Text & Photos by J.R. Bullington
Last year, Jim Bullington, a former career U.S. ambassador and regular contributor to these pages, decided to leave retirement in the academic community and take on new challenges. He soon found himself director of a U. S. Peace Corps operation in West Africa. For the first installment of his promise to keep us informed, see his “Letter from Niger” in the Fall 2000 issue of “American Diplomacy” [click here to go to the Fall 2000 letter]. Now we are pleased to publish his second report in what we hope will be a continuing series. —Ed.
It’s difficult to muster much traditional Christmas spirit in a place like Niamey, a sunny, hot, semi-arid, overwhelmingly Muslim city with no holiday music on the radio or commercial emphasis of the season. Nonetheless, Americans and other Western expatriates try at least to mark the occasion with plastic Christmas trees and other household decorations, a round of holiday parties, frozen Butterball turkeys from the Embassy commissary (at about $65 each), and family gift-giving.
Our spirits were boosted by the visit of our adult daughters Kim and Eva and son-in-law Jeremy, who joined Tuy-Cam, grandson Kevin and me for three weeks over the holidays. It was a welcome return to Africa for them: Kim and Eva were with us as youngsters in Benin and Burundi, and Jeremy spent two years in The Gambia as a Peace Corps volunteer. They enjoyed the visit, and fit in well with our volunteers here.
The holiday mood of all Americans in Niger was dampened, however, by the brutal murder of the Embassy’s defense attaché in the course of an armed robbery/vehicle hijacking just outside a popular nightspot in downtown Niamey on December 23. One of the marine security guards, who was with him and attempted to come to his assistance, was seriously wounded in the incident.
This of course threw the embassy and American community into full crisis mode for several days, with a military evacuation flight to Germany for the body of the attaché and the wounded marine, memorial services, press releases and responses (the incident was widely reported in the international media, at least that part that pays attention to Africa), and the arrival of security investigators and other support personnel, including the State Department’s regional psychiatrist from Abidjan to provide grief and stress counseling.
Beyond the loss of a colleague, I was concerned about security implications for the volunteers. La Cloche, where the incident occurred, has been the leading nightspot in Niamey for the young singles in the expat community, including many of the volunteers when they are in town. Some of them would probably have been there that evening but for the fact that we had convened an all-volunteer conference followed by a dinner at our training center thirty kilometers outside of Niamey.
The next day I put La Cloche “off limits” for all Peace Corps volunteers, and the ambassador and regional security officer put it off limits for all official Americans as well. Hopefully, this will signal the owner, and the owners of similar places, that there will be economic consequences for not maintaining better security in and around their establishments.
We are also developing safer recreational and social alternatives for volunteers when they are in Niamey. This runs counter to the Peace Corps philosophy of encouraging volunteers to integrate fully into the local culture and economy, and to avoid hanging out with other Americans. That philosophy works well when they are in rural areas, but in Niamey it is trumped by considerations of safety and security. It is inevitable that young people with raging hormones, an excess of energy, and feelings of immortality are going to go out for nighttime drinking, dancing and socializing. I would prefer that they do it in safe places like the American Club, Marine House, Peace Corps hostel, and official American residences, rather than high-risk alternatives like La Cloche.
The incident (so far as we can tell—the perpetrators have not been caught) was purely criminal, of the sort that happens in high-crime areas of any big city, including those in the United States. Niamey has been considered less dangerous than most big cities in that regard, and this is probably still the case. However, the threat is rising and must be taken seriously. All foreigners here are “rich” by local standards, and they stand out as potential targets. Moreover, the government simply can’t afford the kind of police and other security protection, such as adequate street lighting, that we take for granted in the West. There is no 911 service to call, or (in most places) telephones on which to call it. We must protect ourselves.
Niger is the proud possessor of the last wild giraffes in West Africa. There are currently about eighty individuals in the herd, which roams a range of scrubby bush country about an hour’s drive east of Niamey.
Along with the Sahara desert to the north and the Parc W game reserve to the south, the giraffes are one of the country’s few genuine tourist attractions.
Peace Corps has had volunteers stationed in villages in and around the giraffes’ range for several years. Although their main focus is on food production and health, some of the volunteers help the Nigerien wildlife service with the giraffe census and with educating the local people on the value of protecting them and their habitat.
The visit of Kim, Eva and Jeremy over the holidays offered a good occasion for me to visit the giraffes for the first time.
We left early and drove for about forty-five minutes along the main east-west highway to the Nigerien wildlife service station, where we picked up a guide. The fee for visiting the giraffes was the equivalent of $2.50 per person, plus $7 for the guide.
Then, we drove for about half an hour across the hardpan surface of this semi-arid wilderness of bushes and acacia trees. When we got near where he thought the giraffes should be, the guide got out and perched on the roof of the Land Cruiser to get a better view. We proceeded, as he gave me directions with a stick beaten against the windshield.
