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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.

The Fiery Serpent Dies in Niger

my Worm Week counterpart and friend, Abdou

It’s been plaguing mankind since the 2nd century B.C., but now people in 2 of the 5 remaining countries where it’s recently been found are finally free. This week, the Carter Center announced the eradication of Guinea worm in Niger and Nigeria.

What’s remarkable about the campaign to eradicate Guinea worm is that it doesn’t rely on vaccines or medicines. This parasite can only be terminated through awareness and intervention.

I am honored to have played a small role in promoting Guinea worm awareness in Niger nearly 11 years ago.

“Worm Week” had become an annual tradition by the time I joined Peace Corps Niger. Volunteers would travel with a counterpart/interpreter to spend a week roaming sandy, seemingly-deserted paths in the most remote parts of eastern Niger around Zinder. The goal was simply to share the story of Guinea worm with anyone we met. We carried an 8×10 laminated picture presentation, showing that the worm larvae lived in stagnant water, and that when a person drinks that water without filtering it, the worm can come along for the ride. Then, the worm grows and grows and grows until mating season, at which time it burrows through the host’s skin (usually out the leg, but sometimes it protrudes from much less convenient body parts) to release its eggs back into the stagnant water. Guinea worm is not usually fatal in and of itself, but it can cause severe pain and paralysis, and lead to deadly infections. Plus, there aren’t many things creepier than the thought of a parasite poking out through one’s body. Gross.

I never saw one in real life, but my trusty friend Abdou and I trekked all over the dry landscape for a week making sure everyone heard the Guinea worm horror stories. The scare tactic seemed justifiable, since all it would take is one season of no one contracting Guinea worm for the parasite to become eradicated. And all people needed to do to avoid Guinea worm was to filter or boil their water. But there were always those few people who didn’t get the memo. Even though I walked so much that week that my feet turned bloody with blisters, it would take several more years of convincing before Guinea worm would die out.

It’s kind of strange that I picked Abdou to be my interpreter; he and I could only communicate in Hausa. But, what made Abdou such a good friend at the time, was that he was someone who seemed to know exactly what I was trying to say, and could rephrase it in correct Hausa for others to understand. Abdou and I never had trouble communicating with one another, and we’d sit and talk for hours. So, when I heard that our counterparts would be paid for their efforts, I decided that my friend deserved the job. It was an amazing week of confidence-boosting for me, having to do real work with no one nearby who spoke French or English.

There were some moments during Worm Week that I’ll never forget. The first was when Abdou and I were dropped off with our host family, who occupied a small encampment atop a slight hill with no barriers at all from the expansive desert plains. I wasn’t quite sure how the sleeping arrangements would work in this very conservative, very male-dominated society. Abdou and I were shown our (OUR?!) hut — which was essentially a tiny, cleaned out animal hut. We had to literally crawl to get through the opening, and we couldn’t stand up inside. It didn’t seem appropriate at all that we would sleep in there, so instead we just kept our bags inside and set up our mosquito nets under the stars. I can’t remember exactly, but I must have worn the same clothes that entire week — where would I have changed in privacy?

Speaking of privacy, there really was none. In the early morning, Abdou and I would silently go our separate ways in search of a bush that was high enough to hide behind and take care of business. I walked far and squatted quickly, sure that anyone in sight would be staring at me. Oh how I missed my latrine.

And then it was time for my weekly bath.

Back in Tokoye-Bungou, I would have bathed every evening, but out in Guinea worm land, water was much more scarce. One evening when Abdou and I returned from our day of wandering, I noticed that a bathing area had been established on the edge of the compound, and I was given a calabash half-full of water to bathe with. There was only about a gallon of water in the bowl, but as soon as night fell completely, I would make do.

Now, when I say that a bathing area had been established, what I mean is that our host found a 3-foot-high by 3-foot-wide piece of straw mat and strung it up on a few sticks just beyond the huts. Behind this fortress, exposed in every other possible direction to the vast expanse of desert beyond the huts, a blindingly white girl would strip down and bathe. I didn’t really doubt the decency of those in our compound — they’d be aware that I was bathing, and would never invade my privacy — so I figured I could manage a quick bath once it was dark. I remember there was a crescent moon that night — bright enough that it wasn’t pitch black out, but not so bright that you could read by it. I carried my ration of water behind the bathing wall, squatted down low, and removed the cloth I’d wrapped around myself. I scooped just enough water to wet my skin, then started scrubbing with soap.

It was about that time that I heard the greeting “Salaam Aleikum!” — the traditional announcement when someone arrived for a visit. I gasped silently. Not 20 feet away from where I squatted (NAKED!), two men had arrived from the bush to visit my host family. And, to my horror and embarrassment, they remained standing and chatting right where they entered, plainly within sight of me, illuminated dimly by the moonlight.

It was no small feat of discretion with which I rinsed off and re-clothed myself. I stared at the men intently throughout the last half of my bath, and they seemed unaware of my presence even as I emerged freshly clean. But it would be uncharacteristic of a rural Nigerien to not notice there was a white person nearby. So I will forever wonder if — while I now laugh at the memory of being “walked in on” during my exposed bath — there are a few old men in Zinder laughing about the time they saw a naked white girl when they went to greet their friends one night.

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