Living in Hell

I didn’t know I was living in hell, but I guess I am. Thank you Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace for letting me know.

Every year they do a feature called “Postcards from Hell,” where they index the 60 worst countries in the world. It turns out that Niger is #19 on the list, putting it in the top 20 most hellish countries in the world (the higher the better). Who would have known? I mean it is hot here, but seriously!

Looking over the list got me thinking. After growing up in Togo (#39), and the Ivory Coast (#11), and now living in Niger, I have spent a lot of my life in hell! I mean, we even took our vacation in hell (Kenya comes in at a surprising #16).

Obviously this is hyperbole. They are exaggerating to make a point. They are not really saying that Niger or anywhere on this list is actually hell. What they are trying to say (I think) is that a lot of places in the world have a lot of problems, and here is a glimpse at what some of the places and problems are. That is a valid point, and it would certainly be good for people to be more informed about what is going on around the world (even if it is a silly internet side-show that people browse while drinking their morning coffee before starting their real work).

But it still isn’t very nice.

No matter how noble your intentions, it isn’t really very nice to say that these countries are hell. It is also rather essentialist of them to take one picture (usually of something terrible), and say that it somehow represents a whole country. That is like taking someone’s high school yearbook picture and posting it on the internet as proof that they are not cool. Kind of a low blow. Also, you should read this critique.

Personally, I can say that when I look around it doesn’t seem like I am living in hell. Sure there are lots of problems here in Niger. Very serious problems. And when I look around I see them. Actually, I don’t even have to go looking for them, sometimes they come to me. But when I look around problems are not the only thing I see. I also see a lot of really great things. Things like cooperation, unselfishness and people working together. If you tell someone about a problem you have, they always say, nous sommes ensemble, (“we are together”). Even if they can’t do anything to help you, they want you to know that they are with you. There is a real solidarity that exists here that is hard to find in a lot of other less “hellish” countries.

When I look around I see people who are thankful. They often do not have very much, but they are very grateful for what they do have. Recently, we had a big rain. We have been waiting for rain for quite some time, and people were starting to get nervous. When the rains don’t come on time, or don’t come often enough, there are serious consequences. It could be the difference between life and death. So when it did finally rain long and hard, it was all anyone could talk about. The next day every single person I talked to said two things to me:

  1. “So, what do you think about this rain?”
  2. “We thank God for the rain.”

I think that is awesome. In other parts of the world, where people are less (visibly) dependent on the rain, they don’t even think about it. If they think about it at all, rain is a nuisance, something that keeps people from going outside and doing what they want to do. They certainly wouldn’t think to be thankful for it. But here rain is a blessing, and people treat it as such. They know they are dependant on it and they know where it comes from.

There are lots of problems in Niger. We need more development and more people to come and invest. This is another reason why calling Niger (and most of the countries in Africa) hell is not very helpful. You won’t see lots of people lining up to invest in hell. “Come explore the many exciting business opportunities in our Failed State!” Thanks a lot FP.

The Chinese have been investing a lot all over Africa, and a lot of people have criticized them. Others have defended them. I don’t really want to get into that whole debate, but I will say this, they are doing a lot of things that are helpful, even if they are not doing it out of altruism. Here in Niamey they are paving a ton of roads, and in the east they built an oil refinery. There are many things they could do to improve, but right now they can pretty much do whatever they want because they have no competition. If they had to outbid a bunch of other investors, they would be forced to do things differently.

Also, Niger has had a pretty good year. They recently had a coup, but since then they have had peaceful elections, a peaceful transition of power, and started exporting oil! You would think that would bump them up a bit on the list. It did – they went from #15 to #19. It really makes you think, what do you gotta do to get out of hell?

I hope things start getting better for Niger, but I also hope that the people don’t lose their great attitude. Their worldview is one that puts value on sharing and on communal living. It is a worldview that has been developed by people who have carved out a living under very difficult circumstances. It is founded on people who know suffering, but people who suffer together. To me that does not sound like hell at all.

Does this look like hell to you?

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3 Responses to Living in Hell

  1. Rebekah says:

    Excellent post, Josh. I am continually troubled by these characterizations of Africa, in particular. You hit the nail on the head — why would anyone want to invest in failure? Certainly you could pretty much close your eyes and point blindly at a map of Africa and you would land on somewhere with problems, the likes of which most Westerners cannot even imagine, but as long as the response of developed nations (or individuals fortunate enough to live in a developed nation) is, “What a failure!” and not, “Is there anything at all we can do?” things aren’t likely to get any better. “Nous sommes ensembles.” I love that.

  2. Harriet Lawrence says:

    great post, Josh. … and Josh, you were way cool in high school !

  3. Phil Hudson says:

    Great post with very perceptive analysis. Your point about Chinese investment is spot on. If Western companies and governments were investing in things that had long term impact the resultant competition would up the game and force every project to yield better results for the host country. But it easier to criticize the Chinese for the poor terms they offer or to criticize the recipient countries for accepting such poor terms without mentioning that there is no other choice but to accept poor terms or stay poor and underdeveloped.
    Thanks to you and Julie for sending a ‘postcard from heaven’ and ignoring the Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace!

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