Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Niger

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, our diversity poses challenges. In Niger, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Niger.

Outside of Niger’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the perception that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Niger are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Niger, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Niger[edit]

The Peace Corps staff in Niger recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

A challenge for Volunteers from groups with less representation in the Peace Corps may be the lack of a common background with other Volunteers in Niger.

Currently, the group of Volunteers in Niger is fairly homogenous: relatively young (mostly between 22 and 30) and largely Caucasian and middle class. Volunteers who have expressed a need for special support include those who are older than the majority, those who belong to minority ethnic groups, and those who are homosexual. If you are in such a category, you should come prepared to cope with being possibly the only senior, African American, Native American, Hispanic American, Asian American, Jew, gay, or lesbian in your training group or in the country.

What Might a Volunteer Face?[edit]

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers[edit]

Women’s roles are very distinct in Nigerien culture. Women are charged with caring for the family and work long, hard hours to prepare food, obtain water, and rear children. In addition, women do not enjoy the same level of equality as most women in the United States do. Few are educated—only 8 percent of women in Niger are literate—and very few hold responsible positions in government or other organizations. Many men have several wives. In strict Muslim households, especially in the eastern part of the country, women are sometimes cloistered (i.e., required to stay in their homes unless accompanied by their husband). Certain physically challenging tasks, including pounding millet and drawing water, are considered exclusively women’s work and are not done by men. These cultural practices can be shocking to some Volunteers. However, almost all find that they can work successfully with both women and men in Niger.

Female Volunteers have much more freedom than Nigerien women and are not expected to adhere strictly to gender roles. This provides them with a unique perspective on Nigerien life. As foreign women, they are allowed to participate in both male and female activities, whereas male Volunteers are limited to socializing only with other men. This does not mean, however, that female Volunteers are entirely free of expected gender roles. Although a female Volunteer is more accepted by men, she is still a woman and therefore considered different. For example, female Volunteers must keep their knees covered, with either long skirts or baggy pants.

Nigerien women usually marry between the ages of 13 and 18, unless they reside in cities. As a single woman living alone in a community, you may be approached by men who wish to court or date you. But there is less need for concern regarding sexual harassment or assault in Niger than in some other countries. Nigerien culture greatly minimizes physical contact because of the influence of Islam, and the chief of a village will look out for a female as he would a daughter. Nevertheless, it is important to keep your relations as platonic as possible to ensure good working relationships with people in your community.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

People of color may confront special challenges in Niger. One of the most common is being mistaken for someone from your race’s or ethnic group’s country of origin. Along with this, Nigeriens may not believe that you are a U.S. citizen, as the majority of people from the United States they have seen or heard about are of European descent.

African-American Volunteers have found that being black in Africa has advantages as well as challenges. You may be more easily accepted by your community, since you are not visibly different and thereby blend in more. However, villagers’ expectations may be higher because of your race. They may expect you to be more like them and not afford you the same allowances in language learning and cultural adaptation that they grant to your white peers. In public places, you may be taken for Nigerien and thus expected to conform to cultural norms, such as the Muslim dress code for women. Some African-American Volunteers have struggled with being told by their villagers that they are not truly black.

There is a support system among Volunteers to help you adjust to similar issues in Niger.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers[edit]

There are and have been Volunteers over age 40 in Niger. The Peace Corps welcomes the experience and special skills of older Volunteers. Like other Volunteers, you should be prepared for the harsh climate and basic living conditions, and need to take special care of your health because of the lack of medical facilities in Nigerien villages. Because there are so few older Volunteers in Niger, you may find yourself missing the company of people of similar age.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers[edit]

Nigerien culture has been described as homophobic, and gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers may find it difficult to serve here. Because of the negative attitudes regarding homosexuality, it would very difficult to maintain a positive working relationship with villagers and be open about your sexual orientation. You are likely to find a support system within the Volunteer group, but you are unlikely to be able to be open outside that circle.

See also: Articles about Niger on the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Peace Corps Alumni Association website at http://www.lgbrpcv.org/articles.htm

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers[edit]

Islam is the predominant cultural influence in Niger. It arrived beginning in the 12th century, and more than 90 percent of the population are practicing Muslims. Although there are a few militant Islamic groups in the country, the government has been able to prevent incidents of violence. The government is officially secular, and other religions are well tolerated. There are some 400 Christian missionaries in the country, most of them Americans. Volunteers are free to practice their own religion in Niger as long as they do not engage in proselytizing. Note, however, that there are no Christian churches outside major towns.

Nigeriens may inquire about your religion out of curiosity or try to influence you to become Muslim. However, this is not so much because they object to other religions as because they are concerned (like those of many religions) for your afterlife, as they believe one cannot go to heaven unless one practices the “right” religion.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

As a disabled Volunteer in Niger, you may find that you face a special set of challenges. In Niger, as in other parts of the world, some people hold prejudicial attitudes toward individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. And there is very little of the infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities that has been developed in the United States.

The Peace Corps program in Niger focuses on rural villages and small towns, which means it would be extraordinarily difficult, as well as unsafe, for anyone with a serious physical handicap to live in rural Niger. Even in Niamey and regional capitals, there are no public accommodations for people with disabilities.

That being said, as part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Niger without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Niger staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in their training, housing, job sites, or in other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.