Fonda Tilas: Peace Corps Niger says goodbye

I never expected to be here. I’m not supposed to be here. I don’t even really want to be here.

I am supposed to be in my village, enjoying my first month, fixing up my house, walking around, eating with my neighbors, going to the well, observing classes at the local primary school, meeting my community. But instead, I’m in the regional capital of Niamey, staying at the volunteer transit house with people I wasn’t supposed to see again until January. My best-laid plans were shattered just three days ago with a phone call.

It was Friday, my market day. In the late morning, before the sun was too hot, I headed toward the commotion in the center of my village with a mission – I needed a bucket. Normally, I can get all kinds of food items like pasta, rice, some vegetables, powdered milk, tea, etc on any day, but for larger household items (or if I ever decide I need to buy a donkey) I have to wait until Friday, when people from all over come into my village to sell fabric, animals, produce, and all manner of knick-knacks large and small.

I announced my intentions to Ramatou, the wife of my Municipal Secretary, Seyni. They have been my main contact with my village and I visit them every day. She insists that another villager should go with me to bargain the price – I am an anasara (white person), and that means that I’ll only get cheated. “They will charge you 1000cfa for a little bucket that should only be 500cfa,” she exclaims, and I am accompanied by a quiet girl of about 16, Aischa, who has been strictly instructed to get me the best possible price.

I am chatting idly in Zarma with Aischa, making our way down the hill to the market, when my phone beeps with a text message. It’s from my neighbor Rachel, a volunteer approaching her second year in Niger, who lives in a town about 2 hours away. I frequently text back and forth with other volunteers, grateful for the correspondence with other Americans. I check her message: “Just heard about Stephanie. How are you doing?”

Stephanie? An image forms in my mind: tall, brunette, athletic, laughing. As another volunteer in my sector of my training class, I knew Steph well – at 26 years old, she had been a successful CPA in Arizona before she decided (almost on a whim, as she explained it to me) to quit her job, sell her apartment, and come to Africa with the Peace Corps in July. Speaking as someone who did that exact same thing, I could relate. Stephanie was the life of our training class, she loved to tell stories to large audiences, play basketball, watch Friends DVDs on the sole television at the training site, and had been declared “Most American Trainee” by our Training Manager, Tondi – whom she called “Dad”.

Puzzled, I text back, “What about Stephanie?”

No response for several minutes, and I navigate through the barely organized chaos of the market, hungry for news. What could possibly have happened? Perhaps she ET’d (Early Termination, Peace Corps-speak for quitting), I ponder, but that notion is laughable – Steph had been thrilled to move to her new post across the country in Zinder. She was happy here, had made good friends and was adjusting to the difficulties of life in Niger with aplomb.

I remembered the last time I saw her – at 3:30am on the morning that the new Maradi and Zinder volunteers were leaving for their posts from the training site, a few days after we had sworn in. On a good day a bus ride from Niamey to Zinder is about 15 hours, and Maradi 10, so those volunteers were up bright and early to catch their bus. Those of us who were closer and didn’t have to leave until later (10am for Dosso) still woke up to see them off. I remembered hugging her as she got on the bus, and waving goodbye as they pulled away in the dark of the night. “See you at IST,” I had told her, referring to our in-service training in January. “I’ll be there,” she responded.

What about Stephanie? I think, and the thought continues to nag me as I dodge galloping donkey carts, women carrying buckets of water on their heads, bouncing infants tied to their backs with colorful strips of fabric, and large groups of children running through the market, making motorcycle noises while gnawing on massive roots of sugar cane, sucking out the sweet juice and spitting the pulp out on the ground.

Just as I approach the shade hangar containing all manner of plastic buckets, my phone rings – Rachel. I answer, and she immediately asks me if Ousmane, the Community Development Associate PC Director, our supervisor, had called me yet today, because apparently he was calling all Community Development Volunteers to give them the news about Stephanie. I answer no, and immediately her sharp intake of breath gives me the ominous feeling that she really doesn’t want to say what she’s about to tell me.

“Oh, Jess, I’m so sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but Stephanie Chance passed away in Zinder last night.”

I felt like I had been punched hard in the stomach. Unable to speak or breathe and feeling extremely nauseous, I fell to my knees in the dirt, only vaugely aware of the nearby merchants’ cries of alarm. Rachel continued to say that Stephanie was found in her house that night, that no one knew the cause of death yet, that all of the PCVs from Zinder region and my stage were coming in to Niamey the next day for a service, and that she, Rachel, was coming to my house as soon as she could get a car to stay with me so we could make the 2 hour journey together in the morning.

