American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

December 2000

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First Crisis

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

HE FOLLOWING morning I stopped by the hotel where the volunteers were staying and found one of them very sick with malaria. (This is fairly commonamong volunteers and others in Niger. Even the newest and best prophylaxis is not 100 percent effective.Moreover, it causes difficult side effects for some people, including sleeplessness and bad dreams; and the alternative prophylaxis is slightly less effective and easy to forget since it requires daily dosage.)As is typical, our sick volunteer had a high fever, with a headache so severe as to be virtually immobilizing. Since there are no doctors in Agadez other than a pair of Cubans of uncertain skills, we decided to contact the Peace Corps medical officer in Niamey for advice.

This proved to be challenging. Telephones between Agadez and Niamey often work, but this particular morning they didn’t. I remembered that the embassy regional security officer (RSO), who was with the Ambassador, had brought along a satellite phone for emergencies, so I returned to the Ambassador’s hotel to seek out the RSO. I found him just as the party was about to depart for the cure salée. The satellite phone, however, was discovered to have a bad battery that couldn’t be recharged. Fortunately, by using an AC adapter and leaning out a second floor window in the hotel to give the phone a clear path to the satellite, we were finally able to reach Niamey and the Peace Corps medical officer. She advised us that the volunteer’s condition was not life threatening, but that we should get him to Niamey as soon as possible.

Although there is an airport at Agadez, there are no regularly scheduled flights. Consequently, we began to make arrangements for the 12-hour road trip, which would be difficult for a sick person but appeared to be necessary. At the same time, we sent Moussa, the Peace Corps’ local travel agent, hotel owner, and executive gofer, to the airport to see if there were any flight possibilities.

We were in luck! President Tandja’s plane, which had brought a group of Niamey dignitaries to the Flamme, was about to leave to fly them back and had room to take our volunteer along. We rushed him to the airport, and he was able to travel to Niamey in extraordinary style for the Peace Corps.

Tuaregs on camels await the great parade at the flamme de la paix, AgadezThe Cure Salée

After getting the patient safely on his way to the Peace Corps infirmary in Niamey, I departed with a jeep full of volunteers for the cure salée. This is an annual gathering of Tuaregs and other Sahara nomads for a festival/reunion/market event. It is held at Ingall, an oasis village two hours by road from Agadez, to take advantage of the nearby salt licks for the herds. (Hence the name, cure salée, which means salt cure or remedy in French.) It is said to be one of the oldest and largest such gatherings in the Sahara. This year, it drew a few dozen foreign tourists as well as a few thousand nomads.

Ingall is much smaller than Agadez, with a permanent population of several hundred. It has date palms, fruit trees (including excellent oranges), vegetable gardens, mud houses, a dingy market, and a somewhat startling microwave relay tower as the single visible connection to the modern world.

The festival grounds were just outside the village. They consisted of a shaded VIP area and orderly rows of locally-made Tuareg tents to house both nomads and tourists, which included the Ambassador and her party as well as the COS-ing volunteers, some of the other Niger volunteers (who were taking vacation days), and a few volunteers from neighboring countries.

These tents are simple igloo-shaped structures, about 12 feet in diameter and six feet tall at the apex. The frame, made of sticks driven into the ground, is covered with pieces of hide or rough cloth tied down with ropes to prevent their blowing away in the constant, sometimes high, desert wind. The ground is bare. Each tent was furnished with cots or various types of ground mattresses.

The purposes of the tents are to provide a modicum of privacy at night and shade from the mid-day sun. When we checked a thermometer at about 2 p.m., it showed 107 F inside the tent. Outside, the heat clearly exceeded the thermometer’s 115 F upper limit.

Toilet facilities at the Cure Salee, Ingall.Cooking at the encampment was on an open fire. Toilets consisted of a dozen upright semicircular straw mats (for privacy) around patches of bare earth in an adjacent field.

These accommodations did not permit a restful night. This restlessness, however, provided my best memory of the event, as I left the tent for the slightly cooler air outside and spent some time looking up at the night sky. There was a new moon, and the stars were brilliant. I saw the Milky Way and several constellations, and marveled. Having spent the past 14 years in urban America, I had almost forgotten what the nighttime sky REALLY looks like.

One of the main attractions of the cure salée is the Wodabe courtship ritual, an event well documented by National Geographic. The young men of this group apply makeup and wear fancy jewelry like women to make themselves beautiful, and dance to attract prospective wives. This year, however, the Wodabe were offended by what they perceived to be the government’s failure to deliver an agreed sum of money to support their appearance. They consequently went on “strike” and refused to appear or dance in public, to the great disappointment of the tourists.

The remaining entertainment at the cure salée consisted of political speeches, Tuareg chants, and an exciting National Championship Camel Race of 20 km across the desert, ending up at the VIP seats. The winner received 1,000,000 CFA francs, worth about U.S.$1300, but still a real fortune in Nigerien terms.

Rock Art

We all returned to Agadez the following afternoon for much-needed baths and a good night’s sleep. I joined up with a COS-ing volunteer stationed at Iferouane and took him to dinner. He proved to be an impressive volunteer and a good counselor on my evolving plan to station one or more volunteers in Agadez to work on preserving rock art and developing the region’s tourist potential.

The next morning, the Ambassador and I called on the Prefet (the nationally appointed governor of the province in which Agadez is located) and the Sultan of Agadez (the traditional Tuareg ruler of the region). Both were delighted at the prospect of having more Peace Corps volunteers and promised their full support. At the Sultan’s palace, after being greeted by a two-man band playing Tuareg horns and a receiving line of the Sultan’s counselors, we were served traditional sweet tea and introduced to several of the Sultan’s 25 children.

Next, the Iferouane volunteer and I went to visit the principal rock art site, which was featured in the June and September 1999 issues of National Geographic and in the September 2000 issue of State Magazine. It is located a few kilometers off the road from Agadez northwest to Arlit, a uranium-mining town near the Algerian border.

The engravings, including a stunningly beautiful group of giraffes, are on an outcropping of dark boulders situated on the edge of what was a large lake several thousand years ago. The drawings are reckoned by experts to be between 6000 and 8000 years old, and are said to rival the famous cave drawings in southern France in terms of both their artistic merit and their significance in the history of early man. At the time they were done, the Sahara was much wetter than today, with large herds of giraffes and other species that can now be found only in regions with substantially more rainfall than the present-day Sahara.

A private voluntary organization called TARA, the Trust for African Rock Art, is developing a project for this site and others in the region; and it is with this project that our prospective new volunteers would be associated. The objective is to preserve the art while at the same time making it more accessible to tourists, thus boosting local jobs and incomes.

*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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