Ga Duniya

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Celebrating Seyni

photo from David McNally

An incredible man — Seyni Soumana of Niger — died this week from complications due to high blood pressure. He’d surpassed the 52 year average life expectancy in Niger, but he died far too soon for those who knew and loved him.

For me, it was one of those times when you realize that you hadn’t stopped to appreciate how amazing a person was until they were gone.

Last night I pulled out my box of photos from the Peace Corps and sadly confirmed what I already knew: I never took a picture of Seyni. I’m filled with remorse for what that omission represents in my Peace Corps story. That I was self-absorbed during those years. That the only Nigerien relationships I invested in were with a few close friends in my village. That I spent far too much time obsessing about friendships with other Americans, and didn’t sufficiently value the friends I had made among Nigeriens.

You couldn’t help but like Seyni. He had a huge smile that was almost always spread generously across his face. One of those infectious kinds of smiles. He spoke a charming dialect of slang English that he’d learned from years of driving Peace Corps volunteers across his country. He had a special ability to make you feel welcomed and cared for.

It was Seyni who arrived in Tokoye-Bungou to move me and my belongings out of the village the first week of September 2001. I’d been crying off and on the entire day, but it was the sound of his truck coming down the path that solidified the reality of my pending separation from the Nigerien family I loved dearly. Seyni directed the men loading my bags into the vehicle as I gathered tearfully with the women inside my hut.

Saying goodbye to Tokoye-Bungou was one of the saddest moments of my life. And as Seyni and I rode down the sandy path away from my home, he insisted emphatically that he’d never seen villagers — “Even the men!!” he exclaimed — cry so hard to see a volunteer leave them. I was skeptical. I mean, there are a lot of volunteers who have close relationships with their village families. But whether he was telling me the truth or not, Seyni’s words were exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. He validated the relationships that I’d cherished for two years in Niger. I only wish I’d told him how much I cherished his words, and how much he had comforted me.

And you know what’s even more amazing? Four years later I returned to Niger and when I ran into Seyni at the Peace Corps bureau, not only did he remember my name, but he repeated — with as much conviction as the first time he’d said it — that he’d never witnessed villagers so sad to see a volunteer leave as when he’d moved me out of Tokoye-Bungou. It shocked me that this man — who I, shamefully, had not thought of much during my years away — kept a memory of me so fresh and vivid. And then he gave me his cell phone number and insisted that I call him anytime I needed help navigating my way through Niger as a non-PCV. His dedication to me extended far beyond what my own government was willing to provide.

A few years after that, Niger experienced a famine, and during a visit to neighboring villages Seyni willingly delivered a package of money to Tokoye-Bungou on my behalf. He not only helped me when I was in Niger, but he enabled me to help my Nigerien friends from half a world away. I called Dogo and Madou the day I heard of Seyni’s death. And we mourned his passing together over the phone, in broken Hausa, words failing me.

Seyni was a remarkable man. So warm, so caring, so genuine. The outpouring of love I’ve read from PCVs posting memories on facebook has sent me to the verge of tears multiple times this week. And it’s made me realize the need to reconnect with the other friends and Peace Corps staff members who worked hard to help me feel welcome in Niger. I need to tell them how much they meant to me. How much they still mean to me. I need to make sure they know that I couldn’t have made it three years in Niger without them. And I wouldn’t have wanted to.

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