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A Niger Suspension

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.


Wearing their Tabaski best

Sahabi and Yanoussa were constant fixtures at my home in Niger. So naturally they came to visit me on the biggest holiday of the year — Tabaski. This is the day that Muslims celebrate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, and God providing a ram for sacrifice instead. (Only Muslims believe the son was Ishmael, whereas Christians believe it was Isaac).

Much like Christmas is now more about presents and decorated trees, Tabaski is more about dressing up in your very best clothes and visiting your neighbors in hopes of scoring candy, dates, or maybe a coin. Yes, sheep are slaughtered and skewered whole in front of open fires lining nearly every street. And people very much savor one of the few opportunities they have to eat meat. But the holiday is more social and festive than spiritual, at least from what I observed.

And for Sahabi and Yanoussa, their complete joy came in a pair of new, cheap sunglasses.

Tokoye-Bungou First Impressions

The Fam & Me





It’s hard to know where to begin. Niger as a whole has progressed in a lot of ways since I lived here. Most city-dwellers have cell phones now, and towers to receive the signals have cropped up in the middle of bush villages. The towns have grown with new buildings, a tiny bit more infrastructure, and lot more people. But, at any given moment, you can still spot a camel being led down the middle of a busy street in the capital city, and ox carts are as common a mode of transportation as mopeds or buses.

When I visited two years ago, I was amazed to find that a road had been cleared along the footpath from the main road to my village and beyond, and there was even a sign to let you know you’d arrived in Tokoye-Bungou. This time, the road and sign were still there, but the weather and the animal traffic are well on their way to returning the bush to its natural condition — the footpath’s sandy patches and rocky crevices have reappeared, and the rusted sign I can easily imagine as a future decoration inside someone’s hut. The rain, wind, and sun are so powerful here and it’s incredible to see how quickly they can transform things. In a week’s time my once-pristine American clothes and bags are coated with a layer of red dust and ash marks, the heels of my feet are cracked and blackened and I can’t scrub them clean. My tent was sun-bleached, dirt-streaked, and torn by the time I packed it up (and left it with a Peace Corps volunteer!), and despite my best efforts the inside was covered with sand and dirt and layers of cloth that I’d used as cushioning to make up for the air mattress that sprung a leak on my very first night. It’s easy to be shocked at how dirty life is here, but since it’s so hard to fight the elements, I’m not that surprised that the villagers learn to live with it. Well, the strongest of them do, anyway.

A lot of my friends were gone. Dogo and Madou–who I consider as family–were there and among the first to greet me when I arrived. They led me to their new compound on the far outskirts of the village, where it was spacious and quiet, apart from the roosters at 4am. They gave me the village news. Sahabi, the star little boy in most of my PC pictures, had moved with his family to Nigeria. My good friend Haja had moved to Benin with her husband. My friend Abdou had been there for years too, and many others had relocated as well. The reason, repeated again and again, was that there was no millet in Niger. And no work. So, villagers are looking elsewhere — to coastal countries where the economy and the soil are stronger. Some will return when they have enough to live on. Some might not. Many kids I knew had grown and either moved to a nearby village for middle school (which is great!) or been married off shortly after hitting puberty. More on that later.

Back to how dirty it is… My first day was spent sitting in the shade with Dogo and Madou and their 2 kids who are too young for school, AbdouRazak (6) and Aminou (10 mo.) Working with World Vision, I’ve learned more than I knew when I lived here about how complex malnutrition and illness is for little kids. It’s not just that they don’t have enough to eat. Sometimes that’s not the case at all. It’s that they don’t have diversity in their diets, and the little nutrients they do get are often sucked away by worms they contract from the dirt and water, or voided by diarrhea and infections. All day long AbdouRazak rolled around playing in the sand that was littered with chicken droppings and Aminou’s lack of a diaper, his black legs turned light brown and little doubt left as to how he contracted the worms that had made his hair fall out in scaly patches and his belly swell above his skinny legs. When I took him to the clinic, the nurse tried to tell me he just had drank too much millet drink, and that his incessant cough was from all the filth. True, it’s filthy, but I pointed out that his cough was also bloody and she finally relented that maybe he should get some medicine. Aminou is nicknamed “Biri” (monkey) because he crawls around constantly with his legs straightened out rather than on his knees. He’s teething and putting anything within reach in his mouth. Some things were taken from him (when noticed)– a rusty screw, a knife, chicken poop; others were given back to him when he dropped them — a rock, a moldy discarded squash. When I explained how I needed to avoid eating most of the village food because I was scared of getting sick, Madou laughed that they don’t get sick because they have lots of dirt in their bellies. Well, I said, you know that it’s because your kids put dirty things in their mouths and eat with dirty hands that they’re sick all the time. Huh, remarked a visiting villager, is that why they’re always sick? Yes. But, I don’t know if the understanding will lead to change.

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