American Diplomacy takes great pleasure in presenting another of the unofficial reports by Niger Peace Corps Country Director Jim Bullington. For some two years now he has provided to our interested readers glimpses of life in a developing African nation as lived by American volunteers invited by the country involved, Niger, and selected by their own to act as emissaries, teachers, and to a considerable extent, ambassadors of good will.—Ed.
The Gathering Storm, and Its Shadow in Niger
In one of my letters soon after arriving here, I remarked on how life in Niger seemed rather detached from world events and the issues that dominate the attention of people back in the US. The focus, particularly for Peace Corps Volunteers in their villages, tends to be on the daily struggle to survive.
For most Americans in Niger, however, this sense of detachment changed dramatically after 9/11. It is being further eroded by the shadow cast on Niger by the gathering storm over Iraq.
Although overwhelmingly Muslim, Niger has not been directly affected by Islamist terrorism. There have been no terrorist incidents in Niger, nor are there any known Nigerien terrorists. There are some Muslim fundamentalist extremists, but they are a small minority. For most Nigeriens, Islam is indeed a religion of peace. The Government is constitutionally secular, and several hundred Christian missionaries, most of them American, work in the country (albeit with little success in terms of gaining converts). US-Niger relations are good, and most people are friendly toward Americans.
And yet, we have to be concerned. Recent incidents in Bali and elsewhere demonstrate convincingly the continuing global reach of Islamist terrorism. With Khadaffi’s Libya to the north, the states of Nigeria that are governed by Muslim extremists to the south, and very porous borders in all directions, Niger and the Americans who live here are surely vulnerable.
Moreover, most Nigeriens get their world news from French and Arabic sources that have become increasingly anti-American in recent months. Commentators on Radio France International, for example, regularly give the impression that the principal source of evil and major threat to peace in the world is not Saddam Hussein but George Bush. If war comes in Iraq, this anti-American chorus is certain to become thunderous, especially in media aimed at Muslim audiences.
No one knows what impact war with Iraq might have on the American position in countries like Niger, but it surely won’t be positive. Such considerations are not a major determinant of US policy on Iraq, nor should they be; but those of us who live here can’t ignore them.
I remain hopeful that increasing preparations for war, paradoxically, will improve chances for peace, by convincing Saddam to truly disarm or by inspiring someone in Iraq to overthrow him. These hopes have been further raised by Colin Powell’s brilliant performance in moving US policy away from unilateralist tendencies and then persuading the UN Security Council to pass a strong Iraq resolution unanimously.
Nonetheless, as long as the possibility of war with Iraq remains high, we in Niger must remain alert to its implications.
In October we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps program in Niger, marking the arrival of seven Volunteer English teachers in 1962, the year after Peace Corps was created. Peace Corps/Niger is both one of the oldest programs and one of the very few to have continued uninterrupted for so long. Over 2800 Americans have served in Niger as Volunteers.
The principal activity of the celebration was the two-week visit of a group of 25 former Niger Volunteers, most of whom served here in the 1960s. After a welcoming reception at the Ambassador’s residence, with the assistance of some of the current Volunteers they returned to the places where they served to renew old friendships and relive old memories. They were warmly welcomed.
Before they departed, I asked some of the visitors for their thoughts about how Niger has changed over the past three decades or so. Their strongest impressions were:
- More people — the population has tripled since the 1960s;
- More poverty — most people are even poorer now than they were then (a condition not unrelated to the first); and
- More Islam — religion seems to be more pervasive, more deeply rooted, and more a part of people’s daily lives.
While several of the visitors found the accommodations and living conditions more rudimentary than they had anticipated, and perhaps more difficult to adjust to at age 60 than at 23, they enjoyed the visit and returned to the US with renewed appreciation for the work of our current Volunteers.
Women in Niger
One of the many causes of Niger’s persistent poverty is the status of women. As in many other traditional, culturally conservative societies (including Western societies until fairly recent historical times), it is far below the status of men. Moreover, gender roles are very strictly defined, especially in rural areas where more than 80% of the people live. Rural women spend almost all of their time drawing water, working in the fields, preparing food, and caring for children.
Here are some statistics, taken from a recent UN report:
- 47% of girls are married by the age of 15; 96% are married by the age of 22.
- The average Nigerien woman will have eight children, the world’s second highest fertility rate. Women between 18 and 45 are pregnant 28% of the time.
- A woman’s chances of dying in childbirth are about one in 20.
- While male literacy is about 30%, female literacy is only about 10%.
- Women hold few positions of power. Only one of the 83 members of the national assembly is female.
