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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

August 2001

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Letter from Niger

J. R. Bullington on the Niger River, AIDS, and volunteer marriage

Storks and rains
The annual rains, along with the migratory storks that always accompany them, arrived early this year,

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promising relief from food shortages and threatened famine. Substantial expanses of greenery now mark the orange-brown landscape; dry ponds and riverbeds are filling; and the animals again have adequate forage and watering holes. Humans, however, must wait another month or two before the millet, now eight or ten inches high, is ready for harvest. And they must pray that the rains do not end prematurely, as they did last year, causing much of the crop to wither before it ripened.

Meanwhile, a substantial amount of food aid has arrived from several foreign donors, including the US. (CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Africare, and Helen Keller International are distributing USAID-provided food through food-for-work projects.) Soaring grain prices stabilized and then fell, and it appears that traditional coping strategies – selling off livestock, eating leaves and other "famine food," cutting consumption to one meal per day or less, moving to towns to find temporary work or handouts – will enable everyone except the weakest and most vulnerable to survive until the next harvest.

To survive until the next harvest: That’s pretty much what life is all about for most Nigeriens.

The Strong Brown God
The Niger River, from which the country takes its name, was the last of the world’s major rivers to be mapped by European explorers. The story of their search, which began at the end of the 18th Century and was not concluded until 1830, is chronicled in an excellent book called The Strong Brown God (a title taken from a poem by T. S. Eliot). It was written by Sanche de Gramont and published in 1976. I recommend it highly for anyone who is interested in learning more about this part of the world while at the same time being well entertained by a true adventure story, an epic of African exploration.

At 2600 miles, the Niger is the tenth longest river in the world. Its existence was known since the time of the ancient Greeks (it was mentioned by Herodotus), yet its course and destination remained a mystery for over 2000 years.

One reason why the puzzle was so difficult to solve is that the Niger is something of a geological freak among rivers. Its sources are in the hills of Guinea, only 150 miles from the Atlantic; but it flows backwards, away from the sea, toward the northeast and the Sahara Desert. Then, flowing along the desert’s rim, past Timbuktu (Tombouctou) and Gao in Mali, it turns back to the southeast, through Niger and Nigeria, eventually to make its way back to the Atlantic through a vast, oil-rich delta in the Port Harcourt area.

Though the European search for the source of the Nile got much more attention, because of its connection with ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean, the Niger posed an equally interesting but opposite problem: Its source was known, yet no one had traced its course or discovered its mouth. Europeans who explored the West African coast thought that the multiple streams flowing through the Niger’s huge delta were separate, unconnected rivers.

There were several barriers to European exploration of Africa’s interior and the Niger’s course. First and most obvious was the continent’s vast expanse – it is three times the size of the continental US. Moreover, though its coast was charted, first by the Portuguese and then others, there were few good harbors or navigable rivers on which to develop bases. To the north, the Sahara was a formidable obstacle, both geographically and politically, as it was controlled by Arabs and other Muslims who were hostile to Christian Europeans. There was also the problem of diseases, particularly malaria, which earned West Africa the sobriquet of "the white man’s grave." Until quinine began to be used to combat malaria in the mid-19th Century, few Europeans could survive there, so it was not economically attractive. And finally, Africans had little experience of commercial or other contacts with the outside world, and they were often hostile to those who managed to penetrate into the interior and reach them. Many explorers never returned.

Thus, until the middle of the 19th Century, the interior of Africa was blank on European maps.

Ferry landing on the Niger River near Gotheye, northwest of Niamey. There are only two bridges over the river in Niger. One, the Kennedy Bridge in Niamey, was built by USAID in the 1960s. The other, where the river forms the border between Niger and Benin, is on the main highway connecting Niger with Cotonou and the West African coast.

The first European to explore part of the Niger was Mungo Park, a Scottish doctor who was sent in 1795-96 by a private British group called the African Association. Park’s widely read account of his harrowing adventures, and his finding that the Niger flows east (rather than west, as had been believed since Roman times), prompted several other expeditions. Park also returned to the Niger, in 1805, as the first African explorer to be sponsored by the British Government; but in floating down it to look for its mouth, he simply disappeared.

None of the other explorers who followed Mungo Park succeeded in finding the Niger’s mouth until Richard and John Lander made that discovery in 1830. Together with the use of quinine to treat malaria, which began a few years later, this opened up the interior of West Africa for traders and missionaries, and eventually soldiers to protect them. By the end of the 19th Century, all the territory along the Niger was incorporated into the French and British colonial empires. What is now the country of Niger became part of French West Africa.

The AIDS pandemic
I wrote a few months ago about the AIDS pandemic, which is striking Africa with a force that makes it one of the worst disasters in the history of mankind, comparable to the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages. Of 30 million people infected by the HIV virus worldwide, two-thirds are in Africa. In seven African countries, a fifth of the adult population is infected. One out of five! And it’s not only adults who are being struck down. According to a recent WHO report, some 300,000 African children died of AIDS in 2000, and 400,000 were newly infected by the virus. And experts predict that there will be 40 million AIDS orphans in Africa by 2010. Forty million! The numbers are simply staggering.

Niger is not one of the worst-affected African countries. Here, the HIV infection rate is "only" about 3-5% of the adult population. (This is just an informed guess, since no one has been willing or able to finance the sort of epidemiological study needed to determine the true rate.) But the problem is getting worse, and both the Government and foreign donors have given the highest priority to bringing it under control before it overwhelms the country.

Our Peace Corps Volunteers have been increasingly active in this struggle. Following are stories about two of their most recent projects.


Bullington's other articles in American Diplomacy include:

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