THE CALL came in the middle of the morning while I was at my village’s Case de Sante Integree (CSI) /clinic. It was the first day I felt I could really communicate enough to fulfill my role as a Peace Corps volunteer, but the events of that day and the next ones to follow found me speechless in more ways than one. In spite of extensive language training and the addition of a residential language trainer to our first 2 weeks in our village, my Zarma language skills were less than average. I was to find out on this day that I did not have the words in ZARMA or in English to express to my villagers exactly what THE CALL meant.
It came from my APCD or program director,Soulemayne, who asked that I listen carefully to a message he felt was too long to send via texting. As I listened to the message while standing outside the clinic, all I could think or say was “WOW”! When the message was over, I was silent. My supervisor asked if I had questions. “Does Dave know about this?” He was back at our hut working on plans for his FARM project. “Yes, I’ve given him the same information,” Soulemayne responded. He then told me to go back to our hut and begin to pack, that a driver would pick us up within the next day or 2 and we’d be called with those details once arrangements were made. We’d be flying out of Niger on Friday. This was Wednesday. I could not get back to our hut fast enough to see how Dave was and what he had found out while I was at the clinic. I made an effort to explain why I was leaving to the clinic staff and mentally made a note to have our language trainer assist me with a phone call to my supervisor later in the day when we might have more clarification and information to tell her.
The CALL had caught me off guard, but what the message said was that the Peace Corps Bureau in Washington had decided to suspend service in Niger indefinitely and all 98 Peace Corps Niger volunteers would be evacuated immediately. I could not believe it. The message did not mention the kidnapping and murder of 2 French men earlier in the week, a random event which occurred in a restaurant in Niger’s capital city, Niamey. The restaurant was a popular hang-out for not only Peace Corps volunteers but also for many other ex-patriots who lived and worked in the country and enjoyed mingling with their peers from time to time. Later on it was mentioned that on the day of the kidnapping, there were no Peace Corps volunteers in the restaurant and that was a rare day. In fact, several volunteers later said they had planned to meet there that very evening. This tragic and frightening event was not the only reason Peace Corps made such a drastic decision to suspend service to Niger. Over the past few months, there had apparently been a continuous stream of erratic happenings which posed varying types of threats to non¬-Nigeriens and this most recent occurrence was too much. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back and in Niger that is serious.
From that point on, Dave and my dream of serving in the Peace Corps took on new meaning and would require much decision making. Initially, we were caught up in the actuality of packing our belongings, giving away items and supplies we could not take with us and wondering what and how we could tell our villagers that we’d been in their village one week and now we were leaving forever. My command of the Zarma language did not get me through those explanations nor did Dave’s. Thank goodness we had the help of our language expert, a young Nigerien man, Djibo. He was able to help in communicating what was about to happen and to explain that it was a safety measure to protect volunteers and not something the villagers or the country had done or caused.
We were asked not to phone other volunteers, not to say anything but the minimum, until all arrangements for evacuation to the capital city Peace Corps hostel and then to an undisclosed country away from Niger were in place. What a logistical nightmare that must have been for Peace Corps Niger. Our country director was in the US, on vacation, so she was recalled to the Washington Bureau. The rest of the staff for Peace Corps Niger were put into action to make necessary evacuation arrangements. Though a template was probably in place for this type of evacuation, there were so many details for someone to handle. All we as volunteers could do was to wait for further information about when we’d be picked up and when we’d by flying out of Niamey to some safer place.
Emotions were strained, from sad to frightened, from disappointment to relief that we worked with an organization which put volunteer’s safety and security uppermost in their minds. We felt sad because we were leaving the villagers who had so little. One man remarked that first the violence caused by outsiders had ruined the tourist industry in Niger, and now Peace Corps was departing , which left another hole in the heart and lives of the people. Later on we heard that several non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) were also leaving. It was a sad time for Niger’s people and for its volunteers of all types.
The impact of our evacuation would grow and lives would change because of it. ( Please follow in the next blog entry as THE CALL is further described)…………………………………………………………………………..Judy