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Foreign Service Life

January 2004

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Letter from Niger, January 2004

Quietude can be downright pleasurable, particularly as one grows older.

I reflected on this while observing (via short-wave radio and satellite TV news) the world’s turmoil at the start of the New Year from the vantage point of one of its true backwaters. Wars in the Middle East, the US on code orange homeland security alert, terrorist threats disrupting international aviation…Niger seems so quiet and “normal” it’s almost boring.

This somnolence was threatened over the past couple of years. In the wake of 9/11, with the US going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and global terrorism dominating world news, it seemed that this overwhelmingly Muslim country, dirt-poor and politically fragile, might become, let’s say, more exciting. And it did have a moment in the international spotlight, thanks to its uranium mines and Joe Wilson.

However, the storms of war, terrorism and culture clashes have thus far passed us by. Niger has remained peaceful, quiet and terrorism-free. It has even registered some economic and political progress, as the rains have been good, aid donors have been reasonably generous, and a stable, democratic government has become fairly well established after a decade of military coups and civil war in the 90s.

Niger’s problems remain enormous, perhaps insoluble. It’s the world’s second poorest country, with fragile institutions, and it’s located in an environmentally harsh and politically turbulent region. But compared to much of the rest of the world, it seems quiet, peaceful, normal, even safe.

I was bemused by a call to Peace Corps Headquarters by the mother of one of our Volunteers, in reaction to the December “code orange” terrorism alert in the US, asking that her daughter be sent home immediately. I sympathize with a parent’s concern, but there is probably nowhere in the US – and certainly not on a flight headed there – as safe from global terrorism as the rural village in Niger where her daughter lives.

The Volunteers continue to do great work and to enjoy being in Niger, while Tuy-Cam and I enjoy their company and the privilege of supporting them. After our fourth holiday season in Niamey, this still seems the right place for us to be. On the other hand, we’ve pretty much concluded that five years will be enough of this good thing, and we expect to return home in the summer of 2005.Adventures in Service
I entitle my orientation presentation to newly arrived trainees “Adventures in Service,” emphasizing that to be successful in Niger they will need a taste for adventure as well as dedication to serving their fellow man.

Most of them seem to have both in abundance. Two recent events highlighted the adventure side of the ledger.

Three of our current Volunteers, Kelley Bishop, Cam Caswell and Erica French, decided to retrace the voyage down the Niger River of Mungo Park, the 19th Century explorer who discovered and mapped its course. For their vacation, they took a bus from Niamey to Gao, in Mali, from where they rented a bush taxi to take them to Timbuktu. After a couple of days in Timbuktu, they purchased a typical wooden pirogue and spent the next 18 days floating down the river from Timbuktu to Niamey.

Kelley, Erica and Cam, in the pirogue that took them down the Niger
Just writing the place names evokes National Geographic images. What an adventure! Yes, there were risks, and as a parent I would have been concerned; but these are fully-grown adults, and I recognize that this is exactly the sort of thing I would have done at their age if I had the chance. (In fact, at their age I did things in Viet-Nam that were considerably more dangerous, and sometimes less wholesome, than a pirogue trip down the Niger.)

Rita Herkel and Chantel Brennan, at the conclusion of their service with Peace Corps/Niger (which both had extended for several months beyond the required two years), joined a group of Wodabe people to live in the Sahara as nomads for three months. This too was an amazing adventure for two young American women. While I couldn’t permit a serving Volunteer to do this sort of thing (I have to always know where they are, at least when they’re in Niger, and be able to contact them in the event of an emergency), I admire Rita and Chantel for doing it. During their time as Volunteers, they had developed the language and cross-cultural skills to do it successfully and with relatively low risk.

Left: Rita and her camel, in her village. Above: Chantel in her village garden

These young Americans are surely among our country’s best, and I’m proud of them. They are risk-takers by nature – otherwise they wouldn’t join the Peace Corps. After mastering the challenges of living in a village in Niger, I’m confident that they can handle just about any challenge that the future may bring them.Brendan’s Health Hut
The Peace Corps experience in Niger isn’t all adventure. In fact, it’s mostly hot, hard, frustrating work in difficult conditions and with few resources. Yet the Volunteers are able to accomplish a great deal for the people they are here to serve, and the satisfaction they get from this service matches the excitement of the adventure.

