I recently had the privilege of traveling to Niger with a few of my Spirit of America colleagues to support Flintlock 2018. Flintlock is an annual, African-led, multinational military and law enforcement exercise that has strengthened key partner nation forces throughout North and West Africa, as well as western special operations forces (SOF), since 2005. The exercise is designed to build local partner capacity to counter terrorism and violent extremism across the region, as well as protect their borders and provide security for their people. It also bolsters partnerships and interoperability between special operations forces, militaries, and law enforcement agencies by increasing their ability to work together during current and future multinational operations and in response to crises.
When traveling to Africa, one realizes how vast the continent is in a very intimate way. I was reminded of this over the course of four flights totaling 25 hours in the air between Washington DC and our ultimate destination of Niamey, Niger, where our trip began. Despite the exhaustion and the long list of travel woes, it’s hard not to be taken back by the rugged beauty of Africa.
When visiting the capital of Niger, one quickly sees how important the Niger River is to this desert country. Much as how an artery flows blood throughout the body, the Niger River brings water, and therefore, life, to the harsh desert which surrounds it. One only needs to stand on its banks and witness the constant fervor of activity to understand that the river is paramount to the livelihoods of the Nigerien people.
This trip to Niger was especially exciting for me personally, as it was the first time I had returned to the nation since my deployment as an active duty civil affairs team leader in the Army. As strange as it may sound coming from a Denver native, returning to Niger was like visiting home. Over the months I had previously spent living there, I met people that became like family and have since remained close friends. Hospitality, all too rare in our hectic and fast-paced world, is commonplace here. A great example of this is when I stopped at a roadside stand for a breakfast sandwich before a day of meetings. I ordered my food through a string of barely coherent French and, as I waited, was invited to sit in the shade with a man and his friends. As I got up to leave after receiving my food, the man insisted I stay and eat with them – a genuine act of hospitality.
Unfortunately, Niger is a struggling country that is plagued by poverty, drought, desertification, and multiple violent extremist organizations operating within its borders. The average person in Niger lives on less than two dollars and fifty cents a day and supports an average family of six. These numbers are hard to imagine until you witness the daily struggle of those living it. In partnership with USSOF, Niger’s military has been working for years now to increase security and create space for economic development and improvements. The fruit of this relationship was apparent during this year’s Flintlock exercise and associated events where Spirit of America provided assistance and support to ensure the event was as successful as possible. You can read more about SoA’s support to Flintlock 2018 here.
After completing our work in Niamey, my colleague Andy and I traveled 500 miles northeast to the city of Agadez. This is another special place for me where, while still on active duty in 2015, I first collaborated with Spirit of America on a project to refurbish a basketball court. While in Agadez this time, we visited the court and followed up with our previous partners that made the event possible. This was a great opportunity for us to see the on-going impacts of this project that remains near and dear to my heart.
Besides following up on our 2015 basketball project, we attended a dedication ceremony for a welding workshop that will provide educational opportunities to at-risk youth in Agadez. SoA worked with the civil affairs team in Agadez and Niger’s Ministry of Education to start the program. By providing the necessary materials, SoA was able to make the dream of skilled work and additional opportunities a reality.
I want to leave you with this photo, below, of a Tuareg man that has gone beyond what any reasonable person would expect to help me and the organization I now represent. His friendship has been instrumental in supporting our mission to ensure the safety and success of deployed service members, while simultaneously investing in the human capital of Niger to fight the causes of instability. Mohamoud as treated me like family, for which I am eternally grateful. He is the shining example of what Niger can be, and embodies its most valuable resource: its people. With the right kind of assistance, Niger can break free from the spiral of instability and suffering which has plagued this nation for decades and finally reach the prosperity it has long sought to achieve.
Until next time,