Teaching "Roger Daltrey" in Niger

By Mark Sullivan
Dec. 16, 2020

Four of my boys took every chance to introduce themselves as Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Peter Townsend, and Keith Moon, finishing with, “And we are The Who.” Marilyn Monroe and Farah Fawcett always cheered.

Traditionally dressed men in Niger.
Traditionally dressed men in Niger. Photo courtesy of Peace Corps archives.

I studied English and writing at Hamilton College with dreams of becoming a novelist. I realized in my senior year that, though I had ample short story fodder from my teenage years working in the streets around Fenway Park, I was facing graduation with nothing compelling to write about, no story that demanded I bring it to life.

Corporate recruiters came to campus the first few months of 1980, but I had zero interest in marketing or sales or Wall Street. I couldn’t see bartending by night and writing by day, so I began looking for an adventure that would be so life-altering I felt certain I’d have something to put down on paper.

In the end, I received two job offers—each involved both adventure and national service. The first was to join the U.S. Navy and train to become a fighter pilot. The second was to volunteer for the Peace Corps and be sent to Francophone West Africa because of my rudimentary French skills.

Both jobs intrigued me. I’d always been a thrill-seeker, and the idea of flying a combat jet and landing on aircraft carriers was both scary and intensely appealing. At the same time, I’d always been something of an idealist and believed in giving back to my country and humanity for the fortunate circumstances into which I was born. West Africa sounded so far outside my box, I figured it would turn me upside down.

But I couldn’t decide which route to go. I presented my options to my conservative, business executive dad. I fully expected him to tell me to take the Navy flight offer.

Instead, without hesitation, he said, “Peace Corps.”

I was surprised and asked him why.

“Because you have a severe problem with authority,” he said. “If you go into the Navy, I fully expect you’ll end up in Leavenworth for insubordination.”

That made me laugh, but, in the end, I took his advice, turned down the Navy offer and told the Peace Corps I was in. Except they couldn’t find me a slot until three weeks after graduation when my recruiter called me at my parents’ house.

“How would you feel about teaching English as a foreign language in Niger, West Africa?”

“Nigeria?”

“Neee-jerr. It’s north of Nigeria.”

“Can you give me some time to go look it up?”

“Four hours, and you’ll have to report for training next week.”

“I’ll call you in an hour,” I promised.

Now, this was long before you could go virtual on a smartphone. I jumped in my car, drove like a madman to the local library, and spent an hour there reading up on Niger, which I quickly learned was in the Sahel zone between West Africa’s verdant coastal forests and the desolation of the Sahara. The country was the second poorest on Earth, having gone through devastating drought and starvation in the mid-1970s. The daytime temperatures could rival Death Valley’s.

I’d never done well in extreme heat and felt fear over the idea of suffering heat stroke and confronting starvation. I wrestled with the hardships that likely lay ahead of me for another hour as I drove aimlessly home. In the end, facing the fear of the unknown was what made me call my recruiter back and accept the position.

“Harsh posting,” he said. “You up for it?”

“I hope so,” I said, hung up, and told my parents.

The following week, I said goodbye to them and my close friends and flew to Philadelphia and Bryn Mawr College, where several hundred volunteers bound for various African countries were gathered for a three-day training and vaccines, inoculations, and more shots, lots of them. There was also a two-day seminar in “cross-cultural skills,” which gave me an appreciation for new cultures in a way that would prove invaluable during my time in Africa and throughout my subsequent career.

I made friends during those first three days, hard and fast friendships forged in the intensity of landing on a runway in Niamey, the capital of Niger, at three in the morning and finding machine guns aimed at us as we debarked into heat and humidity almost as stunning as the storm of flying insects that whirled around us.

It became a haze after that. I remember getting onto a bus and, through the light of the headlights, seeing women walking with big jugs of water on their heads, and men urging donkeys laden with firewood, all bound for the city. We were taken to the Lycée Kasai, a junior college empty of students, handed mosquito nets, and shown to mattresses in cubicles–each with an overhead fan.

The sun had risen by the time I fell asleep, and I was awoken an hour later by my friend’s shocked voice.

“What’s going on?” I asked groggily.

“Wake up, man,” John said. “It’s a National Geographic special out there.”

I forced myself up and out into the blistering heat, and then through the gates of the school.

My life would never be the same again.

A child atop a horse in Niger.
A child atop a horse in Niger. Photo courtesy of Peace Corps archives.

For hours, days, weeks, then months and almost two years, virtually every preconceived notion I had about life was challenged by what I saw, heard, tasted, touched, and smelled in Peace Corps Niger. I learned that my former language teachers were wrong. I had a decent ear for languages and was soon speaking French and Hausa with relative fluency. I ate things that, to this day, make me shake my head. Anyone for locusts deep-fried in cayenne-laced oil? I loved them. Better than potato chips.

I was also confronted on a daily basis with the have-have-nots of the world. My thinking about life back home began to change, and I realized how lucky and privileged I’d been to have been born in the United States and given a fine education.

Niger is a Muslim country. It was beyond eye-opening to discover that my Nigerien friends were more peaceful and spiritual than I was. This was shortly after the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy and during the hostage crisis. Very quickly, I understood I could not pigeonhole every follower of Islam as a radical. Indeed, in my experience it was quite the opposite.

