Destination? Niger. With Kids? Absolutely.

Three scenes from an American family's African life: the Margulis family during a camel excursion; a dune west of Niamey, Niger; children Etani, 3, Hesperus, 8, and Athena, 5, at home in Niamey.
Three scenes from an American family's African life: the Margulis family during a camel excursion; a dune west of Niamey, Niger; children Etani, 3, Hesperus, 8, and Athena, 5, at home in Niamey. (Family Photos)

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By Jennifer Margulis
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 29, 2007

"You're going where?" people would ask when I told them we were packing up our house and heading to Niger.

"Niger."

"Oh, Nigeria?"

"It's a different country." I explained this so many times that I had to be careful not to sound bored or, worse, patronizing. " 'Nee-zhair.' It's north of Nigeria, in between Mali and Chad."

A blank look usually followed, and often that was the end of the conversation.

Or the beginning.

"And you're bringing your children ?" was the next question, said in a somewhat scolding tone. "Is it safe?"

Is anywhere?

Thirteen years ago, working as the small-project coordinator for Africare/Niger, I scribbled a note on a scrap of paper that I stuck in my journal: "I don't know how anyone who's ever been to Africa could live anywhere else in the world."

Now I'm back in Niger as a Fulbright scholar to visit the projects I coordinated and to teach American literature classes at the university. This time, though, I'm not alone. My husband and I decided to go to West Africa for the year, and many Americans I talked to seem to equate that with taking our children to hell.

At about twice the size of Texas, Niger is one of Africa's largest nations and has one of its smallest populations, 12.5 million. It's relatively stable, politically. To the north is the Sahara, vast expanses of white sand and silence (punctuated by a separatist movement on the part of the Tuareg in Agadez). To the south is Niger's turbulent, fascinating and better-known English-speaking cousin, Nigeria. In between is a complicated country full of heat and hope. The temperatures can soar to 130 degrees in the shade during the dry season.

"Are there a lot of diseases?" My mother-in-law tried to sound casual as we cleaned the kitchen.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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