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A Worm's Eye View of the High and Mighty

Waiting for War
As the chances of war with Iraq have moved from high to certain (in the absence of an unlikely capitulation or internal overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the next couple of weeks—I’m writing this in early February), we’ve focused with growing intensity on the war’s likely impact here in Niger. I feel a heavy responsibility for the security of the Peace Corps Volunteers and staff, yet I don’t want to end one of the best and longest-lasting Peace Corps programs in the world without sound reasons for doing so. I hate the idea of pre-emptive surrender to terrorist threats, yet I recognize that the Volunteers are not combatants and shouldn’t be left in harm’s way.

A good case can be made that the threat to Americans in Niger is no greater than the threat to Americans anywhere else in the world. Although the country is over 90% Muslim, there are few Islamic extremists. There have been no anti-American terrorist acts in Niger, and there are no known Nigerien terrorists. Peace Corps and other Americans, including some 400 American missionaries, were able to stay in Niger without harm during previous conflicts in the Middle East. (Niger even sent a symbolic contingent of troops to join the US-led coalition during the 1991 Gulf War.) The current Government and the vast majority of the Nigerien people support the American presence. And Niger is so far out of the global mainstream that terrorist action here could not get the sort of spectacular media coverage that terrorists generally seek.

A Peace Corps Volunteer living in a Nigerien village is probably safer from terrorist attacks than she would be in Washington or New York.

And yet, we are vulnerable and can’t be complacent. Terrorists are turning more and more to “soft,” unprotected targets, and we are certainly that. Unlike our friends in the Embassy, we can’t build a fortress around the Volunteers or travel in convoys protected by armed guards. Peace Corps has always sought security by integration into the local community, not by walling itself off. But how viable is this posture in today’s environment, with terrorism’s demonstrated global reach and an unprecedented level of anti-Americanism worldwide, especially in many Muslim countries? Although few in number, there are Islamic extremists here, and they might be moved to action by the intense barrage of Arab and European propaganda that is sure to follow the first bombs that fall on Baghdad, depicting the war not as an effort to disarm Saddam but as an attack on Islam and an imperialist venture to control Middle Eastern oil. The Government can probably contain its homegrown extremists, but we also have to worry about an overflow of trouble from the radically Islamic states of northern Nigeria.

The Peace Corps office in Niamey: No fortress

And somehow, so far from home, it’s easy to “feel” isolated and vulnerable as global tensions rise, whatever a sober, rational threat analysis might indicate.We’ve updated and exercised our emergency action plan, and I’ve stressed to the Volunteers that especially in the next few weeks they MUST be alert to any sign of danger and quick to distance themselves from it, maintain a low profile, and keep us informed of their whereabouts at all times.

Beyond that, we wait, assess the situation daily, and try to be prepared to take whatever action is called for as events unfold.

New Volunteers
On December 6, 47 tired but excited trainees got off the Air France flight to begin their adventure in service with Peace Corps/Niger. We took them immediately to our training center 35 km northeast of Niamey where for 11 weeks they learn local languages and culture as well as how to survive in a remote Nigerien village with no electricity or running water, a hole in the ground for a toilet, and a mud-brick or thatch hut to call home.

Three of the new arrivals quickly decided that Niger was not for them and went back to the US, but the rest have stayed on. We will swear them in to begin their two years of service as Volunteers on February 21.

Like their predecessors, these trainees impress me with their willingness to undertake such service as well as the skills and enthusiasm they bring to it. Most (72%) are recent college graduates, 25 or under. The two oldest are both 49. 60% of the group is female (the same percentage as for Peace Corps worldwide). There is one married couple.

