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Journal of a Former Peace Corps Volunteer’s Return to Niger

by Tom Kelly

A Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, now an associate professor at a law school, returned to the country and the rural village where he had lived in order to do a research project. He kept a journal during the visit, and now shares it with us. It provides a fascinating picture of life in one of the world’s poorest countries.— Ed.

I arrived yesterday in Niger to begin research on Justice and Dispute Resolution in Zarma Villages, at least that’s what the grant application claimed. Now that I’m here I find myself wanting nothing other than to wander the streets of the capital, Niamey, and the sand paths of the bush. I want to catch up with old friends and see how things have changed since my Peace Corps days.

Tom as a Peace Corps Volunteer, in his millet field with villagers

If I had studied anthropology rather than law there would have been courses, I imagine, on how to manage the process of returning to old haunts to perform ethnographic fieldwork. How am I supposed to deal with the fact that I involuntarily compare everything I see and hear to my memory’s version of this place, obscuring my focus on the project at hand? How do I balance the fact that I am here to visit old friends and revisit scenes from a magical experience in my young adulthood with the reality that I have also come to work, to extract from those same friends data that will support my thesis and give rise to a publishable piece of scholarship? When I see my old friends and acquaintances, I’ll have pen and paper in hand and I’ll be probing for valuable nuggets of information. Few of them will even know why I am asking the questions. At the same time, they will be assessing how they can best take advantage of my presence. For some, it will be enjoying the tea and sugar and kola nuts that I always bring with me to the village. Others will hope for a quick and simple infusion of cash. More ambitious and imaginative acquaintances will beg me to take them home to America, or at least help them arrange a visa so they can escape their blighted land and make their fortunes.

It is a fraught time of year to be visiting Niger. I timed my trip to coincide with what foreigners call “the hot season” and locals refer to simply as “the heat.” At this time of year, men are returning to their villages after months of post-harvest wanderings in search of wage labor. Everybody is parched and exhausted from months of cloudless skies, sandstorms, and 120-degree temperatures. They’re looking hopefully toward the sky, wondering if and when the rains will come and whether there will be happiness or hunger in the coming year. They are feeling pensive and restless and, I’m quite certain, ready to talk.


It was a fabulous first night in Fandou Berri. I caught a ride from the capital in a private car. As we topped the last hill before the village I could see that it now has a much bigger, more impressive profile that last time I was here. In the old days when looking from a distance one could only catch a glimpse of a few grass roofs and a cluster of tall trees. Now the village skyline is dominated by an impressive mosque with towers and domes and even an outbuilding for an as yet not purchased generator.

Everyone turned out to greet me as the car rolled down the sand path into the village center. Nobody seemed particularly surprised to see me, just happy. Almost all my old friends and neighbors were there, many having just arrived from Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. They’re waiting for the rains to come and the growing season to begin. The village has an expectant air about it, like a military camp in which the soldiers are awaiting orders to engage. The villagers are idle today but when the signal is given, they’ll throw every ounce of their energy into planting and weeding. And like soldiers, they’ll be fighting for their lives. In the meantime, they will be happy to sit under shade trees and answer my questions. At least that’s what they said.

Bachirou and Tom

The village chief’s compound is pretty much the same, though his grandsons, Jibirou and Bachirou, each now married, have their own huts. Bachirou’s is on the site where my hut once stood, under the shade of the trees I planted and he watered to maturity.As darkness fell Jibirou dragged a mattress outside of his hut for me. Most people sleep outside on grass mats at this time of year, so there were dozens of men and children lying all around me. I lay in the dark listening to the distant sound of girls clapping and stomping their feet in unison — the same rhythm that lulled me to sleep hundreds of times during my years here. There was a breeze and the air was perfectly clear, save the lingering smoke from wood cooking fires. Steady conversation trailed off to occasional secrets whispered back and forth, then silence and sleep. As I drifted off I saw two shooting stars cross the northern sky. The Zarmas say this means two important people have died.

The next morning Jibirou’s mother, Mariama, called me into her hut. “What are you going to do for us?” she wanted to know.

