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by J.R. Bullington

Return from the land of plenty

Do we really need a choice of forty kinds of toothpaste? That’s one of the burning questions I brought back from vacation in the United States. After living in the midst of Niger’s wretched poverty for a year, one notices such things. I’m delighted that we have great wealth, and I believe that as a nation we’ve earned it. We certainly don’t “owe” any “reparations” to anyone. Nonetheless, though I’ve never been a big fan of foreign aid — especially in Africa, much has been wasted and little has been used effectively — I’m driven to wonder if we shouldn’t find more ways to effectively share our abundance.

Peace Corps is one such way, and some of the non-governmental organizations, such as CARE, do good work. The trade and private investment associated with globalization are raising some countries out of poverty, but have been of little benefit to Niger and others among the poorest of the poor.

I don’t have the answer, but the question won’t go away.

The blessed rains

Green pastures of plenty, in the Sahara on the road to Iferouane.

The rains that began earlier than normal this year and averted a prospective famine have continued through early September. The harvest is already under way in the southernmost parts of the country, and promises to be good or even excellent in most areas. Pastures are lush, and animals are producing adequate milk and meat. At least this year, most Nigeriens won’t go hungry.

The rains have also brought cooler temperatures. In August, we found the weather in Niamey more pleasant than in Washington. Or perhaps that should be “less unpleasant.” As Mark Twain wrote about India, here in Niger “cool weather” is “merely a conventional phrase, and has come into use through the necessity of distinguishing between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy.”

Nevertheless, thanks to air conditioning, we find it quite tolerable.

An approaching Saharan dust storm, on the road to Agadez.

The rainy season’s transformation of the countryside has been dramatic, changing the dominant colors from brown and yellow and ochre to shades of green. Even far north into the Sahara, there are vast expanses of emerald-hued grass that from a distance could pass for Asian rice paddies or an American golf course. On a recent trip to Agadez and Iferouane, I passed through a steady flow of thousands of nomads and their herds of cattle, sheep, goats, camels and donkeys on their annual northward migration to feast on the desert’s temporary abundance.The rains in Niger come mostly as brief, heavy thunderstorms, and in the Sahara they are often preceded by violent sandstorms stirred by the strong wind associated with the system. I passed through one of these sandstorms just south of Agadez. It’s a sight worth seeing, so long as you are well protected inside an air-conditioned Land Cruiser.

Farewell, Iferouane
In one of my first letters from Niger, I wrote about Iferouane, a small oasis town in the northern part of the country, deep into the Sahara, where three Volunteers were stationed. It’s not quite at the end of the earth, but on a clear day you can see it from there. Perhaps because of its remoteness and romantic image, it was a highly sought-after posting for the Volunteers.

My most recent trip to Iferouane, however, was not to visit the Volunteers but to evacuate them.

We had been increasingly concerned about the security of these Volunteers because of difficulties in communicating with them and transporting them in the event of an emergency. (Iferouane is a hard two-day trip from Niamey.) The International Union for the Conservation of Nature project in the Iferouane region, to which the Volunteers were attached, was supposed to provide them a radio link and a vehicle when necessary, but it was foundering and scheduled to come to an end soon.

One of our two Peace Corps nurses, together with a vacationing Volunteer who wanted to see the Sahara, was on the way to Iferouane to look into the situation and stopped for the night in Agadez. There, they met two of the three Iferouane Volunteers, who had hitched a ride into town. The four women went to dinner at a hotel/restaurant in the heart of Agadez that primarily serves foreign tourists. After dinner, when they emerged from the restaurant and got into the Peace Corps vehicle (a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser), a man in Tuareg dress approached the driver’s window, pointed a pistol at our nurse’s head, and instructed them to get out. They did so. The man and an accomplice got into the vehicle and drove away.

A Peace Corps toyota Land Cruiser, like the one that was hijacked in Agadez.

After calling the police, the nurse called Niamey to let us know what had happened. She and the Volunteers were understandably quite shaken.Regrettably, this was not an isolated incident. A couple of months ago an Africare vehicle was hijacked (and the driver was seriously wounded) near Agadez, and there were similar hijacking incidents involving tourists earlier this year. And the December hijacking of a US Embassy vehicle in Niamey, an incident in which the Defense Attaché was killed, remains very much on everyone’s mind.

