I was teary-eyed reading the news about the Peace Corps pulling all volunteers out of Niger this week. So many Americans intending to do so much good have had to give up their dreams of serving those whom they have grown to love. So many Nigeriens have lost an opportunity for access to improving their lives.
If it had happened when I was a volunteer, I would have been inconsolably devastated. I know, because there was a point during my service when I was temporarily suspended from Niger.
It was the end of my vacation back home after my first year in the Peace Corps, when I went to fulfill a routine doctor’s visit. The doctor found a mass that was diagnosed as a cyst that had to be removed before I could return to Niger. The logic was that if the cyst burst or became twisted up, then a remote village in Africa is the last place I’d want to be stuck. But at the time, America was the last place I wanted to be stuck! I was just about to start my peanut loan project, and I’d just identified funding for my school project. Plus, I loved my villagers dearly.
So I cried and cried. I had surgery, and kept a photo album of images from Niger close by my side. I told stories of Tokoye-Bungou to anyone who would listen, and wrote letters to my teammates in hopes that they could keep my projects alive. And I healed quickly.
Before long, I was returning to Niger, and travelling back to my village. I’ll never forget the moment that I arrived at the edge of the mesa to descend upon Tokoye-Bungou.
It was the moment I’d been dreaming about for two months — walking back into my village, my home away from home, and seeing all the faces of my newly treasured family. From the edge of the mesa, I could see the tops of thatched roof huts hidden among neem and mango trees. A narrow sandy path would lead me there by foot in 15 minutes.
But that day, God planned a very special homecoming. Unexpectedly, my two cherished little boys, Sahabi and Yanoussa, happened to be playing at the bottom of the hill when I came into view. As I started down the path to my final destination, they heard my steps, yelled “Balkissa!!!!” and ran up to meet me and take my hands. My two constant companions, the two boys I loved so much, were there to walk the final length of my journey home.
Older villagers confessed that they worried they may never see me again, or they feared I had died. It was a moment of great rejoicing when I came back to finish the work I started. And, more importantly, to enjoy our relationships.
I am sad for so many volunteers who won’t be able to complete their goals of service. But I hope that, in time, some will be blessed by a reunion with their Nigerien families.