When Jim Bullington, a former U.S. ambassador and regular contributor to these pages, decided he’d had enough of retirement, he applied for a Peace Corps position and soon found himself in West Africa. He promised to keep our readers posted and sent this report in November, complete with illustration.
NOTE: Be sure to click on thumbnail photos to view enlargements.
HEN I ARRIVED in Niger as the new Peace Corps director, I knew I had a lot to learn about this vast and varied country nearly twice the size of Texas. And since all of our 100-plus volunteers are stationed in rural villages and small towns, I was eager to get out of the capital, Niamey, to begin meeting them.
Thus, although I had barely recovered from jet lag, I was happy to accept Ambassador Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick’s invitation to go along with her to Agadez, in northern Niger, where she and her diplomatic colleagues had been invited to an important ceremony marking the end of the Tuareg rebellion and restoration of peace to the region. I wanted to attend a conference of volunteers completing their terms of service, which had been scheduled to coincide with the peace ceremony as well as with an annual gathering of nomads called the “cure salée.”
Also, I needed to visit a couple of volunteers stationed in the oasis of Iferouane, and, in response to a request from the Minister of Tourism, to investigate the possibility of stationing new volunteers in Agadez. He asked for the new volunteers to work on a project to preserve some ancient Saharan rock art and at the same time make it more accessible to tourists.
The Trip North
Agadez, the provincial capital and economic hub of northern Niger, is 937 kilometers (562 miles) from Niamey on a road that is paved but so deteriorated along its first 400 km that all-terrain vehicles are needed. (Peace Corps/Niger uses the Toyota Land Cruiser, a huge “Sports Utility Vehicle” of the sort that seems so wasteful on American highways but is a necessity for travel in rural Niger.) It’s a fairly hard trip requiring a minimum of 12 hours.
First, we drove east more or less parallel to the Nigeria border, through the Sahel, the transition zone between the Sahara and the savanna regions further south. Most of Niger’s 10.1 million people live in this Sahel area. The countryside is flat and dry, much like parts of western Texas or Oklahoma, with scrubby brush interspersed with fields of millet, patches of bare earth, and occasional villages of mud and thatch huts. There are also a few market towns, with collections of tin-roofed stores and government buildings.
After about 400 km on this road (which continues eastward another 900 or so kilometers to Zinder and Lake Chad), we turned north at Konni onto the road to Agadez. Being less traveled, this road is in better condition. The scenery was little changed for the first 100 km, but then the landscape gradually became even dryer, with smaller bushes and trees, fewer millet fields, and more scattered villages. Soon, it had transitioned into the primarily herding zone, with little agriculture but extensive grass and numerous goats, cows, camels, and donkeys. About 150 km out of Agadez, the Sahel ended and the Sahara began, with little vegetation except scattered shrubs and acacias and patches of grass still green from the just-ended rainy season.
We reached Agadez just after dark and checked into the hotel, small and Sahara-rustic but adequate to reasonable Western needs, with air-conditioning, flush toilets, a shower, clean linen, and even a mini-fridge with Cokes and mineral water. The nearby restaurant, Le Tellier, had excellent food, though in limited variety.
Both hotel and restaurant are owned by what I’ve come to think of as the inevitable expatriate, a European (in this case, an Italian named Vittorio) of the sort I’ve encountered in most of the remote and exotic places I’ve served: Someone who came many years ago (30 for Vittorio) and just stayed on, marrying a local woman, developing close ties to the local government and society, supporting himself as an entrepreneur and serving as an informal intermediary between the natives and foreign visitors by providing the latter with services they couldn’t otherwise obtain.
Agadez is a surprisingly large town, with perhaps 25,000 people. (Population estimates vary substantially — there hasn’t been a recent census.) It first developed in about the fifteenth century and soon became a major crossroads and market center for the extensive trans-Sahara camel caravan trade in slaves, salt and other commodities. Like its counterpart in Mali, Timbuktu, it also became an important outpost of Islamic culture and religion. Its grand mosque, still in use, dates from the 16th Century. The town is built almost entirely of mud/adobe construction. It has an extensive market, many skilled artisans (silver, leather, embroidery, etc.), and a tourist trade that is beginning to revive after collapsing during the Tuareg rebellion.