Images played in my mind like a movie, Stephanie and I sitting at a volunteer’s house eating tuna sandwiches and playing Uno over Demyst during our second week; Stephanie asking one of the training site kitchen staff in broken Hausa if he knew how to make breakfast burritos; Stephanie making plans to visit Morocco in March, right before hot season; Stephanie during the Nigerien fashion show, standing in front of us wrapped from head to toe in a ridiculous outfit made from thick layers of pastel green lace (“This is seriously the hottest thing I’ve ever worn,” she said, panting and sweating, and a male volunteer watching winked and replied back, “You’re telling me!”); Stephanie in a cardboard party hat sitting at the head of the table in a Niamey restaurant on her birthday.

“Jess?” Rachel’s voice over the phone brings me back to reality. In a voice that sounds strangely foreign and not at all like mine, I thank her for calling, and tell her I’ll see her later that day. We hang up and I slowly start to stand. A small crowd has formed around me of concerned villagers, one of them helps me get to my feet. Nigeriens don’t process grief as Americans do, I know they won’t understand. “Tali si no,” I assure them. No problems.

Aischa pulls on my arm and I am reminded of the task at hand – I need to buy a bucket. In a daze, I turn to the vendor and point at a medium sized purple one. “1000cfa,” he replies. Ramatou was right, but I’ve lost the will to bargain, and suddenly I am completely unable to speak Zarma. I stare blankly at Aischa as she goes into an intense bout of haggling with the merchant. I really don’t care how much I pay. Just get me out of here.

I end up paying 600cfa for the bucket, and immediately make my way back to my house. I toss the bucket aside and lay down on the floor, my mind reeling. Ousmane calls me then, and I tell him that he doesn’t need to tell me, that I already know. My heart hurts for him, he was close with Stephanie, and now he has to make almost 30 individual phone calls telling people about her death, probably reliving it each time. He tells me I’m cleared to go to Niamey, and asks me to go into the Dosso transit house that evening to be with my fellow volunteers. “No, Rachel’s going to come stay with me tonight,” I say. “That’s good, Layla-tou,” he replies, using the Zarma habit of adding “tou” to one’s name as a way of saying “dear”. “You should be with other volunteers for support during this time.” I thank him, and tell him I will see him tomorrow in Niamey.

“Fonda tilas”, I say, a Nigerien way of greeting after a death has occurred. It means, “Greetings on what must be.”

After we hang up, I sit and stare at the wall for what seems like a long time. “Stephanie Chance is dead,” I say aloud to the emptiness of my room. Saying it out loud makes it real somehow, because this is the opposite of real. It’s completely absurd that a vivacious 26 year old woman, who appeared the picture of health, would be dead and no one would know why. I need more information, and to know what happened. Most of all, I want to be with my stage – my fellow training class.

Rachel arrives that afternoon and spends the night at my house. She cooks me “comfort food” – mashed sweet potatoes, corn, meat, gravy, and bread. It’s delicious and I enjoy her company, I’m so glad to not have to spend the night alone. In the morning, we leave for Niamey and arrive at the transit house, where I share a somber reunion with the 28 other volunteers that make up MCD/CYE 2010.

That evening, our country director comes to talk with us. A memorial will be held for Stephanie the following day, Sunday, and she will be leaving for America immediately afterward to return Stephanie to her family. The death appears to have been from natural causes, she says, but we’re still not sure what happened and no one will know for several weeks.

The next day, the memorial service is held. As many volunteers that could come are there, including the chef du canton of Hamdallaye, the village that hosts the training site. He performs the fatiya, a prayer to open the service. Several other speak, Stephanie’s closest friends, Ousmane, Tondi, and Absatou, her main language teacher from training. Afterwards there is a slide show of photos and we watch while eating eggrolls and cake.

Following the ceremony, most of the trainees go to the airport to see Valarie off to America. I stay behind, emotionally drained and physically exhausted, and go back to the transit house, where I fall asleep only a few hours later, at about 8pm, and don’t wake up until the next morning.

Today, a counselor came in from Washington to speak with us and make sure that we know they are prepared to support us. I feel that Peace Corps has done all they can for us as far as emotional support, and I am grateful to them for this.

Soon, we will be headed back to our villages, 29 bright stars scattered from one end of the country to another, filled with hope and excitement to enact positive developmental change and cultural exchange in our villages. There should be 30. I don’t know where we go from here, but I know that our stage will never be the same. Already I can feel that the dynamic is different, and Stephanie’s absence hurts like a bruise. I can’t understand why this has happened, or how. Here one day, gone the next.

I guess I should dust off some tired old chestnut about how we should live every day to the fullest, like it’s our last. And I am excited to go back to my village – I feel a renewed vigor to continue my study of Zarma and start working in my community. Because for those of us left behind, we will all have to work that much harder to make up for what we now lack, to fulfill our promise to this country. Stephanie would have been a great volunteer, and I hope that in the next two years we can make her proud.