The hijacking made my decision to evacuate the Volunteers from Iferouane an easy one.

Early the next morning, the Peace Corps Administrative Officer and I left Niamey and arrived in Agadez just before sundown. We found the nurse and the three Volunteers still somewhat shaken but unhurt. The following morning, we all proceeded to Iferouane, accompanied by a squad of gendarmes. The préfet (governor), at our request, provided the gendarmes, but we had to pay for their fuel and food. (This felt a bit like getting robbed a second time, but it was the only expeditious way to assure a security escort for the mission, which I felt was a sensible precaution under the circumstances.)

In Iferouane, we packed the Volunteers’ belongings and Peace Corps property, said goodbyes, and returned to Agadez the next day.

I called on the préfet to officially inform him of the Volunteers’ departure and inquire about the search for our vehicle and the bandits. He assured me that the government was making every effort to find both. In light of its failure to recover the vehicles or arrest the perpetrators in several similar cases, however, it is difficult to be optimistic about the government’s ability to do so.

We got back to Niamey the next evening. It was a long, tiring, difficult trip.

Virginia’s school

One of our Volunteers, Virginia Emmons, is assigned to Kabey Fo, a village that is poor even by Nigerien standards. This year, its people barely averted widespread starvation. Yet, when Virginia asked what they most wanted, the villagers told her they wanted a school. An enterprising young lady, Virginia raised the money through family and friends in the United States to build and furnish a simple one-room schoolhouse, provide school supplies, and hire a teacher. The money was donated through the Peace Corps Partnership, a unit at Headquarters that accepts such funds and passes them along, thus avoiding the need for the Volunteer to handle cash and giving the donors a tax write-off.

On completion of their project, Volunteers are required to write a report to Peace Corps Partnership and the donors. Virginia’s report was so well done that I want to quote it here.

In a little tiny village, thousands of miles from any place you would imagine, just down the river from Timbuktu, thirty-eight small children run anxiously to school. By American standards you would think the teacher was handing out candy. But on this day the teacher was not there to greet the students. The door-less entrance to the one-room millet stalk school was empty. The children ran the few hundred meters to his home. They thought they needed to remind him of his responsibilities as their teacher. They were saddened to hear the news. “It’s Saturday,” Alhadji Amadou yelled from under his blankets.The children of Lokkal Tokast, which is Tamacheque for “school of betterment,” have been coming together since November 9, 2000. It is hard to believe that just five months ago the children entered the dirty, very organic, schoolhouse for the first time. Upon receiving their first piece of chalk, thinking it was candy, they ate it. That seems like ages ago, since now the children can read and write “idi” (dog), “ax” (milk), and share the same mild manner and eagerness to learn as any of their American counterparts. I awake in the morning to counting in Tamacheque, French and even English. Children run by my house, as if to show off, yelling “one-two-tree-fo-foive.”

The morning and afternoons are long and hot but school isn’t finished until six p.m. Alhadji, the school director and teacher, then spends the mild desert nights hovered next to a kerosene lantern correcting notebooks and planning lessons for history, math, writing, reading, art and music. Between sips of green tea he looks up at the stars. As if he was given a heavenly answer he puts his head back down to the paper and feverishly writes, interrupted only by the sounds of the clanging of an old tire iron. The men are being called to the school and the women are summoned to the empty hut next to the village chief’s hut. It is ten o’clock at night, and while I am outside tying up mosquito netting and setting up my bed I greet the men and women as they make their way to literacy classes.

Two men were sent to Tahoua, a desert town a few hundred kilometers from our village of Kabey Fo, where they learned the pedagogy for teaching adults how to read, write and perform simple mathematics in their native language. Ibrahim and Aklinine returned from the training with a renewed image of themselves and an astounding confidence that surpasses the value of any training fee. The former began classes in January with about 10 men and the latter with about 10 women in February. Many evenings, I sit in the shadows of the flickering lanterns and quietly observe these men and women as they work towards pronouncing different letter combinations. The miracle occurs when the letters turn from a mumble into a real, audible word. Nothing is quite so gratifying in development work as seeing your once illiterate friend look over their shoulder at you with that grin that says, “Hey, did you hear that? I just read camel!” I nod and smile back assuredly.

