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Africa helps a local journalist learn who he is

Friday, July 13, 2007 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 12:03 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
This was my first house, in the town of Miriah. I was fortunate to have running water and electricity, and even a toilet inside. I lived in relative luxury compared to the majority of Nigerians.

“I wish you will do something to save a life,” my friend Gomez wrote me in a letter during my Peace Corps service in Niger. He needed me to help his HIV-positive sister. It was the most shocking moment during my time in his country.

But I was in shock even before arriving in Niger. In May 2003, I ripped open the envelope containing my assignment from the Peace Corps. I had waited months for this news. Where I was going had been a mystery, except for the general location: French-speaking Africa. I thought I would go somewhere such as Senegal or Cameroon, countries I knew about because of the World Cup. But I had never heard of Niger. I only knew it wasn’t Nigeria, its neighbor directly to the south.

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One month after getting my assignment, I graduated from Northwestern. The day after the ceremony, I packed my stuff. My friends came over that night to send me off and celebrate my 22nd birthday. Their parting gift was shaving my head.

As I prepared to leave, adventure was shouting, and I was listening. I had always been conventional. In kindergarten, my teacher wrote glowing comments about me, except that I was too serious. When I was in junior high, my father started talking about time management and college applications while other dads were discussing the birds and bees. I started to let go in college. I grew my hair out for the first time. But spontaneity still hadn’t seized me.

I arrived in Niger three weeks after I got my diploma. During the first three months of training, bacteria and parasites infested my stomach. I became gaunt, having lost 30 pounds off my 6-foot-1-inch, 170-pound frame. I swore in as a volunteer and moved to Miriah, my first post as an education volunteer. I was the only foreigner in a town of 15,000.

I spent almost three years in Niger, sweating constantly from the triple-digit temperatures. Now, more than a year after returning to the U.S., I dwell on the adventure every day in my air-conditioned downtown apartment. I wake up to a collage of photos and souvenirs next to my bed and wonder what’s happening in Niger.

Poor but strong-willed

Countless people in Niger need help. It’s the poster country for poverty, the poorest in the world, according to the United Nations Development Index. The current Nigerien government, installed after a fair democratic election in 2004, relies heavily on foreign aid. The development statistics are staggering: 90 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. About one of every four children dies before he or she reaches the age of 5. Only 15 percent of women are literate.

The reasons for Niger’s poverty are as infinite and demoralizing as the numbers. Its only major resource is uranium. The Sahara blankets two-thirds of the country.

Most of the arable land is already under cultivation, but the population is exploding. On average, a Nigerien woman has eight children — the highest birth rate in the world.

Although their land — dry, sandy savannah — is inhospitable, Nigeriens are welcoming, dignified and generous. They are eager to give but ashamed to ask for help. That’s why I knew Gomez was in trouble when he wrote me that letter.

A friend sparks change

I met Gomez in 2004 in Maradi, population 150,000, my second Peace Corps post. Gomez had been friends with a former volunteer, and one day he stopped by the Peace Corps office to get his friend’s e-mail address.

Gomez, who was 26 at the time, captivated me from the start. He was as curious and inquisitive as I am. I needed someone to make sense of all the strange sights surrounding me, and Gomez needed to share his endless ambitions with someone.

Gomez had suffered even though he was more educated and worldly than most Nigeriens. He spoke four languages and attended a university in Nigeria. But he had endured the sudden death of his parents and the painful realization that unyielding poverty surrounded him.

Despite this, Gomez possessed a certain poise and dignity that countered the intense heat. He was like so many of the Nigeriens I met, who salvage their lives out of the world’s junk, abandoned because of technological obsolescence or produced on the cheap: used Peugeots that puff and putter, ratty T-shirts that did not make the cut for resale in Salvation Army or Goodwill, and the ubiquitous plastic buckets from Nigeria used for carting water and washing those ratty T-shirts. They get millet to rise from the soil not already overrun by the Sahara. These determined people remain hopeful in the face of constant sorrow.

Gomez’s dark brown eyes were thoughtful, but he could break out a brilliant smile. He spoke like a preacher with strong gestures, affable charm and precise words. It compelled me to listen to him.

We met every couple of weeks. Our discussions touched on Nigerien politics, the role of women in society and the challenges facing the massive number of youth in Niger, where half of the 14 million residents are 15 years old and younger.

Our conversations fueled our aspirations. He needed someone to have faith in his dreams — a job at an international aid organization and a scholarship to an American university. I was the link to his world of hopes, of somehow finding his way out of misery. Gomez was aware of his entrapment.

Millions of villagers in Niger suffer, and they are stuck there. They are uneducated and ignorant of the world outside their huddle of huts. But Gomez understood where he was, and in many ways he suffered more because he realized his country’s limitations.

Gomez gave me hope, too. Before coming to Niger, I was an anxious overachiever, believing failure was imminent because I wasn’t perfect. Since I was a child, I had been self-critical and unwilling to forgive myself for harmless mistakes. Gomez helped me realize how foolish I had always been to worry about success. By seeing Gomez’s self-confidence, I realized I would succeed if I had faith in myself.

