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Foreign Service Life

February 2006

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This is a special article, the last letter from Niger of Jim Bullington. Jim first began contributing to American Diplomacy in 1997 and began his letters from Niger in September, 2000. He has contributed letters every three months since. As our editor wrote in September, 2000, Jim Bullington “brings to bear the unique perspective of a career senior diplomat and former U. S. ambassador to Burundi and head of a large Peace Corps contingent in Africa, all rolled into one man”. Jim and his wife, Tuy-Cam, will be leaving Niamey shortly for Williamsburg, Virginia. We wish them Godspeed and look forward to many future contributions from Jim. — Assoc. Ed.

Letter from Niger, September 2005

Niger's brief brush with winter, when temperatures plunge into the mid 70s at night and rarely rise above the low 90s, ended in mid February. Heat, dust and mangos are returning, as people await the really hot (120+) weather of April and May and pray that the rains due to begin in June will be adequate to stave off starvation for yet another year.

It's as good a time as any to be going home.

Going Home
At Chattanooga's Northside Junior High School more than half a century ago, I was required in English class to memorize some lines from Sir Walter Scott's “Lay of the Last Minstrel”:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
'This is my own, my native land!'
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd
From wandering on a foreign strand?

In spite of its sentimentality, and even if I don't really feel a great deal of heartburn, the poem seems appropriate (or perhaps just inevitable) as I approach the end of five and a half years in Niger and 32 years in the Foreign Service, 22 of them spent living in Asia and Africa.

We will be leaving Niamey March 15 for what I hope will be an active retirement in Williamsburg, Virginia. Even though I ultimately share the longings of Scott's minstrel, and I recognize that the time has come to begin a new phase of life, departure also brings some trepidation and regret.

The years I've spent as Peace Corps Director in Niger have been among the most professionally and personally gratifying of my life, better even than my two tours at the head of U.S. Embassies. Every time I've gone to the Embassy here and seen the Ambassador, I've been reminded of how happy I am to have my job instead of hers. This is partly because the Peace Corps experience came at the right season of my life; partly because it liberated me from a university position and academic environment I found stifling; partly because it rekindled a lifelong taste for the adventurous and exotic; partly because I was no longer driven to get ahead in a career and have been able to operate rather independently of Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington; but mostly because of the inherent satisfaction of being able to use a lifetime of relevant experience to guide and support more than 400 outstanding young American Volunteers in their efforts to help some of the world's poorest people.

The Marriage Bonus
Another important reason that serving with Peace Corps in Niger has been such a great experience is that Tuy-Cam has been able to share much more fully in the job than has been the case with any previous assignment, even in senior diplomatic positions when we did extensive representational entertaining.

Supporting the Volunteers is my top priority as Country Director. The second priority is supporting the Volunteers. So is the third, the fourth and the fifth. Everything else, especially bureaucratic requirements from Washington, is somewhere on page two of the priority list. With this focus, and since nothing about Peace Corps work is classified or sensitive, it was both easy and appropriate for her to take a large role in the job.

Moreover, because our own children are long since on their own and physically far away, it was perhaps natural that the Volunteers, who are roughly the same age as them, would become in some ways surrogate children (or perhaps it's more like grandchildren). We have genuinely enjoyed being with them.

Food is a great tool with which to build a strong relationship with young Americans living in the African bush where they eat mostly millet mush and a can of sardines is a major treat. Since Tuy-Cam enjoys cooking and is very good at it, she was able to use this tool to great advantage.

Volunteers at our house for Saturday dinner
During our first two years here, we gave a dinner almost every Saturday night for the Volunteers who were visiting Niamey plus a few other people such as the Marine Security Guards and Peace Corps and Embassy staff. These dinners became so popular (and expensive) that we eventually had to reduce the frequency to twice a month, and for the past year just once a month. The dinners helped us get to know the Volunteers better and showed them that we really care about them. They also gained Tuy-Cam a reputation as a great cook, and made her such a good customer for the food sellers in the market that they thought she ran a Chinese restaurant.

