My last few months in Niger were some of the busiest of my entire service. In July, I participated in organizing a girl's camp in our regional capital of Dosso. Nine volunteers worked together to bring twelve girls from small surrounding villages, some of who had never left the bush, to stay in a dormitory for the weekend and take classes.
The camp focused on teaching village girls about better hygiene, improved nutrition, family planning, and HIV/AIDS prevention. Of all the projects I have worked on during my two years of service, this is by far the one I am most proud of.
In addition to educating the girls about simple steps they can take to improve their lives and those of their families and villages, the camp also allowed girls to get out of their villages and see the world around them and meet other young women like themselves.
Thanks to the cooperation of all the participating Peace Corps volunteers, and the Nigeriens who volunteered to help, the camp went off with almost no problems. The only serious difficulty that we encountered involved a problem with the plumbing in the dormitory the girls were staying in. Most of the girls participating in the camp had never been outside of their small bush villages before and, not surprisingly, had no experience with indoor plumbing. The first night of the camp, I and another volunteer were awoken by some girls who were panicking and realized that the entire dorm had been flooded and we were standing in ankle deep water! We never figured out exactly what had happened, but we think that one of the girls must have gotten up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and forgotten to turn off the sink. Fortunately, the dormitory's manager was very understanding and had the mess quickly cleaned up so the girls could continue their classes.
In addition to classes on improving nutrition and environmental protection, we also provided some outlet for fun. Our hostel guard, Djibo, volunteered to teach a karate "self-defense" class for the girls which they loved! We had pants tailored for the girls (as seen in the pictures below) so they could move more easily and I think they enjoyed that as much as any of the activities. After we'd exhausted Djibo's patience, I agreed to teach a yoga class the second night of the camp and the girls seemed to enjoy that a lot as well - although they claimed it was more difficult than karate!
At the end of the camp, we quizzed the girls about what they had learned over the weekend. I was incredibly proud to watch them excitedly raise their hands to answer questions and argue amongst themselves about what the "exact" right answers were. We ended the camp by repeating what many of the Nigerien instructors who had volunteered had said, "Now you are the teachers. Share what you have learned in your village." I am happy to report that many of the volunteers who brought girls to the camp have seen them applying what they learned to their lives and sharing it with their families and villagers.
Most of the month of August was spent with my friends in the village. Moving out of my village and leaving behind all the friends I've made during these last 2 years was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I'm still trying to process and reconcile the fact that I may never see certain people again. Keeping in touch with Niger is incredibly difficult (as many of my friends and family can attest to!) There is no post office in my village and most of my village women don't have cell phones.
Fortunately, my village is getting replaced with a new volunteer who I was lucky enough to meet before I left. She seems like she will be an awesome volunteer and has agreed to pass messages along to my friends, with the added benefit that these messages will be attached to care packages with American goodies!
Trying to understand the last two years and write some sort of summary statement is next to impossible for me right now. I'm still processing all the experiences I've had and trying to make sense of them and I have no idea when or if I'll ever be able to come to some ultimate conclusion about my time in Niger.
Looking back at my first few blog posts, I can definitely see how naive I was and that's not too surprising. Everybody joins Peace Corps for different reasons but my desire to "save Africa" wasn't a unique one. Many volunteers come to Africa believing that, despite all the years and money spent there, they have some sort of special insight that will allow them to "solve" problems where others have failed. As I heard one savvy volunteer often repeat, "What are Americans if not professional problem solvers?"
Without trying to dissolve into sappiness, I can say with certainty that Niger doesn't need to be saved - and definitely not by a 22 year old with a liberal arts degree. This is not to say that I have succumbed to the bitterness too often seen in bored expats and burnt out aid workers; rather, I am convinced that Niger, even with all its troubles, is a wonderful place that has taught me more about the world and life than I could ever learn in school. It is insulting and offensive to look at a place this large and diverse and see nothing but poverty, disease, and conflict - the 3 words most commonly associated with Africa.
This is not to say that Niger doesn't face many challenges. It is almost impossible to travel around the capital and not see a sign for a foreign aid organization or a vehicle full of aid workers headed out to the bush to build a well. Many of these organizations are well-intentioned and do good work, but I cannot deny what I have observed from 26 months of service. Without more attention to accountability and project sustainability, many of these organizations are doing more harm than good. I am hesitant to type these words, because I fear that they could be twisted and taken to mean that no good can come from foreign aid, that financing development is a waste of time and resources.
Even in my most bitter and frustrated moments, I could never agree that foreign aid is a wasted effort. I have seen too much good come out of the desire to help Niger develop to ever be overwhelmed by the corruption and waste that tends to go along with it. Although I am probably too biased to make a fair assessment, I think Peace Corps is one of the best aid organizations in Niger.
I believe that Peace Corps' superiority as an aid organization doesn't come from its vast resources (we have next to none) or even its pie chart of successful projects. Peace Corps' emphasis on sustainability and capacity building are, in my opinion, far more beneficial to the long-term well being of the communities they serve than a blank check could ever be. Peace Corps volunteers provide human resources that will far outlast the West's patience and generosity to the developing world. I strongly believe that this development model, though not as flashy and instantly gratifying as many of the others currently in place, has the most potential for sustainable long-term success.
As this is my last post, I want to take the opportunity to fonda goy (thank) all the volunteers and Nigeriens I had the good fortune to meet and work with these last two years. All of you inspired and taught me more than you will ever know. As my villagers said to me the day I moved out of my hut:
Kala hanfo, Irkoy ma cabe cere.
(Until next time, may God show us to each other)