Brendan St. Amant managed to bring a health hut to his village.

In Niger, the health system is rudimentary at best. There are hospitals, staffed by doctors, in a dozen of the largest towns; and clinics, staffed by nurses, in some of the larger regional villages. Most people, however, have little if any access to health care. Niger has fewer than 250 doctors (about the same number you would expect to find in an American city of 100,000 people) to serve a population of 12 million; and annual per capita expenditure for health care is about $10 (compared to $5440 in the US).

Brendan with the village health worker, at the new health hut
To bring some limited, very basic health care to more of the population, the government has a program to build “health huts” in 1000 rural villages over a five-year period. These are one or two-room buildings staffed by a high-school graduate with a few weeks of medical training and stocked with some basic medicines and first aid supplies.

The people of Brendan’s village, located 17 kilometers from the nearest rural clinic, wanted one of these health huts, and Brendan made sure that they got it. He went with village leaders to approach government officials (access is much easier if you have a foreigner along), worked with the building contractor during construction, arranged training for a young man from the village to become the health worker, and persuaded Catholic Relief Services to provide the initial stock of medicine and supplies when the government proved unable to do so. In short, he was the driving force behind the project. Tuy-Cam and I visited Brendan and his health hut in December, and he told us about some of the many obstacles he had to overcome and the frustrations he experienced. Such a facility might not be a very difficult project in America, but in rural Niger it is a monumental accomplishment.

Activities like this, multiplied by an average of 100 Volunteers and extended over the 42 years that Peace Corps has been active in Niger, have surely had a positive impact on how Americans and America are perceived by the people of this country.

Becky and Rick, in Kissin-Kissin
Becky and Rick, in Kissin-Kissin
Changing Lives
While the typical Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger is a recent college graduate, age 22-25, we have a few who are older, including three who are over 50.One of these senior Volunteers is Helen “Becky” Ramos, who came here with her husband Rick just over a year ago.

Peace Corps recently decided to expand its recruitment efforts among community college students, and as a community college graduate, Becky was asked to write something about her experience to be used in the campaign. Here is what she wrote:

Joining the Peace Corps really wasn’t my idea. It was my husband’s dream. One that he put on hold while we made a home, raised our family, pursued careers and lived America’s dream. Now with our children college graduates, living independent lives, we decided it was time to see if we could make his dream a reality. But, it still wasn’t my dream.In fact, I was pretty sure there would not be a place for us in the Peace Corps. After all, neither of us have a bachelor’s degree. After months of paperwork and waiting we finally received an answer. To my surprise and my husband’s delight, we were accepted and offered a post in West Africa. I am a NRM (Natural Resource Management) and my husband is an AG (Agriculture/Forestry Management), living in the small village of Kissin-Kissin, Niger, Africa.

Peace Corps looks at life experiences, interests, need, and availability as well as educational background in screening candidates. I do have my AA from Shasta Community College in California, in Early Childhood Education. For the last 19 years I have worked in various special education programs, most recently one for severely autistic preschoolers. We had a five-acre herb farm, complete with chickens, turkeys and catfish in rural northern California. These life skills certainly are helpful in our work with Peace Corps.

When I am asked about my Peace Corps experience, I tell my stories, then find myself saying, “It is everything I thought it would be and more.” More work, more friendships, laughter, tears, joy and heartaches. Most importantly, I am more; more than I ever thought I could be.

I am not sure when Peace Corps became my dream too, but it did. Before joining Peace Corps I saw myself as a wife, mother, teacher and friend. I was happy with that. Now I am Muna from Kissin-Kissin, and so much more than I ever thought I could be. I am not sure what comes next in our lives, but I do know that whatever it is I will bring skills, attitudes and strengths with me that were not there before.


J.R. Bullington is currently Country Director of the Peace Corps program in Niger. He was formerly a US Ambassador and career diplomat, with extensive service in Africa and Asia.

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