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A Worm's Eye View of the High and Mighty

The Winds of War Blow By
It would be overstating the case to say that the Iraq War turned out to be a non-event in Niger…but not by much.

In the months leading up to the war, many of us had feared that there could be serious repercussions in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, where people get their news primarily from French and Arabic sources that are very hostile to US policy on Iraq. However, since Peace Corps had weathered previous Middle East conflicts without serious incidents in Niger, and in view of the Government’s prompt and forthcoming responses to our requests for added security measures for the Volunteers, I decided the risks were small enough to leave the Volunteers in place. When the war began, we put them on heightened alert and took some measures to lower our profile and avoid gathering in large groups that might become targets; but otherwise Peace Corps work continued pretty much as normal.

Throughout the war, there were no anti-American incidents anywhere in Niger. There were three anti-war demonstrations in Niamey, which were anti-American in tone, but they were peaceful and small (the largest involving about 2000 demonstrators). The Government remained publicly neutral, while making clear its determination not to countenance any anti-American violence.

Niger’s only direct connection to the war was the claim that Iraq had tried to buy Nigerien uranium. (Uranium is Niger’s principal – almost only – export commodity.) The Government heatedly denied this claim, which soon proved to be groundless and based on forged documents.

Had the war been prolonged, it is likely that the protests here would have become larger and more hostile. With its early end, however, public attention quickly re-focused on topics of more direct concern to most Nigeriens, such as the daily challenges of survival in this second poorest country in the world. Among the educated minority, there was even grudging recognition that Iraq and the world are better off without Saddam’s evil regime, though suspicions of US motives remain high.

All in all, the reaction to the war was much less negative in Niger than in Europe and most of the rest of the world, including lots of US university campuses. All of our Peace Corps operations have returned to normal, and we are preparing to welcome 45 new trainees in July.Searching for Oil
As noted above, Niger is a major exporter of uranium, which goes principally to nuclear power plants in France and Japan. The mines are located deep in the Sahara, near the borders with Mali and Algeria.

After producing considerable income for the country in the 1970s, the uranium market largely collapsed in the 1980s, as nuclear power fell out of favor following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents. At current uranium prices, sales revenue from Niger’s uranium barely covers the cost of production.

Map of Niger
Surrounded by oil countries

In view of Niger’s geographic position, surrounded by major oil-producing countries (Algeria, Libya, Chad and Nigeria), it has long been hoped that oil might be found to replace uranium as an important export earner. Esso did considerable exploration in the 1990s, and in fact found deposits reportedly estimated at 300 million barrels in the far eastern part of the country near Lake Chad. However, even this quantity is not sufficient to justify construction of the pipeline that would be necessary to transport it to export markets. Moreover, Niger’s political instability and ongoing rebellion of desert nomads during the 1990s made investment especially risky. Consequently, Esso ceased operations and left the country.

Now, however, Esso has built a pipeline from Chad through Cameroon to the sea, in order to exploit the very large deposits found in Chad. This brings Niger’s oil closer to economically feasible production, since it would be much cheaper to connect with the Chad-Cameroon pipeline than to build one all the way from eastern Niger to the sea. Moreover, Niger’s return to peace and political stability since 1999 has made foreign investment more attractive.

Consequently, Esso has entered a partnership with Petronas, the Malaysian oil company, to do further exploration in its eastern Niger concession. Petronas is the operating partner (probably because its employees, as Asian Muslims, were thought to have a lower profile than American oil workers and hence pose less political risk).

Petronas offices have now been opened in Niamey, and equipment is being sent to the east. Drilling is set to begin in July.

Oil has been a mixed blessing for many countries, particularly African countries such as Nigeria and Angola, where it has produced more conflict and corruption than prosperity. However, Niger desperately needs some source of income, and hopes are high that the exploration will be successful and the revenue will be used effectively.

American Holidays in a Nigerien Village
American holidays such as Thanksgiving as well as important personal occasions such as birthdays can be especially stressful for our Volunteers, living alone in a remote Nigerien village. Thoughts of home and family at such times can be overwhelming.

