Monday, January 24, 2011

The Things that Didn't Happen

January 24, 2011

What the hell just happened? I have no idea. What I last remember is sleeping in at my house in Dosso. I was laying in bed on the red sheets I just found. Did I mention I got a new position? Did I mention I’d moved? After nearly a year in my second village, Golle, I decided to apply for an RVL (Regional Volunteer Leader) position, which required me to relocate to the regional capital, Dosso. I took the position in October, but have been so busy I hadn’t even had a chance to write about it. I’d agonized about leaving my family, but nothing was happening there. As Paul Simon sang, nothing but the dead were dying back in my little town.

So I’d moved. I was busy. The change of pace proved to me how much I like to be busy. I reached a new level of confidence with the language. I could navigate any Nigerien market, find my way across any stretch of the Sahel. It was cold season, so the weather was amazing. I was considering extending for a third year. I was home.

Then, I got a text message one Saturday morning from a new volunteer asking, “Is it true two French nationals were abducted from a restaurant in Niamey last night?” Immediately I got to the nearest Internet source and confirmed it. Two young Frenchmen had been kidnapped from a restaurant in Niamey…and not just any restaurant, “Toulusain”—a place Peace Corps volunteers frequented enough to nickname it, “Eb’s.” I’ve been to Eb’s often enough. It is just like any other bar in Niamey (same menu, same beer), but its popularity comes from its proximity to the Peace Corps hostel. It’s a five-minute walk. A fellow volunteer was supposed to be at the bar that night, but his plans fell though.

When I heard this and other details from the kidnapping, I though it was all over. How could Peace Corps possibly continue to operate when AQIM was bold enough to run jobs in a city volunteers spent a lot of time in? But then nothing happened. Niamey volunteers were given a curfew of 8 PM to 6 AM and asked to check in every day, but none of the steps of our “Emergency Action Plan” were activated. We weren’t “consolidated” to regional capitals as happened with the attempted kidnapping last November. We were on “standfast,” in which volunteers are not permitted to travel, but that was due to the local elections taking place. The Peace Corps office was uncommunicative as ever, but they aren’t stupid about safety. I knew if there were a threat, they would be taking action. So, as the days passed and nothing happened, I convinced myself the office had some sort of information that made it clear AQIM was not responsible for the kidnapping. Perhaps it was personal; one of the men abducted was about to get married to a local and rumor is her family didn’t approve.

Four days later (a day before my departure for a much-anticipated vacation), I slept in late. I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning since it was so cold (70 degrees?). When I did get up, I had a leisurely cream-of-wheat breakfast as I ran through my day in my head: write emails, pack, post office, market, organize shuttles. I was just getting ready to head out the door to start work when my phone rang. It was Walter, the Peace Corps medical officer. He said, “Are you with me? I am going to read you a statement from Peace Corps Washington…” I don’t remember the wording, but the message as clear: You’re being evacuated. You are leaving.

I wish I could say in that moment I grasped what I was losing, but I my first thoughts were more along the lines of: What do I pack? *$^#$&! I don’t get to go on vacation now. Who’s going to tell Seyni? Who already knows?

The worst part was the office requested we not call anyone until they did, so they could read the official statement. Not being able to talk about it, I spent the next forty minutes “packing,” a.k.a carrying items from one room to another in blank distraction until I broke down and went over to my neighbor’s house, Rebekah…also a PCV. Rebekah had just got the call. We stood there on her porch yelling profanities at no one for a while before deciding we had to call Seyni.

Seyni you may remember from earlier blog posts is the soul of team Dosso. He is the “Program Assistant” or “Driver,” but what he basically does is drive around the Dosso region and fix things for us. He rebuilds our houses. He brings us medicine. He resolves village conflicts. He puts you in contact with so-and-so, who is just the right person for your project. He has worked for Peace Corps for twenty-five years and was a dear friend to essentially every volunteer in the region. He was now out of a job.

When Seyni showed up at our houses, he was bright and ready for the day. I guess I wasn’t supposed to be the one to tell him, but I did. “They said we are going,” I said in Zarma. He knew immediately what I meant. I can’t pretend I knew what it was like for him to hear this news, but I know he didn’t eat for three days after and he could hardly look anyone in the eye.

Knowing how slowly things move in Peace Corps, I wandered off to go email my family, thinking I’d have at least a few days before I left Dosso. I got a text message at noon that Wednesday saying I would leave Dosso the next morning and leave the country early, early Friday morning. I had less than 48 hours to pack and say good-bye.

There wasn’t time to return to my village one last time. I couldn’t get a message to my scholarship winner or to the school director. I had to settle with a rushed phone call to my old landlord who cursed the bandits and assured me Golle was totally safe. “Come back here,” he said. “We’ll protect you. There’s no need to leave.” In fact, that’s what all the Nigeriens were saying, “Please, please don’t leave our country.”

I cleaned out (ransacked) my house and spent the night at the hostel with the other volunteers. I don’t know of a single volunteer that slept that night.