In this past year I watched the lifelessness vanish from the children’s eyes, and a sense of accomplishment move into the eyes of the older men and women. The same people who used to flip through my Newsweeks upside down, now page through them showing me all the letters they know and trying to pronounce words like “cyber-space.” They ask me to explain it. Although the people of Kabey Fo might not ever be able to grasp the concept of “cyber-space,” what they have grasped is the desire to learn. They have come to truly understand and appreciate the importance of education. Kabey Fo is proud of their school and literacy program, as should you be. The many donors organized by Lucy Spoerk (Virginia’s sister) of Muskego, Wisconsin, the Peace Corps Partnership, and the hard work and commitment of Alhadji, Ibrahim and Aklinine have forced the languid spirit out of Kabey Fo. You all have given the people of Kabey Fo a chance! Isuf would not be prancing about the village as the prize student, Mariama would be spending her days pounding millet, Akmut would pass his life sitting under the shade trees looking blankly into the desert, and Hamid would still have to wait for a literate villager to arrive before he could make a sale at his boutique.

Day after day I have watched these village activities become rituals. Children running from school to the class garden, walking to the well seeing what new design or word will be etched into the concrete surface, Alhadji giving me a tall two-handed wave from the soccer field during the 10 o’clock recess, maroon-uniformed kids running about, and nightly conversation with a previously illiterate man who will nonchalantly scribble his name in the sand. This village is forever changed, even if the drought takes away their animals, or the government takes away their land, if the rains don’t come and the crop fails. The people of Kabey Fo will not fail, and no one will be able to take away what they have learned. Thank you for that, and know that none of this could have happened if it weren’t for each and every one of you. Thank you!

Return of the aged hippies
Here’s an idea I recently submitted to Lloyd Pierson, the Bush Administration representative at Peace Corps Headquarters, whom I met in Washington during the vacation trip:The generation of Volunteers who joined Peace Corps in the 1960s is now at or nearing retirement age. Most of them are probably in good health, and many have surely retained the willingness to serve and the taste for adventure that led them to Peace Corps as young people. And now they have a lifetime of experience and great technical skills that they would enjoy sharing with others.

A new category of Senior Volunteer could be created to reenlist members of the first generation of Peace Corps Volunteers, those who served in the 1960s. The terms of service would need to be different, perhaps along the following lines:

  • One-year tour of duty following training.
  • Posting only in places where reasonable medical care is available (i.e., in larger towns, not in remote villages).
  • Provision for accompanying non-Volunteer spouses.
  • Upgraded housing, comparable to the more senior people who would be the Senior Volunteers’ local counterparts.
  • Otherwise, allowances and benefits could be the same as for other Volunteers.

In terms of jobs, there should be considerable flexibility in order to match Senior Volunteer skills to country and post needs. They should not necessarily be integrated into existing Peace Corps “projects.” Here are some illustrative examples for Niger:

  • A teacher/administrator to work with the Ministry of Education on improving English teaching.
  • A veterinarian to work with the national zoo on upgrading its collection and increasing outreach programs for environmental education.
  • A senior businessperson to assist the Government in its current efforts to privatize state-owned enterprises.
  • A public health worker to serve as coordinator of Peace Corps HIV/AIDS projects.
  • A tourism professional to advise the Ministry of Tourism on promoting Niger as a tourist destination.
  • Medical professionals to work at the national or regional hospitals.

A new Volunteer program of this nature could make an important contribution to development in host countries and would make Peace Corps an even more valued development partner. Moreover, it could capture the imagination of the American public and raise Peace Corps’ profile. Politically, it would be an exciting example of compassionate conservatism applied to international relations.

Such a program would of course cost money, not much by national budget standards, but a substantial amount in terms of Peace Corps’ budget. It should be possible to sell it to Congress as an added appropriation, so that funding would not have to be carved out of existing programs. One of the former Volunteers in Congress could be offered the chance to introduce appropriate legislation. A possible budgetary trade-off would be to take the funds from the AID budget. Peace Corps has always gotten a bigger development bang for the foreign assistance buck than has AID, and this would be even more true for a Senior Volunteer program.