Helping to save a life

My conversations with Gomez unfortunately ended. In December 2004, he left to begin his last term at university. In January, I received a letter from him. Expecting good news, I was devastated. Gomez was OK. But his sister Salamatou was not.

He had told me about her during one of our conversations. He suspected she was HIV-positive. But he didn’t elaborate or mention it again until I received the letter.

Before Gomez had left for Nigeria, Salamatou had vomited for three consecutive days and lost weight. Despite her brother’s urging, she refused to get tested. He was one of the few who cared for her. But because he had to leave, he was worried she would commit suicide. He had stopped her once before.

The letter closed with the plea forever etched in my mind: “I wish you will do something to save a life.”

I e-mailed Gomez detailing all the options available for Salamatou. The majority of the health care facilities were in the capital Niamey, hundreds of miles away from Maradi, where she lived. However, there was a hospital run by missionaries in Galmi, only two hours away, where she could get tested and receive free anti-retroviral drugs. But because Gomez was out of the country, I was worried no one would persuade her to get tested.

Two months passed before I heard from Gomez again. I had moved to Niamey to start my job as Peace Corps Niger HIV/AIDS Coordinator.

Stretching from the banks of the Niger River, Niamey, population 800,000, is more of a “capital village” than a city, where cattle and goats graze along the fences of the U.S. Embassy. Chaotic downtown Niamey is no bigger than downtown Columbia. The maze of scorching streets are jammed with vendors hawking sunglasses and cigarettes and beggars tugging at shirt sleeves. But it’s easy to escape. The crumbling cement buildings quickly give way to sprawling dirt streets and neighborhoods of mud and cement houses.

Gomez was in Niamey. He called and met me at work. I was ecstatic to see my friend, but he was downcast. Hope had evaporated from his vibrant eyes. He told me Salamatou had gotten worse and then said, “She’s pregnant.” He paused and looked away.

Except to insist that she get tested in Galmi, I didn’t know what to say, especially because free anti-retroviral drugs were available there. I told him this at least five times.

I walked Gomez out of my office to the street congested with mopeds, motorcycles, donkey carts laden with animal fodder and the occasional Toyota Land Cruiser. We said goodbye, and I pedaled home in the scorching Niamey heat. Even in the early evening, the sun was scathing.

A friend in need

Gomez took my advice, and Salamatou went to Galmi to get tested. She was HIV-positive.

Although I was worried about his sister, I was also concerned about Gomez. At the end of 2005, he was unemployed and getting desperate for money. After he graduated, he moved to Niamey to look for work. He came over to my office every week to tweak his resume and hound me about job openings. I asked friends in international development about them, but they told me they had promised to help their unemployed friends, as well. I was not hopeful. All I could do was give him money for rent and food. And wait.

In March 2006, I was preparing to leave Niger. I went over to Gomez’s small cement room. We ate chicken and rice and talked about our futures and the country’s future. Before saying goodbye, he handed me a letter. I read it when I returned home:

‘Affection of hearts is better than proximity of houses.’ It is through this African proverb that I express to you my cordial and brotherly feelings. Honestly speaking, I will never regret to have known you…

I am deeply touched by your philanthropic attitude toward my modest person. Had I not been assisted by you, I would have stayed homeless. For this reason, I baptized my small room, ‘Saint Andrew Hall.’

Although I had doubted my accomplishments during my service, at least I knew I had helped. I took solace in achieving my only goal: changing one person’s life.

Rebirth

Now, more than a year after I returned to the U.S., I’m still acclimating. Shopping at Hy-Vee, especially walking down the towering aisle of sugary cereals, astounds me, and loud television commercials with whirring images are sometimes so disarming I have to shut off the screaming ads and sit still in the silence.

My life, however, is more balanced. I wouldn’t say the Peace Corps changed me, but that it made me more aware of who I am. I spent so much time by myself that I couldn’t ignore my moods, quirks, memories and dreams. My dry wit was honed, and although I am still disciplined with my time, I know when to leave an empty space in my schedule for spontaneity.

When I think about Niger, I get wistful. If I start writing an e-mail to my friends there, I have trouble getting past the subject line. Making telephone calls is even more difficult. The phone becomes heavy and the dial tone distant. But several weeks ago, I talked to Gomez for the first time since I came home. When I heard his voice and the puttering mopeds and baying goats in the background, I felt I was walking with him.

The news was miraculous: His sister was responding well to the drugs, and her baby was not HIV-positive. Gomez had found a job as the assistant to the country director of Worldvision, one of the major aid organizations operating in the country. Still, he wasn’t satisfied. “My dream is just beginning,” he said.

After our conversation ended, I stared at the collage next to my bed. Awe overtook me, like when I ripped open that envelope four years ago.

It’s that feeling of entering another world, a place where everything’s different, where you don’t understand a word, and everyone looks at you with that same sense of wonder. It’s that feeling — however fleeting — of being born again.


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