Also, for the past three and a half years Tuy-Cam has accompanied me on all my frequent trips outside of Niamey to visit Volunteers at their posts. (She wasn't able to do so during the first two years because our grandson Kevin was living with us and attending the American school.) On these trips, she always brought along a good lunch for the Volunteers, and on the longer trips, which involved several days of travel, she would bring some ingredients and buy others at the local markets to prepare dinners for the Volunteers at their regional hostels. The Volunteers came to look forward to these visits and deeply appreciated the attention.

Left: Asia in Africa: Tuy-Cam with Volunteers Chris Hwang and Vivian Nguyen in Zinder
Right: Cooking dinner with no electricity in Konni, with Volunteer Carol Grimes

Tuy-Cam also supported the Volunteers in many ways other than food and visits, including just being a friend and surrogate mom in times of need. She once stood in as mother of the bride when a pair of Volunteers got married. A gesture of support that gained considerable fame even in Peace Corps programs elsewhere in Africa was the bake sale she undertook to raise money to repair the badly deteriorated regional hostel at Konni. (For reasons too complex and bureaucratically stupid to explain here, Peace Corps had no official funds for such repairs.) Here are notes from Amanda Ree and Carol Grimes, two of many that the Konni Volunteers sent her:

You constantly prove to us that we are more than 'employees.' You extend your warmth to us as family. Our newly renovated hostel…will have your kindness packed in every brick. - Amanda

Bet you didn't know that we call you 'Grandma' now here in Konni. You are the best. With you here, home doesn't seem so far away. - Carol

Defining Development
One of the lessons from my experience on a university faculty is that you learn a lot more when you teach a course than when you take a course. Since a big part of Peace Corps' mission is development work in poor countries, an important element of the support I've needed to give the Volunteers is helping them understand the nature of development and how to make it happen. I had some familiarity with this subject before coming to Niger, since all of my Foreign Service assignments were in “developing” countries, but working with Peace Corps Volunteers at the grass roots level in this poorest of poor countries has greatly strengthened my understanding of development.

First of all, development is not charity.

This is a simple notion and one that is universally acknowledged, as in the old saw that to give someone a fish is to feed him for a day, but to teach someone to fish is to feed him for a lifetime. In practice, however, it's surprising how easily and how often the two concepts are confused. Last year, for example, when the global news media broadcast pictures of some of Niger's emaciated children, donors were quick to send food. Some food aid was indeed needed, but the sad fact is that emaciated children are a constant in Niger, and their emaciation in most cases is not only, or even primarily, due to insufficient food. It is due to contaminated water, poor hygiene, disease, and a number of other factors. Charity makes donors feel good and may sometimes be necessary, but only development can have a lasting impact.

We stress to the Volunteers that their role is not to help people, but to help people help themselves. This is easy to understand, but hard to apply in practice.

And if development is not charity, neither is it infrastructure.

Most people tend to think of development primarily in terms of projects and physical things: At the national level things like roads and dams and telephone systems, or at the local level things like wells and schoolhouses and clinics. These are of course important manifestations of development, but I've come to believe that they certainly don't define it and may not even promote it unless they have a strong element of sustainability built into them. They are a means, not an end. The carcasses of projects that failed litter the landscape of Africa and provide powerful evidence that infrastructure is not enough to bring about development.

I've tried to instill in the Volunteers the notion that development is best thought of as a process in which people are changed, not a project in which things are built. In the long run, most infrastructure projects are successful only to the extent they facilitate changes in people - new knowledge, new attitudes, new ways of doing things.

Peace Corps Volunteers can be very successful in promoting development without leaving behind a single thing that one could take a picture of or point out to a visitor. Their most important legacies are people who think and act differently, not buildings and machines. Thus Peace Corps' principal contribution to development can't be quantified, but it's nonetheless very real.

Most of the Volunteers come to understand the nature of development, not only intellectually but also, and more importantly, at a deep-seated, personal, experiential level. One such was Dawn Girling, who with her husband Dave Snook has just completed two years of service in a rural village. Dawn wrote an essay about her experience, focused on her close relationship with Boubacar, one of the men in the village. Following are some excerpts:

My assigned village had requested married Volunteers. They believed that a married couple would allow the 'real' Volunteer (the husband) to do serious work while his wife remained at home taking care of the house…

Our first few days in the village revealed just how different our cultures were: 'No, Halima (Dawn's Hausa name), you can't have a farm. Your husband will farm and you will pound millet and carry him the porridge for his lunch. No, farming is not your work. Taking care of your husband is your work.'

