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.