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Parc W

We also took advantage of the children’s visit to make our first trip to Niger’s principal national park and game preserve, Parc W. This was where we all spend New Year’s Eve and the following day.

The park is a four-hour drive south of Niamey. It lies along the Niger River, whose W-like course in the area gives the park its name, and overlaps into Benin and Burkina Faso. Including the Benin and Burkina parts, it’s the largest game park in West Africa.

We went along with the ambassador and several other Americans, and stayed at the newly refurbished, government-run hotel in a village at the edge of the park. Because of the ambassador’s presence (and to a lesser degree because Peace Corps has long had a volunteer assigned to work with the park rangers, who are currently seeking a second volunteer), we received VIP treatment.

The hotel is located in an attractive setting overlooking a scenic gorge. Though it is Spartan by Western standards, the beds were clean and comfortable, the food was good, and there was even a generator to produce electricity at night.

We spend New Year’s Eve to the accompaniment of some excellent African drumming and dancing organized by the hotel.

We were up early on New Year’s Day for a five-hour tour of the park in our Land Cruisers, each accompanied by a park ranger and a professional guide. We saw lots of interesting birds, several kinds of antelopes and monkeys, baboons, and five magnificent elephants. (I was especially interested in the elephants, because we are considering a new Peace Corps project focused on their preservation.) We missed seeing the lions, cheetahs and other exotic beasts that the rangers (and our park volunteer) assured us really live there and are seen from time to time.

We were back in Niamey well before dark, having found the visit a much more interesting way to spend the New Year’s holiday than watching fireworks and football games.

Polio Eradication Campaign

I usually try to avoid ceremonial and protocol events, since they take up lots of time and for the most part aren’t very relevant to Peace Corps work. My position obliges me to go to some, but this was one I really looked forward to attending. It marked the formal launch of a synchronized campaign throughout West Africa to administer polio vaccine to all children under five.

I wanted to go and show Peace Corps support, as well as to learn more about the campaign, first of all because many of our volunteers are actively participating in it. I also have a special interest because Rotary International is one of the principal sponsors (along with UNICEF, WHO, and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta); and because I had polio in 1952 (a fairly mild case that left me only slightly crippled in one leg).

The idea behind this global campaign is not just to protect the children who get the vaccine, but through universal vaccination to actually eliminate polio from the face of the earth by 2005 (just as smallpox was eliminated in 1979). This would both end the disease forever and free up the resources devoted to its control for use against other maladies.

Progress has been good since the campaign was begun in 1985 by Rotary, with UNICEF and WHO making it a top priority in 1988. The number of new cases worldwide has dropped from about 350,000 per year in the late '80s to some 20,000 in 1999; and the number of countries where polio is endemic has dropped from 125 to thirty.

Of the thirty countries where polio is still a serious problem, twenty-three are in Africa. (The others are in South Asia.) We see daily evidence that Niger is one of the twenty-three, with numerous crippled children and adults begging on almost every street corner in Niamey. Even here, however, the number of new cases is down substantially as a result of partially successful vaccination campaigns in previous years.

My Rotary friends should be proud of that organization’s leading role in the global campaign. I was especially pleased that one of the speakers at the ceremony (along with the presidents of Niger and Mali and the Africa regional directors of WHO and UNICEF) was my associate Peace Corps director for health, Gaston Kaba, who is one of the leaders in the Rotary Club of Niamey.

It’s a pleasure to have even a small role in this effort, which is a clear success already and shows promise of total victory within a few years. Positive stories such as this and the Guinea worm successes I reported in my last letter are all too rare in Africa.

Biking against AIDS. Peace Corps anti-AIDS bikers arrive at a village.

Biking against AIDS

Peace Corps volunteers have also become deeply involved in the campaign against AIDS.

The AIDS pandemic in Africa has become probably the worst such disaster to strike mankind since the Black Death ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages and newly-introduced diseases nearly wiped out the indigenous populations of the Americas in the early colonial period. Of the thirty-four million HIV-infected people in the world today, twenty-five million are in Africa, and the situation worsens day by day. In some countries in the southern part of the continent, a quarter or more of the adult population is HIV-positive.

Moreover, few African countries have sufficiently developed public health and information systems to effectively combat the spread of the disease, and only a tiny fraction of Africans can afford the new drugs that are prolonging lives and easing suffering for AIDS victims in the West.

The impact of this pandemic is devastating, not only in terms of the human suffering of the victims and their families, but also of its destructive economic and social effects on whole countries and regions. As a banner used in one of the local AIDS education campaigns put it, "AIDS undermines all our development efforts."

AIDS in Niger is not nearly as bad as in some of the most-affected countries to the south; but it is bad enough and surely getting worse. Part of the problem is that no one really knows the infection rate, because no studies have been done. (The Government is now looking for external funding to undertake one.) The officially reported infection rate of 1.8% is nothing but a wild guess someone made several years ago. Based on current anecdotal evidence, some informed observers think it may be on the order of 5%. For example, two recent reports:

In one of the missionary hospitals, 25% of pregnant women tested HIV-positive.

In an up-country military clinic that needed a blood donor, the first seven volunteers were rejected as HIV-positive.

The current Nigerien government is taking the AIDS problem very seriously and is giving priority to an anti-AIDS educational campaign, but its resources are pitifully few. Our volunteers are trying to help.

The most successful anti-AIDS effort so far was a Peace Corps AIDS "bike-a-thon" conceived, organized and led by three volunteers. Two groups of volunteers set out to ride along the principal east-west highway through the most populous area of Niger. One group of seventeen Hausa speakers rode west from Konni through Hausa villages, and another group of nineteen Zarma speakers rode east from Tillabery through Zarma villages. The two groups met in Dosso after riding for eight days. Each leg of the tour was approximately 300 kilometers.

Both groups were accompanied by skilled male and female "animateurs" provided by CARE, who presented the HIV/AIDS message with evangelical fervor. The volunteers backed them up and participated in the presentations as a sort of Greek chorus, showing pictures and demonstrating condoms as well as delivering part of the message in Hausa or Zarma. They also passed out a supply of condoms (donated by a European aid agency) to each village.

The government of Niger cooperated fully, from the president (whom the ambassador and I briefed on the project) to the village chiefs along the way. Motorcycle-mounted gendarmes were provided as escorts. The gendarmes did an excellent job of providing safety and security, and also served as a visible sign of Government support.

As the convoys came into each village, they were met by the village chief and elders. Men and women assembled in separate groups to hear the presentations. In villages where the volunteers spent the night, the oral presentations were supplemented by videos in local languages.

Continued: Volunteers
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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 Department of State. He became Peace Corps country director in Niger in August 2000.

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