niger: a retrospective

Part of the reason we bid Benin so high was because of my amazing college semester abroad in Niger. I was studying anthropology and development and wanted an experience worlds different than anything I knew. I picked Niger because it was ranked the second least developed country in the world at the time, and there wasn’t a study abroad program in the poorest, Sierra Leone.

Yes, the poverty and also the heat made living tough, but I also had probably the best and happiest four months of my life to date there, and that was because of all the amazing people who welcomed me into their lives.

Though they’re neighbors, Niger and Benin have their differences. Niger has a much greater Muslim presence. Benin has beaches and a port. Benin has a more stable democracy and is a bit more developed. Still, I can’t help but think back to Niger when anticipating our upcoming move to Benin. I’m sure it will be an amazing experience, but I doubt it will be an amazing experience in the same way my semester abroad was. It simply can’t be.

I’m eight years older now, and I’m heading abroad in a much different context. I won’t have the luxury of entire days to sit around drinking tea and getting to know people. Still, on evenings and weekends, will it be possible to connect with Beninois in the same way I connected with Nigeriens? I hope so, but honestly I’m not sure.

I’ve heard from many others that by nature of being a diplomat in a relatively poor country and living a comparatively cushy life, it’s hard if not impossible to do. I’m speaking generally — not about Benin in particular. I’ve heard that locals don’t think they can relate to you and won’t give you a chance. If they do, you have to sort out whether they’re really interested in you or whether they just think of you as a gatekeeper to something they want (a visa, money for a sick relative, etc.).

Difficult as it may be to build real friendships with locals, I certainly intend to try.

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5 Responses to niger: a retrospective

  1. Bridget says:

    wayo! you brought me back.
    This is something that disturbs me as well. My plan is to seek out Peace Corps vols wherever I can. They are generally quite happy to have visitors, and even if I can’t have real village/local friends, at least I can hopefully see how the majority of the country lives. That is, if I can still hack village life. 🙂

  2. Zack Rules says:

    Very interesting, I gave some thought to studying abroad in Aleppo, Syria as a way to get as far off the beaten path as possible this semester (Since Assad is slaughtering his own people, I am rather glad I did not end up there). Ultimately, I ended up in Accra, Ghana as that was the farthest off the beaten path the State University of New York offered. One plus is being able to visit nearby countries such as Togo and Benin (which I hope to see this weekend) although Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire are currently off limits. While I have not been able to get off into the countryside/villages as much I would have liked, just traveling around has been a real eye opener.

  3. Stmemory says:

    Great post, and I totally relate. In college I was also part of a study abroad program. I wanted to go to a Spanish speaking country and Nicaragua was the poorest – which is why I picked it! Little did I know that eight years later I would be back here with State. I do admit that the two experiences are totally different. It is hard to make local friends who don’t work at the Embassy or run in the Embassy crowd. As a student I think I better understood how the average person lived, whereas now I’m more tuned into the challenges and issues of the country as a whole, and certainly have gotten to see more of it. I’m looking forward to reading posts when you guys get to Benin!

  4. J.H. says:

    Hey there, I’m headed to Abuja in July, so it looks like we’ll be neighbors. We’ll have to keep in touch, maybe.

    Take care,

  5. Persia says:

    Alex, I think your concerns are quite real in this regard. However — and this is a big however — I also believe that most everyone you encounter will see you for the warm and generous person that you are — and that yes, they can relate to you. I’m sure that you’ll have moments of frustration, but the fact is, you’re not only good person, you’re at communicating that goodness.

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