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Amb. Jim Bullington, who has a commentary on Viet Nam in the current issue of this journal, recently was named American Peace Corps director in Niger. Writing his first impressions of his assignment to a number of friends and colleagues in the United States (below), he brings to bear the unique — as far as your editor is aware — 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. ~ Ed.

September 4, 2000

We arrived in Niamey as scheduled August 28 via the weekly Air France flight, and aside from some lingering jet lag we are all well. This message is to confirm our arrival and give you some first impressions of life in Niger.

Perhaps the most striking immediate impression was the heat as we stepped out of the plane. It’s well over 100 degrees F every day, a heat similar to Phoenix or Las Vegas in summertime. It’s a dry, desert heat, and nights are not unpleasant. The cool season begins in October and lasts until March. The hottest part of the year is April/May, when the temperature can reach 120 or more. Then, the rainy season, June-September, cools temperatures somewhat.

The next most striking impression is the poverty, evident in the houses, public buildings, roads, dirt, etc. According to a UN-produced “poverty index” which measures both income and a series of social indicators, Niger ranks 173 out of 174 countries assessed. Last year, it was 174. It moved up not because things here improved, but because the situation in Sierra Leone deteriorated faster. All the indicators are grim: per capita income of less than $200 per year; life expectancy 47; adult literacy 14 percent; infant mortality rate 123/1000; etc. And in a country nearly twice the size of Texas, with over 10 million people, there are less than 500 miles of paved road.

However, in spite of the heat, poverty, and other problems, almost all foreigners who come and stay here for awhile love the country. I heard this in Washington from some returned Peace Corps volunteers from Niger as well as several of my former Foreign Service colleagues; and it’s been confirmed by people we’ve met in the past week. The expatriate community is fairly large, some 2000 or more, primarily people associated with embassies and various international and private aid organizations, e.g.,
UNICEF, UNDP, WHO, CARE, Africare, World Vision, etc.

Of course, most of the expats live pretty well. The electricity is reliable in Niamey, and expat homes and offices are air conditioned and comfortable. Food is plentiful, good and cheap for those who can afford it, and there are several nice restaurants, including a Chinese place across the street from our house and an excellent French bakery just down the road (superb baguettes for about 20 cents). Beef is good, and there’s an excellent fish, called capitane (Nile perch), that comes from the Niger River (which borders the city on the south and west). Mangos, bananas and other tropical fruits are delicious.

The Nigerien people are friendly and nice. The government, after a decade of political instability and military coups, is now democratic (an election, judged to be free and fair, was held last November), and it has adopted reasonable policies. President Tanja met with President Clinton for over two hours when he visited Nigeria last week, and the meeting was reported to be cordial and productive.

As for Peace Corps, I can say without boasting (since I’ve had nothing to do with making it so) that this is one of the best Peace Corps country programs in the world. It was one of the first programs to be created and has been operating continuously since 1962. There are now more than 2600 returned PCVs [Peace Corps volunteers] from Niger. The program is very popular with the Government and the local people, and is probably the best known and most appreciated foreign assistance program in the country.

Moreover, the Peace Corps facilities here are much better than any other PC facilities I’ve ever seen. The office is a modern three-story building that formerly was the local headquarters for a large Esso oil exploration effort. (They didn’t find enough to be commercially exploitable.) It comfortably houses our staff of five Americans and about 30 Nigeriens and third-country nationals, and includes a medical unit with two nurses, a lab technician, and 6-bed infirmary for volunteers. It’s in a large, securely walled compound, and includes a volunteer lounge, warehouse, and garage behind the main building. In fact, it’s bigger and nicer than any of the three African embassies in which I served, and my personal office is the biggest and best I’ve ever had. My predecessor was able to get these facilities because of security concerns in the wake of the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings, and because they were really cheap.

Africa map showing NigerThere are just over 100 volunteers, who work in health/nutrition, agriculture, and environmental protection sectors. All are young, mostly in their mid-20s, and 60 percent are women. They all work in rural villages, living in mud or thatch huts constructed for them by the villagers. There is no electricity or running water, and only squat toilets (i.e., a hole in the ground). Nonetheless, their morale is high, and they love what they’re doing. (Peace Corps’ slogan: “The hardest job you’ll ever love.”) Their enthusiasm is contagious, and their dedication is inspiring. Their projects include demonstration crops, para-veterinary training, child nutrition education, tree planting, fruit tree grafting, fuel-efficient stoves, fish ponds, polio vaccinations, Guinea worm eradication campaigns, women’s gardens, sewing co-ops, and many more. Recently, they have begun HIV/AIDS education work. (Unlike some countries in southern Africa, where the HIV/AIDS infection rate has reached 30 percent, AIDS is not yet a major problem here. The UN estimates the Niger infection rate at a little under 2 percent, but that’s just a guess, and there’s reason to believe it may begin to rise rapidly unless preventive measures are taken.)

The U.S. embassy here is surprisingly large, mainly because it formerly included a USAID mission of more than 100 people. USAID pulled out of Niger three years ago, however, because of a military coup and continuing instability that made serious economic development work impossible. There are about 25 Americans in the embassy now, including Marine guards. The ambassador is a career Foreign Service officer who seems to be very capable and on top of her job.

There is a small (40+ students) but excellent American school adjacent to the embassy. Kevin [note: Amb. Bullington’s son] loves it. His class (combined fifth and sixth grades) has only eight students. The school goes through the eighth grade. Kevin has spent the last two nights at the Ambassador’s residence, as her son is one of his classmates. Another classmate he visited earlier is the son of the World Bank resident representative, an American who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger in the 70s. Kevin was apprehensive and negative about coming to Niger when we first arrived, but now he’s quite happy.

Our house is a fairly spacious and comfortable but modest villa with three bedrooms and a study, and a nice covered verandah on two sides. It’s in a large fenced compound with lots of mango and other fruit trees, flowers, herbs and other tropical plants. Tuy-Cam [note: Mrs. Bullington] recognized many of them as also native to Vietnam. We inherited a dog and some chickens from my predecessor. The embassy provides full-time security guards. We have a maid/cook and a gardener (both of whom are pleasant and competent), and I’ve just hired a driver for the car I’m in the process of buying for Tuy-Cam and other personal use. At about $100 per month each, the servants are well paid by local standards.

All in all, we are quite happy here. I love my job and am delighted to have this opportunity to work in an international context helping some of the world’s poorest people and leading a group of outstanding young Americans.

Warm regards to all.

Jim Bullington
Niamey, Niger

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