Sorry I’ve been so bad about updating my blog. And this would now be a typical update, telling about what’s happening in village, just how strange camels look (and they are funny-looking beasts), and essentially helping both me and you to understand the differences between Nigerien culture and American. But sadly, this isn’t a typical update. This isn’t a typical time in a Peace Corps service. In fact, nothing is typical, nothing is as it is supposed to be. It’s now been three days since I heard of the passing of Stephanie, one of the new members of Peace Corps Niger and, more specific to me, the Team Zinder family. We held a memorial service for her yesterday and followed her to the airport. We said goodbye in that way which we know how to do.
And so, if you like ‘typical’ updates, sorry. I can’t do that. Not this time. But here it is, the other side of my Nigerien life. Welcome to the American-American relationships, the What-the-*bleep*-are-we-doing-here side. In short, the side that helps to keep us sane as we wander around in our village, away from home and all that we grew up knowing.
I only knew her from a few half-days in Niamey and then some more in Zinder, but once a part of the Zinder family, always a part of the Zinder family. It doesn’t seem right to say she felt like family to me, she was far too new for us to have developed any sort of relationship. And yet, she was part of our family, a family that consists of a small number of Americans, from all parts of the country, with all sorts of lives, and who has seemingly little in common. But who cares about whether you’re from Jersey or Missouri, California or South Dakota (what what). Who cares that one studied English, another French, this one Foreign Relations, that one Art History? So what is there to join us together, but that, having gone past the literal (and one might argue proverbial) Timbuktu, there are 15 other Americans, just as freaked out as you in that lonely area called Zinder. So yes, we are family, hanging onto each other in this strange, crazy land.
Stephanie was at the exciting point in her service, where things are still new, people still like to hear your stories, and children love to call out ‘Anasara’ (white person). And yet her shoes are all too familiar. Yeah, I’ve been there. I was there a year ago. I’m still there now. I have grown since coming here, and this place makes far more sense now that it did when I first came. But I’m still Alex, born and raised in America, land where the snow falls, leaves change, people drive to work and school, and Starbucks and Wal-mart are always opening new stores closer than the one before. Some of my villagers might have heard of Wal-mart. What it does is a whole other matter. And the closest they can come to a $10 cup of coffee is a 10¢ glass of Nescafe. Snow is something some people have seen on a TV, once upon a time. Leaves yellow and fall, but who would guess at such a bizarre thing as pine needles? And ownership of cars? We don’t even have 10 private cars in my village. Are you starting to get why we lean so heavily upon each other? Want to guess the only person in my village who doesn’t understand polygamy? How about the only one who is confused when the husband and wife aren’t present at the marriage ceremony?
Looks like I’m starting to ramble now. But this is my life. A constant culture shock, even though the shock becomes manageable. A daily trial of walking out into this eternally strange world. Dawn to dusk, living life in my new home. And it does feel like home…almost. This is part of the reason why we go to Zinder or visit others’ villages, to experience that other side of the coin. You do what you need in order to survive. And this means spending time with those who are living this culture shock with you, those crazy Americans who crazily jumped on this crazy ride.
I remember talking with my dad before going to college, and he told me about how I would be making new friends as I find people I’m going on this new adventure with. Did he know even then not just how true it would prove for college, but how it would go further in life? Not only am I finding it applicable, but even more obvious. On the basis of our shared culture and shared backgrounds, Peace Corps Volunteers, at least in Niger, bind ourselves together on this adventure. And it becomes fierce, a level of friendship and (to be honest) dependence that makes family seem like quite the word for it.
And so, I say goodbye to my sister(?) Steph. You were only a short time with this absurd, sorority family thing we have in Zinder, but you were oh-so welcome, oh-so wanted, and are oh-so missed. It was hard to say goodbye and, in the coming weeks and months, will be hard to not come in and say hi. We love you.
And, in the off-chance that her family and friends might be reading this, I am so, so sorry for your loss. I only knew her for a short time, but I was eager to get to know her over the next year. God bless.
Sorry for the rambling all. As I said, this is not a typical update, for this is not a typical point in time.