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December 2000

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Letter from Niger
 






 The Middle of Nowhere

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

 
HE NEXT STAGE of the journey was a visit to Iferouane (pronounced iffer-wan), an oasis town of about 5000 people where we have two volunteers working with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a mainly European-funded environmental organization.

Iferouane is located north of Agadez, at the foot of the Air (pronounced eye-ear) Mountains. To get there, the first two hours of the trip are along the highway to Arlit, an excellent road for this part of the world, more or less equivalent to a paved county-maintained road in the U.S.. It was built in the 1970s to support the uranium mines at Arlit.

Scene on the road to IferouaneThe road leading from this highway to Iferouane, however, is like a wilderness logging road in the U.S., except in this case there are no logs. It leads for 130 km through rugged desert terrain, a region of hard-pan sand and gravel, massive expanses of bare volcanic boulders, and occasional patches of green grass and bushes, studded with small acacia trees, to mark low-lying areas where water collected during the just-ended rainy season. There were no signs of human habitation except for occasional herds of goats, camels, and donkeys tended by Tuareg nomads.

Rush hour, downtown Iferouane.We drove along this trail for four hours before reaching the collection of trees, gardens, and mud-walled houses that is Iferouane.

If “nowhere” exists, Iferouane must be pretty close to its geographic center.

However, even this lonely outpost of mankind has its links to the global economy and society, in the form not only of the two Peace Corps volunteers and a resident Frenchman with the IUCN project, but also a hotel owned by Vittorio, the expatriate Italian who also has a hotel and restaurant in Agadez. In fact, Iferouane is his principal home. He was there to welcome me, along with his other guests, a French movie director and her crew who were making a feature-length film set in the region. When I arrived, they were in the process of hiring a group of Tuaregs to shoot a camel caravan scene.

Peace Corps Volunteer Melissa Perera and friends at Vittorio's hotel, IferouaneOur two volunteers have good accommodations by Peace Corps Niger standards, each consisting of two-room mud houses in spacious, mud-walled compounds. Both had extended for a third year to serve in Iferouane, and they seemed happy and well adjusted there. They are engaged in various activities involving eco-tourism, wildlife conservation, a tourist information center, environmental education, and women’s credit unions.

One of them was to complete his Peace Corps service in two more months and return to the U.S. He plans to hike the entire Appalachian Trail before launching a career with the National Park Service or a similar organization.

The other Iferouane volunteer did not intend to leave Niger when her Peace Corps service ended in three months. Rather, she presented me with another first in my Peace Corps career, a request to get married to her Tuareg boyfriend. According to the Peace Corps manual, the Country Director’s permission is required for a volunteer to marry a local national (although it’s hard to see how a Country Director could prevent such a marriage even if he or she wanted to).

Our volunteer seemed quite mature and had considered her decision fully, and she said both families have given their blessing. I told her I saw no problem in giving my permission (especially since I had married a foreign national myself when I was about her age!), but asked her to give me an opportunity to consult the manual on returning to Niamey to determine if there were any prescribed procedures to be followed. (I later found that yes, there is the inevitable form to be filled out.)
Peace Corps Volunteer Melissa Perera at her house, Iferouane.We had a Tuareg-style dinner at her house, consisting of “sand-baked bread,” literally baked in the sand under coals and then served with a sauce of locally grown tomatoes, onions, garlic, chilies, etc. It tasted great, with only the occasional grain of sand to disrupt mastication. We ate Tuareg style, from a common pot while seated on the ground.
Back at the hotel, the French filmmaker was still conducting her casting call to select Tuaregs for the caravan scene. This process continued until after midnight.

The gardens of Iferouane.The next morning, the volunteers and I took an extensive walk through the Iferouane gardens. They lie along a valley running out of the nearby mountains, where water can be found three or four meters under the surface. Numerous wells provide irrigation for the gardens. The early morning desert air was refreshing, and the heat didn’t become uncomfortable until nearly noon.

Iferouane pretty much shuts down after lunch, as everyone naps or just hangs around in the shade until sundown. I spend the afternoon talking to the volunteers about their projects and life in Iferouane.

This night’s fellow guests at Vittorio’s hotel were four Dutch tourists, accompanied by a Tuareg tour guide from Agadez. During another nearly sleepless night in the sweltering hotel, I reflected that the U.S. elections, the price of oil, turmoil in the Middle East, and similar matters that had dominated my attention before I came to Niger, all seemed pretty remote from the perspective of Iferouane. I realized that I hadn’t heard so much as a radio summary of world news in the past week; and what’s more, I didn’t really miss it.
 


*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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