I also found out I was a decent teacher and, because of my own rebellious nature, I understood how to handle the tougher kids who came to the English classes we taught that first summer at Lycée Kasai.

Because of that skill, I was eventually posted to Agadez, an oasis in the southern Sahara on the ancient caravan route between Tripoli and Timbuktu. To get there, I sat high atop millet sacks stacked in the hold of a roofless semi-tractor trailer car for nearly 18 hours as we bumped and lurched up the sand and rock road from Zinder to Agadez. One of my favorite memories of that trip was stopping at an encampment far out in the desert at three in the morning, climbing down, and having sweet tea with the Tuareg nomads gathered there.

I finally reached Agadez before dawn, just in time to hear the muezzin call for morning prayers from the top of the mosque’s tower, a mud-bricked marvel from the 14th century. I taught English at the equivalent of a junior and high school. Most of my students were Tuareg children brought in by their parents to live and study. Many of their fathers wore indigo-stained turbans, robes, and carried long swords. They regarded me skeptically.

I taught sixth grade and twelfth grade English. The sixth graders loved it when I gave them all American names. Four of my boys took every chance to introduce themselves as Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Peter Townsend, and Keith Moon, finishing with, “And we are The Who.” Marilyn Monroe and Farah Fawcett always cheered.

Many of my older students could speak English remarkably well. They were only four years younger than me, and I quickly discovered they had the same kinds of concerns and issues that I’d had in high school: feeling restless, unsure of their place in the world, wanting to move on and chase a dream, but not quite understanding how and when to make their move.

Eventually, I was offered a position as the coach of the regional soccer team. I’d played only a little soccer, but I had been a college athlete and I knew how to get people in shape. At the first practice, I realized almost all the players were older than me and in better condition.

I decided my only hope of gaining their respect was to do everything I asked of them and to work harder than they did. They nearly killed me on that first long run in the sand, but I finished. They all laughed, clapped me on the back. I felt accepted.

Eventually, I became a friend as well as a coach to all my athletes, who were uniformly curious about my life back in the States. I was uniformly curious about their lives, too, their customs, their dreams, their hardships and their triumphs.

We shared stories constantly, including on one grueling 25-hour truck ride we took through the desert to participate in the national sports festival. My team hosted a breakfast near the end of the festival, and I was one of the guests of honor. I arrived to find a boiled goat head on my plate and somehow stomached peeling off the cheek flesh and eating it as well as the nose and one eyeball.

Though I’m sure the meal had nothing to do with it, six weeks later in Niamey, I came down with cerebral malaria and had to be medevacked to the U.S.

My parents were terrified, and asked me not to go back once I’d recovered. But I felt as if I’d be letting my students and players down. I flew back when the doctors at George Washington Medical Center’s Tropical Medicine Unit gave me the go-ahead to return to Agadez, a place I was comfortable with, a place I’d come to call home.

I lasted four more months. I travelled 20 hours from Agadez back to Niamey for another training session at Christmas time. On New Year’s Eve, I blew out my knee playing touch football on the U.S. Ambassador’s back lawn. My time in Peace Corps was over.

Flying home, I felt as if I’d failed my kids and my athletes. I wondered whether it had all been a waste. In the first few weeks back home, I felt like an alien to my high school and college buddies, who were already climbing the corporate ladder. One had already bought a house.

Quickly, though, I began to see just how much I had learned and how differently I had grown during my 18 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I decided to apply to graduate school in journalism. My essay about my experience witnessing an exorcism in Agadez got me in to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where I majored in economic and investigative writing.

For the next 10 years, my Peace Corps experiences, especially those where I’d been forced to wrestle with and adapt to a new culture, guided how I worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C. and then in San Diego. I researched and wrote, for example, a series of stories about the culture of children living with addicts, a culture that had upended the juvenile court systems of Southern California. I wrote another piece about the culture of malfeasance inside the corporate funeral industry.

Neither of those stories would have been possible without my Peace Corps past.

The same was true when I quit my job to follow my lifelong dream of being a novelist. My first book, “The Fall Line,” chronicled the culture of extreme skiing in the American West. The second – “Hard News”—portrayed the culture of the American newspaper industry as it began to crumble. “The Purification Ceremony,” my third, was based on the ways and mores of Native American trackers pitted against the culture of modern trophy hunting.

To one extent or another, culture is sewn through all my other mystery and suspense novels as well, whether solely written by myself or with my writing partner, James Patterson, who has encouraged me to travel all over the world chasing stories from different perspectives.

My more recent historical novels all began in a similar manner, with a deep dive into the culture and times of my characters, all tempered and informed by the most important lesson I gleaned from my Peace Corps experience: that all people are essentially the same, no matter the color of their skin, the sound of their language, the landscape and manner of their existence, the nature of their religion, or the size of their wallet.

All people have parents they did not choose. Some are fortunate. Some are challenged beyond belief. But all of them have dreams. All people aspire to a better and more peaceful life for them and for their families. And, as I discovered 40 years ago in the Peace Corps, they all have incredible, meaningful stories to tell if you’re willing to sit down and listen.

Author Mark Sullivan

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