James’ well used Land Rover decided that its transmission linkage wasn’t going to work anymore, so our driver ended up shifting into a gear (3rd or 5th depending on the desired cruising speed), starting the engine and slipping the clutch just enough that the vehicle would pick up speed, rather than stall. Regularly occurring speed bumps were a challenge – you don’t want to lose too much speed but you also don’t want to rupture your spleen when the Land Rover hits the bump.
We were on the highway back from Dogan Doutchi, about 4 hours northeast of Niamey in Niger, where Jim and his colleague James are working on a clinic for the local population and latrines for it and a nearby school. Camels (Beasts of burden, sources of milk and meat) lolling in the shade of Thorn trees, goats, the odd Zebu cattle. Military checkpoints every 25 KM with tired looking soldiers sitting in the shade of a thatched shack. They let a rope fall once they’ve approved your papers and off you go. It isn’t safe for non locals to be on this road at night, although nothing suggests any danger as we pass through towns and villages. I had hoped to get to Agadez, on the edge of the Sahara and about as far Northeasts as roads go, but flights were expensive and only made the trip occasionally.
A hazy view of a vast expanse of reddish brown earth with Acacia and Thorn trees spreading regularly into the distance, conically shaped thatched storage structures built sitting on gnarled stilts with the years crop of millet. Woven thorn bush fences to keep cattle or goats away from vegetables. Dry powdery red earth. Water is remarkably available – women and girls, heads covered, their dark brown faces popping through and expanse of brightly colored fabric, line up at a well to fill buckets with water at a roadside well. Jim tells me that wells do not need to be dug that deep to find sweet water.
We are in the Sahel, which stretches 4,000 miles across Africa from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, a band along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Drought resilient trees of considerable size, scrub bushes, populated by nomadic pastoralists and farmers. Traders, calling on centuries of experience, move goods North and South, not always within the confines of the law: some of the most opulent houses in Niamey are owned by Berber and Tuareg traders.
It is pleasant in the mornings, almost cool – nice to watch the village wake up; by Noon, the heat coming off the Sahel floor is like a blast furnace. Relaxing on bench in the shade of a large tree, expending as little energy as possible is a good strategy and one sees clusters of men (It is always men) do this. I can see how Islam would suit this environment: its edicts are clear, even a little harsh, it apportions the day evenly with prayer, rousing a mind from its heat induced torpor and it would keep you focused with simple, absolute, edicts, not unlike the environment itself. The region has suffered from soil and tree loss due to overuse by locals; an attempt to plant millions of trees in the ’80s to turn things around championed by the then head of Mali, was an abject failure (Most died). Happily, there is evidence that local farmers have since figured out ways to capture water to feed existing trees and encourage their spread: satellite photos show a considerable increase in tree cover in some areas over the last 30 years.
Large transport trucks trundling along, passenger buses, private cars, motorcycles, super overloaded mini buses with cargo stack to double their height, looking like they are ready to topple. Sporadic potholes that our driver expertly slaloms around, indicate how heavily the road is used. Men riding car wheeled carts pulled by small and tough looking donkeys. During the wet season one occasionally sees Giraffes. Carcasses of trucks here and there by the roadside, stripped bare like the lion’s prey after the kill. Only the rusting skeleton remains.
Small mosques and madrasas (Religious schools) dotted here and there along the road, each with a symbolic minaret or two with large loudspeakers strapped to its top – you want to get the word out. Some women with faces totally covered, most wearing a headscarf that leaves the oval of their face visible. Men in large, loose Boo-Boos – pyjama-like smocks – with matching pants in some amazing colors.
Market towns come upon us rapidly in the haze and disappear after a couple of speed bumps and a military checkpoint. They cluster along the roadside; all the activity one would expect of folks whose lives are spent buying and selling, trading. Hawkers with peanuts, in one town, another onions, another beef jerky, a Hausa speciality. Tire repair shops, hovels selling millet cakes, a general store. The hustle of commerce.
The highway follows an unused railway track for while which heads to Benin. It was completed several years ago but has never been used and no one is quite sure why. It is gradually slipping into a state of disrepair.
James is from Iowa where his family farms and he studied Agronomy and had little idea he would end up being a career missionary. His wife Susan grew up on a dairy farm and studied medicine there: they’ve been working here in Niger for 13 years.
Jim, my other travel companion, is a quiet, soft spoken man whose family roots are in Appalachia. His dad was a missionary doctor in the Congo, although Jim had no idea when he was young that he would end up in a similar trade. Jim studied geology and worked on a research boat running seismographic studies of the major African Lakes (e.g. Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganikya, Lake Malawi). He and his wife Jodi – a public health nurse who had been with the Peace Corps in Burundi – met in Africa and ended up working with the Presbyterian Church in Malawi where we met them13 years ago. I came up to Niger to see Jim and Jodi here in Niamey.
We took Lexie and Liam – back then young teenagers – on a major family trip before we lost them to the reality distortion field of adolescence. I insisted that we travel local style (Yes, Jennifer is a saint) and so we ended up on trucks and local buses, staying in some truly gnarly hotels and eating some exceptionally marginal meals. I was 50 at the time and occasionally wondered about the wisdom of this approach, say when riding on the back of a truck passing on blind curves going downhill or catching a ride in a minibus late at night driven by a guy who was drunk – we had no other way to get to our guest house 20 KM away (I remembered the driver’s name and when I ran into him in town a couple of days later it was clear that Foster had no recollection of having driven us anywhere.). On the flight home I asked Liam – then 12 – how he enjoyed the adventure and he said “It was fine, but next time I’d do Club Med.” A young man who knows his market segment.
The missionary ethos is interesting: few of us would pour our lives into what is a difficult and in many ways unrewarding career. Successes are few, challenges many. Interestingly, I’ve found that folks that have done career mission work maybe somewhat conservative theologically but are often are more aligned in their social / political values with my liberal friends than their conservative equivalents. Two missionary friends we know returned home after careers working in developing countries and ran (Stood) as members of Parliament for the Green Party in Canada and the UK, not something you would expect from an evangelical Christian.
Missionary work can seem a little counter cultural – I am staying at a guest house in Niamey built and operated by some Chik-Fil-A franchisees and run by a young man who goes by Tex. Tex is pretty Texan – warm, friendly, very outgoing and loud – I can only imagine how the local staff process his mode. Cross cultural learnings on both sides.
Missionaries have historically been seen as the vanguard of colonization, and while there is some truth in this, it isn’t the whole story. In many ways missionaries have been (and still are) outsiders, often viewed critically by the establishment; this was certainly the case in India in the 1800s. And they do what they do without government help – it is a very entrepreneurial undertaking. Jim and Jodi have spent their lives trying to improve the lot of folks they work with and are very circumspect about their deeply held faith. They have, in that fantastic can-do way that Americans approach things, attempted to live their faith by offering practical help in their adopted countries.
Part of that faith involves having adopted three sets of twins; the eldest set from America the younger two from Malawi. Four are currently at home here in Niamey (The oldest two are living in Florida) and are in that teenage rhythm of life – sports, studies, hassles at school, screen time, an inability or lack of desire to articulate much other than a monosyllabic grunt or groan. I can only imagine what it would be like to raise six children across several cultures.
The Humble Plastic Container
Let us say a prayer for the humble plastic container, much used and much maligned. One sees plastic strewn everywhere here in Niger, caught in coils of razor wire, tangled up in Thorn trees, heaped up by the side of the road. I think about municipalities back home banning the use of plastic bags that, even though its ultimate resting place is in a landfill (If in the West) or as part of the landscape (If in Niger) undoubtedly has a smaller energy footprint than paper bags or the reusable grocery carriers we all so conscientiously line up to use.
Plastic is amazing – we could not handle the hysteria around Covid-19 without it. Can you imagine reusable, cloth face masks? Or vaccines or antibiotics in sealed reusable containers? IV drips in glass bottles? Hazmat suits made of homespun linen? Plastic is everywhere: ziploc bags, reusuable food containers, your smartphone, a good percentage of the car you drive. We consume about 300 MM tons of the stuff annually and little of it gets repurposed or recycled. Landfill is currently one of the more benign endpoints for the material.
Most of the plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (The largest of five globally) in the Pacific Ocean comes from commercial fishing nets, either lost or discarded. And those nets are mostly run by Asian fishing crews who are, sadly, overfishing the oceans. Most of the other water born trash emanates from Asia, mostly China. India too.
Thus far our responses to the problem of waste disposal (And wastefulness generally) have been largely symbolic and aesthetic. We ban plastic drinking straws because a turtle decided to wear one protruding out of its nose; the cost of using and of disposing of paper straws is much greater than any actual benefit. We dutifully recycle even though it is much much cheaper to put the stuff in a landfill than try to repurpose it. We drive hybrids or electric vehicles whose end of life will require disposing of 100s of pounds of toxic materials for which we have no plan. Oops.
Paradoxically, this aesthetic approach to the environment may not be a bad thing. Much of the way we react to the natural ecosystem is aesthetic and sometimes spiritual (Think of John Muir, Thoreau or Ansel Adams’ photographs of Yosemite.); indeed the environmental ethos is largely a spiritual and moral quest. We want to keep plastic out of the oceans in part because they look nicer without it and because a well functioning ocean ecosystem makes us feel better about ourselves and our relationship with the natural environment. Of course there are health benefits too – you and I have trace amounts of mercury in our blood from coal burnt in American and Chinese power plants. Not so good.
As the world becomes more crowded, keeping the oceans clean and figuring out a use for all that landfill we’ve accreted will actually make economic sense, there will be higher and higher value placed on unspoiled ecosystems, clean air and safe drinking water. And as mankind gets wealthier, we will be willing to pay more for all of this, perhaps even pay to recycle. And we may even take better care of the turtle wearing a straw up its nose.