“What do you need?” I asked.

“That’s not for me to say,” she said, “but we had a horrible harvest last year. Grasshoppers ate our millet and the rains were poor. We’ve already had to buy one sack of millet and it’s almost gone. We have not earned enough money to buy more.”

Wearing the same sad expression she always put on years ago when asking me for something (she would tease me mercilessly when she did not need anything), she pointed to the depleted grain sack slumped on the sand floor of her hut.

Chatting with the village’s oldest woman

It seemed clear that she was telling the truth. The village is full of telltale signs of last year’s poor harvest and this year’s want. The villagers’ clothing is more tattered than usual because there was no excess grain to sell and thus no money for new outfits. There are no lights in the village at night because no one can afford to buy fuel for their kerosene lamps. Even peoples’ addictions are going unsatisfied: No one is smoking cigarettes or chewing kola nuts because no one can spare the necessary nickel.As Mariama knows, I would buy them the millet whether they truly needed it or not. She and her family were kind and generous to me during my two years in the village, and paying for a 50 kg sack of grain (I’ll give them money for two) is the least I can do.

I’m back in Niamey, at the moment in a truck parked on the road next to the Petit Marché waiting for Issa to buy soap. The gutters are overflowing with detritus: onion peelings, fish scales, piss, shit, plastic bags, scraps of paper, unidentifiable gunk. A curious, hopeful, one-armed beggar who is dressed in tatters but retains a dignified air lingers by the car door saying nothing, watching me write. Across the way a man squats (Nigerien men squat to urinate) in front of a wall next to a fading sign that reads Defense d’Uriner. A dust storm settles on the city, now blowing violently over the top of the market causing fishmongers and old ladies selling smelly roots to scramble into action to cover their wares.

Earlier, driving through the city center on the way to the post office to buy stamps I observed:

  • The jewelry shops are not maintaining stock. With the political instability in the northern part of the country there must be too few European playboys coming across the desert and snapping up their wares.
  • An old man squatting low on a patch of grass in front of one of the older government buildings. I noticed him because, even for Niger, it would be a strange place to urinate. But then I realized he was cutting the lawn, squatting down with a pair of hedge clippers hopping forward as he squeezed them. The spectacle bothered me, I suppose because this country doesn’t have enough water to grow food, but soaks a patch of government grass to the point that it has to be clipped laboriously by an old beggar.
  • Buses, large ones stuffed with young men singing and chanting. It must have been a political rally staged by the colonel (as the elected president, a former military officer, is still called), something I never would have seen a decade ago because the Cold War was still on and the brutal military dictators who ruled the country had no need to pretend they were presiding over a democracy. Neither of the packed, Greyhound-sized buses had a front window.
  • More mind-bending filth. Passing by the Grand Marché I saw countless open sewers filled to overflowing: huge stagnant pools of lumpy, light gray liquid, much more pungent and foul than simple human waste. These vast, nightmarish moats bring me – a veteran – to the point of puking as I pass. All along the road there are coffee and food tables within ten feet of the muck.

A few minutes ago I handed money to a beggar. As my fingers brushed against his stump I registered the fact that he was a leper. I have read that casual contact does not spread leprosy. Still, I find myself rubbing my hand on my trouser leg and avoiding contact with my mouth.

Scavengers at a trash pile in Niamey

I sit in the still, midday heat of Jibirou’s hut in Fandou Berri having just rested for a half hour or so on his grass mat. I can hear murmurs from his father’s hut next door, indicating that the family chooses to hide from the sun in the shelter of their hut rather than profiting from the shade and breeze of the village chief’s tree.

This morning I set off from Issa’s house in Niamey to the new Wadata bush taxi station hoping to catch a ride to the village. It’s market day in Fandou Berri, so I was confident of finding a taxi. Although I turned in early, I slept later than expected, not crawling out of bed until almost 6:30. I didn’t have time for breakfast, but I did have a quick cup of coffee and a satisfying trip to the latrine, both important preparatory steps for trip into the bush.

