When I think of Paris I often think of Niger, West Africa as well. This is where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1990s. French was one of the languages that we learned as volunteers; it was a language employed by the educated class in Niger, a former French colony. I hardly ever spoke French in the village where I served—Hausa was the language spoken there—but I read a number of books in French during the long hot season afternoons when it was possible to do little else. Even in the shade, temperatures were regularly in the 120 degree Fahrenheit range.
The Peace Corps program in Niger was evacuated in 2011 and has yet to return. The evacuation was set in motion after two French aid workers were abducted from a popular restaurant in the capital Niamey. The Frenchmen were subsequently murdered by their captors, associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghbreb, during a Franco-Nigerien rescue attempt. Peace Corps was prompted by this abduction to remove all remaining volunteers from the country.
I say remaining because the south-central and eastern parts of Niger—including the Maradi region where I served—had already been evacuated because of heightened concern. Al Qaeda wasn’t the only threat. Just south over the border in Nigeria was Maiduguri, the city in which the headquarters of Boko Haram was located. (Boko Haram translates to “western knowledge is forbidden” in the Hausa language). This is the group that made international news when it kidnapped nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014 employing some as concubines, some as suicide bombers. And this group has made inroads into Niger as well, attacking and killing dozens in the Diffa region of Niger earlier this year. And in March, CNN reported that Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to ISIS.
The U.S. military is taking this threat seriously, drawing a line in the sand at the Niger/Nigeria border, by training Nigerien military to deal with the Boko Haram threat.
And I probably won’t be visiting Niger anytime soon, even though I’d like to under different circumstances. Let’s just say that I’d prefer to not wind up in one of those beheading videos that are starting to crop up, originating in northeastern Nigeria.
Keep in mind that I’m talking exclusively about the threat of Boko Haram and like-minded groups and not the Nigerien people as a whole. The villagers of Mai Guero, the small village where I served, were the most hospitable people who I’ve ever known. I always felt safe there.
During my Peace Corps service, I lived in a small mudbrick hut partitioned off from the family of my landlord Halilou and his two adolescent wives Hajera and Taure. Until my Hausa comprehension reached a certain level, I wondered what Hajera was always talking about. But then, eventually, I realized that she was gossiping about me.
Halilou was a strict Muslim and prayed five times a day—more during periods in which the rain wouldn’t fall. Like everybody in the village, he worked as a subsistence farmer, farming millet and sorghum in the meager rains of the one small growing season of the northern Sahel region.
If this crop failed, the villagers starved.
Halilou and I had many conversations about life in the west. Usually it centered on his questions about life in America. He was amazed by the fact that so many African-Americans work as lawyers, doctors, etc. I told him, of course, about racial strife in America. But it was the images of Black success that mattered to him, the images that he saw in the pages of Newsweek that we looked through together.
We even talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was opposed to any kind of violence associated with that conflict; he made that clear to me. One day I informed him that I was leaving the village for a couple of days to celebrate Passover with some volunteer friends. I used the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach–which is the same word in Hebrew, Arabic, and Hausa—when I told him where I was going. He smiled, saying “akwai dadi,” meaning, “That’s good.” It had taken me a while to admit my Jewish background to him because, coming into my volunteer service, I was operating on the basis of some unfounded fears.
A couple of months later, Halilou invited me to go to Friday prayers and I went with him.
When I heard news of the attacks in Paris last Friday evening, which left 129 dead and many more injured, I was just getting off work. I scanned Facebook for news from France. I wondered whether one of my Peace Corps volunteer friends, who lives in the French capital, was okay. And soon enough I found, though the Facebook Safety Check app, that he had been marked safe.
This app has come into some controversy. It was not employed the previous day, in the aftermath of two terrorist bombings by ISIS in Lebanon. Combine this with the fact that many Americans are changing their Facebook profile pics to picture the French flag. Now you have grounds for a discussion. Why do deaths in Western countries always matter more in Western media?
Aside from merely exposing prejudices, the Paris bombings also have the potential to bring out the worst of us as a nation. Witness the Muslim-bashing, isolationist pronouncements of Donald Trump and the rest in the wake of it. But to quote 16th Century English poet John Donne, no man is an island.
It would be both ironic and unforgivable at this time if America was to turn its back to Syrian refugees or to build a wall along its borders in the misguided belief that such measures would prevent future attacks. We are, after all, living in a globally wired world where the triggers for terrorist attacks are sent across borders on the internet to like-minded individuals already living in target countries. And we are, after all, reaping the whirlwind that George W. Bush set in motion by invading Iraq.
Anyway, I continue to hope for the best. What else can I do? And I maintain a glimmer of hope that one day I will one day be able to visit Halilou and his family.
But I also recall the ending of John Donne’s poem:
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls
It tolls for thee.