Goodbye Niger

It was too green. The cows were too fat, the children too clean, the roads too well-paved. I turned to Mariah, my bus buddy on for the two hours from the airport in Casablanca to Rabat, the capital of Morocco.

“Are we really still in Africa?”

“I’m not really sure of anything anymore,” she wearily responded.

It had been four sleepless days since Peace Corps had announced that we were leaving Niger. Ten anxious days since terrorists with ties to Al Qaeda had kidnapped two French nationals only a few blocks away from a Peace Corps hostel. Two days since I had told my villagers that well, despite all my promises to spend the next two years helping them improve their community, I was going to leave them forever after a mere three months.

But, what a three months. Had it been three months in America, I might have gotten to know a few of my neighbors, maybe gone out to lunch with a couple of my colleagues, perhaps made some acquaintances. But this was Niger, a country just as hospitable as it is poor and Safo, a village that had welcomed me with a warmth that made its 100 degree weather feel cold in comparison. By the time I left, I knew the majority of my villagers and all of them knew me by name. I’d eaten meals with them, laughed with them and played with their children. I knew many of my colleagues at the schools, the mayor’s office and the health center–my three places of work–just as well. Two of the nurses, the accountant at the mayor’s office and I had become what can only be described as family. Of course, in Africa, everyone is family and so my village chief’s four wives also frequently reminded me that I was a part of their extremely large (60 children) but loving family. And then, not to be outdone, my neighbors across the street constantly insisted that I eat meals at their house since I was certainly a part of their family.

Just as hard as telling my many families goodbye was informing my colleagues that I would never be able to help them bring all the projects we’d imagined to fruition. Like telling Safia Bawa, the un-salaried president of all thirty-three women’s group in my commune, that I would never be able to help her with their microfinance projects. Telling Hassane Harou, the headmaster of the middle school, that not only could I no longer teach English, I wouldn’t be able to help make a school garden or lead a spelling bee. Telling Adamou Na-Iwoua, one of the staff members at the mayor’s office, that I couldn’t give him computer lessons to help reduce the burden of paperwork that his job entails. And then, finally informing my twelve year-old “colleagues,” my patient little girls that helped me clean my house and who are always down for a dance party, that I would not be there to watch them grow up or teach them how to write their names.

I thought Nigeriens didn’t cry. I was wrong. I thought I could be strong. Doubly wrong.

So now myself and 97 other former Peace Corps Niger Volunteers are in Morocco where we will spend the week in a “transition conference.” The goal of the conference is to help put the threadbare pieces of our lives back together and stitch a future. There are options: a transfer to another country (although there aren’t many of these positions), joining another training group that leaves in the next two months (this is also very competitive), going home and then re-applying for Peace Corps by filling out a much easier application or, finally, simply going home.

Making this type of decision right now feels a little like trying to choose a husband the morning after breaking up with the love of your life. Despite Niger’s relative unattractiveness, the intense heat, overwhelming poverty and ever-present sand, I’d fallen in love. While I have no desire to live off my parents for the rest of my life, choosing a new country or a new job seems like a massive betrayal. This is one heartbreak that’s going to take more than a sappy movie and a box of chocolate to get over.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 18th, 2011 at 4:59 pm and is filed under Niger. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Comments

  1. Pat Gunderman says:

    Dear Lisa: I am Mariah’s grandma and have been following all the Niger blogs since your group’s arrival. Your very personal description of your time in Niger and recent events paints a vivid picture of your many families in the village, your projects, and the pain of departure. We’re often told that “when one door closes, another opens.” I hope you continue to share your experiences. Grandma Pat

    ... on July January 19th, 2011
  2. Barbara Curtis says:

    Brings tears to my eyes. Lisa you are amazing and I know you helped the villagers of Safo even if it was only 3 months. In the big picture there probably is a reason this happened and you will be on to the next adventure soon! Maybe a wedding in India with your parents?!?

    ... on July January 19th, 2011
  3. Scott Sheppard says:

    Good luck with your decision. Life is a journey that is not under our total control.