A first step toward such a program, which could be implemented right away (and perhaps announced at the forthcoming 40th anniversary celebration) would be to survey all 1960s Volunteers to determine potential interest and solicit ideas and suggestions. The survey itself should generate a good deal of excitement, and could be a way for the new Director to begin building a positive relationship with the community of returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

A schoolhouse made of millet stalks, like the one in Virginia’s village.

A second step might be a pilot program in three or four countries (such as Niger) where Peace Corps has had a continuous presence since the 1960s. Then, applying lessons learned during the first year of operations, the program could be expanded to all Peace Corps countries worldwide.

Lloyd said he liked the idea and would pass it on to the Director-Designate, Gaddi Vasquez (former Supervisor of Orange County, CA). However, he noted that any action would have to await Gaddi’s confirmation. (I note from a recent editorial in the New York Times that there is some opposition to this appointment, so it may not move forward as quickly as had been hoped.)

Return of the aged warrior?

Here’s another idea I submitted to Lloyd:

The Administration should begin discussions with the Government of Vietnam on opening a Peace Corps program in that country. This would be an important further step in normalizing relations and putting the war behind us, and it would serve the interests of both countries. It would also enhance the image of Peace Corps and have positive domestic political implications.

It would be symbolically important.
The juxtaposition of “Peace Corps” and “Vietnam War” is symbolically powerful. A Peace Corps program in Vietnam would be seen as marking the end of an era of U. S.-Vietnamese warfare and confrontation and the opening of a new era of peace and cooperation. It would draw favorable American and global press coverage and would strike the imagination of pundits worldwide. It would be viewed as a positive step in US foreign policy.

It would serve US interests.
Vietnam is a politically important country in Southeast Asia, with great economic potential. We need to build constructive ties with it. A Peace Corps program would represent an important new linkage in the short term, and over the longer term it would gradually build US influence and create a more favorable image of the United States. Since the Volunteers, at least initially, would probably be primarily English teachers, they would have a direct impact on the new generation of Vietnamese, now a majority of the population, that has had little exposure to Americans. A Peace Corps presence would indirectly encourage commercial and other relationships and help focus private sector attention on opportunities in Vietnam.

It would serve Vietnamese interests.
Peace Corps is not “foreign aid,” and it could not be claimed as some sort of war reparations. Yet, a Peace Corps program in Vietnam would represent another milestone in the normalization of Vietnamese-American relations, and it would demonstrate that we are willing to treat Vietnam like the 70 other developing countries where Peace Corps is active, notably including China. Volunteers would enhance American understanding of current Vietnamese realities, and over time Volunteer “veterans” would facilitate the growth of American trade, investment and educational and cultural exchanges. The Volunteers would also bring immediate practical benefits in improving English language capabilities and skills in other areas on which the program might focus.

It would enhance Peace Corps’ image.
The opening of a Peace Corps program in Vietnam would be a high profile event that would draw favorable attention to Peace Corps and its role in America’s international relations, demonstrating the organization’s dynamism and contemporary relevance. It would also attract a new pool of potential recruits from among the Vietnamese-American community and the children of Vietnam War veterans.

It would have positive political implications.
The press and the overwhelming majority of the American public would hail the opening of a Peace Corps program in Vietnam as a positive, even historic, development. Achieving significant economic, social and humanitarian impact at very low cost, it could be presented as an important example of compassionate conservatism applied to international relations. It would be especially meaningful for the Vietnamese-American community. Since this community has its largest concentration in Orange County, the new Director should have a special interest in opening a Vietnam program and would be able to claim political credit for doing so.

I also told Lloyd that I know the ideal candidate for the position of the first Peace Corps Director in Vietnam. He served in Hué, Saigon and Quang Tri as well as in Vietnam-related jobs at the NSC and State Department, and his wife is Vietnamese. He is a former career diplomat and ambassador, and is currently serving as a Peace Corps country director in Africa. While the odds against this happening are long, particularly since the Vietnamese haven’t requested a Peace Corps program, it’s at least a pleasant dream for Tuy-Cam and me. [Editor’s note: Somehow Jim Bullington’s description of the ideal first Peace Corps director in Vietnam perfectly fits his own background and circumstances.]End.

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