The COS Conference
After arriving in Agadez, I attended the “COS Conference,” a facilitated meeting of volunteers nearing their COS, or completion of service. (This acronym is standard Peace Corps parlance, generally used in blissful ignorance of its meaning for most foreign affairs professionals, for whom it indicates a CIA “Chief of Station.”)
The COS Conference is designed to help the volunteers with issues involved in departing from their villages and winding up their Peace Corps affairs, and with re-entering life in America, a process in which most of them experience reverse culture shock. I especially wanted to get feedback from these veterans on what is working well in the program and what needs to be changed. They were not shy about providing it, and I came away with several ideas to be tried.
The “Flame of Peace”
The timing and location of this particular COS Conference was set to coincide with and give the volunteers a chance to attend the “Flamme de la paix” (flame of peace) ceremony to be held in Agadez and an annual gathering of nomads to be held in the nearby oasis of Ingall. The former event was to mark the end of several years of armed rebellion by the Tuaregs against the Niger Government by burning the arms turned in by the rebels. The diplomatic corps was convoked to the Flamme, along with hundreds of Government officials and traditional leaders. Several African Chiefs of State were invited, but only two came: the Presidents of Chad and Liberia, countries with a truly rich experience in civil war but a still-tenuous record in successfully ending it.
I left the COS Conference with a jeepload of volunteers to witness the Flamme ceremony, set for 11 a.m. We arrived on a large expanse of sand just outside of town where several thousand people were gathered. Among them were hundreds of Tuareg men mounted on their camels, along with their wives and children mounted on donkeys. Men, women, and animals were dressed in their most colorful clothes and saddles. It was a sight right out of the pages of National Geographic.
Some of the volunteers and I wandered around and shot pictures, as nothing much seemed to be happening except a vast milling about as people awaited the arrival of the President and his party and the opening of the ceremony. When I went by the covered VIP seating area, I found that the Ambassador had kindly saved me a seat. I felt obliged to accept this kindness, but did so with considerable reluctance since I had previously had ample experience of sitting among the diplomatic corps to hear African political speeches.
As I took my seat I painfully recalled a ceremonial event in Benin to which President Kerekou convoked the chiefs of mission. As usual, the Presidential party was about three hours late in arriving, and the featured speaker turned out to be President Sekou Toure of Guinea, known as the Fidel Castro of Africa both for his Marxist politics and his inordinately lengthy speeches. He droned on for another three hours in the sweltering West African heat, and two of my ambassadorial colleagues were felled by heat stroke. I was 18 years younger then, but my agony was severe, and I dreaded the prospect of repeating the experience in the midst of the even hotter Sahara with the sun approaching high noon.
My chance for escape came in the form of a University of Chicago professor, Paul Serrano, who has been digging dinosaur fossils at a very rich site northeast of Agadez. He had brought back from Chicago a life-size model of a complete dinosaur skeleton he had unearthed and was to present it in a companion ceremony at the Flamme, to become the centerpiece of a planned tourist information center and museum for Agadez. Although the professor was to speak at the ceremony, he had somehow been left out of the VIP seating arrangement.
I graciously offered Professor Serrano my seat.
This proved to be a wise move, as the VIPs were left to swelter and listen to speeches until nearly 3 p.m.
After my liberation from the VIP seating area, I strolled around for awhile and made some pictures of the dinosaur skeleton and the pile of rebel arms ready to be burned. The latter didn’t seem to be enough to equip even a small battalion in a Western army, but nonetheless their burning was quite properly considered to be of major practical as well as symbolic importance. In Niger and similar countries, even a small armed force can do major damage.
An African Diogenes
As I headed back to the jeep for a much-needed drink of water, a distinguished-looking African man began walking along side me. After an exchange of pleasantries in French, when he discovered I was American he began speaking excellent English.
