Isabelle and the children of Zinder

At first glance, her blond hair, her angelic smile and her sweet voice may not evoke flawless determination, incredible tenacity and deep commitment. This young Swiss woman, born in a comfortable environment, could have remained unknown… That was without counting on an early (and frustrated) vocation to help others. And you’ll see that Isabelle Macheret knows how to move mountains!

[ Clear path and branching off ]

Without any irony, it seems quite classic in Switzerland to train to work in the banking world. This is what Isabelle, a docile child, did. While she dreamed of discovering Africa and helping the poorest from a young age… Like it was meant to be, life throws painful surprises – health problems, invasive but successful surgeries, divorce – trials that helped her to reveal. Then, no way to focus on anything else than her first calling.

[ Humanist second life ]


Isabelle is all made of contrasts. At the same time leading and caring woman, humble and resolute, fully restrained but not mincing her words. She rapidly quits banking where she learned a lot but also understood the meaning of the word inequities. In the early 2000s, the first physical contact with Africa takes place in Togo where she works as a volunteer in a health center. Thereafter, she will run races in Rwanda and Mauritania. Without delusion about her lack of medical training, she applies to an international NGO and just hired in 2006, joins a tackling malnutrition program in Niamey, Niger. Just happy to be here, she rapidly feels disillusioned:

“I was quickly frustrated with the reality. We were treating and distributing and I saw these children and their mothers coming back to us at each difficulty. They were waiting that we treat the most fragile and smallest before going back home… before coming back again and again.”

More needed to be done, support and aware the mothers, help them to become more self-reliant. Her meeting with Bachir, a young orphan boy living in the street, with a deep mycosis covering his head and neck, will be crucial. The NGO, limited to its malnutrition program, could not treat him… Then Isabelle will come back on her own the two next years, even bringing from Switzerland a medical treatment for Bachir. In 2009, supported by a group of reliable Swiss volunteers, she founds “Au coeur du Niger” in Zinder, in the south of the country. “With the committee, we finally decided to send Bachir in Benin in May 2011, in a hospital where nuns used to perform skin grafts. He came back in July, totally healed! The graft was a full success.”

Au coeur du Niger” comes to life ]

First renting a small place, the association was yet welcoming 25 teenage mothers in 2010. Since, Isabelle worked hard on all fronts to create a complex hosting street children from Monday to Friday. Over the years, it has grown with a mentoring and donation program, the construction and equipment of buildings, installation of solar panels, drilling of a 100m deep well, creation of a vegetable plot, a goat pen and a sports field, etc. You can easily imagine what kind of energy, wisdom and responsiveness was required to succeed alone such a bet! When Isabelle underlines “Rest of us, Westerners, starvation, we cannot understand”, we guess the pitfalls met during fundraising campaigns. When she says “Except me, there is only local staff, hired and paid to supervise, teach, train and support pupils”, you feel the time passed to recruit and the willingness to involve Nigerien society in the development of a sustainable project. State-approved and proposing extended education facilities, In “Au coeur du Niger” welcomes today 330 orphans, teenage mothers and their babies, albino kids from the Zinder area.

[ A hope for the magical kids” ]

This is the way albino kids are called sometimes. “These children are victims of strong traditional beliefs still present in several places of Africa. They are sought for their organs and limbs, and are sometimes subject to ritual sacrifices.” Their colorless skin and irises make them extremely sensitive to the sun and light. Nearly blind, they hardly ever go to school and exposed to the rough African sunlight, often develop melanomas and cancers. You should absolutely read on the website of the association, the cautionary story of Amadou, who reached the center in 2015, to understand the misery of those kids that the association welcomes and protect as best it can today. In Niger, albinism concerns 1 child in 1,000 that is to say 17 times more than in Europe.

[ The Nigerien paradox ]

189th out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index (HDI)… It means that Nigeriens knows well what is extreme poverty! The Nigerien story is full of crisis and difficulties: a quite full arid country, familiar with drought, starvation and locust invasion, no reliable irrigation scheme, an uncontrolled demography and nearly 70% of the population being analphabets. Books and meals have a cost and often, schools are very far… To the risky journey and lack of money, you can add the frequent feeling that school is a den of iniquity where the younger will be westernized. And no need to say that a girl will generally be married in her teen. Isabelle underlines “Among 100 girls learning at the Primary school, only 2 or 3 will go to High school, the others being married…”

However, the subsoil of Niger is overflowing of oil, uranium, phosphate, coal, tin and groundwater! Third world uranium exporter… and one of the poorest. “It begs the question of the ability of the State to guarantee a minimum protection to its citizens… These are mobilized to manage natural resources but the exploitation appears to lack transparency.” Ultraliberalism, resale at a high price, speculation, nearly 2/3 of MPs are merchants. According to Isabelle, the unique way to correct those deficiencies is education, training which could help young generations to forget the poverty patterns known by their elders and avoid some of them to follow terrorist organizations where they could feel valued. Through « Au coeur du Niger », Isabelle thinks further ahead. “Emergency relief is necessary but we have to build confidence, to transmit know-how, to put the cards in their hands. Cooperate, persuade but never appropriate the job of local authorities.” Among the precious help gave by international structures and despite a huge personal involvement, what Isabelle wants is “a practical assistance leading to long-lasting effects”. That’s it!

[ Sleep, eat and think Niger… Even from Switzerland ]

Due to the pandemic, Isabelle Macheret had not been in Switzerland that long for 11 years, which does not prevent her from working every day with her Nigerien staff and share with the kids by Skype. This is a chance for the team to gain autonomy, even if she gets every day the reports and validates the daily expenses in advance. “You have to follow everything from start to finish and control everything in order to lose nothing”. Remember that Isabelle was a banker in a previous life and in this case, it is useful. Wise and grateful, she takes advantage of distancing to deepen contacts with donors and mentors and devotes much of her time to fundraising.

It must be said that concerning « communication”, our good fairy is also working hard. It seems that no Swiss media has remained insensitive to her project, she leads presentations, generates challenges faced by students and published in 2017 “Words to grow up”, a coloring book based on the daily life of Zinder citizens. Not to mention a documentary DVD called “Isabelle’s dream: a future for the children of Niger” published last year. Did you notice that a day lasts 24 hours? … Isabelle sets herself a new mission:

“I am writing a book to explain how I have been able to build such a center in Niger with everyday anecdotes, hoping that others will replicate the same concept.”

Such a deep and sincere commitment to her heartfelt family deserves to be talked about. Like all nature, earth and human lovers, we wish that Isabelle’s dream (fully) comes true.

More information onAu coeur du Niger”

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