One of our Volunteers, Carol Grimes, wrote an excellent essay on this subject for our quarterly newsletter, reflecting on spending Thanksgiving and her 25th birthday in her village. Here are some excerpts.

Carol Grimes at her mud-brick house in Konni
Carol Grimes at her mud-brick house in Konni

Now here I am, 25 years old and living in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere in Niger, West Africa.Here I am, speaking Hausa and wearing wildly printed pagnes (the sarong-like dress of African women) and drinking warm milk straight from a wandering cow.

Here I am, carrying water from a well on my head and taking bucket baths under the stars and listening to African children singing African songs in perfect harmony. …

Of course, the reality of life here isn’t so romantic. And actually living it day by day isn’t so wonderful. It’s not like the stuff that dreams are made of.

In fact, for the past eight months that I have been living in my village, I have had more bad days than good.

It is only recently that the good days have begun to outnumber the bad. And who knows how long that will last.

All I know is that finally, after so many months, the language is starting to get a little easier, the culture is beginning to make some sense, my villagers are used to my habits and I am used to theirs.

It isn’t as hard as it used to be. Sometimes, it is almost easy.

At some point in my service, I don’t know exactly when, I realized that there were things about this country and this culture that were completely out of my power to change, or even to understand.

At some point in my service, I realized that just being here was more important than changing the world.

So, yes, today is Thanksgiving and it would be nice, more than nice, to be with my family right now. But I am not with my family. I am here, far, far away.

And so I sit in solitude down in the depths of my canyon and I tell myself:

Forget that you haven’t tasted your favorite food or drink in what seems like forever. Forget all the great books and movies and theatre you are missing in America.

Forget that you were sick as a dog yesterday and that you always feel dirty and sometimes you are so hot you can’t even move. …

Forget that the kids in your youth group that you thought were so perfect just got into a fistfight. Forget the schoolteacher in your village insults the children.

Forget that the eight-year-old girl next door has been sold into marriage by her father and will move into her husband’s house before she turns 15.

Forget that two babies have died in the past month. Forget that your favorite little boy in the village has been sick for almost three weeks and can now barely walk. …

Instead, remember that the oldest man in your village gave you his field to start a garden with your youth group.

Remember that almost every day these people who have nothing offer you their food or send you home with a little treat.

Remember the other day you heard one of your villagers explaining word for word to a group of women what you’ve been telling them for months about breastfeeding.

Remember, for the first time you saw your new school kids writing and drawing things in the sand that they learned at school. …

Remember that, at least once a week, someone tells you that two years in the village is not enough time and that they want you to stay for three or four or, preferably, forever.

Remember that you can speak another language, and you can survive and that you can be friends with people who are so incredibly different from yourself.

Remember that home will always be there and America will always be America and your family will always love you.

Remember the stars here are the brightest you’ve seen.

Peaceful Warriors
I recently read Shadow Warriors, a book by novelist Tom Clancy and General Carl Stiner, the former commander of the US Special Operations Command. Carl is a wonderful gentleman, an outstanding warrior, and a fellow Tenneseean with whom I had the honor and privilege of working on several occasions when we were both Senior Fellows at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk.The book is both a history of US special operations warfare since World War II and a partial biography of Carl, who played a leading role in its development from Vietnam to Desert Storm.

In discussing the early days of Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, the book says:

Though conventional soldiers don’t normally concern themselves with the civilians who find themselves caught up in the tides of war, when it became obvious that the political and psychological fallout from this lack of concern could negate a brilliant battlefield victory, military leaders had to seriously adjust their thinking. In the US Army, the Special Forces were the first to be taught this lesson officially and put it into practice as a principle of war.

Before long, Green Berets, using an American version of Mao’s “Rules for Conduct,” began to have a powerful impact on the lives of “little people” in Third World nations living in remote, often jungle, areas, Previously, such people did not much figure in the overall scheme of military maneuver. And for their part, the “little people” tended to be suspicious of foreign soldiers in their midst. However, a combination of personal qualities and soldier skills soon began to increase cooperation and mutual trust, and these came to grow into admiration and friendship.

