The Diaspora’s Call: Transforming West Africa from the West

It was a month after our evacuation from Peace Corps Niger. A number of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers drove down to Greensboro, North Carolina from DC on a whim. We’d all heard of someone in Niger with a relative living there. Bizarre, I know. After our couple addresses found us no Nigeriens and ready to head back north, we somehow ended up on the side of the expressway down the road from a Bojangles, a self-storage facility, and a funeral home. In the most mundane of flea markets, we met our Nigerien. As we were about to leave, I just knew that one wasn’t enough. I rushed back in and ended up meeting two more Nigeriens. One claimed to be related to the imam (Muslim religious leader) of my Peace Corps village in Niger. Just as we discovered this, he pulled out his phone.

A Transatlantic Partnership

This past summer I talked to the person on the other end of the phone in person. Imam Idi was a good friend throughout my Peace Corps service, recounting Lido’s history and my Hausa name. I met him at the outskirts of town by the marketplace. What had been a few piles of cement bricks had been transformed into what could be called a strip mall. Years of working at the Greensboro flea market and a McDonalds had literally been shaping Lido’s landscape since my time as a volunteer until today.

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Imam Idi with shops under construction – July 2013

Idi’s uncle Seydou in Greensboro is going beyond his call as a member of the Nigerien community abroad. Like diasporas from other developing countries, Nigeriens provide basic necessities for their families and friends back home. Seydou, however, has invested in his village for a larger impact. He confirms expert analyses that find migrants’ remittances do better than international aid at reducing poverty. Yet I was left wanting. “You can build shops all you want,” I thought to myself, “but who will be the new shopkeepers?” We need to start talking less about an economy rising out of poverty and more about people transforming economies.

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West entrance to Lido in 2010
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West entrance to Lido in 2013

Another Approach

How does one transform an economy? I was still asking myself this question a few weeks after my return visit to Lido. I met another set of the West African diaspora in Belgium and the Netherlands. One man, who I’ll call Oumarou, had drawn on personal connections in the Netherlands to create NGO and build a vocational school for out-of-school youth in his home village in Niger. Sounds great, no?

What followed was one of the saddest conversations I had this summer. It took place in the Aldi grocery store of Liege, Belgium. Control of Oumarou’s school been wrested away by the government and his Dutch collaborators abandoned the project, frustrated by governmental corruption. As we circled the store, he asked me if I wanted beer, then sausage. Then he explained how he went by a European name instead of his Muslim name. Before long, he was telling me how he had given up on his country, his religion, and his people. He had retreated to “tend his garden” in this remote corner of Western Europe.

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Some of the Nigerien community in Liege, Belgium

What’s missing?

Oumarou had tried to effect lasting change through education. He had gone through loops and hurdles of the aid sector to do so, but going through higher-ups had blocked his dreams. Seydou has been working around this system, making things happen through personal connections, but he cannot teach entrepreneurial skills from abroad. Each project currently stands as mere buildings: some overgrown and unused, others begging to be used. Next time, I will focus on how those of us in the West can impact both people for growth back in West Africa.

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