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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

December 2000

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(This article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part two.)

When Jim Bullington, a former U.S. ambassador and regular contributor to these pages, decided he'd had enough of retirement, he applied for a Peace Corps position and soon found himself in West Africa. He promised to keep our readers posted and sent this report in November, complete with illustration.

NOTE: Be sure to click on thumbnail photos to view enlargements.
~Ed.

HEN I ARRIVED in Niger as the new Peace Corps director, I knew I had a lot to learn about this vast and varied country nearly twice the size of Texas. And since all of our 100-plus volunteers are stationed in rural villages and small towns, I was eager to get out of the capital, Niamey, to begin meeting them.

Thus, although I had barely recovered from jet lag, I was happy to accept Ambassador Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick’s invitation to go along with her to Agadez, in northern Niger, where she and her diplomatic colleagues had been invited to an important ceremony marking the end of the Tuareg rebellion and restoration of peace to the region. I wanted to attend a conference of volunteers completing their terms of service, which had been scheduled to coincide with the peace ceremony as well as with an annual gathering of nomads called the
“cure salée.”

Also, I needed to visit a couple of volunteers stationed in the oasis of Iferouane, and, in response to a request from the Minister of Tourism, to investigate the possibility of stationing new volunteers in Agadez. He asked for the new volunteers to work on a project to preserve some ancient Saharan rock art and at the same time make it more accessible to tourists.

The Trip North

Agadez, the provincial capital and economic hub of northern Niger, is 937 kilometers (562 miles) from Niamey on a road that is paved but so deteriorated along its first 400 km that all-terrain vehicles are needed. (Peace Corps/Niger uses the Toyota Land Cruiser, a huge “Sports Utility Vehicle” of the sort that seems so wasteful on American highways but is a necessity for travel in rural Niger.) It’s a fairly hard trip requiring a minimum of 12 hours.

First, we drove east more or less parallel to the Nigeria border, through the Sahel, the transition zone between the Sahara and the savanna regions further south. Most of Niger’s 10.1 million people live in this Sahel area. The countryside is flat and dry, much like parts of western Texas or Oklahoma, with scrubby brush interspersed with fields of millet, patches of bare earth, and occasional villages of mud and thatch huts. There are also a few market towns, with collections of tin-roofed stores and government buildings.

After about 400 km on this road (which continues eastward another 900 or so kilometers to Zinder and Lake Chad), we turned north at Konni onto the road to Agadez. Being less traveled, this road is in better condition. The scenery was little changed for the first 100 km, but then the landscape gradually became even dryer, with smaller bushes and trees, fewer millet fields, and more scattered villages. Soon, it had transitioned into the primarily herding zone, with little agriculture but extensive grass and numerous goats, cows, camels, and donkeys. About 150 km out of Agadez, the Sahel ended and the Sahara began, with little vegetation except scattered shrubs and acacias and patches of grass still green from the just-ended rainy season.

 Rush hour, downtown Agadez.We reached Agadez just after dark and checked into the hotel, small and Sahara-rustic but adequate to reasonable Western needs, with air-conditioning, flush toilets, a shower, clean linen, and even a mini-fridge with Cokes and mineral water. The nearby restaurant, Le Tellier, had excellent food, though in limited variety.

Both hotel and restaurant are owned by what I’ve come to think of as the inevitable expatriate, a European (in this case, an Italian named Vittorio) of the sort I’ve encountered in most of the remote and exotic places I’ve served: Someone who came many years ago (30 for Vittorio) and just stayed on, marrying a local woman, developing close ties to the local government and society, supporting himself as an entrepreneur and serving as an informal intermediary between the natives and foreign visitors by providing the latter with services they couldn’t otherwise obtain.

Agadez is a surprisingly large town, with perhaps 25,000 people. (Population estimates vary substantially — there hasn’t been a recent census.) It first developed in about the fifteenth century and soon became a major crossroads and market center for the extensive trans-Sahara camel caravan trade in slaves, salt and other commodities. Like its counterpart in Mali, Timbuktu, it also became an important outpost of Islamic culture and religion. Its grand mosque, still in use, dates from the 16th Century. The town is built almost entirely of mud/adobe construction. It has an extensive market, many skilled artisans (silver, leather, embroidery, etc.), and a tourist trade that is beginning to revive after collapsing during the Tuareg rebellion.
 

The COS Conference

After arriving in Agadez, I attended the “COS Conference,” a facilitated meeting of volunteers nearing their COS, or completion of service. (This acronym is standard Peace Corps parlance, generally used in blissful ignorance of its meaning for most foreign affairs professionals, for whom it indicates a CIA “Chief of Station.”)

The COS Conference is designed to help the volunteers with issues involved in departing from their villages and winding up their Peace Corps affairs, and with re-entering life in America, a process in which most of them experience reverse culture shock. I especially wanted to get feedback from these veterans on what is working well in the program and what needs to be changed. They were not shy about providing it, and I came away with several ideas to be tried.