My new companion informed me that he was from Sierra Leone, where he had been an “executive” in the rebel forces of Foday Sankoh (a group noted for hacking off the arms of women and children, among other atrocities). He stated that these forces had engaged in extensive “looting and pillaging,” and thus most of them had become rich. He did not personally loot and pillage, he said, because as an “educated man” he had a “different and more sensitive role.” Nonetheless, he became rich by “inheriting” the diamonds and gold of rebels who died or were killed.
After Foday Sankoh was captured and the rebel forces began to collapse, my companion continued, he had “appropriated a Red Cross jeep” and fled the country, carrying along his considerable fortune. He traveled through Liberia and along the coast to Nigeria, then north into Niger, eventually winding up in Agadez. When I asked what brought him out to the Flamme ceremony, he replied that he came “in hopes of finding an honest man, a Frenchman or some other Westerner” with whom he could arrange to convert his diamonds and gold into hard currency in return for a “reasonable percentage.” “You just can’t trust these Africans,” he explained parenthetically.
Although honored to be considered an “honest man,” I told him that as a U.S. Government employee I couldn’t engage in such business. Moreover, I pointed out that we Americans are disposed to help the victims of Foday Sankoh’s atrocities rather than their perpetrators. When this failed to deter his advances, I hailed a passing Dutchman I had met in Niamey in order to extract myself from further conversation with this African Diogenes.
Most likely, this was an attempted scam, with the supposed fortune in diamonds and gold as the bait. But perhaps his story was true. Strange things happen in places like Agadez.
HE FOLLOWING morning I stopped by the hotel where the volunteers were staying and found one of them very sick with malaria. (This is fairly commonamong volunteers and others in Niger. Even the newest and best prophylaxis is not 100 percent effective.Moreover, it causes difficult side effects for some people, including sleeplessness and bad dreams; and the alternative prophylaxis is slightly less effective and easy to forget since it requires daily dosage.)As is typical, our sick volunteer had a high fever, with a headache so severe as to be virtually immobilizing. Since there are no doctors in Agadez other than a pair of Cubans of uncertain skills, we decided to contact the Peace Corps medical officer in Niamey for advice.
This proved to be challenging. Telephones between Agadez and Niamey often work, but this particular morning they didn’t. I remembered that the embassy regional security officer (RSO), who was with the Ambassador, had brought along a satellite phone for emergencies, so I returned to the Ambassador’s hotel to seek out the RSO. I found him just as the party was about to depart for the cure salée. The satellite phone, however, was discovered to have a bad battery that couldn’t be recharged. Fortunately, by using an AC adapter and leaning out a second floor window in the hotel to give the phone a clear path to the satellite, we were finally able to reach Niamey and the Peace Corps medical officer. She advised us that the volunteer’s condition was not life threatening, but that we should get him to Niamey as soon as possible.
Although there is an airport at Agadez, there are no regularly scheduled flights. Consequently, we began to make arrangements for the 12-hour road trip, which would be difficult for a sick person but appeared to be necessary. At the same time, we sent Moussa, the Peace Corps’ local travel agent, hotel owner, and executive gofer, to the airport to see if there were any flight possibilities.
We were in luck! President Tandja’s plane, which had brought a group of Niamey dignitaries to the Flamme, was about to leave to fly them back and had room to take our volunteer along. We rushed him to the airport, and he was able to travel to Niamey in extraordinary style for the Peace Corps.
After getting the patient safely on his way to the Peace Corps infirmary in Niamey, I departed with a jeep full of volunteers for the cure salée. This is an annual gathering of Tuaregs and other Sahara nomads for a festival/reunion/market event. It is held at Ingall, an oasis village two hours by road from Agadez, to take advantage of the nearby salt licks for the herds. (Hence the name, cure salée, which means salt cure or remedy in French.) It is said to be one of the oldest and largest such gatherings in the Sahara. This year, it drew a few dozen foreign tourists as well as a few thousand nomads.
