What a pleasure it was to step off the airplane onto the tarmac at the Niamey airport in the midst of rainy season. The storm that had kept us from landing a few hours earlier had driven the temperature into the mid 70s Fahrenheit, a far cry from the wall of heat that had greeted my training group of PCVs (even though it had been cold season) 7 and a half years earlier.
We met Issaka, a Peace Corps staffer who I’m pretty sure knows every volunteer by name who has passed through Niger in his 15-20 years with the program, just outside the airport with his two-year-old daughter Khadidja. She insists on going nearly everywhere with her father and prefers the front seat.
Niamey felt relaxed and open as we drove through the city from the airport. Part of that feeling came from knowing the city and seeing familiar landmarks like the grand marché and the sports complex. And part of it was the blissful calm that usually follows a rainstorm, as people enjoy the respite from the heat. But Niamey also has a different vibe than the two swollen African capitals we’d passed through to get here. Thanks to a campaign just after we’d left to get the city ready for the Francophone games, there are better roads, and the trash along the roadside isn’t quite as ubiquitous as it was in Bamako or Dakar, or as it was here for that matter just a few years ago. The streets still rely on the African sense of rhythm more than stoplights and signage, but they’re much calmer than where we’ve been.
Still, our drive to Issaka’s house was a bit wistful; the streets seemed empty without the prospect of seeing volunteers making their way through the town. Issaka jokes that you can always tell Peace Corps Volunteers from other ex-pats – they’re carrying backpacks and they’re dirty. It was tough to see the hostel without the guards sitting outside waiting to greet volunteers. Apparently, the landlord charged Peace Corps big time for the damage generations of volunteers had leveled on the house.
Few reminders of Peace Corps presence now remain in the city. Stoves and mattresses have been auctioned off, bikes and cars have been driven to Mali and other nearby Peace Corps programs, and the bureau’s been leased to another tenant.
We spoke with a lot of staff while we were in West Africa, some of whom had left Peace Corps years ago, and some who’ve been recently let go with the shutdown of the program. To a person, they all seem to share the perspective of most of the volunteers who were forced to leave – that the decision to pull Peace Corps out after nearly 50 uninterrupted years was premature.
Yes, the kidnapping of two twenty-something Frenchmen from a bar near the hostel and their subsequent deaths in a firefight on the road to the Malian border is tragic, especially considering that one of them was getting married to his Nigerienne fiancée the next day. But it seems to have been an isolated incident, and as the former security officer for Peace Corps pointed out to us, the fact that the kidnappers immediately fled toward Mali indicates that they likely have few places to hide in Niger. Terrorist attacks occur in London and Madrid and even Oslo recently, killing far more people. And yet the decision to remove Peace Corps seems to have been made so hastily.
Charles Lindbergh once said, “I don’t believe in taking foolish chances, but nothing can be accomplished without taking any chance at all.” That’s sort of the way I viewed my service. I knew there was a good chance I could get sick, and I might expose myself to the risk of being hurt or even killed in a way I wouldn’t face at home. But those were risks I was willing to take, and I felt that as volunteers, we were given the tools to mitigate those risks as much as possible – learning local language, integration with the people, knowing what parts of the country and bigger towns to avoid.
It sounds like the Nigerien volunteers who were forced to leave felt the same way, many arguing that they felt safer in their villages than they ever had in the States, echoed by both Anne-Claire and me in the sense of security we had while we were volunteers. The volunteers who wanted to continue serving in another country were evacuated to Morocco, where some were so upset that a few Nigerien staffers had to be sent to Rabat to calm them down. A few even decided to quit Peace Corps but return to Niger to finish their time in their villages on their own, without the support of the program.
The reasons for the pullout are open to speculation. Since its inception, Peace Corps has been beleaguered by the criticism that it’s merely a tool for the US to garner a favorable reputation abroad. In a sense, that’s true – send energetic, well-intentioned Americans abroad, have them learn the language and make friends with the people, and yes, the people will likely hold your country in higher regard. This is especially true in Niger, which offers few reasons for Americans to make the trek from the States except for the prospect of a Peace Corps-esque experience, so most Nigeriens who know Peace Corps do like the US. In that sense, it’s a fair account of what Peace Corps does, but as a tool of foreign policy, it seems pretty inefficient. Couching the role of Peace Corps as a way to curry favor abroad, some argue that the good will of Niger is less important than other places, where the Peace Corps, as this arm of foreign policy, might make a more important impression.
Others blame the most recent country director. This was common reasoning among staffers, who sing the praises of former country director Jim Bullington, a career foreign service officer and former ambassador. Anne-Claire and I were volunteers when he was at the helm. During his tenure he guided the program through the aftermath of 9-11, flare-ups of theft and violence in the capital city, and the highest incidence of intestinal afflictions of any country worldwide. Throughout it all, he left no doubt that volunteer safety was his primary concern, but he also knew how important the continuity of the program was. Peace Corps never would have left the country if Jim was still in charge, say most of the staff we talked to.
Of course, that’s far easier to say afterward, and perhaps it was the most prudent decision. It’s just difficult to be here in Niger, knowing that a partnership that survived famines and coups, a uranium boom and the tanking of that market, and an erroneous charge that Niger’s leaders had sold weapons materials to Iraq – to have survived all that and to now be finished, at least for the time being, is a tragedy.