The “Flame of Peace”

Galloping camels at the Cure Salee, Ingall.The timing and location of this particular COS Conference was set to coincide with and give the volunteers a chance to attend the “Flamme de la paix” (flame of peace) ceremony to be held in Agadez and an annual gathering of nomads to be held in the nearby oasis of Ingall. The former event was to mark the end of several years of armed rebellion by the Tuaregs against the Niger Government by burning the arms turned in by the rebels. The diplomatic corps was convoked to the Flamme, along with hundreds of Government officials and traditional leaders. Several African Chiefs of State were invited, but only two came: the Presidents of Chad and Liberia, countries with a truly rich experience in civil war but a still-tenuous record in successfully ending it.

I left the COS Conference with a jeepload of volunteers to witness the Flamme ceremony, set for 11 a.m. We arrived on a large expanse of sand just outside of town where several thousand people were gathered. Among them were hundreds of Tuareg men mounted on their camels, along with their wives and children mounted on donkeys. Men, women, and animals were dressed in their most colorful clothes and saddles. It was a sight right out of the pages of National Geographic.

Some of the volunteers and I wandered around and shot pictures, as nothing much seemed to be happening except a vast milling about as people awaited the arrival of the President and his party and the opening of the ceremony. When I went by the covered VIP seating area, I found that the Ambassador had kindly saved me a seat. I felt obliged to accept this kindness, but did so with considerable reluctance since I had previously had ample experience of sitting among the diplomatic corps to hear African political speeches.

As I took my seat I painfully recalled a ceremonial event in Benin to which President Kerekou convoked the chiefs of mission. As usual, the Presidential party was about three hours late in arriving, and the featured speaker turned out to be President Sekou Toure of Guinea, known as the Fidel Castro of Africa both for his Marxist politics and his inordinately lengthy speeches. He droned on for another three hours in the sweltering West African heat, and two of my ambassadorial colleagues were felled by heat stroke. I was 18 years younger then, but my agony was severe, and I dreaded the prospect of repeating the experience in the midst of the even hotter Sahara with the sun approaching high noon.

My chance for escape came in the form of a University of Chicago professor, Paul Serrano, who has been digging dinosaur fossils at a very rich site northeast of Agadez. He had brought back from Chicago a life-size model of a complete dinosaur skeleton he had unearthed and was to present it in a companion ceremony at the Flamme, to become the centerpiece of a planned tourist information center and museum for Agadez. Although the professor was to speak at the ceremony, he had somehow been left out of the VIP seating arrangement.

I graciously offered Professor Serrano my seat.

This proved to be a wise move, as the VIPs were left to swelter and listen to speeches until nearly 3 p.m.

After my liberation from the VIP seating area, I strolled around for awhile and made some pictures of the dinosaur skeleton and the pile of rebel arms ready to be burned. The latter didn’t seem to be enough to equip even a small battalion in a Western army, but nonetheless their burning was quite properly considered to be of major practical as well as symbolic importance. In Niger and similar countries, even a small armed force can do major damage.
 

An African Diogenes

As I headed back to the jeep for a much-needed drink of water, a distinguished-looking African man began walking along side me. After an exchange of pleasantries in French, when he discovered I was American he began speaking excellent English.

My new companion informed me that he was from Sierra Leone, where he had been an “executive” in the rebel forces of Foday Sankoh (a group noted for hacking off the arms of women and children, among other atrocities). He stated that these forces had engaged in extensive “looting and pillaging,” and thus most of them had become rich. He did not personally loot and pillage, he said, because as an “educated man” he had a “different and more sensitive role.” Nonetheless, he became rich by “inheriting” the diamonds and gold of rebels who died or were killed.

After Foday Sankoh was captured and the rebel forces began to collapse, my companion continued, he had “appropriated a Red Cross jeep” and fled the country, carrying along his considerable fortune. He traveled through Liberia and along the coast to Nigeria, then north into Niger, eventually winding up in Agadez. When I asked what brought him out to the Flamme ceremony, he replied that he came “in hopes of finding an honest man, a Frenchman or some other Westerner” with whom he could arrange to convert his diamonds and gold into hard currency in return for a “reasonable percentage.” “You just can’t trust these Africans,” he explained parenthetically.

Although honored to be considered an “honest man,” I told him that as a U.S. Government employee I couldn’t engage in such business. Moreover, I pointed out that we Americans are disposed to help the victims of Foday Sankoh’s atrocities rather than their perpetrators. When this failed to deter his advances, I hailed a passing Dutchman I had met in Niamey in order to extract myself from further conversation with this African Diogenes.

Most likely, this was an attempted scam, with the supposed fortune in diamonds and gold as the bait. But perhaps his story was true. Strange things happen in places like Agadez.


*J. R. Bullington is a retired Foreign Service Officer and U.S. Ambassador with service in Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Chad, Benin and Burundi as well as the State Department in Washington. He became Peace Corps Country Director in Niger in August 2000.

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