“Jam”—Zarma language for “I’m sorry”. Today was disappointing when it should have been just the opposite. Or, did we expect too much of a day when we would actually see the hut which would be our Peace Corps home for 2 years? We were initially excited, then nervous, then plain anxious as the morning wore on and we could not get a key to the place. It seems , according to our Peace Corps representative, that the village chief (maygari) and landlord of the hut had recently returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca and was hard to reach. He would bring the key today, in true Nigerien time, en shallah. We had been assured by Peace Corps that our new site was ready for occupancy, however, while waiting for the landlord, we saw the latrine and shower area and were appalled. The small square spaces separated by a mud wall which would be used for our outdoor bathroom were filthy and appeared to have not been cleaned of debris and excrement for years.
Even with minimal standards for a pit toilet in Niger, what we viewed was unacceptable. We had made efforts prior to this day to have repairs made which the previous Peace Corps volunteer identified by talking with our program director and the volunteer involved with site development. We had been assured everything was ready. However, when the maygari finally appeared and ceremoniously opened the hut door, we were flabbergasted!! The 1 room hut was filled with personal belongings, no screens were installed (Peace Corps requirement), large holes were visible in the concrete floor around the entire room, walls were dirty and marred with insect nests, and a layer of dust covered every surface—floor to ceiling. The loosely thatched roof was laden with dust and spider webs and light from the sky could be seen. At least it was not a rainy day!
These very defects had been initially identified including the potential for bats and vermin to enter the living space. And we were brought to live here as volunteers for 2 years and told everything was fine?? The Peace Corps representatives accompanying us reacted calmly to our distress and gave varying reasons for the abominable conditions we found. And---we were supposed to spend the night in this place while they returned to hot showers and clean surroundings in Niamey! The Peace Corps representative whose language skills far surpassed ours, arranged for work to be done in a set time frame, promises were made and prices set. We thought ”what are we doing here in this horrible place?”
As the Toyota 4-wheel drive vehicle pulled away, headed towards Niamey, Dave and I were engulfed in its dust. I was in tears; he was stoic. Neither of us wanted to quit, but in concert, we were so disappointed with our situation and with Peace Corps for their audacity in placing us or ANY volunteer in a site such as this after confirming that it was acceptable for living. Even the most casual observer would see this to be untrue. It’s no wonder that there are 150 cases of diarrhea for 100 Peace Corps volunteers in Niger! When volunteers turn their lives around to serve in an organization, there should be preparation to respect that effort and to make the commitment as positive as possible. We were highly disappointed and downcast about the plight in which we found ourselves.
By late afternoon, none of the work had even been started. At near dark, our phone call to the Peace Corps representative was soon followed by the maygari sending a person to partially clean the latrine and shower areas. Promises were again made about work to be done the next day. Dave and I were willing to take this chance but if it was not done, we agreed between ourselves that we’d e.t. (early termination). In spite of our continued hope to carry out meaningful work in a needy country, we’d leave, quit, abandon our commitment as a statement about treatment of volunteers who are expected to be “at work” in their village 24/7 while paid staff are available Monday-Friday 8 am- 4:30 pm.
It had been a long day. We were both physically and mentally exhausted. That first night, the maygari’s wife quietly brought our dinner consisting of millet with onion sauce and a chicken drumstick. The maygari left his outdoor light on for us. We slept on our cots outside the hut, glad to be away from the dust, dirt and disappointment of today.
Judy and Dave
Written January 4, 2011