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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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