Tag Archives: human capital

Last Nights in Niamey

Anne-Claire with her Peace Corps supervisor Assalama and her family

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.

The CB’s family in Niamey

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.

Lunch with Kelley and his wife Ashley in Niamey

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.

Ramitou and Mohammed just before we left Niamey

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.

Anne-Claire with Issaka, Ramatou (Issaka’s wife), and a sleepy Khadidja

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.

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Life and Death Statistics, Part 1

Ramatou’s clinic

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.

Not Mohammed’s favorite time of the day

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.

Relaxing afternoon

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.

Mohammed is a growing boy with an insatiable appetite who doesn’t mind helping himself to a plate of food when it’s in front of him. Thanks to his mother’s status in the town, he was a welcome guest as we walked through the town.

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.

Safia with her weeks-old daughter

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.

Strong resemblance

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.

Sanctuary

Watching the sunset on the beach, we could have easily been on a tropical island somewhere. Lightning flashed far in the distance, and the heavy moist air from the day’s teasing rainstorms settled over the beach, leaving us glistening with sweat in the last light of day.

But this wasn’t just anywhere. This was Senegal. Cows shared the sand with us, and down from where we’d just walked, smoke bellowed from the skyscraping palm trees, as women dried the day’s catch that had just come in on the massive wooden boats.

We’d arrived in Ziguinchor to visit Haroon, one of Anne-Claire’s former classmates. Our second day, he took us to stay at a work colleague’s house on the coast, up near the border with Gambia. Cheikh, the colleague, runs an NGO called Water and Sanitation for West Africa. Over his decades-long career, he’s worked with the World Health Organization, the UN, and now USAID, currently focused on improving sanitation in villages through strategies like hand washing and building latrines – in short, combining behavior change with infrastructure improvements.

Here on the outskirts of Kafountine, Cheikh’s built an oasis of calm with bungalows for visiting friends, solar-powered electricity, and a pack of friendly dogs named after world leaders, Tony Blair, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin among them. (Nicholas Sarkozy died recently after being bitten by a cobra.) Cheikh has planted trees on the land with his small personal staff, and both nights we stayed there, we enjoyed walks down to the beach to watch the sunset. The second evening, we watched as a flotilla of massive fishing boats and their crews of 25-30 men each hauled the day’s harvest through the surf.

We ate well, enjoying dishes of fish with fried potatoes, rice and fish sauce, and chicken served with fried bananas. Always accompanying the meal were Cheikh’s stories, detailing his adventures in development. We spent a long time Saturday evening discussing the failures of massive, one-size-fits-all projects and the need to tailor solutions to the cultures they’re designed to work within.

It’s heartening to see a well-educated African, who’s lived and worked all over the world, focus his talents on improving things for other Africans and to see that he doesn’t just accept poverty for his continent. One of my biggest takeaways from Peace Corps is that as outsiders, we’ll never affect real positive change leading the charge in development. We just don’t have the knowledge of the culture, the vested interest and connections to local communities that takes a lifetime to acquire. Outsider-led projects, in my opinion, do little but muck up the situation even further. Best case, we should be supporting folks like Cheikh and taking direction from them as to how we can best help those around us.

Peace Corps Days

Perhaps the best days we had in Morocco came thanks to a Peace Corps Volunteer who was also a classmate of Anne-Claire’s at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Christine lives in a town called Khenifra in a valley in the Middle Atlas. The ‘bowl of heat’ where Khenifra sits keeps it well off the tourist trail, especially in mid July.

For that reason, we enjoyed strolling the streets as Moroccans went about their days rather than trying to get us to buy something. Anne-Claire even went behind the counter at a schpeckia (forgive my spelling for these delicious pieces of thin, fried dough covered in honey and sesame seeds, often a treat during Ramadan to break the daily fast) shop and helped the workers there to their delight. We left loaded down with far too many of the sweets to eat ourselves.

Our second day in town, Christine needed to have some paperwork completed for a boy she’d gotten into a USAID-sponsored summer camp. He lives in a village a few hours up into the mountains, so we set out early of the first of two taxis we needed to take to get there.

In Morocco, these ‘grand taxis’ are a bit better than the bush taxis you’ll find further south in West Africa, but only just. They’re usually wide, boxy Mercedes a few decades old, and drivers use the extra space added before fuel consumption was much of a concern to pack 4 people in the back seat, and three across the front, including the driver.

Wedged in against the door I gradually got a little more room, the car’s other passengers settling like the contents of a bag of potato chips as the car trundled around the mountain roads. We arrived in Kerrouchen just after two in the afternoon. The town is stunningly situated on a dusty, sloping plateau with the jagged peaks of the Middle Atlas rising around in every direction. The family that Christine had lived with met us at the taxi stop and took us back to their house.

Like every family who has hosted us on our journey, they pulled out all the stops for us (no doubt due to the excitement of seeing Christine again), beginning with this deliciously sweet sesame paste (the name of which I can’t remember). We had a Moroccan salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, followed by pasta, two whole chickens (one fried and the other cooked with saffron), and dessert of water melon, in addition to some mint tea, of course.

Afterward, we relaxed with the family, especially enjoying Rachid’s two-year-old daughter, Souhaila. Their neighbor joined us for part of the meal. He’s a mountain guide, and it’s his 14-year-old son that Christine is getting into the summer camp. Tanned and sinewy with clear blue eyes that reflect the region’s Berber roots, he comes off as no-nonsense, so much so that it was difficult to get him to accept our polite refusal to stay the night at his house.

Alas, we knew we had to keep going. Before leaving the village, we visited a couple of women’s cooperatives on the edge of town. Both groups produce beautiful textiles, and they greeted us warmly. The second group of women was particularly excited to see us. They sat on the floor with their backs against the wall in what felt like a large school room, with giant weaving looms sitting in front of three to four women each. Their chatter was punctuated by the thump, thump, thump as they smacked the threads into place.

As soon as we entered, a few of them hopped up and offered us tea, this time the more potent green tea similar to what the Tuaregs drink in Niger. Their hands were gnarled from decades of hard work, and their faces – creased by birthdays and children and husbands – testified to the diversity of the Moroccan people and its age-old importance as the gateway to Africa. You might expect to see their light skin and rounded noses in Eastern Europe, but here they were, blue eyes and all, on the edge of the dark continent; only the tattoos that the older women have on their foreheads signal the vast difference in cultures.

Most younger Berber women these days don’t have the tattoos, but the legend behind them demonstrates the cohesiveness we felt standing among the women at the cooperative as we laughed, drank tea and admired their handiwork. Long ago, some Berber women were taken to Europe as slaves, and they were given these tattoos to denote their lowly status. When a few of the women escaped and returned to their homes, everyone knew they’d been slaves because of the tattoos. So that these women wouldn’t be ostracized as damaged goods, the other women decided to tattoo themselves as well, making it impossible to know who had been a slave and who hadn’t.

After a lengthy goodbye, we headed back toward the taxi stand and eventually started the drive home, accompanied by a beautiful sunset. Peace Corps service is full of ups and downs, but it’s days like this you remember – time spent sharing food, laughter and simply time with others. I left my service in 2006 believing that the best part of Peace Corps is the exchange between two vastly different cultures, and I remain convinced of that. More often than not – as was the case this day in that little town in Morocco – I was on the receiving end of the generosity toward visitors that pervades cultures all over the world.