Thursday was a blur. As part of my new job, I was responsible for helping to organize the evacuation of my region, so I was literally on the phone the whole day. Some volunteers, who hadn’t been in their villages when we got the news, were getting dropped off to pack and come back Friday. Others were getting picked up. Those leaving their villages had to get to Niamey in time to close bank accounts. We started at 5:30 AM and somehow (only Allah knows how) four cars managed to travel to pick up 25 volunteers from all over the region, drop off seven, and still make it to Niamey by four PM. My mom and sister, who know what it means to travel in Niger, will attest to how remarkable that is. I should mention, however, in a classic Nigerien moment, two of the cars got stuck in several feet of mud only an hour after leaving Dosso. They still made it.

The next thing I knew it was Thursday night and I was weighing my bags on the basketball court at the Niamey hostel. My entire training class once sang the national anthem on that court. Around me and in the hostel were mountains and mountains of clothes, food, knickknacks, books and God knows what else. My netty pot is still in there somewhere. The place looked like a warzone. I just kept thinking, how can we have so much that we can leave so much behind?

Again, I didn’t sleep. Did I ever eat? I don’t remember.

And then it was time to go. Forty-five disoriented, heart-broken Americans with overweight bags in a third-world airport is hilarious, by the way.

I got through airport security, sat down in one of the chairs to wait to board and completely lost it. I was sobbing uncontrollably into my carry-on for about forty minutes. The reality had sunk in. I was leaving. I wasn’t coming back. This day, the day I finished my service in Niger, was something I had looked forward to plenty, especially as a new volunteer. It will be so great, I had thought during my first weeks of training, to finish my service. It will feel like such an accomplishment. But this was so different.

After eighteen months in Niger, everything had happened to me. I survived training, fell in my latrine, was sprayed by cow diarrhea, survived a coup d’etat, moved four times, found a snake in my house, got my neighbor to club the snake, watch a neighbor have a seizure, watch a neighbor have a baby, got sick, got better, made friends, lost friends, carried babies, carried water, carried on. Everything else happened, why not the things that didn’t[1]? That’s exactly how I feel about my service; I feel like EVERYTHING happened to me. So, why not the things that didn’t? Why didn’t I ever go see the hippos? Why couldn’t I take that last vacation? Why didn’t I get malaria? Why couldn’t I leave on my own terms?

Why couldn’t I leave on my own terms?

We flew to Morocco and were checked into a hotel. In a hilariously unfunny moment, (after 72 hours with no sleep) Peace Corps Morocco sat us all down and started recounting the history and culture of the region.

A few days later, after the other 50-something volunteers arrived, we began the “transition conference,” or what I called the-worst-thing-ever conference. No one really understood when we were leaving Niger that our service was actually ending. We were being sent home. Transfers were offered to a select few, and volunteers were encouraged to re-enroll (start their 27 months over), but for the most part we were told, “Peace Corps doesn’t have enough money to keep you here or accommodate you. Go home.” Of the 22 volunteers in my training class, only three were offered direct transfers to other countries. One volunteer had been on vacation in America at the time and wasn’t even offered the chance to continue with her service. There was no conversation about it, just, “Sorry. You’re done.”

I don’t want to overdramatize what it means to not be able to finish your service. Obviously, worse things have happened in the world…worse things have happened in Peace Corps. But this is so hard. With no time or preparation we are told to say good-bye to the people who have become our family, leave our homes, travel back to a strange, cold land and find jobs. No, thank you. This is the second time in my life my heart has been broken. (The first was because of a boy and I only bring it up to prove I know what it feels like.) My heart is broken. I am suffering a major loss. I am grieving. I’m not going back…

Obviously, the Peace Corps made the right decision to evacuate Niger. AQIM has now taken credit for the kidnappings and the people taken could have just as easily been Peace Corps volunteers. We couldn’t stay. You know, I read in an article in the Economist AQIM has only about 125 members for the entire Sahel region. How could they cause all that disruption? Jerks.

And I was one of the lucky ones. Tomorrow, I am getting on a plane to finish my service in Peace Corps Senegal. Don’t ask me what work I will be doing, I really don’t know. Something about development.

The unlucky ones are making their way back to the states to start over. Some are traveling. Some are looking for jobs in Africa.

The really unlucky ones are still back in Niger…the Peace Corps staff, like Seyni, who are now out of work; George, the tailor who made 90% of his money working with Peace Corps volunteers; Omar who I bought all my jewelery from… At least as Americans, we have options. We always have options. Seyni will have to look for work as a driver, but with the Peace Corps pulling out so will many other NGOs. Where can he find work now that all the anasaras are leaving? What about Djibou our hostel guard? Or the ten members of the support staff at the training site who only had a regular income because of Peace Corps?

Everything that could have happened to me did. Everything happened, why not the things that didn’t?

[1] (That’s quote from my favorite short story Here We Aren’t, So Quickly by Jonathan Safran Foer.)

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