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That's What I Love about Niger

Recently an appointee to Niger asked John what he likes about living here.  This is what John wrote:


Dear ______,

Some of what Suzanne wrote on her blog is exactly what I was going to say to you. So let me begin with the weather. Yeah, it's hot, but that has its advantages.
Trying to stay cool one day when our power was out.


For one thing, you don't have to pile on layers of clothes. One thing people always tell me in cold climates is that you can always put on more layers to stay warm, but you can only take off so much in a hot climate. The problem for me is that I'm always cold in cold climates, and it's because my face, head, feet, and hands never seem to warm up. Besides, you can only put on so many layers before you can't fit into any more. And, I hate putting on layers. It takes so much time and fuss and costs so much more money. Plus, as Suzanne says, it's always warm enough for a swim or a water fight in Niger. Truth be told, I like hot. There are months when the heat is too much and I complain and longingly think of cold winter nights in North America, but if I had to choose between extreme hot and extreme cold, I'd choose the former any day. Fewer people die of extreme heat than of extreme cold (that's my unscientific opinion, anyway). That may be of small comfort to you as you think about Niger, but there are times in Niger where the weather can be really nice. Cool, clear December nights are some of my favorites. So are the clear blue skies of a rain-washed September day. There's more I could say that I like about the weather, but that gives you my opinion of it. (Of course, it's easy for me to say as I 'freeze' in 13C weather in England when it's 43C in Niger now.)

Now, take the people. Nigeriens are open, friendly, and outgoing. They do have their suspicions of strangers, like everyone, and Niamey is a big city, a place where people tend to be more reserved, but people are so much more warm and friendly than in North America or somewhere like here in England. I like that you don't always have to call to make an appointment to see someone. I like that people drop everything just for you, the guest.



Yeah, it means your program gets messed up and you might feel pressure to get something done, but it's so much more refreshing and healthy. People live in community, and they depend on each other. It's not really a matter of dependence or independence, but interdependence. We westerners have got to learn to make a declaration of dependence. The truth is we need to fight against being totally independent. We have a lot to learn from our African brothers and sisters in this area. Living in community has its difficulties, but there are some big benefits. You develop deep, lasting friendships. Just a few weeks ago, I went back to the village where we lived for 16 years. I was welcomed like a long lost son. Even though my memories of our time there are filled with much sadness, I was blown away by the sincere greetings given me. Wow, all friendships we developed over those years. I have rarely had such deep friendships in North America where everybody looks out for themselves and people seem cold and unfriendly by comparison. I shed tears as I write because that is one of the things I like the most about Niger. I am not trying to say Canadians or Brits are unfriendly and unfeeling, and you still have to work to make friends in Niger, but it feels more open and inviting in many ways. Oh, and another thing Suzanne mentioned is the community amongst missionaries. You may not feel this immediately, but time and again, my missionary family has stepped up to the plate when we've had a need. There is a sense of community and sharing among us. Yeah, there are problems, too, but the family feel often helps to make up for the loss one feels when biological family is far away.

Suzanne mentioned the culture. There are things I like about the culture and other things I don't like. One thing I like is that people are always more important than work. I have to remind myself of that when I'm so busy that I don't feel like I have time for one more visitor, but that's what helps make community. Also, things happen slowly. Sometimes that can be frustrating, but often it is wonderful to have life slow down and take a more leisurely pace.
One of the most generous people I know.

One thing that astounds me is the way my poor friends will share what little they have with their rich, white friends. I have been humbled and amazed by their generosity. In a big city like Niamey, you may not see that right away, but the longer you stay in Niger, the greater the chances of that happening. Oh, and some of my Muslim friends will stand up and defend my reputation amongst friends, government officials, and folks who don't know me.

Now I'm going to diverge a bit from Suzanne's blog and talk about some other things that I like about Niger. One is that it's a great place to raise your kids (in my humble opinion). No, it is not exempt from evil and the sin nature, but some of the blatant nature of western culture is muted and behind doors in Niger. Some of that excessive materialism is also masked and not as in-your-face as in North America or England.

Of course, our kids grew up in a bush town in an almost ideal environment (if anything on earth could be considered ideal). They had many friends in the village and learned the language well. They were not isolated from the hardships and evils of life. They saw much suffering and pain. But they were part of our work and participated in it often. I think that's one reason they loved it so much.
They didn't live in an isolated 'bubble' where all the ex-pats were. Of course, there are dangers, but you need to take reasonable risks and let your kids develop friendships with Nigerien children. Our kids benefited greatly from their experience, and I believe God has made them better for it.