From our contemporary perspective, this is not only unjust but also a brake on economic development, because half of the population is less productive than it could be.The Nigerien Government is keenly aware of these problems, and it has adopted policies that seek to remedy them. However, its means of doing so are minute compared to the magnitude of the task and the difficulties in overcoming a deeply conservative society’s inherent resistance to change.
Gender and Development
Projects to improve the status of women have become a staple of international economic development work and are fairly common in Niger. The Peace Corps Volunteers have an active “Gender and Development” committee that promotes a wide variety of projects such as “Women’s Day” meetings to demonstrate potential income-producing activities; scholarships to enable rural girls to continue their education beyond elementary school; and the formation of women’s credit unions.
One recently departed Volunteer couple, Andrea and Scott Webb, were very successful in working together with the women in their village and CARE International to create a credit union. Following is Scott’s description of that project:
Every year the Peace Corps Gender and Development committee would hold a “Women’s Day” conference. Each Volunteer in the country would ask his or her village to allow one woman to attend the conference. Like most villages, Doutouel sent their Chief’s wife. This woman, Anata, had shown motivation in the past, and she seemed to have the other women’s respect. The conference lasted three days, during which the women attended lectures and watched demonstrations about small income generating activities. A representative of CARE was there to talk about micro-credit projects. Anata was very impressed, and after consulting with the village women on what they need, they decided to ask Andrea to bring the “CARE caisse” to Doutouel.
The CARE credit program is different from other loan projects in that the money for the loans comes directly from the women. Each Monday all the women in the program (Doutouel’s program had 39) would add 100 CFA (about $0.15 US) to the principal. After 12 meetings the women were allowed to start loaning out the money. They divided themselves into three groups of ten and one of nine. Each group chose a leader who was responsible for making the loans and seeing that they were repaid. The recipients had four weeks to repay the loans. The loans were used to buy goods (e.g., eggs, chickens) in the village, which the women would then sell in the market at a nearby town. Some would use the sale proceeds to buy bulk goods (such as sauce ingredients) at the market, and then break them up into smaller packages for resale at a profit back in the village. After several months the women decided to increase the amount of permissible loans, so some could buy sheep to fatten for Tabaski (a Muslim holiday, when sheep are in great demand and prices are high).
After a few more months, the principal was up to the equivalent of about $1000 (an enormous sum in a country where annual per capita income is well under $200). At this point, the women split up all the money evenly and started the loan process again, totally on their own. The only help they received from outsiders came in the first three meetings, with Andrea checking their math, at their request, for the first two loan periods. At one point, we had missed four meetings, yet the women had repaid all their loans, including agreed upon fines, and the books were perfectly balanced.
The success of the project was tremendously uplifting, and taught me a lot about not underestimating illiterate villagers. These women worked very well together. Within the groups each woman was instructed to pay attention to what every member of the group was doing. This negated the need for paperwork. It became almost like knowing the village gossip, to know how much each woman owed and when. There are no secrets in a village of 600 people.
While I went on to other projects and positions in different regions of the country (Scott and Andrea extended for a third year with Peace Corps in Niger), it was my time in Doutouel that most shaped my attitude toward development work. I learned the value of listening to and understanding the needs of the villagers, and that projects only work when the parties affected have a direct stake in their outcome. Sustainability is the most important word in development work.
Experiencing and Evoking Change
On December 6 we expect the next group of Peace Corps trainees to arrive in Niger. As part of the “welcome kit” that is sent to them before they come, we asked a few of the current Volunteers to write them about what to expect.
I thought Volunteer Bryce Wilkinson’s letter was especially insightful:
As you prepare to leave familiar surroundings and embark on a journey of change, let me share with you a few notions about change that have become more and more apparent to me while serving as a Volunteer in Niger. Most of us joined Peace Corps because we wanted change. Some simply wanted a change in scenery and routine. No doubt one can expect surface changes to occur like a new diet, lack of certain conveniences such as running water and electricity, and a fabulous desert atmosphere. In addition to such surface changes, others also expect to experience a transformative change that is so personal and profound that they will feel like completely different people. These people will not be disappointed, for this type of deep, personal change is guaranteed to take place as well.
Besides experiencing change many of us hope to evoke change. Perhaps you applied for the Peace Corps because you felt that you had something to offer, that you could change people’s lives. By serving as a Volunteer you will change people’s lives; however, I urge you not to allow this idea to get out of hand. An important thing that becomes more and more clear as I live in Niger is that it is entirely possible to change a few people’s perceptions of the world and slightly alter their lifestyles during your two-year commitment, but it is impossible to change a system. While you will touch individuals tremendously and they in turn will leave vivid impressions on you, the reality is that you cannot change the entire way in which people approach life in a mere two years, if at all.
So as you resume your packing just be aware that change will inevitably occur but that the extent and degree of the change may be surprising.