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Study Abroad in Niger

Women working in NIger.

Women working in NIger.

Every so often I get an email from a name I do not recognize. In essence it says, “I am interested of studying abroad in Niger, but I’m just not sure. Someone in the study abroad office suggested I contact you.” 

I drop whatever I’m doing to respond. “You must go,” I write. “My semester in Niger was the most memorable and important of my college career.” 

The Basics 

Run by Boston University but open to all undergraduates, the Niamey International Development Program is not your typical semester abroad. First of all, it is small. My semester had six students, and it is rare for any semester’s group to be larger than a dozen. You will live together in an apartment complex in Niamey, Niger’s capital, and you will of course take classes, but academics are not what the experience is about. For four months, you will become part of a community that could not be more different from your own. 

Life in Niger 

Niger has no McDonald’s. No Starbucks. Not even a single ATM. It is one the poorest countries in the world, which you will be reminded of as you stroll past piles of pungent waste and polio-mangled bodies reaching out to ask for a little change. But you will forget momentarily about Niger’s poverty when new friends welcome you into their homes and show more generosity than you have ever experienced.  

Niger is predominantly Muslim, and you will soon be enchanted by rhythmic beauty of the call to prayer. If you are a woman, you may find yourself covering your knees and shoulders, and maybe even your head. If you study abroad in the fall, you may try to observe Ramadan. 

You will learn that during both Ramadan and the hot season, life moves slowly. You may spend an entire day sitting beneath a baobab tree drinking Tuareg tea and chatting with friends. The pressures and expectations that haunt your life back home will disappear. You will learn to simply live. 

Community Placement  

You won't marvel at Nigerian life from afar; you will take part in it. One of your required “classes” is actually a volunteer placement in the community. You can do whatever you want. I apprenticed with a Tuareg silversmith. Others in my semester taught English, worked at an orphanage and volunteered at a nonprofit dedicated to democracy-building. There are many established placement opportunities that are repeated semester after semester, but if you have a new idea, chances are the program director can help you make it happen.  

Language 

You will learn to communicate in a language other than English, because few Nigeriens speak it. Prior knowledge of French is useful, as Niger is a former French colony and many residents of Niamey are fluent, but I’d never studied French before arriving in Niger and I made do. I took a local language, Zarma, which has no conjugation and consists mostly of 3-letter words and hence is quite easy to pick up. You can also study Hausa, which is a little more difficult but more widely spoken throughout West Africa. 

Travel 

You will travel. You will stay for a long weekend with a Peace Corps volunteer in the bush and take a 10-day trip to a neighboring country. My group explored the mosques, waterfalls, and markets of Burkina Faso. You’ll see one of the last free-roaming herds of giraffes in West Africa, visit a weekly live-stock market and stay overnight in a game park. 

Classes  

And of course you will take some classes. In addition to your community placement and whatever language courses you choose, you will take either International Development Studies or Class Status and Social Change. You can also pick from electives that study Nigerian culture, Francophone literature, West African performing arts, and more.  

These classes will be unlike any you have taken before. They are taught by Nigerien professors who come to your home to lecture in your kitchen or on your patio. Each morning I stumbled out of bed and into the living room for my French class, in which I was the only student. 

Some classes are taught in French and others in English, but none require much commitment outside class, leaving you plenty of time to make your experience of Niger whatever you wish.