Terrorist Season Comes Early

8/14/2010

We weren’t supposed to be here, sitting around in our athletic shorts and t-shirts, alternately playing volleyball and eating pizza prepared by the Peace Corps chefs. Many of us had been looking forward to this weekend since we’d first arrived; it was supposed to be the weekend we would visit the village where we will be spending the next two years.

 I was particularly excited about my assignment to Safo, a small village of 2,000 people located only 7k outside Maradi, the second largest city in Niger. Safo is in one of the most fertile regions in Niger and is close to a lake, a forest and a river—all aspects of nature uncommon in the Sahel Desert. Coupled with Safo’s proximity to Nigeria, I should be able to purchase fruits and vegetables almost all year long.

Unfortunately, after packing our bags and preparing ourselves for the 4 am departure, my fellow Peace Corps Trainees and I were informed that we would  not be departing as expected. Apparently, U.S. intelligence had heard plans of a terrorist to take place somewhere in West Africa and the entire Peace Corps Niger had been told to “standfast.”

 For the thirty-three of us living with our host families in two villages outside of Niamey, “standing fast” meant an indefinitely long stay at the Peace Corps training site, a place we fondly refer to as  “Little America.” Normally, the two days we spend a week at Little America are exciting; it’s a break from the incessant attention of curious children and the constant oil/MSG rich foods served to us by our host mothers. But, today, even pizza can’t shake the feeling of frustration that we’re supposed to be in our new homes.

Sadly, terrorist threats aren’t uncommon in Niger. Last November, a Frenchman was kidnapped by a terrorist group—purportedly with links to al-Quaeda—and an entire Peace Corps training class was relocated to Madagascar. In 2000 an Islamist protest of immodest dress at an international fashion show  destroyed alcohol serving restaurants in both Niamey and Maradi. While the government quickly arrested several of the Islamist leaders and the majority of Muslims in Niger are far from fanatic, there is still a potential for violence in such an impoverished and deeply religious country, although maybe not as high a potential as one might think.

 Poverty and religion don’t cause terrorism; Osama bin Laden and most of his lieutenants were wealthy while Niger, a highly Islamic country where the standard of living has been steadily declining for three decades, prides itself in its record of religious toleration.

Islam is a part of people’s daily lives here in a way that Christianity used to be in the West but no longer is for the majority. It’s fascinating to see the generosity that Islam promotes—the alms giving, the fast during Ramadan to feel the pain of those without food/water and the way that Nigerien women will always make more food than needed just in case someone in need should stop by. It’s definitely a different side of Islam than the fundamentalism portrayed in Western media.

So as strange as it sounds to tell my parents on the phone that I’m eating pizza in a summer-camp-like atmosphere due to a terrorist threat, I’m not worried. Niger is a peaceful country and  Peace Corps Niger takes no chances with our safety, perhaps even erring on the side of over-protection. So common are the “standfast” orders that, upon hearing of the news, a Peace Corps Volunteer who has been here a year simply remarked, “Wow, terrorist season came early this year.”