I arrived at the station just as the Fandou Berri taxi was preparing to leave. It was full, but the taxi man sent one of the occupants, a woman, to take a Hamdallaye taxi. My white skin and an extra hundred francs got me the front passenger seat, though I had to share it with a bony paysan from a neighboring village.

The bush taxi was typical: A decades-old station wagon with dozens of small shatters and several top-to-bottom cracks in the front window. Wires protruded from the dashboard, the ends bunched together by tabs of duct tape. A thick coat of dust obscured the dials and controls, though I could see them well enough to know that none worked. There were a few ripped, faded stickers on the front window, evidence of some past act of whimsy, some past time of prosperity.

I sat in front for a half-hour with my pack on my lap before we began the trip. I had forgotten the Nigerien necessity of multiple stops before getting on the road: stop to tie a spare tire to the roof, stop for gas, stop to talk to the driver’s friend, stop to fill the radiator and the reserve water supply (stored under my feet), stop to add a tenth passenger, stop to clear the Hamdallaye police checkpoint.

In Hamdallaye, a young man pleaded with the driver for a place. He ended up climbing on top. Five kilometers later, at the turn to Fandou Berri, a man and his wife pleaded for two more places. The driver said the man could climb on top, but that there was no space for the woman. She paced around the car looking in the windows trying to figure out how to stuff another body in, but the paying passengers were having none of it. Finally, a young man sitting the back offered to ride on top and allow her a seat.

A typical bush taxi in Niger

With three of them on top, plus tires, sacks of millet, bags, and suitcases, the station wagon listed badly to the right. With the left tires barely touching the ground, the taxi-man was obliged to drive on the extreme left of the road, using its steep grade to compensate for the car’s starboard tilt. It worked find, except that the car had no horn, leaving us to take our chances over hills and around corners.It is a windy, dusty afternoon. Still no sign of rain. Yaye, with whom I spoke this morning about theft resolution in the village, offered to take me to a neighboring village this afternoon to speak with folks there. I’m sitting under the chief’s tree sweating and thirsty while a crowd of young boys stares at me, preventing me from scratching the heat rash that has turned my lily-white backside into an angry red beacon.

It is 9:30 or so the next morning. I have been in the village less than 24 hours this visit. Still, I’ve got the brousse (bush) stench: the memorable mix of armpit odor and dust on my body and oil in my hair and greasy food stuck to my beard. My off-white clothing has taken on the brown tint of the soil, and I’ve got sauce stains on my cuffs from eating gooey okra sauce cross-legged.

Interview in the shade

I have already spent an hour or so today under a neighbor’s tree talking about inheritance and land disputes. Then a half hour in Jibirou’s hut asking him about his fields and how he works things out with Bachirou and Yow, his absent brothers. The four oldest brothers have a large millet plot of ten hectares that they cultivate together. Bachirou and Yow have been in Cote d’Ivoire since last summer trying to earn money. If they succeed, they’ll share their riches with the rest of the family. While they’re gone, Jibirou (the oldest brother who now must be in his late-twenties) and Braima (who is about 16) will cultivate as much of the ten hectares as possible. Jibirou said that if he and Braima have “courage,” they might succeed in cultivating five, even six hectares. I asked Jibirou whether he and Braima could cultivate enough for everyone in the family to eat. He seemed doubtful. I wonder whether the food situation they now find themselves in is a result of the persistent drought or Bachirou’s and Yow’s absence.Clouds should have begun rolling in by this time, and the nervousness is becoming more pronounced. They are a fatalistic and spiritual people. They know there is nothing they can do except pray, but I keep seeing them sneak peeks at the horizon.

At around noon, after a bowl of fried guinea hen eggs and a quarter loaf of bread, I succeeded in dozing off on a grass mat on Jibirou’s floor. I woke only when the sweat soaked through my clothing and my legs stuck together.

I was gathering my reading and writing materials for a spell under the village chief’s tree — again following old habits — but on my way out I heard Jibirou’s mother telling someone that there would not be any more cars coming down the road today. I was surprised that my Zarma language skills are still good enough to pick that random information out of a distant conversation. Everyone agreed that I probably should head out to the road to maximize the chance of a ride, so here I am.