Our new trainees at the Hamdallaye training site

A few profiles:

  • Evan is a veterinarian, with five years of experience, who wants to “gain a deeper appreciation for all that I have been blessed with in my life, and to increase my opportunities to share what I have with more needy people.”
  • Laura just graduated cum laude from Harvard, and was her high school valedictorian. She is a professional-level cellist and brought along her cello with hopes of incorporating music into her Peace Corps experience.
  • Reagan is a Texas farm boy, and knows a lot about cows and fixing farm equipment.
  • Keri has an MA in “Museum Studies: Costumes and Textiles,” and wants to “learn new things, to slow down, to see how much little things matter, to be more creative, to have my beliefs challenged, and to come back a different person.”
  • Wilbert, with a degree in Latin American studies, was an intern for The Nature Conservancy in Equator and did research in Havana on “the influence of Che Guevara on Cuban art.”
  • Elizabeth is a painter and sculptor with a degree in studio arts who was working as an office assistant for a lawyer before signing up for Peace Corps.
  • Karl graduated from MIT last spring, spent summers as a ranch hand in Montana, and hopes that Peace Corps service will give him “better insight into my personal and professional goals.”
  • Julia graduated from Brown in Russian studies and is interested in a Foreign Service career.
  • Randy, one of the older Volunteers, who was working in a Michigan automotive plant before joining Peace Corps, has been a handyman, gardener, graphic designer, and prize-winning landscape and still life painter.
  • Cassandra was a special education teacher in the Washington, DC, public schools.

All of them are imbued with a spirit of adventure and a desire to serve others, or they wouldn’t be here; but they have widely varied backgrounds reflecting the rich diversity of America and differing personal motives for joining Peace Corps.Presenting Credentials
As the head of a US Government agency in Niger, I was invited to accompany our new Ambassador, Dennise Mathieu, when she presented her credentials to President Tandja in December.

It was a beautiful, cool winter day in Niamey, only about 90 degrees in mid afternoon, so the coat and tie (which I wore for only the third time in over two years) wasn’t too uncomfortable. We waited at the Ambassador’s residence until a vintage late 60s Cadillac limousine convertible, with the top up, arrived with the President’s Chief of Protocol. He took the Ambassador in the Caddy, while the Deputy Chief of Mission and I followed behind in one of the Niger Government’s Daewoo sedans that are standard issue for Cabinet Ministers. Two police cars and a quartet of motorcycles escorted our mini-caravan, their sirens demanding clear passage through the city’s traffic, mostly consisting of tiny Toyota taxis, bicycles, donkey carts and majestic camels.

We were met at the Nigerien “White House” by a military band and honor guard. The band played the two national anthems, and we were taken inside where President Tandja was waiting. The Ambassador presented him a letter from President Bush naming her as Ambassador, in accord with the time-honored diplomatic usage.

When this ritual was completed, the President and Ambassador sat down for a private chat, while the DCM and I were ushered into an antechamber with the Foreign Minister and other dignitaries. Soft drinks and cookies were offered, but we followed the Nigeriens’ lead in abstaining because of the Muslim Ramadan fast then in effect.

The ceremony, which lasted about half an hour, recalled for me the day nearly 20 years ago when I presented my credentials to President Bagaza as Ambassador to Burundi. It evoked a good deal of nostalgia, but certainly no envy. Having “been there and done that,” I much prefer my present job to the Ambassador’s, and I’m especially glad that I have only a minimal amount of this sort of protocol to endure.

Desert Rollback
One of the many causes for Niger’s deepening poverty over the past few decades has been desertification, the gradual southward creep of the Sahara Desert. Average annual rainfall measurements and other indicators have shown the Sahara moving some 100 to 150 km south all across Africa since the mid 20th Century, destroying vast amounts of previously productive farm land and pasture. The causes have been a combination of climate change and population pressure that has overworked the land and denuded it of trees and grasses.

Camel and colt in the barren Sahara

Now, it appears from research by European geographers recently published inThe New Scientist, the long desertification process may have halted and even reversed. Analysis of satellite images over the past few years has shown new grasslands, trees and even cultivation in formerly barren areas at the Sahara’s southern edge in several areas across the continent, including a part of Niger.The researchers attributed this reversal mainly to increased annual rainfall, which they in turn speculate may be linked to global warming. However, they believe that improved farming techniques, reforestation projects, and other land protection and reclamation efforts introduced by foreign aid agencies have also played a significant role.