…Boubacar quickly took on the role of my arch nemesis. He felt it was his job to personally guide my husband and me in our journey through life as a married couple. 'Always walk behind your husband; never say his name,' he would coach me. 'Don't talk to him unless he talks to you…You really need to stop sitting side-by-side and talking together. We don't do that here.'

Then came the breaking point. Boubacar stopped by with some friends from a neighboring village. Dave played the good husband…I played the dutiful wife…As I handed our guests water, they kindly greeted and thanked me. As I turned to offer water to Boubacar, he refused. 'Halima, I will not drink your water unless you present it to me on your knees, head bowed, eyes averted. This is how women do things here.'

In spite of this terrible beginning, Dawn and Boubacar eventually became good friends. She found that he actually began to listen and learn about her culture, not just try to teach her his culture. Finally, she was even able to talk to him about treating his wife like a partner instead of a possession.

Boubacar began telling friends they should go home and try these things with their spouses. He would excitedly tell me, 'We convinced some more people, Halima. With the two couples we got last week, and Ali and his wife this week, that makes seven couples that are using condoms and living in peace together. Halima, you've fixed our marriages.'

Moreover, Boubacar began to plan ahead and to try to make some productive investments, and Dawn came to recognize “a change in his thought processes.” From their discussions, he took “the things that were useful to him and left the things that do not work for him. He has merged ideas from my culture with ideas from his own…”

Dawn also did many of the projects that Volunteers typically undertake in their villages, such as introducing improved seeds and insecticide, new crops (soybeans), savings and loan groups to build capital, a grain bank. However:

The seed provider is too far away for villagers to make the trip regularly, and farmers decided that it's easier for them to work with the toxic, permethrin-based insecticide they're used to. All three backpack sprayers were broken within a week…The soybean farmer let his cows into the field because, he said, he didn't have time to harvest all the beans. The savings banks went defunct…And the grain bank? Well, all I can do is hope.

When I go home to the U.S., people will ask me what 'work' I did here. And I imagine I will learn how to roll all of these things into one snappy sound bite and just breeze over the failures. But of all the work I've done, it's the time I've spent with Boubacar that will have the most long-term, sustainable effect on his life and on this country… And who knows how many lives he will in turn change? No, he still doesn't always do what's best for himself and his family. But then, neither do I.

Dave Snook and Dawn Girling, at their house in Konni
Doing Well by Doing Good
That phrase, which I believe was first used in reference to people in Roosevelt's New Deal agencies who were using their positions to enrich themselves, could be applied in a non-cynical sense to Peace Corps Volunteers and staff. All of the Volunteers I talk to as they are ending their service feel that they have learned more than they taught; they received more than they gave. And although I had to take a pay cut to work for Peace Corps (because my State Department annuity has been suspended while I'm again employed by the Federal Government), I feel enriched by the experience.

For the Volunteers, the rewards of Peace Corps service include the excitement of a great adventure, the broadening of horizons that comes with living abroad and learning a foreign language and culture, and the quiet satisfaction that is derived by serving some of the planet's poorest people. They also gain practical experience that for many lays the foundation for international careers, in the Foreign Service and with organizations such as CARE, World Vision and the like. But most of all, they gain exceptional maturity and self-confidence.

As part of my welcome and orientation talk to newly arriving Volunteer groups, I've told them that if they can survive living for two years in a village in Niger, there's not much that subsequent life can possibly bring them that they can't handle. In this sense, Peace Corps experience has a good deal in common with military service. It changes people, almost always for the better. It builds character.

Devon Jenkins, a Volunteer who recently completed his service here, put it this way:

It was an opportunity to grow, and to do so while feeling really good about what I was doing. It's an experience that'll affect everything else I do in my life, and the same goes for the thousands who came before me, and the thousands sure to follow…My experience here has shown me everything I wanted out of it, and in many ways I wasn't even aware of what all that was.

That sums it up pretty well.

Tuy-Cam and Jim with Volunteers Teresa Torres and Katie Leach-Kemon at last fall's Marine Corps Ball, held on the lawn at the Ambassador's residence. Teresa and Katie were dates of two of the Marine Security Guards, an interesting cross-cultural exchange.


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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