I am back in Niamey, which last night had its first significant rain. Issa and I were headed out for a beer when the storm hit. I am staying at his house and paying him to act as translator for my project, and practically every night I’m with him he insists that we step out. I think he feels an obligation to entertain me. He also enjoys parading me from bar to bar, showing off his exotic friend and stunning the locals by conversing with me in Zarma.

A storm coming across the Sahara

The electricity went out as we drove across the Kennedy Bridge into town. (The capital’s only bridge across the Niger River, it was built with USAID funding in the 1960s and named for the assassinated president.) The wind whipped dust and trash across the beam of the car’s headlight and in tremendous swirls that battered the side windows. Well after the rain began, Issa turned on the wipers but all they did was smudge the dirt in great, wide streaks. Why replace wiper blades when you live on the edge of the Sahara?We went to the Croisette, the scene of too many late nights back in Peace Corps days. The staff was relaxing on a quiet Sunday. The lone prostitute, Love, sat next to me, relieved that the only white person in the bar and thus her best prospect spoke English. She’s from the Rivers State of Nigeria, which the British colonized. Though she conducts her trade in the universal language, she apparently finds it difficult to transact business with francophone Johns. She said she owns a fashion boutique and is just visiting Niger. She was persistent, putting her hand on my thigh and asking whether Issa’s wife would mind her spending the night with me.

A typical bar in Niamey

As we chatted, rain came through the bar’s wood-paneled ceiling, first in droplets, then in steady streams. Our party had to move to avoid being drenched. After a half hour of hard rain a large portion of the ceiling behind the bar collapsed and a torrent of water crashed in. For the rest of our stay the water poured in sending streams through and around the light fixtures and rivulets by our feet. As we left, I handed Love a 1,000 CFA note (the equivalent of a few dollars, or about half of what she would earn for a night’s work) and thanked her for the conversation.

As I was preparing for my final research trip to Fandou Berri, the planting rains came. I had planned to cover a lot of ground on Monday afternoon and Tuesday, focusing mainly on the question of whether and to what extent legal disputes are influenced by the spirit realm. But when I arrived in Fandou Berri on Monday afternoon the soil was damp and everyone was either in the fields planting or just back from their labor. Where only days before I and my lengthy questions about divorce and theft and inheritance had been the most interesting thing in the village, after the rain my friends and neighbors had far more important things to do. I adjusted my plan accordingly. Instead of posing questions to justify my grant and advance my career, I’d go to the fields to help them plant the crops that will determine whether they eat or go hungry.

The evening passed uneventfully, as Fandou Berri evenings always do. I talked, I listened, I watched the women caring for their babies, weaving grass mats, preparing supper over their three-rock fires. When bedtime arrived they urged me to move my mattress inside one of the huts. They feared I’d be uncomfortable in the 85-degree chill. I slept, comfortable if damp, in the same long pants I had worn all that day and would wear the next. I’m getting used to it.

In the morning I woke with the sun (a half hour after most everyone else in the village) and shared the previous evening’s warmed-over millet and sauce for breakfast. While Jibirou and his brothers rigged the ox-cart for the long trip to the family’s fields, Yaye and I set off together on foot. It was a perfect way to leave the village: a cool morning, my hat on, farming tools in hand, a walk along a sand path greeting my fellow farmers along the way, off into the deep bush to help the family take advantage of the healing rain.