Good news for Niger’s environment and economy is rare, so we welcome it all the more warmly when it comes and fervently hope that it’s not ephemeral.

In Search of Pulleys
After two and a half years in Niger, Tuy-Cam and I have lately felt the need for expanded home entertainment options. Thus, we invested in a converter/decoder and a huge satellite dish antenna in order to pick up all six of the Armed Forces Network channels. One is an all-news channel, which carries a combination of CNN, Fox News, CNBC and network news coverage. This has been both interesting and professionally useful for following the Iraq situation and the latest terrorist threats. On the other channels, however, except for 60 Minutes and a couple of other shows we enjoy, we find that the network sitcoms, soaps and movies, which is what the other channels mostly carry, are even worse than we had remembered, so we rarely watch anything but news.

This leaves some spare time to fill, especially on weekends and holidays, so I recently resurrected my ham radio hobby, something I’ve done off and on since high school. A local American missionary ham helped me through the lengthy process of getting a license from the Nigerien Government, and I was able to buy a radio and other equipment by mail through the diplomatic pouch. Now, the flat tin rooftop is handsomely decorated with a forest of antennas—water pipe masts 50 – 60 feet high, bamboo, PVC pipe, and several hundred meters of copper wire. Erecting them has been enjoyable work, in which I’ve enlisted the driver and gardener as assistant antenna engineers. Kevin’s bedroom has been transformed into a ham shack, where I spend several hours a week talking to other hams all across the world, including several old friends.

To hoist the antennas to the top of the masts, I needed pulleys. I’ve long noted the absence of pulleys on the wells in rural villages, where any American of my age who has lived on a farm would expect to find them, but I thought such simple hardware would be readily available in Niamey, a city of more than a million people.

No pulleys at this typical village well, but a log well worn by ropes The satellite TV dish and one of four masts for ham radio antennas

My pulley quest turned into a bit of an adventure. The first hurdle was explaining to my driver, Kodjo, what I was talking about. He speaks good French and is a trained auto mechanic, but the perfectly good French wordpoulie was not in his vocabulary. I talked about little wheels with rope around them and drew buckets of imaginary water from an imaginary well, but I don’t think he really comprehended what I wanted until he actually saw the device.We first visited a few Lebanese-owned hardware, electrical and plumbing supplies stores downtown, but none had pulleys. One of the Lebanese, understanding what I was looking for, directed us to the “Katako Market,” a place well known to Kodjo but where I had never had occasion to venture.

Katako turned out to be a vast open-air market, with narrow dirt lanes lined with hundreds of tiny shops selling all sorts of hardware, construction materials, plumbing and electrical supplies, automotive parts and the like. It resembles a giant junkyard, but one teeming with humanity. There seemed to be as many merchants as customers, along with an ample supply of beggars and urchins.

After several fruitless inquiries about pulleys, we eventually encountered a merchant who said that although he had none in stock, he could get them for me if I would just wait a few minutes. He invited me to sit on a bench in front of his shop while he sent a young boy, perhaps his son, to the pulley place.

As we waited, the merchant and several of his friends, finding that I was American, lectured me on the many virtues of Bill Clinton and the manifest shortcomings of George Bush. When I mentioned that the esteemed Clinton had gotten into a bit of trouble over Monica, they pointed out that this simply confirmed his admirable virility. (I suppose this should be obvious in a country where most men who can afford it have multiple wives.) Seeing that I was clearly outnumbered and on hostile turf, I refrained from further comment that might be provocative. As for the hated Bush, it became clear that primarily French and Hausa language media, which have consistently presented him as an anti-Muslim imperialist warmonger, had informed their opinions.

After about 15 minutes, which seemed a good deal longer, the boy returned with some small pulleys, not exactly the sort I had wanted; but after the lengthy quest and unwanted lecture, I decided they would do. We haggled over the price, and I managed to get the merchant down to the equivalent of $15 for three, only about double what they would have been for a Nigerien.

