there are more students who are veiled. It’s very nice. Has it ever been hard to be a Muslim woman of color at Mac? You know, I haven’t actually experienced those issues. Is it hard to be around the drinking culture at Mac? No, no, not really. I just don’t go to those things. It’s because of the drinking. There are some events that I know it’s going to involve that so I just don’t go. My faith is a really important part of my life. The idea of the Muslim life is that I really want to try to live it according to what’s in the Quran. Anything that it says its forbidden, I try my best to avoid it. Is your family coming for graduation? My mom is planning to come. It’s her first time in the United States. I can’t wait to see her so she can see the place where I spent four years of my life. She’s has her interview tomorrow for the visa. Do you plan to return to Niger after Mac? I’m going to go get my master’s next year and then go home. I was accepted into the Humphr
ey School at the U of M for international development. I found out about it a month ago. I really like the program there. It’s for two years. And then when I go home, I want to work for the UN or UNICEF or any organization that would give me the opportunity to be involved in development. I’d like to concentrate in educational policy or poverty reduction. I want to help my country grow, and I just have ideas about what I want to see happening in my country. Things that have to do with youth. I really want to see our education system involving youth in community service, or making sure that no one is dying from famine. We do have areas where people don’t have food to eat. Agriculture is one of the main activities in many areas of the country. We depend a lot on rain, and we don’t get enough rain sometimes so we don’t have enough food for people. I really want to see things happening at home. One day, my country will be part of the “developed” countries.