When the ox-cart caught up I bade farewell to Yaye, off to plant his own field, and climbed on with the rest of the family: Jibirou driving; his father Djibo sitting in front next to me with his youngest son alternately on his lap and lying between us trying to sleep; Jibirou’s wife, young and smiling and perky; Bachirou’s wife, younger still and sulking, defiant, proud; Djibo’s wife, Mariama, reticent and guarded as always; and Braima, who was a small, runny-nosed boy when I lived here last, but who now has the muscles of a middle linebacker and his being relied upon to feed half of his extended family. We bumped along the sand path, then over the rutted approach and onto the laterite mesa that forms Fandou Berri’s northern horizon.After an hour or so Djibo told me we had arrived at the family’s field. I looked around and saw hard-packed earth, the only remaining topsoil clinging to the roots of the few surviving trees and shrubs. Those bits of soil looked sadly isolated, little oases of dirt in a sand landscape, all else having been washed away in recent decades by wind and rain and too much cultivation. After twenty minutes of plodding through the moonscape of their “field,” we arrived at a stretch of land that still had some soil, spotty though it was. We stopped at a gathering of three tumbledown huts, the family’s home during the rainy season. A few minutes later, there was commotion in one of them. Mariama was swinging a stick at a viper and yelling at her young son to step away. She dispatched it and flung its carcass onto the sand outside the hut to bake.

I planted with the family all morning, doing mostly the women’s work of dropping seeds and covering the holes with a swoosh of my foot. For a while the wind was blowing strongly, making it necessary to lead the seeds so they’d fall into the hole and not scatter. I was enjoying the test of eye-hand coordination, though there was a lot more at stake than sport. After a while I got into the zone, that feeling I remember from my Peace Corps days of repetitive labor under the blazing sun. You have to breathe evenly, move deliberately, sweat, but sweat gradually. It’s a state of mind. By the time Jibirou and I were sent off by his parents to the highway to catch a ride to the city I was completely fried. A decade makes a difference.

Now that the seeds are in it’s up to God. If the rains come regularly over the next three or four months, Jibirou and his family will prosper. If not, they may well starve. I’m flying home in a few days, so I won’t be there when judgment day comes.

With friends in the village

I’m at the kitchen table at home. A gentle rain has been falling since the wee hours. A cool, light breeze is blowing through the back window and the screen door. I can hear a lone bird calling from the back woods. Classical music is playing in the living room. My eldest boy sits on the kitchen floor drawing pictures. The dog, Strawberry, sleeps at my feet.

I arrived yesterday afternoon after 24 hours of travel. Alex, my wife, had arranged for us to attend two birthday parties on the way back from the airport so I found myself stepping from millet fields in parched, turbulent Africa into humid, still, suburban back yards in North Carolina. It was not easy.

The boys wanted a goodnight story, but when I lay down on their floor and began a tale of an African drummer boy I began drifting off. My four-year old interrupted me with one of his usual comments or questions, but by the time he was done I was sound asleep. They roused me plaintively but I couldn’t go on. My body wanted to sleep and my mind couldn’t stay with the story line. I was saying things that didn’t make sense until my five-year-old finally said “Dad, is that the end of the story?”

I slept in a confused world somewhere between Niger and home. I vaguely recall being uncomfortably hot in the middle of the night and thinking there was nothing I could do about it since I was sleeping on the ground in front of Jibirou’s hut, and in those circumstances there is no additional comfort to be had. I also remember feeling thirsty during the night and wrestling with whether or not to reach over to lift my plastic canteen off the dirt, feeling that I ought to lest I become dehydrated, but rolling over and ignoring that sensible thought because of exhaustion and because I always feared being stung by a scorpion at night.

At dawn I could hear rain falling. I considered whether or not to rouse myself and move inside the hut, and whether once inside the rain would come through the thatch and drench me anyway. As my confused mind struggled with how to react to the rain the thought passed through my head that I hoped it was not falling only on the village center. I hoped it would be falling on the distant fields we seeded just a few days ago. I knew that my friends Jibirou and Bachirou and their family would be happy if the rains were falling on their newly planted millet. Only with a good soaking rain will the seeds germinate and the small green sprouts begin to push their way up through the sandy soil. And with that I fell back into a sound, dreamless sleep.

Thomas Kelley grew up in Kentucky and attended Harvard College and Northeastern University School of Law. He is an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he teaches and writes on law and development and customary African law, among other topics. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fandou Berri, a typical Zarma village of about 800 people, in 1986-88, and has returned to Niger several times to do research, including a Fulbright grant in 2003-2004.


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