Tag Archives: Peace Corps

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 2

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.

Penning a history of the Fulani

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.

Jamila, still smiling

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?

Shrug. Have patience.

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.

Arriving in Niamey

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.

Doggone Dogon

Our goal was the fabled Dogon Country, a land of striking rock and valleys where a few animists still clung to their ancient traditions along rocky cliffs. Everyone we’d met said it was the highlight of a stay in Mali. Our reality turned out to be something of a mixed bag.

We headed east from Bamako, after a couple of days trying to recuperate at the lovely Hotel Tamana amidst the need to battle the hordes of the swollen city to get plane tickets and visas for Niger and beyond. Without much trouble, we caught a bush taxi that filled up quickly and took us, along with a motorcycle that two guys hoisted onto the already-bowed roof of the navette, to Fana. From there, we caught another ride up a smooth but dusty road to Gouana, a bush village of shea and neem trees surrounded by corn, millet and cotton (a local cash crop) fields. It was the first time a bush taxi ever left earlier than I wanted it to, as the taxi station captain had to hurry us through our bowl of rice and peanut sauce at a nearby street food stall.

We found Rebecca, a Peace Corps volunteer posted in Gouana, with the help of a few women pounding millet along the roadside. Gouana is greener than most of the villages I’ve been to in Niger with quite a few more trees, but the rhythm of life here is the same as anywhere in the Sahel – women pound and ferry water to their homes, toothless old men sit and discuss the weather, children play and get cranky in the heat.

Rebecca with her host family in Gouana

We spent a wonderful night with Rebecca’s host family. As usual, the whole family got a huge kick out of us trying to string together the most basic phrases in Bambara.

The next day, we caught a free ride back down the same road to Fana, and then took a bus east toward Dogon Country. We stopped in a charming little town along the way along the banks of the Niger River called Segou.

On the cliffs above the Banani staircase

Just as we were getting off the bus, we saw a Peace Corps car passing by. Because we had Rebecca with us, they gave us a ride to a great hotel called the Auberge, and then bargained a good price for the night. On the way to the hotel, we told Claudine, the Peace Corps staff member in charge of the health sector in Mali, that we’d been volunteers in Niger. She quickly dialed up a man named Kabiru, who had been the safety and security officer for Niger when we were there.

When they closed the program in Niger, they brought him on in Mali, initially just for one month, then another, then another. It was great to hear his animated voice on the other end of the line. A former wrestler, he’s quick to laugh and always had a smile for everyone, though I don’t think there was anyone who took his job more seriously than he did. When we talked to him on the phone, he invited us to his house in Bamako for dinner with his family.

In Segou, we had a dinner of brochettes and plantains that night at a place called ‘Restaurant Balanzan Cafeteria,’ which is really just a bar and a few plastic tables under a grass roof. Peace Corps volunteers have fittingly dubbed it ‘The Shack,’ but thanks to a congenial owner-chef, the meal was one of the best we’ve had on our trip.

Descending toward Banani

The next day, we took the bus to Sevaré. Even here, two hours from the gateway to Dogon Country, we were besieged by potential guide after potential guide.

I sat and talked with a guy who initially didn’t introduce himself as a guide, but rather as if he was just waiting for the same bush taxi we were. He was patient with my French, and he said he’d been to Park du W in Niger as a guide with a French outdoor company. Somehow, he subtly tipped us off that he could arrange our trip through Dogon.

Later that night, when we were trying to decide on a guide (more or less required for a visit to Dogon), I pulled for him because he’d been less aggressive than the others.

The next morning, everything started off well. Adama was on time with a car to take us to the trailhead where we’d begin hiking, and he even suggested that we draw up a contract so that there was no miscommunication regarding the price we’d agreed upon. From Bandiagara to Songha, we watched as the Sahel gave way to a land of rocks and water greened by the summer rains.

The Tellam dwellings

When we got to Songha, however, our guide left us with his brother, who showed us the town. Adama left us, saying he was going to visit his mother for only a few minutes. Two and a half hours later, he came back to us, but now when he spoke, he contorted his face and talked out of the side of his mouth. Unaware that anything had changed, we followed as he led us down the cliff face called the Banani staircase.

We had a leisurely lunch in Banani in the valley below, during which time, our guide was also mostly absent. Afterward, as we were leaving the village, the restaurant owner chased us down on his motorcycle. Shaking, his eyelids pulled into tight slits, he explained that Adama hadn’t paid him for our lunch, as was our agreement, and the two of them had a very un-West African shouting match in the street.

On the valley floor

Adama’s rebuttal was that he’d lent the restaurant owner some money a few years back, and his way of calling in the debt was to bring tourists there and then leave without paying. Which is just what we ended up doing. Adama was obviously upset, and Anne-Claire tried to let him know that we didn’t want to be dragged into any more of his problems.

The rest of the afternoon went OK, though we’d catch a whiff of alcohol every once in a while as he led us through the villages on the sides of the rocky cliffs. The culture here, at least in the villages we visited, seems to have been diluted by the constant stream of outsiders. The intricately carved Dogon doors have in many instances been replaced by tin or plain wooden doors, as the price offered for the carved doors by tourists was just too high to turn down.

The land itself though is spectacular. Most of the villages are built into the side of these striking spines of rock known as the Fallaise jutting out from the farmland below. Up even higher in crevasses in the rock are Dogon cemeteries and villages in miniature where the Dogon believe a pygmy people known as the Tellam lived long ago.

Around sunset, we found ourselves in a village, once again without our guide. Coincidentally (or not), there was also a small bar in the village, and when we finally found Adama, he was stumbling and slurring more than ever.

Dogon door

We continued to trek through increasing darkness to Kundu where we spent the night on a rooftop (until it started raining around 2 in the morning). Our guide had to be rousted by the auberge owners as the storm was closing in – he’d passed out in a white plastic chair, drink in hand.

The next morning, we decided to cut the trip short and try to get to Bandiagara that night instead of the next morning. The guide agreed, and once we got in cell phone range, he started calling to arrange for the car to come and get us in Songha at around 4 o’clock.

Swapping Peace Corps stories

The hike was beautiful, if a bit strenuous, especially in flip-flops. At around six o’clock with no sign of the car, Anne-Claire lost patience and started walking toward Bandiagara, stopping at the few houses along the road with cars to see if they’d be willing to drive us.

Adama followed us, alternately trying to calm us down at the tardiness of the car and screaming into the cell phone at the driver that the ‘whites’ were getting impatient.

Finally, we found a guy willing to drive us down the road until we found Adama’s driver on his way to come get us. If we’d stayed in Songha, we’d have been waiting until at least 8 o’clock. We switched to Adama’s friend’s car, and after a flat tire, we made it to Bandiagara, where we spent the night at a Peace Corp hostel.

A rough day turned into a pleasant evening, as we waited out a storm with beers and brochettes at a local bar, listening to the stories of volunteers who were a year or two into their service – a comfortably familiar feeling that reminded us that Niger wasn’t far away.