For subsequent hardware needs, I’ve just sent Kodjo.

Getting Close to Bill
Deborah Popowski, a talented Polish-Argentinean-American Volunteer, occupies our only Niamey-based PCV position as coordinator of the Volunteers’ many AIDS-related activities, serving as a sort of liaison between them and the many Government offices and foreign aid agencies in the capital that work on AIDS-related matters and overseeing group projects. By virtue of this position, and with help from a friend at the Embassy, she was able to get a “scholarship” to attend the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona last summer.

Deborah wrote an account of her participation in this event for the most recent Galago, our quarterly Volunteer newsletter. Following is an excerpt:

It is 5 p.m. on my 23rd birthday, the second-to-last day of the 14th International AIDS Conference, and in less than one hour, I will be attending the Heads of State Forum organized by the International AIDS Trust, an organization that aims to involve political leaders in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Former President William Jefferson Clinton is the evening’s main attraction, and the lobby is pulsating with a crowd that refuses to be tamed. Tomorrow everyone will get a chance to see both Mr. Clinton and former South African President Nelson Mandela speak at the conference’s closing ceremony in the massive Olympic stadium, but this is different: tonight, people are fighting for the exclusive chance to share a small auditorium with a political star. But I’m not worried. The guards have yelled up the stairs to where the violently impatient press is waiting and promised to let in 50 journalists. I’m comfortably within the first 30 in line.

In the meantime, though, I’m falling all over the French writers as the Zambians push ahead and upset my balance. The Greek photographer grabs my hand and steadies me. I shake my head in disbelief. The Spanish radio reporter on my left stands in the way of the American with the video camera, who claims not to be cutting but simply “joining” his colleague in the front of the line. We look at him with scorn—such childish behavior! He should have gotten his act together and arrived here earlier, I mumble aloud, but the reporter isn’t paying attention anymore. She is nervously struggling to translate a press release into Spanish. Her friends are helping her, but I can tell they’re not faring much better so I give her the word she’s looking for. “You speak Spanish?” she asks. Soon, I’m translating the report and explaining why the PLWA (People Living with HIV/AIDS) are protesting the conditions of their accommodations, information which I happen to know well since I’m staying in the same residence hall. As a large Armenian woman attempts to barrel her way ahead, the Spanish reporter and I shift our weight together and block her passage. I smile, satisfied. I have made myself a new friend.

PCV AIDS bike-a-thon 2002, bringing the AIDS message to rural Niger

The cooler-than-thou Parisians from Le Figaro have now turned to listen to our conversation, and the man whom I’ve unwittingly been stepping on for the last 20 minutes swats at my official name tag and reads the words in bold typeface aloud: “DEBORAH ALEJANDRA POPOWSKI—NIGER.” And below, my handwriting scrawled in blue pen: “Le Galago/La Gazette du Niger.” He gives me a smug little smirk. “Ah, oui, Le Galago. C’est un très bon journal—I zeenk I’ve heard ov eet. Eez eet a daily or a weekly, zeez paper of yourz?” I feel my cheeks burning various shades of red, but I toss my chin in the air, responding that actually I’m freelance—hence the unofficial (read: fake) press tag—and then, faintly panicked, I turn and beg the Greek photographer to vouch for me in case of trouble. He shrugs an easy of course.Figures. I’ve been waiting and whining in the press line long enough to forget that I have no official right to be there, and now my silly ambition might end up hurting me more. What if I can’t get in at all?But when the security guards finally open the doors for us, the nice photographer grabs my hand and I rush inside, suddenly transformed into a Greek photographer’s aide who just happens to be wearing a Nigerien nametag. Somehow, it works. Caught in the frenzy, I dash to the front and take 12 pictures of—an empty stage.

Amazing what a girl has to do to get close to Bill Clinton. And to think that back in the good old White House days, it was so much easier…

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