Founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, the “Boko Haram” in Niger opposes Western civilization and the secularization of the Nigerian state. It was relatively peaceful until a government clampdown in 2009, which led to the deaths of 800 members, including its leader Yusuf.
Nicknamed by the locals of northeast Nigeria, “Boko” comes from the Hausa word meaning “Western education,” and “haram” comes from the Arabic word figuratively meaning “sin” and literally meaning “forbidden.” According to the Brookings Institution the group is believed to have formed in the Nigerian town of Maiduguri under its preferred name of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad – Arabic for “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.”
Now under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, what emerged in 2009 was a more violent manifestation that has killed thousands of people – mostly Muslims – during its insurgency, which is aimed at establishing an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria. Not only has it claimed responsibility for a series of 2014 bombings in Abuja and kidnappings of more than 200 schoolgirls in Borno State, it has expanded into other West African countries.
I feel sadness when I read almost any news story out of Niger today, becaue this desert country taught me much about life, friendship and mortality.
I was almost killed five times in my life. Two of those near-deaths took place in West Africa, one of which occurred while buying a sack of dried dates in Niger.
It was March 1999, two weeks before the April coup d’état that killed Nigerien President Ibrahim Baré Maïnassaara.
My Peace Corps friend Brian thought we needed a vacation to Niger. Already he had drafted James, John-Paul (or JP as everyone called him), and myself into traveling with him northward, my first exposure to a desert-based African country. As volunteers with Corps de la Paix, we worked every day fulfilling two of the three goals of Peace Corps in Benin: meeting the needs of host-country locals and helping promote a better understanding of Americans. It was an exhaustingly difficult yet beautiful job that would shape the rest of my adult life.
But during March, our main concern was traveling into a land-locked desert country that was more perilous than Benin. On top of that, I had the misfortune of reading Brian’s dog-eared copy of Robert Young Pelton’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places, which was a guerilla journalist’s guidebook to every hotspot in the world – for those who were crazy enough to travel to them.
The book was a compelling read during afternoons at roadside bars where male volunteers played poker and drank 30-ounces of Beninoise beer in our downtime. The taste of Agouti, or roasted bush rat, would mingle with the cold lager on our tongues. Needless to say, Niger scared me. But as a dude I was obligated to go. After all, Robert Young Pelton went. And that was supposed to mean something, right?
“Jesus H. Christ, Corey,” Brian said. “Look, if I’m going to Niger it’ll be safe. James is going, too. Would James purposefully go someplace dangerous?”
I watched James across the table, blessed with a face of credibility during times of irrationality. He flashed a reassuring smile. That charismatic ginger fuck. Who could ever doubt that guy? He’s like a redheaded brother to me.
“No, I guess he wouldn’t,” I said. “Okay, sure, let’s go.”
Now that was back in January, 1999. We also convinced JP to join us. If Brian, James and I were Peace Corps’ answer to Crosby, Stills and Nash, JP was Neil Young: a maverick, an original, a man who occasionally felt more at ease going his own way rather than following the group. But this time, he was interested. Also, what made JP stand out was the fact that he was as country-bama as all get out. A brilliant guy, JP resembled a tall, thin Elvis Costello who talked in an urban cadence – or what most folks would mischaracterize as “talking black.”
So we were ready to go. And then life said otherwise. Brian’s dad passed away, back in the States. He needed to return home; we all understood. It didn’t even feel right still going on the trip, but Brian insisted.
After I had completed my work with the Provincial Farmers’ Union, we loaded our backpacks and headed north by way of Peugeot bush taxi. We rode from Savé to Parakou, and then Malanville, near the northeastern border of Benin. That night, we watched Zorro – projected on the exterior wall of a government building – while eating roasted half chickens and drinking Grand Flags – another excellent brew.
The following day, border guards permitted our passage across the Niger River into a world that was considerably more arid and barren than anyplace I’d ever been. We now rode in a bush van. James, JP and I sat in the back of the vehicle, sipping on plastic sacks of chilled yogurt sold to us by girls in the town of Gaya who balanced coolers on their heads with West African franc currency bound into their kaleidoscopic pagne skirts.
The desert possessed a stark beauty. I beheld wild camels – tall, beige, and thin – eating the leaves of thorny trees, miles from the nearest body of water. We saw Tuareg herdsmen, wrapped in blue upon blue fabric, guiding their cattle. I had read Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune, and I couldn’t help thinking about the Fremen nomads on the distant world of Arrakis. Yet, rather than riding sand worms, the Tuaregs herded their cattle, crafted amazing cheese and sold me the silver ring that I wear to this day, crowned with two thin bands of ebony. I soon felt ashamed of my fear.
And then JP proved me wrong.
We had arrived in Niamey, the capital of Niger. I felt parched, dusty and claustrophobic after hours in a packed desert van with people and goats. The tips of my dreadlocks had turned copper color from the sun, and I smelled “earthy.” Secretly, I loved my appearance and scent. Not so buttoned-up and reserved as I seemed in college. The calluses on my feet were so hard I could have walked barefooted. I felt at peace.
James mentioned something about grabbing a cab so we could find le maison de passage for traveling Peace Corps volunteers. We’d stay there a couple of days and then be on our way to Birni Nkonni, near the border of Nigeria.
Hungry, I wandered to an open-air market to buy snacks. I had purchased a plastic bag of cold water to sip on, taking pride in the fact that my digestive tolerance after almost a year and a half in West Africa had carried over from Benin to Niger. Apparently, your stomach doesn’t need a visa to drink and eat within the same region.
