American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

March 2005

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook

We are pleased to offer the latest in the series of letters from Ambassador Bullington. As usual, this installment offers his unique perspective on African developments and Peace Corps activities, one we have had the pleasure to enjoy for more than three years.—Assoc. Ed.

Letter from Niger, March 2005

Democracy in West Africa
The Bush Administration and its supporters have hailed – and even many of its critics have acknowledged – the successful elections recently held in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine as indicators of a promising trend toward democracy in the world’s least democratic region, the Middle East. Reversal of the rigged election in Ukraine has also been widely acclaimed as a sign of the growing ascendancy of democratic principles.

Understandably much less noted, but also of real significance, are two recent victories for democracy in West Africa.

With a series of local, parliamentary and presidential elections ending in December, Niger consolidated its position as one of the few predominantly Muslim democracies in the world. Its post-colonial history, like that of most West African countries, has been dominated by dictators and military coups, but free elections in 1999 brought to power a government with democratic legitimacy. Given the country’s history, many questioned whether it would prove enduring. Thus far it has. In the 2004 elections, the incumbent President was re-elected, but his party failed to win a Parliamentary majority. There is general agreement among foreign observers and Nigeriens alike that today Nigeriens enjoy basic freedoms and can participate fully in the political process.

In his inaugural address, President Bush made support for this sort of movement to democracy and freedom the organizing principle of American foreign policy.

An election campaign rally in rural Niger
Another indicator of the growing strength of the democratic idea in West Africa came in the aftermath of the February 5 death of Togo’s President Eyadema. He had come to power in a military coup over three decades ago and had ruled the country ever since in an increasingly autocratic fashion even while adopting the trappings of constitutional democracy. The constitution called for the head of the national assembly to take over on the President’s death, until elections to be held within 60 days. However, the Army quickly installed Eyadema’s son, Faure, as President.

To the surprise of many observers of contemporary African history (including your humble correspondent), the reaction of Togo’s West African neighbors was swift, strong and effective. Acting primarily through ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), currently chaired by Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja, they suspended Togo’s membership in the organization, imposed an arms embargo and a travel ban on its leaders, recalled their Ambassadors, and made clear their determination to isolate the new Togolese regime. Within days, Faure resigned as President and elections were set for April 24.

This sort of vigorous collective action in support of democracy is unprecedented in contemporary Africa. It has been glaringly absent recently in southern Africa with regard to Zimbabwe.

Democrats worldwide can applaud these indicators that democracy continues to grow in the hitherto inhospitable soil of West Africa.

Hating America
According to a recent report of the Pew Research Center, “anti-Americanism is deeper and broader now than at any time in modern history.”

To those of us living abroad this is manifested in many ways, including the extraordinary measures we must take to protect ourselves from terrorists, as anyone who has attempted to enter an American Embassy recently can testify. But the sometimes vicious anti-Americanism of those we have long considered friends, especially Europeans, is even more hurtful than the hatred of Islamic extremist terrorists. I’ve written elsewhere of the almost daily insults I hear on Radio France International. And in passing through Charles de Gaulle airport recently I was dismayed to see that one of the bestsellers displayed in a bookstore was “11 Septembre 2001: l’Effroyable Imposture,” a book that claims the 9/11 attacks were “an appalling deception” perpetrated by the U.S. Government to justify American imperialism.

Here in Niger, I’ve found that many, maybe most, Europeans think Peace Corps is an intelligence organization. French and German volunteers will not associate with our Peace Corps Volunteers, even when they are stationed in the same small, remote town. (In sharp contrast, PCVs often have close relations with the Japanese volunteers.)

I was recently invited to a reception given by DED, the German volunteer organization, to celebrate its 25th anniversary in Niger. The Director was courteous in receiving me, but when I began mingling with the German volunteers and introducing myself as the Peace Corps Director, their coldness and negative body language was impossible to miss. I departed before the speeches.

In many years of working with Europeans as an American diplomat in Asia and Africa, up through the 1980s, I never felt this sort of hostility on a personal level.

Among Nigeriens, on the other hand, I don’t sense a rise in anti-Americanism at all, even when they disagree with some of our policies. There are a few Islamic extremists and European-educated Niamey intellectuals who are anti-American, but they are neither numerous nor notably virulent. The vast majority of Nigeriens I encounter are warm and friendly, and they are especially hospitable to our Volunteers who live among them. Even though the cultural gap is much wider than with Europeans, it is somehow a lot easier to bridge.

I don’t claim to fully understand the reasons for this difference, but I believe that 43 years of continuous Peace Corps presence in Niger has had a positive effect on Nigerien attitudes toward America.

PCV Shannon Sandelands, who organized an English language camp
One of our Volunteers, Shannon Sandelands, organized an English language “summer camp” for high school students in Zinder. She received the following letter from the father of one of the students, who is a merchant in the town market. The attitudes he expresses may not be characteristic of most Nigeriens, but the letter does vividly illustrate the impact Peace Corps Volunteers can have.

All my thanks to you – to American Peace Corps, to American people and to the United State of America. Myself I have been teach by American Peace Corps in 1970 and 1971. Mr. Haviland and Ms Negris. And today I am happy to see my children to be teach by American Peace Corps. And she got her mini dictionary as I got 3 books in 1970 and 1971 from American Ambassy wen I have drawing 3 stars with American flag inside…America is the first country I love and after is Britain, Canada, Japan…As I am pro-American I try to teach my children to be pro-American. Only USA can defend the world against terrorist, disease, hunger, war and other problems. If you go back to America salute for me in New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco…In small time election will be held in USA. I don’t know from George W Bush – Jon Cary who will win. Me I vote for George W Bush. God save America from terrorist attack like September 11. I support America in Iraq and George W Bush.