Ingall is much smaller than Agadez, with a permanent population of several hundred. It has date palms, fruit trees (including excellent oranges), vegetable gardens, mud houses, a dingy market, and a somewhat startling microwave relay tower as the single visible connection to the modern world.
The festival grounds were just outside the village. They consisted of a shaded VIP area and orderly rows of locally-made Tuareg tents to house both nomads and tourists, which included the Ambassador and her party as well as the COS-ing volunteers, some of the other Niger volunteers (who were taking vacation days), and a few volunteers from neighboring countries.
These tents are simple igloo-shaped structures, about 12 feet in diameter and six feet tall at the apex. The frame, made of sticks driven into the ground, is covered with pieces of hide or rough cloth tied down with ropes to prevent their blowing away in the constant, sometimes high, desert wind. The ground is bare. Each tent was furnished with cots or various types of ground mattresses.
The purposes of the tents are to provide a modicum of privacy at night and shade from the mid-day sun. When we checked a thermometer at about 2 p.m., it showed 107 F inside the tent. Outside, the heat clearly exceeded the thermometer’s 115 F upper limit.
These accommodations did not permit a restful night. This restlessness, however, provided my best memory of the event, as I left the tent for the slightly cooler air outside and spent some time looking up at the night sky. There was a new moon, and the stars were brilliant. I saw the Milky Way and several constellations, and marveled. Having spent the past 14 years in urban America, I had almost forgotten what the nighttime sky REALLY looks like.
One of the main attractions of the cure salée is the Wodabe courtship ritual, an event well documented by National Geographic. The young men of this group apply makeup and wear fancy jewelry like women to make themselves beautiful, and dance to attract prospective wives. This year, however, the Wodabe were offended by what they perceived to be the government’s failure to deliver an agreed sum of money to support their appearance. They consequently went on “strike” and refused to appear or dance in public, to the great disappointment of the tourists.
The remaining entertainment at the cure salée consisted of political speeches, Tuareg chants, and an exciting National Championship Camel Race of 20 km across the desert, ending up at the VIP seats. The winner received 1,000,000 CFA francs, worth about U.S.$1300, but still a real fortune in Nigerien terms.
We all returned to Agadez the following afternoon for much-needed baths and a good night’s sleep. I joined up with a COS-ing volunteer stationed at Iferouane and took him to dinner. He proved to be an impressive volunteer and a good counselor on my evolving plan to station one or more volunteers in Agadez to work on preserving rock art and developing the region’s tourist potential.
The next morning, the Ambassador and I called on the Prefet (the nationally appointed governor of the province in which Agadez is located) and the Sultan of Agadez (the traditional Tuareg ruler of the region). Both were delighted at the prospect of having more Peace Corps volunteers and promised their full support. At the Sultan’s palace, after being greeted by a two-man band playing Tuareg horns and a receiving line of the Sultan’s counselors, we were served traditional sweet tea and introduced to several of the Sultan’s 25 children.
Next, the Iferouane volunteer and I went to visit the principal rock art site, which was featured in the June and September 1999 issues of National Geographic and in the September 2000 issue of State Magazine. It is located a few kilometers off the road from Agadez northwest to Arlit, a uranium-mining town near the Algerian border.
The engravings, including a stunningly beautiful group of giraffes, are on an outcropping of dark boulders situated on the edge of what was a large lake several thousand years ago. The drawings are reckoned by experts to be between 6000 and 8000 years old, and are said to rival the famous cave drawings in southern France in terms of both their artistic merit and their significance in the history of early man. At the time they were done, the Sahara was much wetter than today, with large herds of giraffes and other species that can now be found only in regions with substantially more rainfall than the present-day Sahara.
A private voluntary organization called TARA, the Trust for African Rock Art, is developing a project for this site and others in the region; and it is with this project that our prospective new volunteers would be associated. The objective is to preserve the art while at the same time making it more accessible to tourists, thus boosting local jobs and incomes.
HE NEXT STAGE of the journey was a visit to Iferouane (pronounced iffer-wan), an oasis town of about 5000 people where we have two volunteers working with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a mainly European-funded environmental organization.
