Friday, May 27, 2011

ON to ARMENIA........................

Bari galust hayastan!  Welcome to Armenia!
The three bracelets pictured at the bottom of this article tell a story.  Just as my wrist was encircled with the bracelets of Niger, it will now wear the lovely silver bracelet bearing the Armenian cross. Soon, Dave and I will be surrounded by and immersed into the lives of our new Armenian hosts. Only a few months ago we left our caring host family in Niger who encompassed us with love and concern, always looking out for us.  Those bracelets are treasures, one from a former Peace Corps volunteer in Niger and one purchased in a Peace Corps shop carrying local women’s handiwork. The third is from Lisa, a dear friend in the US, who gave it to me to assure safety in our travels to Armenia.    These bracelets signify our journey which started in Niger, Africa and is making a huge circle towards  another part of the world, Armenia, Eastern Europe.   Hopefully, the circle will be completed with full service and accomplishments of goals fostered by the Peace Corps.
Dave and I approach transitioning into another country knowing that it will require enormous time, intense intellectual involvement and strong emotional commitment to be successful. We have learned an incredible amount via social networking and personal communications from our former Peace Corps peers who are now in new villages and countries.  They say in a nutshell, “ You cannot compare Niger or the Niger Peace Corps staff to any other.”  They also say for us not to compare the volunteers in our first group with our group headed to Armenia,  and not to expect to find Tondi, the superb Director of Training and father figure to all of us in Niger. We are advised not to jump to immediate conclusions about our country, our assignment or our training staff—or our work. These pieces of advice are passed on to us because these former volunteers with Peace Corps Niger say there is NO comparison between experiences  which will be so very different in so many ways. We know we cannot dismiss the impact of hardcore Peace Corps Niger, nor will we forget it, or even want to. But…’s time to move on.
Departure for Armenia is less than a week away. We’ve studied the language as best we can and researched the country. We feel better prepared than prior to leaving for Niger yet still harbor some anxieties about what is ahead, mixed with excitement and curiosity. Thanks to Peace Corps volunteers already in Armenia who’ve answered endless questions via the A-19 er’s Facebook page, the preparation and packing process has been eased somewhat. Staging in Philadelphia comes next, then a connecting flight from New York to Vienna (I can taste the famous Sacher Tortes now!!!), concluded by arrival in Yerevan, Armenia, the country’s capital city. We are contemplating everything, wondering with wide open eyes just as a child does before Christmas. What will our training group be like? Where will we live? Will we know enough language to actually talk with our host family? What about the students in my English class, will they be able to relate to an older American teacher with minimal teaching experience but years of life experience? Will Dave’s role in business development really challenge him as well as provide a route for his adding to the advancement of a developing country? And is everything preceded by a toast with local vodka?
All the while, we hear from our friends from Niger, now in countries all over the world. We receive e-mails and phone calls biding us farewell and wishing us good luck. We will even have breakfast on June 1 with Michele, a Returned Peace Corps volunteer from Niger, who lives close enough to Philadelphia to come and see us off.  We are excited as though standing on the precipice of a majestic mountain just waiting to step off into the unknown. Our hopes are high that this time we’ll be able to really contribute to what our new country needs.  David and I will reach out to the people of Armenia and share our knowledge through teaching and small business development. We may learn more than our Armenian counterparts but that will further complete the circle and the bonds between people of two very different countries.   This cultural exchange makes up 2  Peace Corps goals, and we share the belief that they are well worth the effort to achieve.
To Lisa who gave me the bracelet with the Armenian Cross, I say “Shnorhakalutyun” or thank you, and we will definitely travel safely.
Good-bye Niger.       Judy and Dave

Monday, May 16, 2011

MAYBE A BROKEN HEART...............

    The e-mail was brief and sad. It was succinct though softened with an apology by the sender who expressed dismay at being the bearer of bad news. It was the unsettling announcement of a beloved Niger staff member’s death which came that day.  After a couple of months back in the US and after beginning to put the Niger experience in perspective, it was certainly a shock to learn that Seini, the tall Nigerien Program Assistant in the Dosso region of Niger, had died. In compliance with his religion, Islam, his funeral was the next day. How sad it was to know that very few of those who knew him would be there to pay their respects.
     Seini, also a dedicated driver in the region, had worked for Peace Corps Niger for twenty years and now we were being informed of his death. No reason for this sudden passing was known. All we knew was that Seini did anything he could to help us volunteers. He did a magnificent job and showed compassion and heart without fail.
     I recall during our 2 week language immersion experience when David and I were living in a village in the Dosso region, Seini stopped by to see us if he was traveling to another village nearby. He particularly liked David, and I think he admired him as an older volunteer. Outside our millet stalk shade hangar, we could see Seini’s white Peace Corps vehicle stop and the tall, slender, muscular Nigerien man step out. His smile was infectious and his handshake firm. He brought us French bread some days which was a treat, since there were no markets close to our village. Many of those mornings in the village of Bangou Banda, all we ate was that French bread and tea or coffee. One day he brought us a dozen eggs, one of the few items of protein we had during that 2 weeks. We learned from Seini and Djibo, our language trainer, that we could keep eggs unrefrigerated for several days before they’d spoil.  We had eggs for supper and eggs for breakfast, David, Djibo and I, until all twelve were gone. Seini was the person who brought those eggs to us, and we did not even have to ask him to do so.
     I’m certain the full time volunteers in the Dosso region have many more stories of praise for Seini than could ever be recounted in a blog. We are just fortunate to  have known him briefly.  We also know that Seini had arranged to find some type of toilet seat for another older couple who were working on their traditional pit toilet, trying to make it more user friendly.  Seini always went the extra mile to help a Peace Corps volunteer.
      We did not know his personal story or if there were underlying health issues, but maybe Seini  died of the proverbial “broken heart” as suggested by one staff member who worked closely with him. Documented over and again in medical and other scientific literature, persons have been known to die after sudden emotional shock or loss of a dearly loved one. Maybe Seini’s death was due if not totally, partially, to a “broken heart” resulting from the loss of his life in the Peace Corps, or maybe due to the suddenness and abruptness of the evacuation from Niger of the entire Peace Corps family, and the loss of his  identity which soon followed. Whatever the cause of Seini’s passing, it was tragic, and it said volumes about the impact of Peace Corps on one life which then overflowed to affect all the volunteers with whom he had worked.
      Seini’s life ended as abruptly as did the Peace Corps in Niger.  Seini symbolizes the briefness of life and the absolute importance of using every minute wisely.  Seini was certainly a perfect example of that as he worked to make Peace Corps Niger an effective organization to benefit the Nigerien people who had asked for help. He worked even harder trying to help Peace Corps volunteers adjust to life in his country. To that end he was more than a success.                   May Seini rest in peace.
Irkoy ma suuji a ma a yaafa (Zarma). May God bless he who has died.
Judy and David