Next, there are certain foods that I crave when I'm not in Niger. Some we can make or find in North America and some we can't. Lemonade made with fresh lemon juice. Sweet, ruby red grapefruit. Papaya, fresh pineapple, cashew fruit and guava. Groundnut stew (peanut butter sauce), the specialty food of West Africa. Sauces made out of egusi (pumpkin seeds), baobab leaves, or sesame. Fried plantains (cooking bananas). Delicious, cheap street food (chicken or shish-kebobs cooked on grills outdoors).

Big, juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes. Spicy purple onions (one of the chief agricultural exports of Niger). Bean cakes and fried doughnuts (cooked outdoors in big vats). The list could go on and on. Don't get me wrong. There is not the variety or quantity of foods you can get in North America, and some of the foods are only available in season, but they make my mouth water as I think of them, and I've barely been out of the country for two days.

Another thing I love about Niger is the birds. There are times when Niger doesn't look too pretty to the western eye. But the amazing variety of colourful birds dazzles the mind with its splendour. Sometimes a bright red or blue or yellow or green bird will pop out and fly by when you least expect it.

It sometimes takes patience and observation to notice this, but as you will be living near the Niger River, there are many possibilities for seeing colourful birds. Take the time to watch for them. Another treat is the flowers. Some of them are breathtaking. And many of the flowers bloom the most during the hottest time of the year. Go figure.

Let me return to the subject of the weather. We actually have four seasons, but they don't follow the four season of North America. There is the rainy season from mid-June to mid-Sept. I love rainy season, especially the sound of rain on a tin roof. It's one of the loveliest sounds in the world. I love hard, driving rain and big thunderstorms. Yes, it makes the streets messy and the drainage is poor in Niamey, but that's part of the fun. I also love the dust storms that precede the first rains at the beginning of the rainy season. Some people don't like them because they rain down massive amounts of dust and blow fierce gale-force winds, but they remind me of God's majesty and power as they roll in on a hot afternoon, like a wall of fire stretching up thousands of feet into the air.

As soon as they hit, the temperature drops precipitously, and I like to go out and stand in them just soaking in God's goodness. (Dust storm season is usually May and June but can last into July.) Then when the rain hits, it's so cooling and refreshing, you want to run and skip and play in it. And it's amazing to watch the country literally change colour after the rains come. It's like the bloom of spring in North America, but different, too.



The second season is the hot, humid harvest season, which runs from mid-Sept to early Nov. That's not my favorite season because it's when my allergies start to kick up, and it's hot, but it doesn't last long. Then comes the third season: the long, dry, cool season, which goes from Nov to Feb. Again, one of my favorite seasons: cool nights, dry days, and often I don't even need the ceiling fan. Temperatures don't actually go that low (usually we get some nights in the teens celsius in Dec and Jan), but the dryness actually has a negative heat index effect, causing it to feel cooler than it is. Any breeze will be coming off the desert at that time, and it's relatively cool. It starts getting hot by early March, and the fourth season, the hot season, goes from mid-March to mid-June. These are the hottest months of the year because the sun's rays are directly overhead and we have not had rain for many months. May is my hardest month because it is both hot and humid in the run-up to the rainy season.

Did I mention how Niger brings the Bible to life? Nigerien culture is so much more like the culture of Palestine during Jesus' day that it really helps you see the Bible with new eyes.

One final thing: I am naturally an extrovert, but I feel constrained and unsure of myself in North America, more like an introvert. Partly it's because I've been in Africa so long, partly I don't feel free to approach people and be myself there. I feel more like I'm in my skin in Niger. I can be myself and act like the extrovert I was created to be.

Have I whetted your appetite for more? There's lots more. I haven't mentioned many things that I actually enjoy. And this exercise of writing to you has made me remember why I'm there and why I love it. We are prone to complain, aren't we, to look at the rough or difficult side of life? But these are some of the reasons I love Niger, and I hope you will grow to love it as well. I can't say it will be easy, and it may not always be fun, but you can rejoice that you are not competing with hundreds of other people for the same jobs and trying to reach out to people who are turning their backs on God. You will be counted with the few who have responded to the call to go to the hard place and triumphed through the hardship, living life to the full. I know that can be done in North America, but we have such an easy life there, and ease tends to dull our senses and make us forget our purpose and our need to depend on God. That is something you cannot do in Niger and survive for long. I don't know if you've ever read Theodore Roosevelt's 'Man in the Arena' speech. If you haven't, look it up sometime. It has startling insight and perceptiveness about life and how it should be lived.

John

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