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Ambassador Bullington for years has been a valued contributor to this journal of accounts of his work as director the Peace Corps in Niger and, importantly, the service of the dedicated volunteers in country. He includes in this installment interesting information on, among other topics, Niger’s “fledgling democracy,” along with striking photos of the local scene. —Ed.

Letter from Niger, March 2005

by J. R. Bullington

The Hungry Season
In addition to three meteorological seasons – hot, less hot, and rainy – Niger has what is commonly called the hungry season, the period before the harvest when stocks of grain from the previous year’s crop are running low or have been exhausted. In good years, the hungry season lasts only a couple of months and involves reduced food intake, perhaps one small meal per day, but not starvation. This year, for about a quarter of the country’s 12 million people, it started in February or March and will last until the harvest begins in August. Reports of starving people, especially children, began to surface in April and were disseminated in the international media in May.

The rains last year were insufficient and untimely in the semi-arid zone stretching across the country just south of the Sahara, where in good years a fair crop of millet can be coaxed from the sandy soil. Losses from the drought were compounded by last fall’s plague of locusts, which destroyed much of the scanty crop that did grow.

Over the years, the people of Niger have developed a number of ways to cope with the recurrent food shortages that are a way of life here: temporary migration of able-bodied men to neighboring countries where jobs are available; selling off sheep and cattle to buy grain; gathering leaves, berries and other “famine foods” that aren’t normally consumed by humans and have little nutritive value but fill bellies; and just plain belt tightening. Such measures will usually achieve survival until the next harvest; but this year, at least for some of the most vulnerable, they won’t be enough.

A dusty Niger village during hungry season

Peace Corps Volunteers who are posted in villages in this zone are trying to help by working with international and non-governmental organizations (such as the UN World Food Program and CARE) to create food banks, arrange food-for-work projects, procure seeds for planting the new crop; etc.; but the overall scope of the problem is far beyond Peace Corps’ ability to address. The UN has issued an appeal for $16 million worth of emergency food aid; the government is selling its reserve grain stocks at below market prices; and charitable organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières have established feeding centers to aid the starving. All these efforts, however, can’t prevent the death of a large number (one estimate is 20,000 or more) of severely malnourished and already weakened children.

As I write these words, the rainy season seems to have begun, with our first major storm bringing hope for a new crop before this regional disaster develops into a national catastrophe: At 2 p.m. the sky reddens with dust, and within 10 minutes becomes almost black. The electricity goes out, and it’s totally dark, like midnight on a moonless night. The wind blasts the dust into the house, everywhere. We can taste it. Then the rain begins, a few drops at first, soon a dusty, wind-driven torrent. The dust clears after five more minutes, and the sky lightens to a somber gray. The storm lasts for half an hour, and then the wind calms but the rain continues, falling gently now, but steadily for another hour, soaking the thirsty ground. The electricity returns, and with it the air-conditioning.

We all hope that this rainy season will be better than the last. If not, in 2006 Niger could be facing not just another hungry season but famine.Democracy in Action
On a more positive note, Niger’s fledgling democracy is showing signs of good health. In spite of a massive lack of both experience and resources, the new local governments elected last July are beginning to function. Some are assisting with food relief efforts, and others are lobbying donors and the central government for development assistance.

A “7-11” general store in Zinder, where imported foods are sold and prices soared with the VAT

Another example of democracy in action came in March, when the central government imposed a “value added tax” (VAT) on several imported food products, including wheat flour, rice, sugar, tea, cooking oil and powdered milk. Such a tax, which impacts mostly better off urbanites (few peasants can afford such “luxuries”), is in principle not a bad idea as a means of producing some of the revenue the government desperately needs to function effectively. However, the timing, scope and lack of explanation made its imposition a political disaster.

Massive protests, including general strikes that effectively shut down economic activity in Niamey and some other towns, were organized by opposition political parties. The government recognized that the protests had overwhelming public support and opened negotiations with the protest leaders it had initially jailed for inciting riots. The outcome was the elimination or substantial reduction of the tax on most products and a rapid return to civic peace and order in the cities.

This indicates that there is more to democracy in Niger than just the holding of elections. There is an effective political opposition, which can block at least some government actions; and the government recognizes its legitimacy. This is rare in Islamic countries and uncommon in Africa.The Children of Tibiri

Tibiri children

Tibiri is a large village in eastern Niger with a peculiar problem: Most of the current generation of children, from teenagers to toddlers, is afflicted with dental and skeletal deformities. About 5000 are affected to some degree, with about 500 seriously deformed and crippled for life.

This condition resulted from a high concentration of fluoride in the village’s water. (A naturally occurring phenomenon – therapeutic fluoridation of drinking water, common in America, does not exist in Niger.) Until recently, no one connected the deformities to the water supply, which came from wells dug to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding population.

Jill (center), project director, doctor with children

Now, new water sources have been found, but the damage has already been done to almost all of the village’s children. The 500 or so who are most seriously handicapped will never be able to earn a living as farmers or herders like their parents, and unless they can develop some skills, they are condemned to a lifetime as beggars.