A Volunteer’s View from Togo
Vanity Fair magazine conducted an essay contest with the challenge of explaining the American people to the rest of the world. The winner, chosen from 4000 entrants, was Liz Richardson, a 23-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Togo. Her essay, “My American Home,” is published in the April issue. It is superbly written, heart-warming, and, I believe, reflective of the experience of most Peace Corps Volunteers in West Africa.

She writes: “I have never known such hospitality. Unlike a growing number of people, the Togolese love America. For the people of Tokpli, my home is a shining El Dorado, the same land of dreams and prosperity that has drawn immigrants for centuries.”

Most Nigeriens have similar attitudes.

Hams to Niger
Although almost all Nigeriens would be eager to visit America if they could, very few Americans have any desire to visit Niger. American tourists are rare, and the few who do come are mostly related to Peace Corps: Volunteers from nearby countries and the parents, siblings and boy/girlfriends of Niger Volunteers.

In nearly five years here, our personal visitors have been limited to our two daughters and a son-in-law.

For most Americans, even those few who could find it on a map, Niger is just too remote, too different, too lacking in modern amenities, too little known to even consider visiting.

Niger’s isolation from the beaten path, however, constitutes its attraction for one small group of visitors. Ham radio operators compete in contests and collect awards for talking to other hams in as many different countries as possible. In ham terms, Niger is very rare and thus much sought after. There are currently only two active hams resident in the country: an American missionary in the Saharan oasis village of Tchintabaraden, and me.

Ham radio antennas at our house in Niamey

For the past two years, a group of 10 enthusiastic British and American hams has come to Niamey to operate in one of the major international ham contests, held annually on a late November weekend. They bring along a truckload of radios and antennas, and set up a multi-transmitter station in a local hotel. I have been pleased to assist them as a local contact person and logistics facilitator.

Both years, they made contact with over 17,000 hams throughout the world during the 48-hour contest period.

I’ve found it most enjoyable to visit with them and share some ham adventures.

Sadly for us, we hams are becoming an endangered species. Very few young people come into the hobby these days, since those who are technically inclined prefer computers. Most current hams are well into their twilight years, having entered the hobby in the 1940s, 50s and 60s when short-wave radio was still a cutting edge technology, and the ability to sit in your bedroom or basement ham shack and talk to someone on the other side of the world was truly thrilling. Those days are past, but we old timers still find the hobby fun.

Girls’ Soccer in Zinder
Korey Welch and Katie Dick, Volunteers in the Zinder region about 1000 km east of Niamey, organized football (soccer) teams for girls in their small towns, Matameye and Kantché. In most places this would be unremarkable. In eastern Niger, it was a revolutionary first for females. Following is their account of the initial match between their teams.

On Saturday, the field is nearly empty at 8:00 a.m. The sand is hilled and furrowed with the heavy footprints of collège (junior high school) and lycée (high school) students exercising in gym classes during the week. Slowly, the girls and coaches begin to arrive on foot and motorcycle from the town and bush, followed by spectators and kids selling bagged water out of coolers in wheelbarrows. Names are called and green and white uniform tops and black shorts are passed out. (The majority of the equipment used by the teams was donated by the U.S. Athens Olympic Women’s Soccer Team with the help of former PCV Miguel Gomez.) The field is prepared by a few male students, and players return from the latrines in uniform, pointing and laughing excitedly at each other dressed out for the match.

The first female football game in Matameye is less than an hour away from starting and the news of girls playing football is on everyone’s lips. Two old Kantché men quietly converse, “Girls, there’s a girls football game in Matameye today.”

The Kantché football team arrives in a bush taxi at 9:00 with nearly all of the young women (collège age) wearing knit caps instead of headscarves with their red and white uniforms. In a country that is over 90% Muslim, they keep their hats on during the game, even as the morning heats up: 80, 90, 100 degrees.

No shoes, no shin guards, no problem. These girls have a desire to play that surpasses any physical difficulties they encounter. With two, thirty-minute halves and a ten-minute halftime, the crowd and teams are electric the entire time. In the front row of chairs on the sidelines sits the elderly Maigari (traditional chief) of Kantché who jumps out of his seat to cheer on his town’s football players. The Matameye school administrators and teachers are no less enthusiastic about their team that has been practicing twice a week for over two months preparing for this match. The Associate Peace Corps Director for Education in Niger, Assalama Sidi, diplomatically cheers on both teams.

The Matameye-Kantché girls’ soccer match
In Matameye, 75-150 girls came to each practice and the coaching staff was increased by 1, then 3, to accommodate the large number of players. The main coach was overwhelmed by the response. As one of the gym teachers at the school, he says that all the girls want to do is play football, and he is seeing something he has never seen before: Girls playing football in the streets. The girls in Kantché would demand practices to be longer and would ask to borrow the balls with promises of returning them before the sun went down.

Throughout the game, hundreds of kids--boys and girls--crowd the field wanting a closer look, and teachers chase them back with sticks so the players won’t trip over the young spectators. There’s almost a goal on Matameye, but the ball bounces off of the stick goal post and is chased down to the other end of the field! Almost a goal on Kantché! The game intensifies as the clock runs down in the second half, and a fight nearly breaks out between a handful of girls from the two teams on the field, but the referee is able to cool things down. The crowd and coaches sigh, laugh, groan, yell.

The game ends: Score 0-0. For now, the football trophy will be shared--one week in Matameye, the next in Kantché. After lunch for the players and coaches, the coaches inform the two Peace Corps Volunteers working with the teams that there will be another match in a few weeks to a month in Kantché. They will raise the money themselves this time and encourage the girls to train even harder, both sides desperate for another match-up and a chance to take the trophy home full-time.

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.

white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC