By Jennifer Margulis
Special to The Washington Post – Monday, January 29, 2007
“You’re going where?” people would ask when I told them we were packing up our house and heading to Niger.
“It’s a different country.” I explained this so many times that I had to be careful not to sound bored or, worse, patronizing. ” ‘Nee-zhair.’ It’s north of Nigeria, in between Mali and Chad.”
A blank look usually followed, and often that was the end of the conversation.
Or the beginning.
“And you’re bringing your children ?” was the next question, said in a somewhat scolding tone. “Is it safe?”
Thirteen years ago, working as the small-project coordinator for Africare/Niger, I scribbled a note on a scrap of paper that I stuck in my journal: “I don’t know how anyone who’s ever been to Africa could live anywhere else in the world.”
Now I’m back in Niger as a Fulbright scholar to visit the projects I coordinated and to teach American literature classes at the university. This time, though, I’m not alone. My husband and I decided to go to West Africa for the year, and many Americans I talked to seem to equate that with taking our children to hell.
At about twice the size of Texas, Niger is one of Africa’s largest nations and has one of its smallest populations, 12.5 million. It’s relatively stable, politically. To the north is the Sahara, vast expanses of white sand and silence (punctuated by a separatist movement on the part of the Tuareg in Agadez). To the south is Niger’s turbulent, fascinating and better-known English-speaking cousin, Nigeria. In between is a complicated country full of heat and hope. The temperatures can soar to 130 degrees in the shade during the dry season.
“Are there a lot of diseases?” My mother-in-law tried to sound casual as we cleaned the kitchen.
“Yes.” I wanted to say “no” but couldn’t. There’s typhoid fever, malaria, rabies, measles, schistosomiasis, meningitis, giardiasis, dengue fever, hepatitis and a long list of other tropical infestations that I can’t pronounce, let alone spell.
My mother-in-law decided not to ask any more questions.
But my friend Roanna had a long list.
“Aren’t you afraid your children will get sick?” she asked, half-worriedly, half-enviously. She wants to take her three small children to Cambodia, she told me, but she’s afraid.
My job as a mother is to protect my children. I’m not afraid they will get sick — I expect them to — but I am afraid of what Roanna was really asking. I’m afraid that one of them will die.
“What’s the number one killer of our people overseas?” the State Department doctor asked rhetorically at the Fulbright orientation in Washington. My heart tightened. I was sure he’d say malaria.
“Coronary heart disease!” he announced, and I breathed out with palpable relief.
“And the number two?” He paused for suspense. “Traffic accidents.”
But No. 3 was the most surprising: suicide. “We don’t lose a lot of people to it,” he added, “but it does happen.”
His point is well taken: Expatriates in Africa die of what people in the United States die of as well, not giardiasis (which makes you feel run over by a truck — I’ve had it) or dengue fever. Roanna’s baby brother died of pneumonia — in the United States — and I think of my friend Eve’s younger sister who died of meningitis.
I talked to Sue, whose visit to India when she was 4 was the most vivid memory of her early life, about how seeing the poverty and industry of the people there made her more generous, aware and empathic. And to Marjorie, who lived in Cuba as a young girl. And to my older brothers, who spent a summer in Ghana when my mother was pregnant with my third brother, about how they beat the snakes out of the bushes and saw scorpions the size of fists and learned to love high-life music.
Finally, I called a former Fulbright who lived in Niamey — the city where we’re living now — with his wife and three children, the youngest of whom was 5. His wife answered and I explained who I am.
“I can’t tell you how envious I am,” she said wistfully. “We had the time of our lives. If we could go back tomorrow, we would.”
Did her kids get sick? “Not a bit,” she said, and advised me on which antimalarials to take and which mosquito netting to buy.
In Niger, my kids attend a French-speaking school; in 10 months they’ll speak the language fluently and most likely without the accent I’ve always had. They’ve glided in a pirogue down the Niger River and seen a hippo, its wide nostrils floating just above the surface of the murky water. They’ve bumped through the bush on lanky camels and eaten tuwo da mia (pounded millet balls with sauce). They’ve met gracious, hospitable and kind people, the people who cause the least environmental damage in the world, who recycle everything — even though there are no plastic buckets to leave out for garbage collectors.
One day soon, they’ll see the sunrise on the Sahara, inshallah.
I am doing everything in my power to keep them from harm. But I know that limiting their world to sanitized America is not the right way to protect them.