…After many months, filled with memories of a lifetime, I have once again returned to these pages. My Peace Corps service which began in Niger, came to an end abruptly when the whole gang was evacuated. I returned home, heart- and throat sore, but aware more than ever of whose I am again. If you were to ask me what the greatest contrast was between my experiences in the Sahelian country and my current country of service: Namibia, it would surely be the way I am cradled in the different spaces. In Niger, I was diyata, or my daughter, to everyone I met. There was never a doubt that I was in a safe cocoon and that the eyes and arms and hearts that made up the cocoon were unbreakable. unshakeable. constant. And there is not a day that goes by that I do not think and ponder of the people I met, the children I carried, and marveled at, and the endless possibilities still lying in wait for future volunteers to that country. It isn’t that Niger was not a hard place to live and work, it was that there were so many things to remind you of the beauty of those difficulties. Sai Hankuri, have patience. It was a phrase I heard constantly, in every obstacle I faced. Who would have thought I would miss a word which infuriated me so? But, I do. I miss the constancy of the screams of my 3 little host sisters as they ran up the dusty path to meet me after a long day of language classes. Everyday. Without fail. I miss the moments when my little sister, my namesake, took my breath away just by tilting her head back and grinning mischievously after hitting one of her sisters and getting away with it. There is so much to dwell on and yet as in all things I must move on. There is a reason why I was privileged with the experience of becoming a part of the sands that mimic the undertones of my own brown skin. And I thank G-d for that opportunity; always and forever.
The people in my new peace corps group would ask me to compare Niger to Namibia a lot in the beginning. It is fascinating I know; to have two of us who are somewhat familiar with the landscape of PC. I usually just nod and say it is very different, less green. All inadequate descriptions really. I wish it were that simple; it isn’t. If any of my group members ever took the time to ask me the more pertinent question of what was your experience like, I would tell them this story:
In Niger, crying in public is discouraged. Sorrow is a private thing, one which should be allowed a space of dignity. In Niger only young children and braying donkeys are allowed to spill forth their sorrow and indignation anywhere they please. In Niger, Babas don’t cry and Mamas do so only in the bosoms of those they trust. I arrived in my village on a Thursday afternoon, around 3pm and was first struck by the chain of mountains that surrounded my village. I have always wanted to live in the mountains. I remember my face hurt from grinning as much as I was because I was so delighted to be there. It was also daunting, I was the last to get settled, because I went to my nearest neighbour, Alison, to help her move in. There was a lump in my throat at the thought of being alone; just when I was making stronger bonds with some of my group members. I settled in, met the Maigeri (village chief) and his 3 wives. The youngest wife, brought me wake da shinkafa, my favourite Hausa dish that evening. I remember being so terrified, my first full day in village, to leave my house. I would have slept through the whole day if my counterpart had not come to my door with the elderly comedienne of our village. Taking charge of me as if I were one of her own, she started to make jokes about my “laziness” staying in bed all day. It was the best antidote to my melancholia at the time. They literally dragged me out of bed and brought me to the old lady’s house. The 8 days I spent in the village were wonderful. I could go on and on about all the little experiences which I so desperately grasp unto; negotiating with my brain that every little detail truly is unforgettable. But the real crux of the story I would tell my fellow Namibian PCTs is really about my last day in my village. On the day I left my Maigeri’s house I left laden with the tears of grown, gargantuan men who cried publicly at the loss of their volunteer. I will never forget sitting on that amelanke, holding my palms to my chest in a gesture of thank you, for I was at a loss for words, and having the Maigeri imitate me as he cried his good-bye. Even then, he knew I wasn’t coming back. I was accompanied to the main road, by YaYa (my namesake even though I never told him), his brother and Mahmadu, a young man I had briefly said hello to on my third day in the village. As we rode, in an attempt to get my mind of the embarrassment I was causing my companions with my snot-faced crying, I turned to YaYa and said, ya kamata ba ka mance mi na koya kai “It is necessary that you not forget what I taught you.” YaYa’s response was to tuck his head into his t-shirt and cry silently. He faced away from me. As if to shield me from the knowledge that he knew I was not coming back… And I was so ashamed and so humbled. That this boy, whose concept of masculinity was already changing would follow his father’s footsteps and cry for me and for himself. It is an attribute I hope never fails him.
After we arrived at the main road, YaYa and his brother left, but Mahmadu stayed. Mahmadu stayed with me, but he didn’t just stay with me. As we sat on the side of the road waiting for my ride, he took upon himself to make my first utterance upon arriving to my village come true; he helped me climb one of the mountains girdling our little village. He guided me through the millet fields, talking to me all the way reminding me that there were so many other mountains to climb and wildlife to see if only I came back. And so I left Kaoubul, buoyed not only by tears willingly shed for an unworthy like myself, but with my first dream fulfilled. And for those reasons alone, Niger will always mean so much to me. So if you ask me what Niger was like, I will tell of village titans secure enough in their masculinity to cry for me and the stranger who fulfilled the dream of a frivolous girl.
It has now been 3 months since I left Niger; 2 since I landed in Namibia. A place also unlike any I have visited. For one thing, I am using electricity to write this post. Secondly, my presence in Namibia is in itself a miracle. You see, I was meant to be stationed in Namibia initially, as an education volunteer, but then a health position in Niger came up and I took it instead. I knew that health was really where my heart was. Imagine my amazement when 3 months later I arrived in the very country I was supposed to serve and in the capacity I wanted? G-d works in mysterious ways. As I write this, I am two weeks away from swearing-in for a second time and heading to a posting which could not have been better tailored to my skills and my passions. I will be working at the HIV treatment center of a hospital, working with children and adolescents to increase their ARV adherence rates. It will be an opportunity to put the rhetoric of holistic approach to treatment to the hardest of tests. And I look forward to the challenge. I shall post at another time with more mundane information like how to contact me.
Thank you for reading, I know it is long, but it was meant more for me than anyone else.