We gathered around the small room’s only door around midnight to watch the rain hit the ground with a welcomed fury. It was our first indicator that Niger could be anything but dry and hot as the wind wailed and the lightening burst through the sky.
Thirty minutes earlier, we were woken with a “It’s going to rain” call. It was our second night in Niger and the idea of sleeping outdoors was still foreign. While in a slumber, the wind had picked up and the stars had disappeared, giveaways that rain was to come. As soon as one of us woke up, we all did.
We quickly tore down our mosquito nets and moved the mattresses indoors, helping each other carry the rectangle pieces of foam. Under shelter, we rearranged all the possessions we brought to country in order to fit a dozen beds. We scrambled to adjust the pieces of wires running from wall to wall so we could hang our mosquito nets and used a shoe to pound in a nail to a window so one piece could hold the ends of at least six nets. No one stopped until all the beds were in place and nets firmly tied and tucked under the mattresses. Once we finished, we surveyed our completed work and the storm brewing on the other side of the cement walls.
“We did it,” someone noted.
Three days earlier, we were strangers meeting each other for the first time in a Philadelphia hotel conference room. Yet we defied the proper process of getting to know someone as we travelled across the ocean together and casually shared fears we kept from our close family and friends. We still had much to learn about each other, but, after being able to dodge our first storm, we felt like a family, like they promised we would back in Philly.
The rain that night brought fresh, cool air and piece of accomplishment, two things that can be difficult to find in this country.
Two months have passed since that night and it is now our last day together. Tomorrow, we’ll get on two buses, each with two different stops and by the evening we’ll divided in to small groups, our regional teams. Next week, two by two, we’ll leave for our sites and, come Wednesday evening, I will be the only white person in a small village with another American at least 30 kilometers away.
Last night, after our swear-in dinner and before our dance/karaoke party, we watched a video one of our stag mates, Janice, put together. The piece was a montage of photos and short video clips from our entire pre-service training, starting with a photo of the bright blue “You are invited to serve” envelope that we all received and ending with a photo of all us at wearing our traditional Nigerien dress at swear in just minutes after becoming volunteers. The images flowed through two months as if it had been two years, and some days training felt that long. We laughed and awed at the memories created, understanding that our time left together was now down to hours.
Typical for me, I had to hold tears back once it was over.
It’s hard to look at these faces around me and believe they haven’t always been there. I throw their names in conversations with people back at home and forget they don’t know them nor have they ever met them. In less time than a summer break, I adopted 30 new family members.
Operating as a group and moving 30-some people around can be difficult. We all want to use the Internet or eat ice cream at a particular restaurant. We pack bush taxies and attract attention as we muscle through scuffling Niamey traffic. And, even though we are a sizeable group, we were close enough to get on each other’s nerves at times.
What I took from these people in such a short time is incomparable to anything I learned from an instructor or a book. A southern Californian taught me that silliness and optimism are enough to win over life and I saw what unending generosity looks like from two Ethiopian New Yorkers. A Minnesotan, one of the most mature 22-year-olds I’ve ever encountered, helped me find an inspiring aspect of every situation. And, conversations with a Indianan — whom I initially bonded with because of the same style of Chacos, fondness for word body art and her journalism degree — under a water tower about friendships and former loves remind me that I may be a long ways from home but I am near people who understand me. But those are only a few people; everyone here touched me in ways too difficult to describe.
I’ve only known Niger with these people. We laughed and danced. We ate and drank. We shared books and music. We said goodbyes we understand and ones we didn’t. We fought for one another and offered encouraging words when needed. We embraced this country and experienced each new part together.
I am ready to move past training and start work in my village. I anxious to be on my own and develop one beyond the summer-camp routine of training, but saying goodbye will be hard. I wasn’t sure if my goodbyes would be teary until today when I separated from the group to go off my own. I had just said goodbye to Mackenzie, who was returning to America for her sisters wedding (an exception to the rule), and, knowing other au revoirs were looming, I wandered and ate too many terrible things for me, both of part of my habitude when I am not ready to admit reality.
But I can’t pretend forever. My possessions are packed, except for this computer, and all is ready for tomorrow’s departure. I visited my family one last time, promising to keep in touch.
The training site is quite right now. We’ll have two more meals in the refectoire we’ve come to known as our home kitchen and one last sleep on site, our Little America in Niger. Tomorrow will leave this home and this family. Like my friends and family back in the States, distance won’t be able to break these bonds and we’ll be reunited in three short months for in-service training.
It’s our last night together, and the sky is preparing for a heavy storm. For some symbolic reason, it only feels it appropriate that the heavens cry this evening.