I have been putting off writing on my blog for the last two months, afraid that writing about my experience meant that it would become real. Well, I am finally ready to tell how the story ends...
On January 8th at 2am, I was awoken by my ringing phone. Drowsily stumbling out of bed, I finally found it under a pile of clothes and answered. "There has been a kidnapping at Toulasane's." As I got slapped into reality by these words, I realized that this bar was five minutes from my house in Niamey, the same bar I had been to countless times with my Peace Corps friends to watch soccer games and have the occasional beer. The security officer for Peace Corps had called all of the Niamey volunteers to assure that we were safe. Thankfully, none of us were there that fateful night when two Frenchmen, an NGO worker and his friend, were randomly kidnapped by three Al Qaeda members. As reported later, they were sitting closest to the door, so the armed men with AK-47s had an easy in and out, threw them in their car and drove to the Mali border, where later that night the hostages were shot to death.
As my mind digested the news, I remember thinking this is it...the end of the road. Well, it wasn't quite yet. For four days, other Niamey volunteers and myself answered to daily phone calls to assure Peace Corps we were safe as well as abiding by a 7:30 curfew. I had negated the thought that we would evacuate the program since there was not an immediate decision to do so.
Then, on Wednesday January 12th, Haoua, a Nigerien Peace Corps staff member, walked into my office with a somber shadow cast across her face. I knew. She then read to me the memo that Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington had sent Peace Corps Niger. With tears rolling down my cheeks and an apple lump frozen in my throat, I listened to Haoua tell me that I could not tell any Nigeriens that I was leaving, I had to close my bank account, pack and be ready to leave the country in about 24 hours. So, that was it...the end of Peace Corps Niger. After 50 years of the program, they called it quits. Don't get me wrong...I understand their reasoning. It was just too risky to have 98 Americans in a country where kidnappings are becoming as common as an everyday cold. But why now? I had just moved to Niamey, settled in, started dance classes, had a great house, roommate, and a dog named Chloe. After falling apart, I finally gathered myself to do the business...there simply was not time to cry. I then preceded to the bank where I closed my account, went souvenir shopping, then home to pack.
Thirty hours later, I found myself in a land that felt worlds apart from Niger. Morocco. There was ocean and bright tangerines hanging from trees, green grass; it was everything Niger was not. Peace Corps hosted all 98 of us volunteers at a hotel in the capital, where we learned what our options were and how to deal with our present situation. Although they did the best they could, I felt like I had been abondoned. Within one week, I had to leave the life that I knew and loved: my job, my Peace Corps and Nigerien friends, my dog, my house. I felt empty and yet had no time to feel that emptiness because I had to make decisions. Would I travel? Would I transfer to another country? Would I go straight home? Would I curl up into the fetal position and cry for a week? Would I lay on the Moroccan beach aimless yet feeling relaxed? I decided to travel...to put off the real world, the reality of coming back to Colorado, and not because I didn't want to see my family and friends and the majestic Rocky Mountains, but because I did not want it to end. I thought as long as I traveled, I would not have to deal with the loss that I felt, the trauma and the grave disappointment. Traveling was a drug, a distraction and a high from the darkness I felt from having to abandon my life. Yes, I know my Niger experience would have ended eventually (September of this year, in fact), but I still thought I had time and was in no way ready or wanting to leave this life that I had created.
From Morocco to Barcelona on a 26-hour ferry up the Mediterranean. Barcelona was beautiful and interesting-the architeture and the people, the food. I soaked it all in and indulged daily on treats that enlivened my palate after a year and a half of eating millet and rice and sauce. After five days, off to Italy. Pizza, gelato, pasta...my friends and me, we ate our way from Rome to Florence and Florence to Venice. After filling up on Italy, I went to Wales to stay with my grandparents. It had been a couple of years since I had seen my family there, so I was looking forward to relaxing, drinking tea, and not carrying my densely stuffed red backpack from place to place. Then, after two weeks, it was time. Time to say goodbye to airplanes, passport stamps and foreign languages (a relief to some extent). I was exhausted and ready to come home.
I have been home for three weeks now. Sometimes, I still can't believe what has happened, that I lived in three places in Niger, that I was evacuated, that I traveled around Europe for six weeks. I do miss Niger: the people, my friends, speaking and greeting in Hausa, watching lizards and eating rice and beans at a stall on the sandy street. It's funny how you can miss a place that is so impoverished, hot and crawling with scorpions. But, as I etched my life into the sand there, I changed a little bit. I grew. The way I see the world, the way I connect with people and my priorities have been shaped by Niger. I am Katy, but now I am also a little bit of Baraka (my Nigerien name, which means "Blessing").
Sometimes, I cry mourning the loss I feel of my friends and abruptly leaving Niger. But with time, I know I will be eternally grateful for the opportunities I had, regardless of how it ended, I learned more about myself and the world than I ever imagined I could. I realized that any place can be special and feel like home if you are with people who love and care for you unconditionally. I learned that amenities, clothes, and things are things I can live without and still be happy. I learned that people from different cultures, backgrounds, and ethnicities can connect in unique ways, and a smile can mean more than words ever can. More than anything, I learned that family, friends, communities, food and health are all blessings not to ever be taken for granted as they are gems to cherish. I don't always do that, but I shall try to engrain this part that I have learned in everything I do and the person I become.
In July of 2009, I had no idea what laid ahead of me and had no concept of what my life would look like. Well, I would just say that even though people do not go to Niger on vacation, and it's the third poorest country in the world and one of the hottest, Niger is rich with color and culture and community. People live their lives for this moment; they don't take anything for granted and they welcome strangers and each other with genuine hospitality and grace. They have nothing, yet they are genuinely happy with their lives. Most of them have never left their village, but that's enough for them. They accept change, loss and death because they accept that those human experiences are an inescapable part of life. In striving to embody what I have learned from Nigeriens, I am beginning to move on and accept what has happened, the good and the bad, for all of it has made my experience what it was and brought me to the present.
So, that's the end...well, the end of this part of my life. Thank you for your support and love throughout my adventures in Niger and being a part of it all.