After ten minutes of following the stick signals, I felt the steering wheel pull sharply to the right. Yes, indeed, the right front tire went totally flat, and we were a good day’s walk from the highway or any other potential source of assistance. Fortunately, we had a spare tire and the necessary tools, and Jeremy and the guide were more adept than me at changing Land Cruiser tires. Had I been alone, I would have been in trouble.
Just as we were finishing the tire change, having determined to give up the giraffe expedition lest we have another flat with no spare to replace it, the giraffes appeared. We followed a couple of them for a few hundred yards and came onto a herd, nibbling the acacia trees and moving slowly in our general direction. We got out of the Land Cruiser and quietly moved closer, and then simply stood still and let the giraffes pass by us. Some of them came within twenty feet.
They were magnificent! The big, darker-hued males, lighter-colored females (one of them visibly pregnant), and a couple of juveniles all seemed to pay us little heed as they passed by, intent on their grazing. Occasionally, they would look at us with what seemed to be mild curiosity, but they showed no fear or nervousness.
The guide counted twenty-two of them. We made lots of pictures.
There is something more awe-inspiring about seeing these splendid, gentle animals in the wild rather than in a zoo. It was truly a memorable experience.
Thankfully, there were no more flat tires to make it even more memorable, and we were safely back in Niamey in time for lunch.
We also took advantage of the children’s visit to make our first trip to Niger’s principal national park and game preserve, Parc W. This was where we all spend New Year’s Eve and the following day.
The park is a four-hour drive south of Niamey. It lies along the Niger River, whose W-like course in the area gives the park its name, and overlaps into Benin and Burkina Faso. Including the Benin and Burkina parts, it’s the largest game park in West Africa.
We went along with the ambassador and several other Americans, and stayed at the newly refurbished, government-run hotel in a village at the edge of the park. Because of the ambassador’s presence (and to a lesser degree because Peace Corps has long had a volunteer assigned to work with the park rangers, who are currently seeking a second volunteer), we received VIP treatment.
The hotel is located in an attractive setting overlooking a scenic gorge. Though it is Spartan by Western standards, the beds were clean and comfortable, the food was good, and there was even a generator to produce electricity at night.
We spend New Year’s Eve to the accompaniment of some excellent African drumming and dancing organized by the hotel.
We were up early on New Year’s Day for a five-hour tour of the park in our Land Cruisers, each accompanied by a park ranger and a professional guide. We saw lots of interesting birds, several kinds of antelopes and monkeys, baboons, and five magnificent elephants. (I was especially interested in the elephants, because we are considering a new Peace Corps project focused on their preservation.) We missed seeing the lions, cheetahs and other exotic beasts that the rangers (and our park volunteer) assured us really live there and are seen from time to time.
We were back in Niamey well before dark, having found the visit a much more interesting way to spend the New Year’s holiday than watching fireworks and football games.
Polio Eradication Campaign
I usually try to avoid ceremonial and protocol events, since they take up lots of time and for the most part aren’t very relevant to Peace Corps work. My position obliges me to go to some, but this was one I really looked forward to attending. It marked the formal launch of a synchronized campaign throughout West Africa to administer polio vaccine to all children under five.
I wanted to go and show Peace Corps support, as well as to learn more about the campaign, first of all because many of our volunteers are actively participating in it. I also have a special interest because Rotary International is one of the principal sponsors (along with UNICEF, WHO, and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta); and because I had polio in 1952 (a fairly mild case that left me only slightly crippled in one leg).
The idea behind this global campaign is not just to protect the children who get the vaccine, but through universal vaccination to actually eliminate polio from the face of the earth by 2005 (just as smallpox was eliminated in 1979). This would both end the disease forever and free up the resources devoted to its control for use against other maladies.
Progress has been good since the campaign was begun in 1985 by Rotary, with UNICEF and WHO making it a top priority in 1988. The number of new cases worldwide has dropped from about 350,000 per year in the late ’80s to some 20,000 in 1999; and the number of countries where polio is endemic has dropped from 125 to thirty.
Of the thirty countries where polio is still a serious problem, twenty-three are in Africa. (The others are in South Asia.) We see daily evidence that Niger is one of the twenty-three, with numerous crippled children and adults begging on almost every street corner in Niamey. Even here, however, the number of new cases is down substantially as a result of partially successful vaccination campaigns in previous years.
My Rotary friends should be proud of that organization’s leading role in the global campaign. I was especially pleased that one of the speakers at the ceremony (along with the presidents of Niger and Mali and the Africa regional directors of WHO and UNICEF) was my associate Peace Corps director for health, Gaston Kaba, who is one of the leaders in the Rotary Club of Niamey.
