As the plane pulled away from the small municipal airport, my light tears turned into body-shaking sobs. I held on to the sight of my family on the other side of the airport window as long as I could, believing that it would be two years until I saw them again. Everything I knew about this world would change in a matter of days. My life, after that moment, would never be the same.
Five years later after I left for Niger and that morning of July 5 is still clearly etched into my memory. But there are others, too.
– Watching a 2010 World Cup game in a bar in the Philadelphia airport with my new Peace Corps friends.
– Our first rainstorm in Niger, tearing our bug nets quickly and efficiently as if we’ve been doing it for years.
– Our first standfast, which felt more like summer camp, with a talent show and dance party.
– When I arrived in Dan Tchiao and flocks of children came to greet me.
– The first time I got sick with dysentery and my host mother prayed over my head.
– Receiving the call that my dear friend had passed away in her sleep and then watching a box with her inside and an American flag draped over it being lifted on to an airplane.
– Thanksgiving and Christmas in Zinder.
– Showing new volunteers around the Zinder market and feeling like I’d become an expert in three months.
– Tondi trembling as he read the words of our evacuation orders.
– Watching Dan Tchiao from the rearview mirror and sobbing from the deepest heartbreak I’ve ever felt.
Niger was the beginning of a life shift for me and, my world did change that July 5. In no way could I envision that my journey to Niger would end the way it did, but it was meant to be that way. I was meant to have just those six month in that incredible desert nation, and then two years of service in Lesotho.
In just six months, I felt a lot of pain in that country. For the first time, I saw true poverty and I realized that there was little I could do. I had to say goodbye to my beautiful village way before I was ready. And, I lost a dear, dear friend who I still think about often.
Yet, in one of the poorest countries in the world, I found lots of joy and love. I met Nigeriens who will never have one percent of the luxuries that I have, but still smile every day and love the people around them with everything they have. I met fellow Americans with such rich and intelligent souls that I was instantly inspired to do as much good as possible, and to this day, I am constantly amazed at the incredible things they do to make this world a better place. I also got to see a side of myself, one with courage and patience, that I am not sure I would have believed existed before I got on that plane July 5, 2010.
All of our lives change after five years, if we are lucky, but there has never been a time in my life so chalk full of monumental moments than the last five years. So many of the defining parts of my life happened in that time and I know I wouldn’t be where I am – in a very good and happy spot – if not for Niger. That West African Country which few can properly pronounce and fewer have ever heard of is shaped into my personality and I will never not feel a deep love for it. It was my beginning, my foundation, and where I learned so much about the world and about myself. Even if I only got six months in that country with those amazing people, I am thankful for every single second.