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Foreign Service Life

December 2000

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Letter from Niger

Back to Agadez

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

HE RETURN TRIP from Iferouane to Agadez was uneventful. We gave a ride to one of the volunteers’ friends, a pretty Tuareg girl of 20 who was returning to her second year of nursing schoolat Niamey. Her only alternative transportation would have been a ride in the back of the truck that makes a weekly supply run to Arlit, and from there a bus to Agadez and on to Niamey. Because of legal liability concerns, Peace Corps officially discourages giving such rides to non-employees. However, in these circumstances, to refuse such a request for help, when we had ample room in the jeep, seemed to me unreasonable for the representative of an Agency whose goals are helping poor people and making friends for the U.S.

I changed hotels for this stay in Agadez, from Vittorio’s adequate but somewhat bedraggled establishment to the newly-built hotel/restaurant the volunteers had discovered and used for their COS dinner a few days before. Pleasant, clean, and comfortable, it is owned by Akly, a Franco-Tuareg pilot and tour guide, and his French wife, Celine, who has a background in the hotel and tourism industry. They are a friendly couple and good contacts for our potential new volunteers in Agadez.

The next morning, along with the Ambassador and party, I attended a ceremony at the airport in which TARA Director David Coulson, a British resident of Kenya and son of a World War II era British Ambassador to Washington, presented the regional government and Minister of Tourism a life-size casting of the giraffe rock carving I had visited earlier. (The story of the making of the mold for this casting is documented in the September 1999 National Geographic.) Later, over lunch, David and I were able to discuss the modalities of providing a couple of volunteers to work on the project. (We are now ready to proceed with recruiting them, if David or someone else can find funding for a project vehicle, which would be necessary for them to work effectively.)

A Bout with Malaria

This lunch with David was the last thing I was able to accomplish on the trip. As I left the restaurant, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling well and experienced chills even in the blazing mid-afternoon Sahara sun. I retreated to the hotel and went to bed, but my condition continued to worsen, with a throbbing headache and aches throughout my body.

By sundown I could barely move, but I gathered enough strength to go to the room of Lou Lantner, the public affairs officer from the embassy (who was accompanying the Ambassador) and his wife Karen to inform them that I couldn’t attend the reception the Ambassador was hosting that evening. From the symptoms, and based on a similar experience in Benin two decades ago, I was pretty sure I had come down with malaria.

After the reception, the Ambassador, Lou, and Ritchie Miller (the former embassy information programs officer, who has been the embassy’s point person on the rock art project) contacted the embassy medical officer in Niamey and confirmed the probable diagnosis as malaria. The medical officer prescribed quinine, which happily was included in a first aid kit the Ambassador had brought on the trip. Lou, Ritchie, and the Ambassador administered the quinine and other medications and helped make me as comfortable as possible.

Within a few hours, the quinine did its work. By the next morning the fever had broken and I was considerably better, though dehydrated and now suffering from diarrhea as well (which is often a side effect both of malaria and the quinine). Though weak, I felt well enough to make the 12-hour road trip back to Niamey. By the end of the day, I was almost back to normal in spite of the long ride, and the following morning I was back at work in the Peace Corps office.

The malaria attack came even though I had been religiously taking the prescribed prophylaxis (mefloquine) since two weeks before leaving the U.S. The medical officer explained that while not 100 percent effective, it at least serves to make any attacks less bad. (If this is the case, I would surely hate to get malaria without having had the prophylaxis.)

Hard-core Adventure

This was hard-core Peace Corps adventure: desert nomads, isolated oases, exotic caravanserai, a peace ceremony with erstwhile rebels, dinosaur bones, ancient rock art, strange and colorful characters, and a bout with malaria. The only thing that would be more exciting would be getting shot at. (As Churchill said of his experiences in the Boer War, there’s nothing more satisfying than to be shot at without result!). However, I had enough of that experience in Vietnam and Chad to last a lifetime.

More important than the adventure, though, was being able to support the volunteers and learn from them, to identify potential opportunities for interesting new projects, and to develop more of the country and program expertise that I will need as Peace Corps country director over the coming years.  

*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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