UNHCR) – When Ali Mahmoud fled his home in eastern Mali last year, he took along a skill that has helped him survive, thrive and even find a wife in exile in western Niger.
The 40-year-old has been using his expertise as a blacksmith to earn a handsome living in the Agando refugee site since leaving his home eight months ago in Méneka, just across the border in Mali’s Gao province.
His enterprise is encouraged by UNHCR, which has this year launched self-sufficiency projects in the camps. “We have started to organize income-generation activities in the refugee camps, not only to give refugees opportunities to earn money, but also to allow them to contribute to their living and not rely on assistance,” explained Karl Steinacker, UNHCR’s representative in Niger.
Ali specializes in making knives and the ornamental swords that are a part of Tuareg culture and proudly displays a range of his products to visitors from UNHCR. “These are the kinds of blades that I usually make,” he says, adding that he also mends iron tools.
Business is brisk and he reckons that he earns the equivalent of about US$50 every day. “Every man here owns a sword or wants to own one,” says Ali’s father and fellow blacksmith, Galio.
Ali says it takes him three or four days to make an ornamental knife or sword with engravings. He buys the metal, including iron and copper, at the market [in Agando] and forms, heat treats and finishes the blades using hammers and a simple anvil outside his shelter made of straw and branches. A good knife sells for US$50, while a sword and sheath command a price of US$100.
People also come to get their damaged tools and blades mended by Ali and a queue starts building up outside his home from early morning. He accepts barter – normally food – from those who cannot pay in cash.
“Nobody else here can work with iron as well as Ali,” says Hawlata, after handing over half a kilo of flour to get her household knives repaired and sharpened. “He is a skilled man,” echoes Habba, the smithy’s neighbour. He brought an axe to be fixed.
In Agando, Ali’s success has brought him more business than he ever had in Méneka, where all his earnings went to support his parents, two brothers and sister. But now, for the first time, he is earning enough to get married. And he’s picked a bride – Anata. She’s 18 years old and comes from his home village.
“I’m very happy to have met Anata,” he says, adding that he has saved around US$600 to pay for the dowry. “I love her very much,” the smitten blacksmith says as he sips hot tea from a small glass.
Meanwhile, Ali is preparing to move to a safer camp deeper inside Niger at Intikan, which is located some 80 kilometres from the border. UNHCR will be helping about 17,000 Malian refugees to the new site, where it will also be easier to provide them with protection and assistance.
He’s looking forward to the move and is confident that his business will thrive there too. “I am eager to go as soon as possible to Intikan, where I hope the number of my customers will double or triple,” says Ali. If business is that good he hopes to hire other refugees.
Meanwhile, his neighbours and friends, are happy that they will be able to continue to rely on his services in the new camp. “He is an asset to our community and we are happy we can move with him to Intikan,” says Habba. And Ali hopes he can benefit from UNHCR’s livelihood’s programme there.
There are currently more than 50,000 Malian refugees living in Niger.
By Bernard Ntwari in Agando, Niger