Every five years or so, several returned Peace Corps volunteers gather together to celebrate life, friendships and the time they spent working in Niger, West Africa in the 1960s. I’m one of those volunteers.
Miraculously we have kept in touch over a period of 50 years, and many are still eager to travel from various parts of the country for the gathering. One of our group even traveled from Indonesia, another from Hawaii. Some are not so eager to travel, and some are no longer able, and quite a few are no longer with us at all.
The groups, named for the consecutive two-year period served, are Niger V (1966-68) and Niger VI (1967-69). Niger V trained in San Francisco and the chilly Marin Headlands; Niger VI trained on St. Croix, Virgin Islands. I was in the Niger VI group, which definitely had more fun. Here’s an excerpt from my memoir (cue promotional--Pomegranate Jelly, a Cold War Family Preserved) describing my preparation for and emotional adjustment to serving as a public health educator in West Africa :
[Joining the Peace Corps to serve in an impoverished African country dominated by the Sahara Desert] was probably the first significant risk I took in my life, if we don’t count drinking and driving as a college student. We should probably count that. Okay then, the second big risk. I didn’t consider it a risk at the time; it was just a convenient juncture that offered adventure and a sense of contributing something when I couldn’t for the life of me see what I might have to contribute. The one inkling I had that I thought it might be risky was shortness of breath, wobbly legs, and a feeling I had of being outside my body while walking toward the boarding gate at JFK airport in New York on my way to Niger. I had trained in the Virgin Islands, imbibing a heady concoction of French classes, West African culture, public health approaches, wilderness survival practice, calypso music, romance and rum. It was three months of summer camp, educational retreat, and spring break all rolled into one. After a couple of carefree days wandering the streets of New York with friends and fellow volunteers, I somehow ended up at the airport by myself. Others had boarded before me, or hadn’t gotten there yet, and I was alone. It was then the reality hit me—I was about to be stuck somewhere for two years just south of the Sahara, with people whose language I didn’t speak, in a culture that expected conformity and a climate known for its cruelty. “Just put one foot in front of the other, repeat with other foot, and move forward accordingly,” I remember saying to myself.
From that point on, everything about the two-year experience was manageable—sometimes depressing, but often fun, educational, and highly rewarding. The secret, for me, was a well-ingrained belief that I had nothing to fear, and everyone to trust: the U.S. Government not to send me somewhere that might be dangerous; the Nigerien people to treat me with kindness; my Peace Corps compatriots to provide support, social structure, inspiration and friendship; and my parents to take pride in what I was doing. They all proved worthy of my trust. Of course, the revolution in Anguilla during our training that caused us to be evacuated from that tiny, British protectorate was tossed off by my mind as the equivalent of an E-ticket ride on Reality Island. And the house robbery I slept through in Niger, when suitcases were taken from our bedrooms and dumped outside, was easily chalked up to an unusual prank. My afternoon swim in the Schistosome-ridden Niger River was rationalized with, “I’m too healthy to get sick”, and the gulps I took of the river’s unfiltered water—when I was parched and sweaty from a jolting, dusty ride in a bush taxi—counted as a mere fraction of my two-year initiation into Third World culture. Denial gets a bad rap for good reason. Yet I often think of it as a trustworthy friend whom I can count on to spare me the off-putting effect of blatant self-honesty. Like the cat I carried in my lap during one harrowing taxi ride through the bush, its head firmly ensconced in the crook of my elbow, as long as I don’t see the danger whizzing by out there, I am shielded from it.
Why our two groups, Niger V and VI, of all the groups that have served in Niger, connected as if they were one, is not at all clear. It might have been that 1967 Christmas party in historic Zinder, situated in Touareg country in the middle of Niger, for which many of us piled onto busses with Nigeriens and their calabashes and chickens, or rode on the top of peanut trucks with bags of peanuts serving as beds. Or it may have been because many from those two groups settled eventually in the Northern California area, intermarrying and cohabitating and partying regularly. But here we are, a big extended family, with a few extra brothers and sisters added who had trained for other countries and ended up with us in the Sahel, scattered from the Mali border past the Niger River all the way to the eastern border at Lake Chad.
I took as much of a break as I could from my intransigent health issues and spent two solid afternoon/evenings in a comfort zone of friends – one that has endured and surpassed the sort of comfort zone typically felt with family. The original basis for these connections is adventure, enlightenment and challenging work. As Peace Corps volunteers we were involved—most of us at a fairly young age—in diplomacy and developmental assistance. We worked in many different areas: education, public health, farming coops, well digging. Many of the women worked as public health educators. My work—traveling around village and bush in searing, sub-Saharan heat to help women provide the sort of nutrition and healthcare to their children that reduced the potential for death by age five, providing pre-natal and infant care through the local clinic, training young women to continue educating others about nutrition and hygiene, cleaning feces off white, metal cribs in the neonatal nursery—was no walk in the park. It was at times frustrating, and seemed a feeble endeavor in the face of severe drought and poverty that conspired to undermine the best of intentions.
Total immersion in an unfamiliar society, the working relationships we developed with Nigeriens, the cultural exchange, and the mutual understanding it engendered, ultimately felt as important as our assigned jobs. What I brought back with me was an awareness of the enduring nature of circumstance, a sensibility regarding the universality of need, insight into the commonality of communication and humor—regardless of language spoken—and compassion born of kindred emotions, oblivious to ethnicity, color, religion, or socio-economic status.
And we all brought back a feeling that we had enjoyed one of the most significant experiences we would ever have in our lives. And each time we gather together, we celebrate that experience as well as the family that grew from it.
(For anyone who is interested in seeing for themselves the work and memories of Niger V and VI, I recommend the documentary Niger 66, produced by Judy Irola and Robert Potter, both from the Niger V group. A good article about the documentary is here: http://www.documentary.org/magazine/reflections-new-frontier-judy-irola-documents-her-peace-corps-experience%20 )