Ça va, toujours

I slowly extend my hand and feel the warm water lap at my fingers, kicking my feet just enough to keep myself afloat. It’s a “warm” Sunday in Niger, the thermometer approaching 99 degrees Fahrenheit. Above me, a large tree shelters part of the pool from the hot sun. In exchange for shade, the tree liberally drops its cracked leaves into the water, as if reminding the water–and me–who’s in charge. I don’t mind.

I’m doing everything I can to keep myself awake: morning activities, coffee at lunch, and a questionably clean pool in the afternoon. If I catch a bug from this water, well, at least it’ll keep me awake, I think to myself. The ultimate goal is to stay awake until 9 pm so that I don’t repeat the last work trip, where I had to walk around during meetings to prevent myself from falling asleep. 

Thankfully, most of my time at CURE’s hospitals is spent walking around the hospital, trying to track down an employee who is most likely wandering in the same fashion, attempting to find another colleague. I would love to see drone footage of hospital personnel. I’m sure we must resemble an ant hill.

“Have you seen Emanuel?”

“He was just here! I think he went to the ward.”

*runs to ward*

“Is Emanuel here?”

“You just missed him! He was looking for you.”

*gives up, makes for the bathroom, runs into Emanuel*

While this might sound annoying, it’s actually one of the hospital’s charms. When he joined CURE over four years ago, the hospital’s Executive Director, George, prioritized the incorporation of greenery into the grounds. Trees, vines, shrubs, and flowers color the campus, the natural beauty cultivating an environment of peace and healing. A byproduct of this design? Open spaces transformed into flowering walkways and tunnels, and walls cloaked in foliage. Ambitious climbing vines cover most of the buildings, absorbing the sun’s heat and reducing indoor temperatures by 3-5 degrees.

As Emanuel and I navigate the paths back to his office, we jump aside to avoid being hit by an eight-year-old-turned-NASCAR driver careening down the hall in his wheelchair. He grins at us apologetically before continuing around the corner. We hear a yelp from an unsuspecting woman and look at each other, laughing.

Despite all of the walking, my primary activity during the hospital visit is talking: explaining the monitoring and evaluation program to hospital leadership, identifying potential programmatic issues, asking questions about processes and workflow, and greeting everyone and their mother. Thankfully, French greetings are not difficult to learn as long as you can pronounce two words: “bonjour” and “ça va.”

“Ça va?” (pronounced sah vah) is the French way of saying, “how’s it going?” When you ask this question, the person usually responds with, “Ça va.” It’s going. A smacking handshake is often followed by a mutual finger snap, marking the goodwill of both parties.

I think “ça va” is a salient slogan for the Nigerien people (not to be confused with Nigerian). Nestled in West Africa between the Sahara desert and the coastal countries, Niger is a dry and sandy country approximately one-fifth the size of the continental U.S., but the majority of the population lives in a small panhandle extending into the greener spaces of the southwest. As recent as 2021, the World Population Review ranked Niger’s birth rate as the highest in the world (47 births per 1,000 people)–with a high infant mortality rate to match (45 deaths per 1,000 live births). If your children survive, great! But that’s not the end of the troubles: affordable food, housing, health care, and education are still challenges.

In spite of the hardship, Niger’s inhabitants thrive. Perhaps in different ways than I’m used to. Relationships run deep, colors are rich, and the food is delicious. Discipline, religion, and tradition are of the utmost importance. Family is everything, and everyone is family. Walking around the market, it’s not hard for me to see why COVID-19 restrictions wouldn’t work in a place like Niamey. People congregate everywhere, sometimes saying a brief hello to their neighbor’s brother’s cousin, sometimes lingering all day. In a place like Niger, if you ask people to give up social interactions, it’s kind of like asking them to give up, period. From what I’ve heard, death (from any cause) isn’t as uncommon as you’d expect; perhaps, to a Nigerien, the possibility of death doesn’t justify social isolation because death is already part of their reality. While they fear death like anyone else, celebrating new births and weddings and drinking tea every day with neighbors helps counter this fear.

At dinner, I ask one of CURE’s orthopedic surgeons, Shelley, if she’s had a patient die during surgery at CURE Niger. “No, never,” she answers, looking out over the Niger river. She turns, and our eyes meet. “It’s far more common for them to return home after a successful surgery and die from an illness like malaria or malnourishment. People die here all the time. It’s almost normal.” We sit in silence for a few moments. An image comes to my mind of a person trying to wade upstream against a rushing river. I’m sure some days feel like that– and if humanitarian workers, volunteers, and missionaries feel that way, how much more so would the Nigerien people? 

But if all you know is the river, then there’s only one thing you can do: keep going.

Ça va, toujours (always).



Above: Breakfast at the hospital guest house

Left: A trip highlight for me was the opportunity to see Dr. Tertius Venter again. We met on Mercy Ships in 2016 and then again in Benin in 2017. Tertius and his wife, Trudi, mean a great deal to me. When I reached burnout in 2017, I went to Cape Town for a week and stayed with Trudi. Her presence and wisdom nurtured my broken spirit. I am so grateful I got to see Tertius again while in Niger. He volunteers full-time as a plastic surgeon for organizations like CURE and Mercy Ships, all for the glory of God!

Right: Niger (highlighted).

Left: Dinner at Cap Banga, a sweet little restaurant on the Niger River, accessible by a quick boat ride. Watch out, though: your chair might fall into one of those large cracks (right) and nearly send you straight into the river. I know from personal experience.

Right: Alina, CURE Niger staff. A truly one-of-a-kind gal and a wonderful hostess.

Above: Cap Banga. You can even eat in the tree!

Above: The boat ride to Cap Banga. Can you tell that I *loved* Cap Banga? Ha!

Above: The hospital guesthouse, where I stayed for the week.

Above: The hospital garden provides food (below) for patients, families, and staff.

Left: The hiring team, left to right – Ali, Josh, and Jacob.

Right: Beautiful flowers line the walls around the hospital property.

Left: Dr. Shelley, one of CURE Niger’s surgeons, and one of the wisest and most sincere people I’ve ever met.

Middle: My favorite sign in Niamey – the Nobel Prize Hair Salon.

Right: Emanuel, CURE Niger’s Spiritual Director, and I sport big grins after (finally) finding each other!

Above: After I bought fabric at the market, Georgiana (George’s wife), brought me to her tailor. I didn’t realize that I was going to get a family of tailors!

Above: The mission of the hospital stands in stark contrast to the spiritual and physical reality of its surroundings; this picture was taken from the guesthouse roof and shows the garbage dump just beyond the hospital wall.

Above: View of Niamey and the Niger river from the top of the Radisson hotel.

Above: the Niger river at sunset. Shelley pointed out that there is a pre-sunset to the actual sunset, as the sun disappears first behind a haze of dust, then sometimes reappears a bit before finally bidding the world goodnight.

Above: Josh and I couldn’t resist taking a photo with the “I love Niamey” sign just outside of the airport.