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A Peace Corps volunteer in Niger reflects on lessons learned just weeks into her assignment.
[Editor’s Note: Matador Nights co-editor Kate Sedgwick first read this dispatch on the blog of Peace Corps member Monica Yancey. We contacted Yancey to request her permission to reprint an excerpt here.]
My perception of the world has already been permanently changed….
Experiencing the country of Niger, even for six weeks, has… been a beautiful lesson—but a lesson about something… I am afraid of: poverty. Poverty is real and it isn’t okay.
No mother wants her baby to die. No woman (or young woman) wants to develop fistula. No one wants to have AIDS. No one wants to have lost multiple family members to Malaria. No man wants to feel incapable of feeding his family. Nobody would rather have a life 20 years shorter because of where they happen to be born. And from the women I know who have been pregnant there is a consensus: women don’t want to be pregnant for the majority of their adult life.
Niger is a “people live on less than a dollar a day” country and that has a lot of ramifications regarding quality of life.
But it is paradoxical.
Niger should be sending people the United States for Nigerien Peace Corps. Niger doesn’t just need us, we need Niger. There are ideas here and ways of life here that we would be better off knowing. The family structure is largely intact and rural life is hard (no doubt) but community firmly exists. I guess it’s the irony of going somewhere to teach and instead finding myself very deeply a student.
Life is so different here. In some ways it is a thousand times harder, yet in other ways it is easier. I will probably never be able to explain what I have seen to myself let alone those of you who are reading this blog. This paradox does not mean that everything is fine. Everything is not fine.
But pity is not the answer. Fear is definitely not the answer. Only looking at things through dollar a day lens is not the answer. The annual United Nations poor country competition is not the answer. It is more complicated than that….
Discussions of poverty often end (or begin) with some variation of a “but they are happy” argument. “It’s too bad that people are living in poverty, but they are happy so at least there’s that.” It is true that in Niger smiling and laughter exist (thankfully).
However, the “but they are happy” observation is perhaps better located in a discussion of what really makes us happy as human beings and not as a terminal argument in discussions related to poverty.
We know from personal experience that an excess of material goods does not equate happiness. We also know that the human spirit is capable of finding joy in even the most trying set of circumstances. The resilience of the human spirit does not mandate a passive approach to human suffering.
So what is the answer? I obviously don’t know and there isn’t one anyway (to be sure) but I will say that in Niger, there is a feeling of gratitude and that is something I think we could learn a lot from….
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