I purchased a small bag of dried dates and proceeded to eat my way through four or five. Gradually, I noticed a subtle nuttiness, perhaps a difference in texture. I took a date between my fingers and notice a small hole. I tore the fruit open to see a dead worm. My bag had dates with multiple holes. I was too exhausted to complain.
Shit, what was I gonna do? Bitch at the maître d? So I swallowed my chewed dates and stuffed the rest in my bag.
At this point I returned to the auto gare. James was haggling with our taxi chauffeur, and JP chatted with a group of young men.
“Sweet Jesus, I’m about to die in a land-locked desert country.”
JP fit in well with locals about 98 percent of the time. He was respectful, yet casual. Nothing neo-colonial about him whatsoever. He saw Africans as equals. He’d even do this thing where he’d speak in English and a local would reply back in their indigenous language. This would never happen in French, because JP understood French. But if a local didn’t communicate in French, then JP would resort to English. Seemed fair enough. I probably would’ve done it, too.
Anyhow, JP is doing the back and forth with about five guys in their early 20s. Everyone’s laughing. It’s kind of upbeat. But at the same time, my instincts sensed that perhaps the routine carried on longer than appropriate. Not a clear premonition, but a little uneasiness.
One of the guys snatched JP’s eyeglasses.
The five guys laughed and pointed at JP. Mocking him. They stumbled away from our taxi into a larger crowd of young men. We were all practically the same age, really. I was probably the old man, at age 25. James and JP were younger.
And this guy, this person who looked like a tall Elvis Costello, did one of the ballsiest things I had ever seen. With a stern face, he marched toward that crowd of Nigeriens and stood before the guy that grabbed his glasses.
JP kicked that guy in the nut sack. Hard.
Every mouth fell open, every hand instinctively grabbed its owner’s crotch. The young man buckled to the ground, impersonating a dolphin’s song. JP caught his glasses mid-drop.
Immediately, I had thought, “Sweet Jesus, I’m about to die in a land-locked desert country.”
Guys yelled and surrounded us. JP calmly put on his glasses and walked to the taxi. A mob encircled us. A few guys had begun grabbing JP and tugging him.
I sat in the car and stared forward. I’d love to say that I was a complete badass. That I had the courage to save my friend’s life. That I was a fuckin’ ninja and knocked out as many guys as I could. I wish I had the good fortune to say that. But it would be a lie. I was scared. I was in shock. I just wanted my death to be painless.
Now mind you, there’ll probably be a Peace Corps volunteer who served in Niger reading this. He or she will probably say, “Oh, you weren’t gonna die. At worst, they were gonna kick your ass.”
Here’s where I’ll challenge you on that. In Benin, there had been a series of deaths by way of mob violence. In the town of Allada, a thief was doused with petrol and set ablaze by a mob because he had stolen a Vespa scooter from a member of the taxi scooter guild. A scooter guild set a man on fire. That’s absurdly funny, yet brutally violent. In another case, a band of vigilantes in the southern provinces of Benin was conducting beheadings for men accused of rape. Beheadings. In 1999.
So, coming from a country like that, a country I still do love to this day, I regard mobs as a harbinger of immediate, brutal execution. A car window separated me from 30 angry men. And I didn’t say a word. I just made peace with it.
But not James. That charismatic ginger fuck grabbed JP from the men, and tossed him in the backseat of the car. “Move the hell over, Corey!”
Then he yelled at the crowd in very badass French, which made the men step back, and he jumped in the passenger seat of the car and told the chauffeur to drive. The car sped away.
Everyone was drunk on adrenaline. It took about 10 seconds before we began arguing.
“Thanks for helping out, Corey!” JP shouted.
“I’m not gonna fight 30 dudes. I’m from Ohio!” I said.
“Alright, alright, drop it,” James said.
We were quiet during the ride. Soldiers with AK-47s stopped our taxi at a military checkpoint. They examined our passports. We also provided our Peace Corps IDs, which had a bit of authority, strangely enough. They let us go. This was more than a week before the president’s assassination.
We started joking about the soldiers, and that unified us again. We laughed. That night we met up with some local volunteers who were kind enough to not criticize our situation earlier that afternoon. We had roasted chicken and salad. Two days later we left Niamey with more solidarity than when we had arrived. Our final evenings would be spent drinking campfire-brewed tea and watching the stars at another volunteer’s mud-brick home near Birni-N’Konni.
In 2011 Peace Corps evacuated its 98 volunteers posted in Niger because of safety concerns related to the kidnapping of French Westerners by the Mali-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist network that Boko Haram had made pledges of loyalty.
After talking to a few of them, I can say that these volunteers still love this desert land. I have similar feelings about my time in Benin.
“They were just using Niger’s porous borders and lack of security to do the kidnappings,” said Brian Tinger, a 28 year-old software engineer in Nashville. Tinger had arrived in Niger in July 2009 and was evacuated with the other volunteers to Morocco for an abbreviated close of service.
Although he said that there were “bad apples” in any demographic, he never felt unsafe at his post in Gaya, a town of more than 28,000 residents.
“I felt safer in West Africa than many neighborhoods in Chicago,” he said. “Nigeriens are some of the nicest people in the world.”
I believe him. And although I had a heated encounter in Niamey, I still cherished meeting herdsmen, experiencing Islamic culture and observing the landscape while sipping homemade yogurt or eating dates. I hope other Americans experience that as well, someday. This is a land not to fear.