Tondi, the training director, stood at the front of the shade hangar that was the defining place of our first three months in Niger. We had meetings, sessions and classes there. We laughed, argued and danced under that millet stock. It was the most familiar part of Niger and where this country became clearer. After three months in our individual villages, we gathered at this same place to learn more so we could do more. Coming back to that place was the end of the beginning and the start of our real Nigerien lives.
It was our third day of in-service training and our morning sessions had been canceled because staff was called to an emergency meeting in Niamey. We were given group assignments to occupy ourselves but our thoughts strayed to what could be happening in that meeting.
Four days earlier, I woke up in the Zinder hostel after a late night out a club with other volunteers. I groggily walked into the living room and joined a few others sitting on couches eating breakfast.
“So, there’s been another kidnapping,” Sean said.
I spun around and squeaked out a “what.” The others filled me in with facts they had obtained from a BBC report. Two French men were taken from a Niamey restaurant at gunpoint. Since the Internet was down, I called my mother to scan the web for more details but she could only obtain what I already knew. Outside a little shop, waiting for egg sandwiches, Mark, a fellow volunteer, and I talked about the incident in English. Hausa men understood us and reassured us it wasn’t al-Qaeda or another terrorist group but just a lover’s quarrel — one of the French men was to marry a Nigerien woman that day and her fellow country men were not happy about it.
Peace Corps Niger sent out messages of concern and information about the upcoming IST. We’d still go to Niamey but there was now a curfew, we were to avoid places frequented by westerners and standfast (no travel), which was already scheduled for an upcoming election, was still on. But we were going to the Peace Corps site in, outside of Niamey, and things would be safer there.
Not much was shared about the kidnappings or security situation besides the fact that we probably wouldn’t spend weekends in Niamey like originally planned. We continued on with IST, sharing stories and potential projects ideas as our motivation for our work took on a new excitement level.
We went into the third day with no concern that it would be a day that everything changed. Tondi told us he would return before lunch. Some people expressed nerves and anticipations, but I played the calm card. “Nothing will happen to us,” I said. I wanted believe that and I did.
At 11:22, Tondi rang the bell to alert us he was back on site and it was time for a meeting. We gathered together, trying to find the hints in his facial expressions. He gripped a piece of white paper as if it was worth gold. Before he started, I looked at Vida and asked her to hold my hand. The truth was coming and I wasn’t sure if I would like it.
During the second sentence of the printed statement, Tondi revealed that all Peace Corps Niger volunteers were being evacuated because of security reasons. Immediately cries and shrieks were emitted around me. Hot, burnings tears came out of my eyes and I began to shake. Mackenzie left her seat so we could hold each other as Tondi continued on with the statement. He stopped several times because the truth of those words changed his world, the one where he spent 20 years working for Peace Corps Niger, more than they did ours. He stared off into the distance with a deep sadness that I only seen from him once, at Stephanie’s memorial.
He couldn’t finish it all, but we couldn’t hear anymore. We had less than an hour to pack our bags to head Niamey. We were done with the Peace Corps site, he said. As we packed, he told the staff, who are now out of jobs, about the decision. Their faces crumpled into their hands, giving more emotion than most Nigerien men ever show. As I walked by a group of them trying to process what this meant, I said they only Hausa phrase that I know: “Allah shi bada hankuri” “May God give patience.”
I did what I always do when my life falls apart: I called my mom. I couldn’t stop shaking or believe it was real. I had little information about what was going to happen except one major fact. I was leaving Niger.
On the bus ride to Niamey, Lindsay and I talked about what this means. We both had to look away during the conversation because tears had swelled in our eyes. It hit me that I would never see my Nigerien mother or sisters again. She told me how lucky we were to experience this place, how people would never understand Niger the way we do. That, she told me, is the blessing.
Another meeting was held at the Peace Corps bureau in the afternoon and small amounts of information were released. The staff told us the plan as they decided on it. We went to the hostel and waited for more information. Volunteers in the nearest two regions loaded buses to go back to village, pack and say goodbye.
Team Zinder decided chocolate and beer were needed so we made a quick trip to the grocery story. Indulging was all we could think of doing and all we wanted to do. As the other team joined us, we ate and drank too much, easing the pain we all had in our hearts. We discussed how hard it would be say goodbye and how we would do it. We talked about the logistics of getting back to villagers and the surprise that we were even getting the chance to do so. We wondered about what would happen next and how to continue on after Niger.