Iferouane is located north of Agadez, at the foot of the Air (pronounced eye-ear) Mountains. To get there, the first two hours of the trip are along the highway to Arlit, an excellent road for this part of the world, more or less equivalent to a paved county-maintained road in the U.S.. It was built in the 1970s to support the uranium mines at Arlit.
The road leading from this highway to Iferouane, however, is like a wilderness logging road in the U.S., except in this case there are no logs. It leads for 130 km through rugged desert terrain, a region of hard-pan sand and gravel, massive expanses of bare volcanic boulders, and occasional patches of green grass and bushes, studded with small acacia trees, to mark low-lying areas where water collected during the just-ended rainy season. There were no signs of human habitation except for occasional herds of goats, camels, and donkeys tended by Tuareg nomads.
We drove along this trail for four hours before reaching the collection of trees, gardens, and mud-walled houses that is Iferouane.
If “nowhere” exists, Iferouane must be pretty close to its geographic center.
However, even this lonely outpost of mankind has its links to the global economy and society, in the form not only of the two Peace Corps volunteers and a resident Frenchman with the IUCN project, but also a hotel owned by Vittorio, the expatriate Italian who also has a hotel and restaurant in Agadez. In fact, Iferouane is his principal home. He was there to welcome me, along with his other guests, a French movie director and her crew who were making a feature-length film set in the region. When I arrived, they were in the process of hiring a group of Tuaregs to shoot a camel caravan scene.
Our two volunteers have good accommodations by Peace Corps Niger standards, each consisting of two-room mud houses in spacious, mud-walled compounds. Both had extended for a third year to serve in Iferouane, and they seemed happy and well adjusted there. They are engaged in various activities involving eco-tourism, wildlife conservation, a tourist information center, environmental education, and women’s credit unions.
One of them was to complete his Peace Corps service in two more months and return to the U.S. He plans to hike the entire Appalachian Trail before launching a career with the National Park Service or a similar organization.
The other Iferouane volunteer did not intend to leave Niger when her Peace Corps service ended in three months. Rather, she presented me with another first in my Peace Corps career, a request to get married to her Tuareg boyfriend. According to the Peace Corps manual, the Country Director’s permission is required for a volunteer to marry a local national (although it’s hard to see how a Country Director could prevent such a marriage even if he or she wanted to).
Our volunteer seemed quite mature and had considered her decision fully, and she said both families have given their blessing. I told her I saw no problem in giving my permission (especially since I had married a foreign national myself when I was about her age!), but asked her to give me an opportunity to consult the manual on returning to Niamey to determine if there were any prescribed procedures to be followed. (I later found that yes, there is the inevitable form to be filled out.)
We had a Tuareg-style dinner at her house, consisting of “sand-baked bread,” literally baked in the sand under coals and then served with a sauce of locally grown tomatoes, onions, garlic, chilies, etc. It tasted great, with only the occasional grain of sand to disrupt mastication. We ate Tuareg style, from a common pot while seated on the ground.
Back at the hotel, the French filmmaker was still conducting her casting call to select Tuaregs for the caravan scene. This process continued until after midnight.
The next morning, the volunteers and I took an extensive walk through the Iferouane gardens. They lie along a valley running out of the nearby mountains, where water can be found three or four meters under the surface. Numerous wells provide irrigation for the gardens. The early morning desert air was refreshing, and the heat didn’t become uncomfortable until nearly noon.
Iferouane pretty much shuts down after lunch, as everyone naps or just hangs around in the shade until sundown. I spend the afternoon talking to the volunteers about their projects and life in Iferouane.
This night’s fellow guests at Vittorio’s hotel were four Dutch tourists, accompanied by a Tuareg tour guide from Agadez. During another nearly sleepless night in the sweltering hotel, I reflected that the U.S. elections, the price of oil, turmoil in the Middle East, and similar matters that had dominated my attention before I came to Niger, all seemed pretty remote from the perspective of Iferouane. I realized that I hadn’t heard so much as a radio summary of world news in the past week; and what’s more, I didn’t really miss it.
