Bonjour from Niger!
I am on the tail end of a multi-week trip, following up on several SoA projects and getting the ball rolling on a few new initiatives. On these trips, I am always amazed by how hard our deployed US service members work despite harsh and austere conditions, how professional our local partners are, and how grateful the Nigerien people are for the assistance the US and SoA provide.
This trip began with a long flight from Washington DC to Djibouti by way of Ethiopia. In Djibouti, I was able to attend a book donation organized by the soldiers deployed to Camp Lemonier, US State Department officers from the embassy, and local Djiboutian partners. This event, the official opening and dedication of an American Corner reading space, included the US Ambassador to Djibouti, Larry André Jr., and the Djiboutian Minister of Education and will greatly benefit a school in Djibouti city. We followed this event up with a second book donation at a nearby learning center and further support of US and Djiboutian efforts to improve English language skills and education. These donations were public displays of the strong partnership the US and Djibouti share and of the recognition that learning English is essential to maximize opportunities for Djiboutian youth.
I was in Djibouti to attend these events, increase US-Djibouti partnerships, expand English language opportunities, and improve the skills and employability of local youth. I was also able to sample some of the local fare during my visit. Word to the wise, if you are expecting a fork or spoon when you order from a local Djiboutian eatery, you will be sorely disappointed. Keen observation of other patrons, however, will teach you the grab, swirl, and pinch technique necessary when eating spaghetti and rice with your hands.
From Djibouti, I traveled on to Niger where I attended the Cure Salée festival in Ingal. This leg of the trip served as a reminder of how big the African continent is and how difficult it is to traverse with flights to Qatar, Turkey, Mali, and finally Niger. Despite arriving safely, my suitcase was not so lucky, forcing me to live like a local and do a little clothing shopping. I am fortunate enough to have some close friends in Niger from a previous US Army deployment and visits for SoA over the past year. After helping me shop for replacement clothes, my friend Aziz generously treated me to a barbeque in his garden and a game of soccer with his friends. The highlight of the meal was the Taguella – Tuareg bread – served with our barbeque chicken. This bread is cooked in the traditional way, buried in the hot sand with a small fire on top of it. Yes, it was delicious. No, there was no sand in the bread (it was cleaned by washing it with water). And yes, I will absolutely try to bake it myself on my next camping trip with my wife (probably to disastrous results).
Ending the day with a game of soccer was a storybook ending to a great day in Niger. Despite my utter lack of soccer skills, the game ended in a 3-3 tie, most likely due to the handicap placed on the other team who played without a goalie and my team having a five-year-old play keeper. It was just the help we needed to stay in the game.
After my adventures in Niamey, it was time to fly to Agadez and meet up with our US partners living and working at the airbase. We checked up on previously funded SoA projects and made final plans for travel to Ingal for the Cure Salée festival.
One of the projects we followed up on was my first SoA project that I planned while still on active duty in the US Army to refurbish a basketball court in the center of town. The court had become so neglected and damaged it was practically unusable. To my delight, the court remains in good shape and is popular with the community after nearly three years. I was also able to visit an SoA-supported carpentry shop and skills training program and inspect some of the desks that have been repaired and will soon be provided to local schools in Agadez.
After spending a few days in Agadez, it was time to drive to the Cure Salée festival. This event was everything I hoped it would be and more; an authentic cultural experience where I was immersed in the Fulani and Tuareg way of life. What was most exciting to me was how this work actually added value and positively impacted the people gathered there. The annual SoA-supported vaccination campaign, in partnership with the US civil affairs team at the airbase and the Ministry of Agriculture, vastly improves the health of herds, leading to increased income for herders and improved food security throughout the region. The ten veterinary technicians SoA provided as augmentees to the campaign played a huge role in reaching the ministry’s goal of vaccinating 120,000 animals.
Supporting this project and being a part of Cure Salée was a dream come true and one of my most rewarding travel experiences to date. Despite camping outside in 105+ degree heat, the great food, interesting people, and, most importantly, an impactful project, made the trip more than worth it. This work not only addresses some life-threatening vulnerabilities, but solidifies relationships that will increase the safety and success of our men and women serving in this harsh and unforgiving landscape.
To see more pictures from this trip, check out the Facebook page.
Until next time,