On Missing Niger


My family and I spent an academic year in Niger, West Africa in 2006-2007. I was there as a Fulbright fellow, teaching 19th century American literature and writing and researching articles (like this one, “Looking Up,” which was a cover story for Smithsonian Magazine and this one “A Crusading Publisher Pushes Niger’s Limits,” published in the Christian Science Monitor).

Most Americans have never heard of Niger.

It’s one of the poorest countries in the world.

It’s also one of my favorite places on Earth.

I miss Niger with so much heartache, like missing a best friend.

Inspired by this article on how to get motivated to exercise, James and I took the baby for a run yesterday. Even though it wasn’t seven o’clock, it was already unpleasantly hot in Ashland, Oregon.

James is lean and fast. He runs a lot. I am not-so-lean (remember Jack Sprat’s wife?) and very s-l-o-w. But I was spritely yesterday and James was flagging. His stomach hurt.

“I feel like I’m going to have diarrhea,” he said. “This used to happen to me when I ran in Niger. I have to keep my butt cheeks together so I can’t run fast.”

Excessive heat. Bowel troubles. Sweat. All of that came with living in Niger.

But that was only part of it.

Heartbreaking landscapes of sand dunes and gawo trees. Incredible friendships. Debating Emerson’s notion of self-reliance with young men and women who had never thought of non-conformity. Taking the most refreshing shower of my life using one a bucket of water. Appreciating the small things. People who have so little but do so much.

When Hesperus was small we lived on the East Coast. My best friend Sue lived in Oregon. We would visit and I would start to miss her even before we left. So would baby Hesperus. “Miss Sue,” she would say and then sniff sadly. “Miss Sue.”

I felt like that about Niger yesterday. I feel like that about Niger today. I hope to go back soon. Even if I do, I think it is a country I’ll be missing for the rest of my life.

Niamey's Petit Marché is a riot of people, colors, wares, sounds, and smells

Niamey’s Petit Marché is a riot of people, colors, wares, sounds, and smells

James and Athena riding a camel

James and Athena riding a camel

Etani and I pose for a photo with our dear friend Illiasou and his family

Etani and I pose for a photo with our dear friend Illiasou and his family

7-year-old Hesperus in the pool in Niamey, Niger

7-year-old Hesperus in the pool in Niamey, Niger

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15 thoughts on “On Missing Niger”

  1. How fortunate you were to have had this experience! I lived abroad for 25 years, but not in Niger. Paris, France. So very different. Sometimes I miss walking around that beautiful city.
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..What I Didnt Do Yesterday =-.

  2. Wow! What an adventure tht must have been. It’s great that your kids have lived in so many different places. I feel the same way about certain places and know I will definitely go back.

  3. I love this post, Jennifer, and really admire your and your family’s adventurous streak.
    .-= Ruth Pennebaker´s last blog ..Can

  4. Jennifer, How wonderful to have had this kind of experience. It doesn’t surprise me that you’d miss a country as rich in memories like this one.

    PS. So glad you got some motivation to go out and run – especially in the heat!

  5. After DH finished his ob/gyn residency and before we had our girls, we lived for a year in N’Djamena in Chad while he did field work for Doctors Without Borders/M̩decins Sans Fronti̬res. It was an incredible experience for both of us and really enriched our lives. You are spot on with your observation that it teaches you to appreciate the small things!

    That said, I am beyond impressed that you bundled up your kids and moved them to a place that had to have been far from your comfort zone. By allowing them to experience a culture so different that what they were used to, you no doubt opened their minds and hearts in a way that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

  6. I know how it feels to miss a place, too well. In a way, because it stays in your heart, you always carry a part of it with you – especially more so if you share that experience with your family. It becomes one of the things that bonds you! So nice to see your photos.
    .-= Christine´s last blog ..Summer sewing =-.

  7. Your photos bring back a lot of memories for me, too, Jennifer. I bet you didn’t know that one of your Mothering colleagues lived in West Africa. I spent my senior year of high school in the Ivory Coast, and visited Niger for Easter break. It’s been 24 years since I was in West Africa, but the life-changing experiences I had there will remain in my mind for as long as I have memory. Thanks for sharing.

  8. People tell me that I’ll miss Madagascar once we leave. I know I’ll miss the beaches and the cheap hired help. I’m not sure I’ll miss living in a dirty, polluted, poverty-stricken city but I do think of the years that we are spending here as affording us an easier lifestyle than we would have in Europe. I know that if we were back in Europe, I would have to earn a lot more money for us to make ends meet and life would be a lot more stressful!

  9. It IS a bit of a shock to go from living in an underdeveloped country to a place where (seemingly) limitless water is available with the turn of a faucet and anything you could possibly want/need to buy is as closest as the nearest mall. However, I am somewhat ashamed of how easily I slid back into my “old” life after returning to the US from abroad.

  10. Wow – I had no idea you spent time in Niger! That must have been quite an experience for your entire family. I bet your kids have picked up a more global perspective than their peers.

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