Niger sits at or near the bottom of every development or economic index we have. The two years I spent in the country left little doubt that literacy rates refuse to break the 30 percent threshold (the proportion of women who can read is around half that), or that malaria, waterborne diseases and malnutrition are pressing problems. But, in my experience at least, it’s rare that these numbers leap from the tables and into real life, as Anne-Claire noticed they have in the last 5 years.
Anne-Claire’s friend Ramatou came to visit us on our second night in Niamey. In the time we’ve been away, she rocketed to the top of her class at the medical school in Niamey, became a midwife, got married, had a son, and has been widowed. Her husband died suddenly two years ago when she was 6 months pregnant. Her son Mohammed, named after his father, is happy and healthy though, and he and Kadija (Issaka’s daughter of the same age) became fast friends.
The next day, Issaka was kind enough to drive us to Kollo to visit Ramatou’s mother, who had fed Anne-Claire (and her dog) throughout much of her Peace Corps service. We also visited a health clinic run by an NGO. Ramitou started her career at the government run service in town, but her reputation as a stellar midwife led to her being recruited by the German-run group. I’m no fan of outside groups coming in and taking over basic services like healthcare – in my view, that’s the role of the government, and replacing that service doesn’t free up money to be spent elsewhere. It only liberates government ministers from their responsibilities to the people, helping these “leaders” line their pockets.
But it’s hard to fault someone like Ramatou for taking a better-paying job with more resources at her disposal and a better-trained staff. And the doctors, nurses, midwives, and support staff who work at the clinic are helping individuals – about that, there’s no doubt. Right now, Ramatou is supporting not only herself and Mohammed, but also her mother and her brother (who’s training to be a doctor). Her stepfather has ostensibly abandoned them, saying he was going to Nigeria to look for work.
We had lunch at Ramitou’s house, then spent the afternoon waiting out the heat and enjoying a relaxing Nigerien afternoon. In the evening, we took a walk through town. We couldn’t go more than a block before running into someone Ramitou had helped or a child she had delivered. Now she’s a resource for the people of Kollo, a sage of sorts. They come to her when their children are sick or if they need medical advice.
The next day, we took a bush taxi back into Niamey and caught a bus toward Birni N’Gaouré, Anne-Claire’s Peace Corps post. Since we’ve left Niger, the number of bus companies has swollen to perhaps a dozen or more, and one now has hourly departures to Birni (about 2 hours from Niamey) and from there onto the regional capital, Dosso.
Our first piece of business on arriving in Birni was to meet with the wives of the Peace Corps driver for Dosso. Seyni, like most of the drivers, was more than just a chauffeur, helping volunteers deal with problems in their villages and get what they need for projects. Only in his late 40s, Seyni died in February, just after Peace Corps pulled out of Niger.
In response, a group of volunteers who worked with Seyni collected some money for his family. It was our job to deliver the second round, totaling about $2,000, to his wives and eleven children, including a daughter born just a few weeks prior. Anne-Claire met with the women, explained that the volunteers wanted the sum to be divided up by the number of children each woman had had, and gracefully tried to express the appreciation the volunteers had for Seyni.
His brother Boubacar was there, sporting the same sunglasses and smile his brother always seemed to be wearing. It’s funny how that resemblance brought home the realization that Seyni was gone, first for Anne-Claire, then for me. I didn’t know him well, but in my second year as a regional representative, I had to travel to Niamey frequently, so he and I would cross paths occasionally. He always remembered my name, helped me out whenever I needed a ride, and was always fun to be around.
We exchanged goodbyes with Seyni’s family to choruses of ‘have patience’ and our own stifled sobs. They smiled and, true to form, bore the rememberance of a lost loved one as stoically as they bear most hardships.