About the author *
|Last year, Jim Bullington, a former career U.S. ambassador and regular contributor to these pages, decided to leave retirement in the academic community and take on new challenges. He soon found himself director of a U. S. Peace Corps operation in West Africa. For the first installment of his promise to keep us informed, see his "Letter from Niger" in the Fall 2000 issue of "American Diplomacy" [click here to go to the Fall 2000 letter]. Now we are pleased to publish his second report in what we hope will be a continuing series. Ed.|
Its difficult to muster much traditional Christmas spirit in a place like Niamey, a sunny, hot, semi-arid, overwhelmingly Muslim city with no holiday music on the radio or commercial emphasis of the season. Nonetheless, Americans and other Western expatriates try at least to mark the occasion with plastic Christmas trees and other household decorations, a round of holiday parties, frozen Butterball turkeys from the Embassy commissary (at about $65 each), and family gift-giving.
Our spirits were boosted by the visit of our adult daughters Kim and Eva and son-in-law Jeremy, who joined Tuy-Cam, grandson Kevin and me for three weeks over the holidays. It was a welcome return to Africa for them: Kim and Eva were with us as youngsters in Benin and Burundi, and Jeremy spent two years in The Gambia as a Peace Corps volunteer. They enjoyed the visit, and fit in well with our volunteers here.
The holiday mood of all Americans in Niger was dampened, however, by the brutal murder of the Embassys defense attaché in the course of an armed robbery/vehicle hijacking just outside a popular nightspot in downtown Niamey on December 23. One of the marine security guards, who was with him and attempted to come to his assistance, was seriously wounded in the incident.
This of course threw the embassy and American community into full crisis mode for several days, with a military evacuation flight to Germany for the body of the attaché and the wounded marine, memorial services, press releases and responses (the incident was widely reported in the international media, at least that part that pays attention to Africa), and the arrival of security investigators and other support personnel, including the State Departments regional psychiatrist from Abidjan to provide grief and stress counseling.
Beyond the loss of a colleague, I was concerned about security implications for the volunteers. La Cloche, where the incident occurred, has been the leading nightspot in Niamey for the young singles in the expat community, including many of the volunteers when they are in town. Some of them would probably have been there that evening but for the fact that we had convened an all-volunteer conference followed by a dinner at our training center thirty kilometers outside of Niamey.
The next day I put La Cloche "off limits" for all Peace Corps volunteers, and the ambassador and regional security officer put it off limits for all official Americans as well. Hopefully, this will signal the owner, and the owners of similar places, that there will be economic consequences for not maintaining better security in and around their establishments.
We are also developing safer recreational and social alternatives for volunteers when they are in Niamey. This runs counter to the Peace Corps philosophy of encouraging volunteers to integrate fully into the local culture and economy, and to avoid hanging out with other Americans. That philosophy works well when they are in rural areas, but in Niamey it is trumped by considerations of safety and security. It is inevitable that young people with raging hormones, an excess of energy, and feelings of immortality are going to go out for nighttime drinking, dancing and socializing. I would prefer that they do it in safe places like the American Club, Marine House, Peace Corps hostel, and official American residences, rather than high-risk alternatives like La Cloche.
The incident (so far as we can tellthe perpetrators have not been caught) was purely criminal, of the sort that happens in high-crime areas of any big city, including those in the United States. Niamey has been considered less dangerous than most big cities in that regard, and this is probably still the case. However, the threat is rising and must be taken seriously. All foreigners here are "rich" by local standards, and they stand out as potential targets. Moreover, the government simply cant afford the kind of police and other security protection, such as adequate street lighting, that we take for granted in the West. There is no 911 service to call, or (in most places) telephones on which to call it. We must protect ourselves.
Niger is the proud possessor of the last wild giraffes in West Africa. There are currently about eighty individuals in the herd, which roams a range of scrubby bush country about an hours drive east of Niamey.
Along with the Sahara desert to the north and the Parc W game reserve to the south, the giraffes are one of the countrys few genuine tourist attractions.
Peace Corps has had volunteers stationed in villages in and around the giraffes range for several years. Although their main focus is on food production and health, some of the volunteers help the Nigerien wildlife service with the giraffe census and with educating the local people on the value of protecting them and their habitat.
The visit of Kim, Eva and Jeremy over the holidays offered a good occasion for me to visit the giraffes for the first time.
We left early and drove for about forty-five minutes along the main east-west highway to the Nigerien wildlife service station, where we picked up a guide. The fee for visiting the giraffes was the equivalent of $2.50 per person, plus $7 for the guide.
Then, we drove for about half an hour across the hardpan surface of this semi-arid wilderness of bushes and acacia trees. When we got near where he thought the giraffes should be, the guide got out and perched on the roof of the Land Cruiser to get a better view. We proceeded, as he gave me directions with a stick beaten against the windshield.
After ten minutes of following the stick signals, I felt the steering wheel pull sharply to the right. Yes, indeed, the right front tire went totally flat, and we were a good days walk from the highway or any other potential source of assistance. Fortunately, we had a spare tire and the necessary tools, and Jeremy and the guide were more adept than me at changing Land Cruiser tires. Had I been alone, I would have been in trouble.
Just as we were finishing the tire change, having determined to give up the giraffe expedition lest we have another flat with no spare to replace it, the giraffes appeared. We followed a couple of them for a few hundred yards and came onto a herd, nibbling the acacia trees and moving slowly in our general direction. We got out of the Land Cruiser and quietly moved closer, and then simply stood still and let the giraffes pass by us. Some of them came within twenty feet.
They were magnificent! The big, darker-hued males, lighter-colored females (one of them visibly pregnant), and a couple of juveniles all seemed to pay us little heed as they passed by, intent on their grazing. Occasionally, they would look at us with what seemed to be mild curiosity, but they showed no fear or nervousness.
The guide counted twenty-two of them. We made lots of pictures.
There is something more awe-inspiring about seeing these splendid, gentle animals in the wild rather than in a zoo. It was truly a memorable experience.
Thankfully, there were no more flat tires to make it even more memorable, and we were safely back in Niamey in time for lunch.