“Insha’Allah,” they said. “If God wills it.” It didn’t occur to us that God wouldn’t will the reunion we all looked forward to in that moment.
I’m still working on my last post from our summer travels. But we got some sad news today that makes it difficult to share more of the joy we experienced this summer, especially when someone who played such a big role in bringing us that joy is no longer with us.
This past Monday night in Niamey, Ramatou—Issaka’s wife, not Anne-Claire’s best friend from her service—died after getting sick that day. I haven’t spoken with Issaka directly, but he mentioned in an e-mail that she’d had some heart trouble in the past. Nothing about her 30-something appearance suggested that she’d fall ill so quickly. Not the way she buzzed around the house making sure Anne-Claire and I had everything we needed to feel at home. Not the way she looked after the children, whether hers by birth (Khadidja) or by marriage. Not the way she prepared more than a dozen meals for us while we visited.
Like so many Nigeriens, her first instincts in any situation were to smile and to laugh. That never-met-a-stranger smile put us at ease right away.
I won’t make much hay here trying to reconcile why these things happen. I’ve certainly tried to rationalize the unfairness that seems to pervade places like Niger, to no avail. The conclusion I come to is that so much in this life, and the way in which it often ends, is dependent on where you’re born. Ramatou’s death is a jolting reminder that a life expectancy of around 52 years (compared to ours, nearly 80 in the States) and other statistics are grounded in the real devastation for many families. Unlike other countries, Niger is not beset with the scourge of high AIDS rates (at least that we know of) that drags down the age to which people can expect to live in otherwise up-and-coming African countries like Zambia, Botswana and South Africa.
Putting a face on these numbers is not a new topic for this blog, but it’s perhaps the most sobering lesson from our trip this summer. I’m left with few answers and only sadness for Issaka and for Khadidja, yet another toddler who found her way into our hearts and now will grow up with only the memory of one of her parents.
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.
I like to look for commonalities among cultures when we’re traveling. Once you start looking, they’re everywhere – the way the allure of designer labels transcends socioeconomic classes, or how mother-in-law–daughter-in-law relationships always seem to be strained.
Here’s a quick video of another universality demonstrated quite well by Mohammed (Ramitou’s son). Kids everywhere hate having to bathe.
Just like our Peace Corps service, being in Niger was once again filled with higher highs and lower lows than we’re used to at home. Though we enjoyed seeing Seyni’s family – and for me in particular, Safia’s father Mati, a gardener I remembered from the Peace Corps training site whose whisker-like scarification deepens the kindness already present on his face – saying goodbye to them emotionally exhausted us. But again, like Peace Corps, the low didn’t last long, and soon we were back in the village.
The library that Anne-Claire helped build is still in great shape. A man sitting at one of the tables was working on a history of the Fulans (or Peul as they’re known elsewhere) in the Birni area. In a region full of scrappy people, the Fulans are among the scrappiest, spending weeks or months in the bush as the seek pastureland for their livestock. As more and more of the arable land is snatched up for farming, their nomadic way of life has become increasingly untenable, and that’s led to conflict between farmers and herders. It’s encouraging to see someone making the effort to leave a legacy that could increase our understanding of the struggle, especially in this near-universally verbal society.
In preparation for our arrival, Djibo, Anne-Claire’s former counterpart, who is now in a political position at the sous prefecture in Birni, had found us a room on the edge of the town, complete with air conditioning and a Western-style toilet. We thanked him for his thoughtfulness but decided that it would be better to be at his house where we could spend more time visiting with his family. Unfortunately, in this your-guest-is-your-god culture, that meant that Djibo dismantled his own king-sized bed and put it outside for us to sleep on, while he and his wife took a smaller bed in one of the back rooms of their house.
The next day, we visited a family on the outskirts of the town. Much of Birni has electricity, but Jamila’s family lives as if they were in the bush. Her husband spends a fair bit of his income on beer and tobacco, and he has another wife in addition to Jamila to support.
Four months ago, Jamila’s teenage son Soumaila died suddenly. As with Seyni and Mohammed (Ramatou’s husband), they didn’t know why exactly. In this fatalistic culture, the search for answers doesn’t often go beyond the acceptance that such things are just God’s will.
Since then, Jamila had been hit by a car. She had an operation to put a steel rod in her thigh to stabilize the bone, but only local anesthetic was available for the surgery. “Have patience,” she says, shrugging, the smile returning to her face as she focused on the present and the return of her friend (Anne-Claire) after five years.
Fortunately, most of the families we visited had happier stories to tell. One particularly large family had a boy who wasn’t able to walk when Anne-Claire lived in Birni. The family and everyone else just sort of expected him to die.
But when we visited his family, they pointed to him with pride – a modern-day Lazarus bouncing around as healthy as any other kid. The trademark passive acceptance of fatalism may run deep here, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate a blessing or even a miracle when they see one.
Three people, cutting across economic and professional lines, have died since we’ve been gone. That may not seem like a lot, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not. What’s more unsettling for me is the randomness with which tragedy can strike here. To hammer home that point, a Fulan was hit and killed by a bush taxi as he was walking along the road to market the morning we left Birni. He’d been hit once before and had to have part of his foot amputated.
Malaria, undiagnosed cancer, a nasty bout of what we’d call food poisoning, heart disease – all could have played a role in the deaths of the three people we knew, but the real causes aren’t known. And none of them came from the poorest of the poor families. I struggle to draw any conclusions – only that, in the States, any of these deaths would be met with “He was too young to die,” or “That shouldn’t have happened.”
Here in Niger – well, I’m left feeling the same way. All three were well beyond the dangerous first five years of life, which only 2 out of 3 children survive. None should have died. Their deaths should be unacceptable.
That to me may be the biggest hurdle to development in a place like Niger. It’s only when folks get fed up with the way things are that real change can begin to happen. Until that time, we can build clinics and libraries and wells, but real change will stay outside our grasp. In fact, you might even say those elements impede progress by “acting as a pressure valve” as Anne-Claire puts it, keeping life just bearable enough that the risks associated with fundamental change seem too great.
Of course, the behaviors that need to change to alter this course are ours – that is, those of the aid-giving West – rather than those of the masses in the developing world. Until we find a better way to help, aside from lobbing money at countries and carpet bombing the countryside with development projects that we *hope* (a bit fatalistically ourselves, if you think about it) will do good, things aren’t going to get better, and they may even get worse. Will that happen anytime soon?
The Niamey zoo on the whole is a pretty sad place. Unfortunately, Mohammed (Ramitou’s son) screamed in terror every time we went near one the cages. To be fair, you can get dangerously close to nearly all the animals, from the scab-eared jackals to the enormous striped hyenas, so his fear probably isn’t totally unjustified.
The hippo exhibit’s not bad, and we got to watch this one come out of the water for a snack. Kelley, a former volunteer, had been working on a better lion habitat for the now-grown cubs he helped raise during his service. But unfortunately, the money ran out before it was finished, so it sits, waiting perhaps for a better economic climate.