A Luxembourg-based non-governmental organization called Action Against Poverty decided to help the children of Tibiri and developed a project that seeks to improve their chances by giving them a basic education plus training in skills such as sewing, carpentry and shoemaking. The project’s director requested a Peace Corps Volunteer to help operate the recently completed training center in Tibiri, and we were pleased to be able to respond. One of our second year Volunteers, Jill Rhodes, was available, so we moved her to Tibiri in March to begin the collaboration. When her service ends in July, we plan to assign a replacement from the new group of Volunteers that will arrive this summer.Vietnam Memories
One of our two Peace Corps Volunteer married couples, Adam Barnes and Shailly Gupta, is stationed in the village of Kokitamou, in the Dosso region. I especially enjoy visiting this village because its chief, Seybou Moussa, is a grizzled old French army veteran who fought in Vietnam in the early 1950s; so we have something in common as well as a common language in which to discuss it.

Two old Vietnam warriors, and a young Peace Corps Volunteer (Adam)

I visited Kokitamou in April, and meeting the chief reminded me of the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in April 1975. I was working on the Vietnam desk in the State Department at that time, and I had served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, so my memories are both strong and bittersweet. It was good to be able to share some of them with a fellow Vietnam veteran in a most unlikely setting, a small rural village in Niger.

Katie’s Theatrical Troupe
One of our newer Volunteers, Katie Leach-Kemon, is assigned to the small town of Kiota. We placed her there last year in response to a specific request for a Volunteer by the Sheikh (sometimes called Caliph) of Kiota, an important Muslim religious leader with influence throughout much of West Africa. On major Islamic holidays, thousands of people come to Kiota for his blessing. He is a moderate Muslim, opposed to the Islamist radicals and their violence, and he has been highly supportive of Katie and our other Volunteers in the area.

Following is a story Katie wrote for her hometown newspaper in Middleburg, Virginia:

Despite their exhaustion after a long day of French and Arabic lessons, all members of the student troupe have shown up for rehearsal on this Tuesday afternoon. The scene unfolding before our eyes diverts our minds from the clothing sticking to our bodies and the never-ending thirst that this 109-degree weather provokes.

A young Nigerien woman glares at her wide-eyed fiancé

“I hear you’ve been playing around. We can’t get married until we’ve both tested negative for HIV,” says the young woman.

Tuy-Cam and I visiting the Sheikh of Kiota

“What?” The young man pauses, stunned. His surprise quickly turns to anger: “I’m not taking the test,” he says. “I’m not sick.”

“Then we are not getting married,” says his fiancée. The man relents, grudgingly: “But they’re not going to find anything, you’ll see,” he says.

The drama continues. The couple goes to the hospital to test for HIV. The woman is HIV-negative, but her husband-to-be tests positive. The young woman says to him: “Thank God I insisted that we get tested before marriage. If I had trusted you, AIDS would have ruined my life and our child’s life.”

I find it hard to believe that the strong, confident young actress in the scene is the same girl who hid her face in shame when I asked her a question during an HIV/AIDS lesson that I taught in her class only a week earlier. At this moment she is transformed, showing no hesitation as she firmly asserts her right to protect herself against disease.

Traditionally, Nigerien women do not have ownership over their bodies. Once married, the woman becomes her husband’s property. According to Nigerien tradition, the wife’s role confines her to the house, where she pounds the millet, cooks the meals, washes the clothes, raises the children, and serves her husband’s sexual needs. Her husband, however, is free to roam, to seek out additional wives or girlfriends as he pleases.

Despite their subordinate role, women are not powerless to defend their bodies against AIDS. By understanding how HIV is transmitted, Nigerien women can take steps to prevent infection. Like the female character in the scene, they can demand HIV testing prior to marriage. In the likelihood that her husband engages in extra-marital relations, a wife can pressure him to wear condoms.

Using theater containing HIV/AIDS-related messages is useful for educating men as well as women. These types of performances reach a target audience of young Nigerien men, the majority of whom travel periodically to countries like Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and Ghana in search of work. In these coastal countries, the HIV infection rate is significantly higher than that of Niger, a landlocked nation. Separated from their wives for months, even years at a time, they may contract HIV in these countries and then bring it back to their wives.

I hardly imagined a theatrical performance of this kind could be possible in Kiota, the town where I live. At first, I was hesitant to initiate a campaign on such a socially taboo subject like HIV/AIDS. Kiota is considered a “holy” town, as it is home to a leading Muslim caliph. While conversing with an influential woman in the caliph’s family, she uttered the last words I expected to hear: “Can you please teach our community about AIDS?” Thanks to this woman’s openness and concern for the well-being of her community, I feel that I am truly helping people, especially the young women of my town.


J.R. Bullington is currently Country Director of the Peace Corps program in Niger. He was formerly a US Ambassador and career diplomat, with extensive service in Africa and Asia.


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