It’s a pleasure to have even a small role in this effort, which is a clear success already and shows promise of total victory within a few years. Positive stories such as this and the Guinea worm successes I reported in my last letter are all too rare in Africa.
Peace Corps volunteers have also become deeply involved in the campaign against AIDS.
The AIDS pandemic in Africa has become probably the worst such disaster to strike mankind since the Black Death ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages and newly-introduced diseases nearly wiped out the indigenous populations of the Americas in the early colonial period. Of the thirty-four million HIV-infected people in the world today, twenty-five million are in Africa, and the situation worsens day by day. In some countries in the southern part of the continent, a quarter or more of the adult population is HIV-positive.
Moreover, few African countries have sufficiently developed public health and information systems to effectively combat the spread of the disease, and only a tiny fraction of Africans can afford the new drugs that are prolonging lives and easing suffering for AIDS victims in the West.
The impact of this pandemic is devastating, not only in terms of the human suffering of the victims and their families, but also of its destructive economic and social effects on whole countries and regions. As a banner used in one of the local AIDS education campaigns put it, “AIDS undermines all our development efforts.”
AIDS in Niger is not nearly as bad as in some of the most-affected countries to the south; but it is bad enough and surely getting worse. Part of the problem is that no one really knows the infection rate, because no studies have been done. (The Government is now looking for external funding to undertake one.) The officially reported infection rate of 1.8% is nothing but a wild guess someone made several years ago. Based on current anecdotal evidence, some informed observers think it may be on the order of 5%. For example, two recent reports:
In one of the missionary hospitals, 25% of pregnant women tested HIV-positive.
In an up-country military clinic that needed a blood donor, the first seven volunteers were rejected as HIV-positive.
The current Nigerien government is taking the AIDS problem very seriously and is giving priority to an anti-AIDS educational campaign, but its resources are pitifully few. Our volunteers are trying to help.
The most successful anti-AIDS effort so far was a Peace Corps AIDS “bike-a-thon” conceived, organized and led by three volunteers. Two groups of volunteers set out to ride along the principal east-west highway through the most populous area of Niger. One group of seventeen Hausa speakers rode west from Konni through Hausa villages, and another group of nineteen Zarma speakers rode east from Tillabery through Zarma villages. The two groups met in Dosso after riding for eight days. Each leg of the tour was approximately 300 kilometers.
Both groups were accompanied by skilled male and female “animateurs” provided by CARE, who presented the HIV/AIDS message with evangelical fervor. The volunteers backed them up and participated in the presentations as a sort of Greek chorus, showing pictures and demonstrating condoms as well as delivering part of the message in Hausa or Zarma. They also passed out a supply of condoms (donated by a European aid agency) to each village.
The government of Niger cooperated fully, from the president (whom the ambassador and I briefed on the project) to the village chiefs along the way. Motorcycle-mounted gendarmes were provided as escorts. The gendarmes did an excellent job of providing safety and security, and also served as a visible sign of Government support.
As the convoys came into each village, they were met by the village chief and elders. Men and women assembled in separate groups to hear the presentations. In villages where the volunteers spent the night, the oral presentations were supplemented by videos in local languages.
The volunteers found that most villagers, especially women but men as well, were ill informed about AIDS and what causes it. Some thought it came from food or contaminated water; others thought it was a “white man’s disease.” However, they were also interested in learning more, attentive to the message, and willing to participate with questions and responses.
The two groups of bikers presented programs in sixty-four villages, to approximately 20,000 people.
At the end of the bike-a-thon, in Dosso, the volunteers organized a dinner (financed by the U.S. ambassador). Several senior Nigerien officials came and spoke, along with the ambassador, praising the volunteers’ initiative and hard work.
The volunteers reported having a great experience. They were tired but elated at the end of the trip. There were no injuries beyond a few blisters, and of the thirty-six who began the rigorous ride, thirty-four were able to complete it.
With a total budget of $5,000, this was another example of the volunteers’ ability to accomplish a lot with few resources.
The Volunteer Who Never Returned
One of the many interesting people we’ve met in Niger is Pat Aliou, who came here as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1964, two years after Peace Corps first began to operate in Niger, and three years after it was created by President Kennedy. At that time, all of the volunteers in Niger were teachers, mostly of English. Among their students, Pat recalls, was the president of the country. Consequently, the volunteers had free access to the presidential palace and were local celebrities.
Pat was a physical education teacher. During her service, she met and subsequently married a Nigerien doctor, and she has lived here happily ever since. She worked as a teacher in the Nigerien public schools, from which she recently retired with over thirty years of service. Last year, she took a new job as director of the English language program at the (formerly USIS) American Cultural Center.
During the five months that I’ve been in Niger, three of our volunteers have married Nigerien men on completion of their Peace Corps service and are staying on in Niger. I wonder if they will stay as long as Pat.