Our final days in Niger were spent much as we spent our time in the capital during Peace Corps – visiting as many former staff members as we could, eating good food, running errands at the market and shops, and resting with friends during the heat of the day.
We left Anne-Claire’s town with several kids in tow who’d never been to Niamey before. Ali Baba, who’s older brother Soumaila had died just a few months earlier, gawked at the huge cement factory on the bus ride into town. “Niamey has everything!” he told Anne-Claire. We stopped first at the family of the gendarme chief who Anne-Claire had befriended when he was posted in Birni. Apart from his bear-like appearance and the no-nonsense mustache he wore, Yacouba (or the ‘CB’ as most people called him, short for Chef de Bureau) was an atypical soldier, extracting respect from the people of Birni with a fair hand and a kind spirit, rather than the abuse of his position.
Since we’d left Niger, the CB has served in a desert town north of Agadez to deal with the violence and banditry that’s been on the rise since our departure, and he even did a tour in Abdijan, Cote d’Ivoire, before recently falling ill. Now, he’s more or less bedridden. He has heart trouble and can’t walk more than a few steps, and his body’s just a shadow of the burly uniformed man in the pictures that hang on his walls.
His wife Issa was tickled to see Anne-Claire, and we spent a couple hours talking with them and two of their grown nieces in their bedroom. Though it wasn’t unusual for all of us (men and women) to be sitting together – the CB had a unique relationship with his wife, one in which he treated his wife as an equal – the sadness of the scene wasn’t lost on anyone. The CB reclined uncomfortably on the bed in little more than a diaper, restlessly moving his legs and shifting his body to ease his labored breathing. We tried to help him set up Skype on their laptop, but an electricity cut cause a blip in the Internet service, so we weren’t able to get online.
We said goodbye after they fed us (though they didn’t partake in the midday meal because Ramadan had begun a day earlier), promising that next time we came, we’d all take a trip up to the desert together, when God-willing the CB and his country had found more solid footing.
The threat of violence from Al Qaeda has kept the northern two-thirds of the country off limits to all but those groups that can afford to travel with military convoys. While we were in Niamey, we ran into a former volunteer who we’d served with. Nearly nine years later, Kelley still hasn’t left Niger for much longer than a month at a time, first extending his service for a third year, then finding himself a series of interesting jobs, and finally getting married.
“It’s not the same country it was when we were volunteers,” he told me, after I tried to express my disbelief that Niger could ever be considered unsafe. While Nigeriens still aren’t a violent people, outsiders moving in from porous North African and Nigerian borders have tried to turn Niger’s moderate brand of Islam into something more extreme. Though they’ve had little success, it seems to me that in a country that only makes the news for famines once every couple of years, a few violent flare-ups might be enough to cast an unfortunate pall over an otherwise peaceful country.
Like most things in Niger, the process of seeing people took far longer than we’d anticipated. Though it was always a pleasure to share a few hours of conversation, this also meant we didn’t see everyone we’d wanted to see.
As we said goodbye to Ramitou, and as Issaka and his family once again drove to the airport to drop us off for our flight, I reflected on my time there as a volunteer. On this trip, we visited volunteers in other countries, and it was impossible not to see the commonalities, regardless of where someone serves. The locals you meet along the way make the two (or more) years the life-changing experience that it is, and there is no better way to begin to understand a culture.
But I’ve also realized that it was the volunteers Anne-Claire and I served with and the Peace Corps staff we had in Niger made our time there so formidable. My training group in particular was filled with intelligent, idealistic people, and though the frustrations of two years in Niger pummeled a lot of the quixoticism out of most of us, they benefited (in my view) from letting the experience shape them, rather than trying to shape the experience around their own expectations of what their service should be.
And our Peace Corps staff – well, I’ve come to realize that they are often the best a country has to offer – creative, energetic problem solvers all of them. I left my service five years ago convinced that the only lasting solutions to problems in development will come from within the country, not from aid agencies or NGOs or foreign governments. Those groups have roles to play to be sure – perhaps the best role might be to put folks like those who work for Peace Corps in a position to really affect change.