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By Gerry Boyle '78
Most AIDS activists are faced with the task of convincing people to take the disease seriously. In the remote reaches of Niger in West Africa, Carrie Allen '96 is working to inform villagers that AIDS exists.
A Peace Corps volunteer, Allen was preparing in November to set out with her colleagues on a 280-kilometer bicycle ride across the westernmost section of Niger, near the borders of Nigeria and Benin. The plan was to stop in villages along the route and do AIDS presentations in Hausa and Djerma, two of Niger's languages. The message was that AIDS is a very real threat, though hard numbers are hard to come by. "Any percentage that you're going to get is probably going to be a lot less than it really is because nobody knows," Allen said, in a telephone interview from Niamey. "Like people in my village of 1,500I'm sure people die of AIDS but nobody knows that it's AIDS because they don't get tested. There's no place to get tested.
"People just think they're getting 'the skinny man's disease.' They don't know what it is."
Since June 1999, Allen has worked in Niger in the village of Tchangkarquil, three hours south of Niamey. A French major at Colby, she's learned to speak Djerma, taught women to make bread, instructed men in agricultural techniques, planted a peanut field. The AIDS bicycle tour was her first major project, borrowed from another Peace Corps volunteer who biked across Ivory Coast in an effort to get girls to go to school there. The success of the AIDS ride depended on the novelty of Western women pedaling into town and then helping stage skits and even a concert telling villagers that AIDS is among them and it should be taken seriously.
In Niger these events are called "AIDS fetes" and can include video demonstrationsvolunteers bring their own generatorand condom demonstrations. "Even in my village, I've started getting condoms from the dispensaire and handing them out to the men," Allen said. "Because the young men won't go to the dispensaire to ask for condoms. They're embarrassed. But they'll come to me, no problem. It's a question of getting the word out to them."
The word is that AIDS is brought to sub-Saharan Africa by men who leave their villages in Niger to work in cities on the North Atlantic coast. When they return home, they transmit the AIDS virus sexually. In a country with so few resources, treatment is rarely available.
Allen said the rainy season had just ended in Niger, but little rain fell last year. The millet crop, a staple in Niger, was down, which didn't bode well for the months to come. Yet the people of Niger give freely of what little they have, Allen said. "The people are so generous, so welcoming," she said. "I mean, I'm a total stranger to this village that I came to. And yet everyone gives me food, welcomes me, is patient with me, helps me. I got there and I didn't know how to wash my clothes by hand. I didn't know how to pull water and make food. It's really amazing. They have hardly anything. They don't have any money. But the thing I notice the most is how much they laugh. How happy they seem to be. I know they go through pain and it's hard for them, but they go about it with such a happiness."
The lesson hasn't been lost on Allen, who, as America has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, has learned how few possessions one needs to live. Raised in Indianapolis, she's also learned to cope with heat that would be a natural disaster back home. The day she spoke from Niamey, it was over 100 degrees, typical for "the mini-hot season," Allen said. "I put my thermometer out in the sun during April and it hit 120. It could have been hotter. I know that up in Iferouane and Agades it gets to 45 or 50 degrees Celsius. Which is 130, maybe."
What is that like? Allen was to find out. In December she was due to move to Iferouanecloser to the Sahara, just 100 miles from the Algerian borderto work for a year with a French non-governmental organization (NGO). Iferouane is in a region inhabited by Tuaregs, a nomadic people who rebelled against the central government a decade ago. The area still is described by the U.S. State Department as "perilous" for travelers. Allen was looking forward to being based in a northern oasis. In the meantime, she was staying for a month at a Peace Corps hostel in Niamey, planning the AIDS trek. "Air conditioning," Allen said. "A little break."
Peace Corps volunteers plan to repeat their November ride across Niger to publicize the AIDS threat there. They need supplies, including water bottles, rehydration mixes, hydration packs, riding shorts and tire repair kits, etc. Those and any other contributions may be sent Carrie Allen c/o Carole and Norris Allen, 1481 E. 77th St., Indianapolis, IN 46240. Carrie Allen's address in Niger is: PCV Carrie Allen, BP 10537, Niamey, Niger.
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