    ... on July January 20th, 2011
  4. Joni Curtis says:

    Lisa, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that you made a difference in Safo, I hate to see the Peace Corps forced to evacuate a country that has so many unmet needs! Every single person I spoke with couldn’t say enough how fantastic you were for the community, that you were bringing change and making a difference – it was easy to see that you had already touched so many peoples’ lives.

    It’s impossible to control the path our lives take, especially seeing as yours brought you to Niger – Insha’Allah being the token phrase there. It must be miserable to leave so many good friends and projects behind, but as my personal favorite Dr. Seuss quote says – “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

    I hope one day you’ll be able to look back and think of your little girls and all your Nigerien friends and realize that you most definitely touched their lives and they surely won’t forget that. Along with all the little trees you planted at the school, the cook stoves you built, and memories of the dance parties (and maybe a few memories of that crazy anasara who so loved wahala!), your influence really and truly will always be there!

    So maybe it wasn’t ‘willed by God’ that you live in Safo for two years. Probably a little easier on your immune system in all honesty ;) What I do know is that there is something really, really great is in your future – just in knowing your optimism, your incessant drive to do more for the world, and your incredible initiative, I’ve always known it’s in your cards to achieve great things. I can just barely wait to see where your path leads from here, ma grande soeur. Je t’aime beaucoup.

    ... on July January 20th, 2011
  5. Anja says:

    Lisa I am so sorry to hear about Peace Corps decision to send the volunteers home. I have been following your blog and really admire what you have accomplished in Safo. I love reading all your stories of the children, the flowers and all the projects you have started. I can’t even imagine how you must feel right now for having to leave all your friends and family in Safo and abandon all your amazing projects.
    But to look at it from a brighter perspective, now that you are part of their family and had such a memorable presence in the village the people will always remembers you. It is going to take a loong time for them to forget a member of their family and there is nothing that says that you cannot come back in the future when its safer and pick up where you left. You will always have a home there and they will always see you as part of their family so when you come back in the future you can always pick up where you left off.
    Although it is really sad that you had to leave so abruptly and for very disturbing reasons, you were part of the targeted group and if something were to happen to you, it would be devastating not only for your family and friends here in the US (and Norway), but also for your new family in Niger. I think all the people in Safo understands the situation and know that you had to leave not because you wanted to, but because it was it was unsafe to stay. I think the situation would have been 100 000 times worse if something happened to you. Now you have the opportunity to come back in the future to an amazing extended family that will be so happy to see you again and pick up the projects you started.
    Lets get together when you come back and talk.
    Love you lots

    ... on July January 21st, 2011
  6. Lisa Curtis says:

    Joni that comment made me tear up. You are the best sister anyone could ask for

    ... on July January 22nd, 2011
  7. Matt Maiorana says:

    Wow, reading your blog has been like reading an amazing novel Lisa – and what a crazy end to it. Thank you so much for all the amazing work you did in Niger and all the work I’m sure you will continue to do wherever you end up. Much love and best of luck.

    ... on July January 22nd, 2011
  8. Don Curtis says:

    Lisa, we are all proud of you and your ideals.

    My dad used to tell me when i was a kid that it took 100 good dentists to balance out the damage that one bad dentist could impact on a communities oral health. In some ways it seems terrorist activities are similar- terrorists have the leverage to do a lot of damage and undo a lot of good- like necessitating the removal of all 97 Peace Corp Volunteers from Niger. However, your good example, passionate posts and inspiring words will hopefully impact many 100′s of us to try reduce the leverage that terrorist activities have and make this a better world- thanks for being such a good example. Love, Dad

    ... on July January 23rd, 2011
  9. Emily Rodriguez says:

    Dear Lisa, I just read through your INCREDIBLE blog. You accomplished so much in such a short time in Niger. It is so inspiring to read about all of the work that you did for the villagers and how much you embraced the culture. I am so sad to read that your time in Niger was shortened unexpectedly, but I know that you will choose a new path where you will continue to lead change in the world. Enjoy your time traveling and transitioning to your next adventures. Love, Emily
    PS. I laughed when I read about the pain and running. :)

    ... on July January 24th, 2011

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