I hesitated for a long time to tell any one from my village. Text messages didn’t appropriate and I would explain it all when I said my goodbye. I called and texted other members of Team Z and they seemed as miserable as myself. Still, I needed to tell someone from my village and only one person made sense — Mustapha. He called me and I told him what I knew. He told me to let him know as soon as I got to Zinder and we would come to see me. Saying goodbye to him, and his family, who are essentially my family, will be the worst part of departing this country.
The next day, Thursday, Zinder and Mardi volunteers were flown to their respective regions to close out their villages. Some of us had a night, others only an hour. Unfortunately, I was part of the later group.
The trip to Dantchiao usually takes five hours one way by bush taxi, but with a Peace Corps car, we were able to get there, packed up and back in four. We pulled up to my concession a bit before 8 a.m. and any of the daily chores began. Immediately, my host father and SG, Habau, came to greet me. I started to tell him about the security and he interrupted me.
“Oh, I know,” he said in French. “That’s why I called Bawa (my program director) to make sure you go to Niamey OK.”
He did do that because my safety was always a concern for my villagers. I thanked him and continued on with the statement. He just said OK. I then delivered the news to his wife and children, my mother and siblings. They too just nodded.
I returned to my house and packed as much as I could into a suitcase. I left behind clothes, letters from home, furniture, food and different mementos of my time in Niger because my suitcase had a weight limit to make. The rest would become possessions of my villagers.
Once my bag was in the car, I took a deep breath and prepared for what was next. I walked over to my family’s house, trembling. I told them I needed to go and they should take the things out of my house. My mother broke down, needing a wall to help keep her standing. My sister Basira’s eyes flooded with large tears and she kept saying my name over and over. They walked me to my house while I repeated that they could have everything in my house. The tears escaped my eyes and I tried to remember to soak up the last moments in this special place that brought out the best of me.
At the driver’s urging, I got in the car and he was patient enough to let me stop a few times to tell people that I was leaving. The last stop was the CEG. I found the headmaster and English teacher, but it was all that I had time for. As I bawled while talking Hadiza, the English teacher and my best friend in village, she told me not to cry and that God would provide. When I turned to head back to the car, dozens of little voices came from one of the classrooms, saying “Goodbye Hassia.” I never got to say goodbye to all the students, or to my sister Fassimou, who was my rock on the very rough days, because she was in class.
On the way back to Zinder, the headmaster sent me text messages that told me I would be missed, they were crying in my absence and to tell people in American that I am now one of them. He called my program director a few days later for reconfirmation that this event was indeed real.
In Zinder, we prepared another goodbye, making a giant feast for our hostel guard, bureau guard, driver, janitor and the owner of a small shop that has been a partner with Peace Corps for eight years. We get to leave for somewhere better, but these people lose their jobs and our support. They lose friends and family, just like we do. We departed the next day, again with tears, still wondering if this is real.
I saw Mustapha twice before I left. He told me I’d forget him and about Dantchiao and I promised him that I never would, that I couldn’t. His face that night is etched in my mind and I plan to keep my word and contact him when I have a landing place. He was my first friend, my first rock in a foreign place.
Once we were out of Zinder, I was ready to finish the evacuation and leave the country: the hard goodbyes were now over and I wanted to be at the next step. Two days later, at 5:30 a.m. on Monday, we said goodbye to Niger, probably for forever.
During a session at IST session I told my stagmates that Niger has brought out the best version of myself. During our small therapy session on the bus, Lindsay reminded me how much Niger gave me in such a short time. I’ll always have that and these last six months have changed me for the good. Niger is a part of my make up, like South Dakota and Idaho.
No matter the struggles, this place has the sweetest, most caring people I’ve ever met and they showed me what it truly means to be a good person. Soon, I’ll say those goodbyes and it’s likely I’ll never see them again. But, I once had them and I once had this experience. Hassia will always reign in my heart. She’ll never die because Heather can’t live without her.
Answers are still unknown and my life has been flipped upside down. Hard, big decisions await me this week, but no matter how angry or upset I am I do understand the blessing that I have. Being in Niger, living in Dantchiao, is something that I’ll never forget and I hope to take the lessons from villagers on to the next level. My service ended 21 months too early, but no one can take those six months from me, and for that, I am truly blessed.