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How digging holes in Niger taught me resilience and problem-solving

Emily Johnson after a millet harvest

I grew up around people who saw the world differently. My father's career was dedicated to educating and employing people with autism. I saw firsthand that my father’s students were gifted and could achieve in incredible ways. I also learned that, when faced with someone whose behavior they did not understand, people could be incredibly cruel.

As I grew older, I learned the importance of exploration as a way to try to understand people from different perspectives. In my 20s, I travelled to remote parts of Mexico and Ecuador on a shoestring budget to try to understand local culture. Eventually, in 2000, I fulfilled my dream of joining the Peace Corps. I was posted to Niger.

Living in a remote village in West Africa in a mud hut without power and water was a humbling and life-affirming experience. I learned to see the world from the perspective of the community. I learned the power of differences. Many of the villagers had no formal schooling and couldn’t read, yet they were wise and had creative ways of tackling problems with limited resources. My Western notions of problem-solving were useless in the beginning; it was only after I spent time listening and learning that I was able to contribute to the community.

Emily Johnson inside a house in Niger.
Emily Johnson served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger from 2000 to 2001. Her first project included trekking out to a barren, hardpan field every morning at 6 a.m. with a pickaxe to dig holes in soil as hard as concrete.

The Peace Corps taught me a profound lesson about resilience and problem-solving. When I arrived in March 2000, my first project was to demonstrate a soil restoration technique called “zai” holes. Digging zai holes was common in parts of West Africa, but unknown to the village I lived in. The project involved trekking out to a barren, hardpan field every morning at 6 a.m. with a pickaxe. I would spend hours hacking 30 centimeter-wide holes at slightly less than one-meter intervals into the concrete-like soil.

The idea was to fill the holes with decaying plant waste. When the first rains came, seeds could be planted in those holes, and bits of fertilizer would be added. As the plants took root, their root systems would break up the hard soil. All those root systems worked in concert and, over time, they broke up the hard soil and restored the field. For weeks, I was alone in the field hacking those holes in 110-degree heat. The villagers would give me quizzical looks as I walked by with a pickaxe on my shoulder; they whispered and giggled about the “stranger” in their midst.

On the hottest days, I was tempted to give up. But, eventually, a local farmer, Abdu, offered to help me dig the final rows of about 100 zai holes. When the first rains came, Abdu, joined me to help plant the seeds in the holes. Two months later, to our amazement, the first green shoots of millet stalks emerged from those holes. I’ll never forget the awe we felt as we looked out over that field.

About six months later, at the start of the planting season, Abdu asked me to join him for a walk to his peanut fields. When we arrived, he beamed with pride as he pointed to the zai holes all over his fields. He’d dug them himself for the coming season.

Demonstrating what was possible and seeing Abdu adopt it as his own was tremendously gratifying. Twelve years later, when I went back to visit the village, I saw the true power of what was accomplished. Villagers led me to the original field – now completely green and lush with plants. Twelve years later, the field that was once barren, rock-hard soil, was healthy and productive. Seeing how that combination of listening, partnering, hands-on education, and perseverance could reap long-term benefits was one of my greatest life lessons. I realized I could share my experience and knowledge and support others to solve seemingly intractable problems.

I am convinced that we all have the ability and power to solve problems that can change the world. Today, I’m a corporate social responsibility leader. I am privileged to work with skilled volunteers and offer grants to help strengthen communities. When my father passed away unexpectedly in 2016, it gave me another opportunity to reflect on what makes for a fulfilling life. With my parents and the Peace Corps as inspiration, I will always seek to inspire others to see the world differently and help change the world for the better.

Millet harvest in Niger
The millet harvest that emerged from the zai holes was a monumental success.