The Green Berets paid attention to all kinds of little things that other soldiers rarely cared about. For example, they helped a villager increase his water supplies by showing him a simple well-digging technique. They worked side by side with him to build a log bridge that would save a half-mile trudge around a swamp to reach his primitive patch of farmland. They showed him how to dig an irrigation ditch. They gave him seeds that grew into better vegetables than he had ever imagined possible. But strangest – and most heartwarming – of all, they paid attention to the villager as an individual. They could speak to him in his own dialect – maybe not fluently, but enough. And they shared the lives of the village people. They ate their food and drank their drink; they sat around their fires in the evening and chatted with them; they slept in huts like theirs.

It struck me that these words, with little change, could apply equally well to Peace Corps Volunteers and what they do. Both the Green Berets and Peace Corps were begun in the early 1960s under the leadership of President Kennedy, and the parallels seem too close to be mere coincidence. The same inspiration, the same worldview, must have informed the creation and early development of both organizations.

Much of that inspiration and way of thinking could be applied to today’s challenges, to the war on terrorism. At least to some extent, this appears to be happening. Special operations forces played a larger role in Afghanistan and Iraq than in any previous war; and in last year’s State of the Union message, President Bush called for doubling the size of Peace Corps by 2007.

We can justifiably celebrate the great military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, I’m confident that people like Carl Stiner and other thoughtful military leaders would be quick to acknowledge that military victory does not necessarily bring long-term success. The peace must also be won, and winning it requires a wide variety of “peaceful warriors” such as Peace Corps Volunteers and others who serve their country under difficult and often dangerous circumstances as civilians.

I’m pleased that the current generation, no less than the generation of the 1960s, is producing an ample supply of great young Americans who are willing to meet today’s military and non-military challenges.

Choosing to Serve
The above reflections were reinforced by my good friend Bill Whitehurst, a former Congressman from Norfolk. Bill sent me a speech he recently gave to a regional meeting of 400 Kiwanis members.

In the speech, Bill first recounted the story of Pat Tillman, a standout defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals, who last year turned down a $3.6 million three-year contract in order to join the US Army. Following basic training, he volunteered for airborne and Ranger training, and then volunteered for service in Afghanistan, where he is currently stationed.

After citing some famous athletes and other Americans from past generations who also left lucrative careers to volunteer for military service (Ted Williams, Roger Staubach, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, etc.), Bill continued:

“But there are unsung Americans who also choose to serve, often under circumstances that none of us would endure.

“I have a friend, a retired Foreign Service Officer, who heads the Peace Corps in Niger. … This friend of mine, Jim Bullington, oversees a number of young Americans who have chosen to spend two years – some even extend their terms – in conditions described by Jim as truly subsistence living.

“Sanitary facilities as we know them are non-existent. The food is the same as that available to the Nigeriens they serve. The heat in summer makes the wave that we experienced last summer seem like a cold wave.

“They must take malaria medication constantly to avoid the debilitating effects of that life-threatening disease. Their commitment is nothing short of awesome.

“I have entitled these remarks to you, “Choosing to Serve.” The examples that I have cited are mixed. A professional football player chose to put on the uniform of his nation and take up arms against a foreign enemy.

“The unnamed Peace Corps Volunteers are, for the most part, young college graduates with an instinct to serve in a peaceful endeavor among people whose culture and way of life are as remote from our land as the great desert that abuts their own.”

Bill went on to talk about the need to confront the threats of poverty and of political and economic frustration, as well as military threats, especially in the Islamic world, in order to achieve lasting victory over armed terrorism. He concluded that:

“In winning this victory, there will be no shortage of Pat Tillmans or young Volunteers to bring the best of America to serve in war and peace.”

I quoted Bill’s remarks in a message to each of our Volunteers, to let them know that their work is valued and applauded by Americans as well as by the people of Niger. Several of them have told me how much they appreciated hearing this.

Niger’s Peace Corps Volunteers
Niger’s Peace Corps Volunteers


Bullington’s other articles in American Diplomacy include:


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