Back to Agadez
THE RETURN TRIP from Iferouane to Agadez was uneventful. We gave a ride to one of the volunteers’ friends, a pretty Tuareg girl of 20 who was returning to her second year of nursing schoolat Niamey. Her only alternative transportation would have been a ride in the back of the truck that makes a weekly supply run to Arlit, and from there a bus to Agadez and on to Niamey. Because of legal liability concerns, Peace Corps officially discourages giving such rides to non-employees. However, in these circumstances, to refuse such a request for help, when we had ample room in the jeep, seemed to me unreasonable for the representative of an Agency whose goals are helping poor people and making friends for the U.S.
I changed hotels for this stay in Agadez, from Vittorio’s adequate but somewhat bedraggled establishment to the newly-built hotel/restaurant the volunteers had discovered and used for their COS dinner a few days before. Pleasant, clean, and comfortable, it is owned by Akly, a Franco-Tuareg pilot and tour guide, and his French wife, Celine, who has a background in the hotel and tourism industry. They are a friendly couple and good contacts for our potential new volunteers in Agadez.
The next morning, along with the Ambassador and party, I attended a ceremony at the airport in which TARA Director David Coulson, a British resident of Kenya and son of a World War II era British Ambassador to Washington, presented the regional government and Minister of Tourism a life-size casting of the giraffe rock carving I had visited earlier. (The story of the making of the mold for this casting is documented in the September 1999 National Geographic.) Later, over lunch, David and I were able to discuss the modalities of providing a couple of volunteers to work on the project. (We are now ready to proceed with recruiting them, if David or someone else can find funding for a project vehicle, which would be necessary for them to work effectively.)
A Bout with Malaria
This lunch with David was the last thing I was able to accomplish on the trip. As I left the restaurant, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling well and experienced chills even in the blazing mid-afternoon Sahara sun. I retreated to the hotel and went to bed, but my condition continued to worsen, with a throbbing headache and aches throughout my body.
By sundown I could barely move, but I gathered enough strength to go to the room of Lou Lantner, the public affairs officer from the embassy (who was accompanying the Ambassador) and his wife Karen to inform them that I couldn’t attend the reception the Ambassador was hosting that evening. From the symptoms, and based on a similar experience in Benin two decades ago, I was pretty sure I had come down with malaria.
After the reception, the Ambassador, Lou, and Ritchie Miller (the former embassy information programs officer, who has been the embassy’s point person on the rock art project) contacted the embassy medical officer in Niamey and confirmed the probable diagnosis as malaria. The medical officer prescribed quinine, which happily was included in a first aid kit the Ambassador had brought on the trip. Lou, Ritchie, and the Ambassador administered the quinine and other medications and helped make me as comfortable as possible.
Within a few hours, the quinine did its work. By the next morning the fever had broken and I was considerably better, though dehydrated and now suffering from diarrhea as well (which is often a side effect both of malaria and the quinine). Though weak, I felt well enough to make the 12-hour road trip back to Niamey. By the end of the day, I was almost back to normal in spite of the long ride, and the following morning I was back at work in the Peace Corps office.
The malaria attack came even though I had been religiously taking the prescribed prophylaxis (mefloquine) since two weeks before leaving the U.S. The medical officer explained that while not 100 percent effective, it at least serves to make any attacks less bad. (If this is the case, I would surely hate to get malaria without having had the prophylaxis.)
This was hard-core Peace Corps adventure: desert nomads, isolated oases, exotic caravanserai, a peace ceremony with erstwhile rebels, dinosaur bones, ancient rock art, strange and colorful characters, and a bout with malaria. The only thing that would be more exciting would be getting shot at. (As Churchill said of his experiences in the Boer War, there’s nothing more satisfying than to be shot at without result!). However, I had enough of that experience in Vietnam and Chad to last a lifetime.
More important than the adventure, though, was being able to support the volunteers and learn from them, to identify potential opportunities for interesting new projects, and to develop more of the country and program expertise that I will need as Peace Corps country director over the coming years.