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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

October 2001

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Return from the land of plenty
Do we really need a choice of forty kinds of toothpaste? That’s one of the burning questions I brought back from vacation in the United States. After living in the midst of Niger’s wretched poverty for a year, one notices such things. I’m delighted that we have great wealth, and I believe that as a nation we’ve earned it. We certainly don’t "owe" any "reparations" to anyone. Nonetheless, though I’ve never been a big fan of foreign aid — especially in Africa, much has been wasted and little has been used effectively — I’m driven to wonder if we shouldn’t find more ways to effectively share our abundance.

Peace Corps is one such way, and some of the non-governmental organizations, such as CARE, do good work. The trade and private investment associated with globalization are raising some countries out of poverty, but have been of little benefit to Niger and others among the poorest of the poor.

I don’t have the answer, but the question won’t go away.

The blessed rains

Green pastures of plenty, in the Sahara on the road to Iferouane.
The rains that began earlier than normal this year and averted a prospective famine have continued through early September. The harvest is already under way in the southernmost parts of the country, and promises to be good or even excellent in most areas. Pastures are lush, and animals are producing adequate milk and meat. At least this year, most Nigeriens won’t go hungry.

The rains have also brought cooler temperatures. In August, we found the weather in Niamey more pleasant than in Washington. Or perhaps that should be "less unpleasant." As Mark Twain wrote about India, here in Niger "cool weather" is "merely a conventional phrase, and has come into use through the necessity of distinguishing between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy."

Nevertheless, thanks to air conditioning, we find it quite tolerable.

An approaching Saharan dust storm, on the road to Agadez.
The rainy season’s transformation of the countryside has been dramatic, changing the dominant colors from brown and yellow and ochre to shades of green. Even far north into the Sahara, there are vast expanses of emerald-hued grass that from a distance could pass for Asian rice paddies or an American golf course. On a recent trip to Agadez and Iferouane, I passed through a steady flow of thousands of nomads and their herds of cattle, sheep, goats, camels and donkeys on their annual northward migration to feast on the desert’s temporary abundance.The rains in Niger come mostly as brief, heavy thunderstorms, and in the Sahara they are often preceded by violent sandstorms stirred by the strong wind associated with the system. I passed through one of these sandstorms just south of Agadez. It’s a sight worth seeing, so long as you are well protected inside an air-conditioned Land Cruiser.

Farewell, Iferouane
In one of my first letters from Niger, I wrote about Iferouane, a small oasis town in the northern part of the country, deep into the Sahara, where three Volunteers were stationed. It’s not quite at the end of the earth, but on a clear day you can see it from there. Perhaps because of its remoteness and romantic image, it was a highly sought-after posting for the Volunteers.

My most recent trip to Iferouane, however, was not to visit the Volunteers but to evacuate them.

We had been increasingly concerned about the security of these Volunteers because of difficulties in communicating with them and transporting them in the event of an emergency. (Iferouane is a hard two-day trip from Niamey.) The International Union for the Conservation of Nature project in the Iferouane region, to which the Volunteers were attached, was supposed to provide them a radio link and a vehicle when necessary, but it was foundering and scheduled to come to an end soon.

One of our two Peace Corps nurses, together with a vacationing Volunteer who wanted to see the Sahara, was on the way to Iferouane to look into the situation and stopped for the night in Agadez. There, they met two of the three Iferouane Volunteers, who had hitched a ride into town. The four women went to dinner at a hotel/restaurant in the heart of Agadez that primarily serves foreign tourists. After dinner, when they emerged from the restaurant and got into the Peace Corps vehicle (a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser), a man in Tuareg dress approached the driver’s window, pointed a pistol at our nurse’s head, and instructed them to get out. They did so. The man and an accomplice got into the vehicle and drove away.

A Peace Corps toyota Land Cruiser, like the one that was hijacked in Agadez.
After calling the police, the nurse called Niamey to let us know what had happened. She and the Volunteers were understandably quite shaken.Regrettably, this was not an isolated incident. A couple of months ago an Africare vehicle was hijacked (and the driver was seriously wounded) near Agadez, and there were similar hijacking incidents involving tourists earlier this year. And the December hijacking of a US Embassy vehicle in Niamey, an incident in which the Defense Attaché was killed, remains very much on everyone’s mind.

The hijacking made my decision to evacuate the Volunteers from Iferouane an easy one.

Early the next morning, the Peace Corps Administrative Officer and I left Niamey and arrived in Agadez just before sundown. We found the nurse and the three Volunteers still somewhat shaken but unhurt. The following morning, we all proceeded to Iferouane, accompanied by a squad of gendarmes. The préfet (governor), at our request, provided the gendarmes, but we had to pay for their fuel and food. (This felt a bit like getting robbed a second time, but it was the only expeditious way to assure a security escort for the mission, which I felt was a sensible precaution under the circumstances.)

In Iferouane, we packed the Volunteers’ belongings and Peace Corps property, said goodbyes, and returned to Agadez the next day.

I called on the préfet to officially inform him of the Volunteers’ departure and inquire about the search for our vehicle and the bandits. He assured me that the government was making every effort to find both. In light of its failure to recover the vehicles or arrest the perpetrators in several similar cases, however, it is difficult to be optimistic about the government’s ability to do so.

We got back to Niamey the next evening. It was a long, tiring, difficult trip.

Continued: Virginia's school
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Bullington's other articles in American Diplomacy include:

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