I definitely thought I was one of those girls who was ‘strong enough’ to take on any challenge or situation that came my way. Then I moved to Niamey, Niger, and realized it also takes a strong person to know when a change is needed for your own mental health; your own happiness. The past year living in Niamey had it’s ups and downs, but I noticed a pattern; the ups always seemed to coincide with all the trips I took (Portugal, Kenya, Madagascar & Spain), and never any when I was actually in Niamey… and the downs, well those felt like a constant during our daily lives.
Now I could go into all the details, every single moment that made us question what we were doing living there; a former friend who wasn’t really a true friend in the end (re: this blog post), a disheartening culture of the school that displayed in the attitudes of the students, miscommunication of administration, a lack of genuine connections made with people (aside from one friendship I will treasure always), unacceptable living conditions and having things taken away that were promised to us when accepting the job.
Now all of those were factors, I won’t discredit any of them in the decision made to leave. They all impacted on my emotional, mental and spiritual health the last year. If you read any of my posts, on Facebook, Instagram and even here on my blog, you could tell I wasn’t happy. I was borderline depressed; the last few months especially. We went through bouts of ‘we need to get out of here’ or ‘okay it’s not so bad we are up to the challenge’. We applied for jobs, turned jobs down… always trying to be ‘good role models’ and ‘not give up’. But there comes a time when you have to realize that you need to be selfish and do what’s best for you.
That moment came for me one day in April. I had come home to my house I shared with my boyfriend, who sometimes stays later at work to help students. I was dropped off by my co-workers and was let into my gate by my guard (every teacher house has 24-hour guard watch, barbed wire around fence that surrounds the house, and an exit window at the back of the house). I let myself into my house, locking the door behind me and proceeded to head to the kitchen to put my groceries away. Full disclosure, most days my clothes are off as soon as the door is shut behind me, because it is so damn hot in that place and the AC takes awhile; and I like to be naked. But I digress. I was fully clothed, putting my groceries away, when my guard walked by the kitchen window (only window in the house with no curtain). I didn’t think much of it, they do perimeter walks all the time. Then he backtracked and was standing in my window looking at me. I am naïve in that I assumed he was trying to tell me something important. I couldn’t hear him so I opened the door to my kitchen.
Well he proceeded to walk right in, as I was about to pop my head out to see what he wanted. He then leaned against my counter, and started to speak to me in French. Now I will admit, I had no idea what he was saying; French is not my strong suit. But in that moment I didn’t need to speak the language to read his body language. I was sufficiently creeped out. I told him, in English, that I didn’t understand. He said, in English, ‘you don’t speak French?’ then said more in French with a big smile… and then came, in English, ‘I love you’. I don’t know what else was said, but that was enough to confirm my suspicions that he was not in there to tell me anything important. I then began to explain that I had a boyfriend, I pantomimed Nick (tall, big muscles; emphasis on the muscles) but he either didn’t get it, or didn’t care. I am just thankful that I was able to get him out the door saying I needed to make dinner. The last thing I remember is him saying ‘Bye?’ and I said ‘yes bye!’ and walked toward him, almost herding him out.
Now I will admit, I have no idea most of what he said, as it was in French. But whatever it was, it was obvious it was inappropriate. He was my security guard and there to make me feel safe, not uncomfortable. I proceeded to find a blanket to cover that window, and messaged Nick to come home asap. Thankfully he was already on the way, and arrived home shortly after. I proceeded to tell him what happened. He went outside to confront the guard, in a calm manner. The guard claimed to not speak a lick of English. So Nick got our coworker, next door, to try and help him. The guard claimed he was just trying to say that he smelt gas and was warning me. Would not admit anything.
When Nick relayed all this to me, I was taken aback. Was I wrong? Did I misunderstand? Did I read his body language wrong? Did I hear things? Then when he said that whatever the words for ‘I smell gas’ in French is, sounds like ‘Je t’aime’ (I love you), I knew I wasn’t wrong. He definitely said that in English, not French. I know I heard that. But still, I was having a hard time trying to think if I was overreacting, if I was sure of what happened. But I knew whatever happened, I now felt uncomfortable, in my own home. Nick called our director, and relayed what happened and the guard was switched out, and put on paid leave.
What followed in regards to how the situation was handled, was difficult for me. The labour laws in Niger as tough for employers when you want to fire someone. Nick was told the guard would be back at work, but put somewhere I wouldn’t see him. Only after a board member found out, and made a big deal on my behalf, was anything done. Mind you, it took statements from two other women saying he has said things to them as well, to have him fired. Now here I was trying to get through this, trying to make sense of why this was so hard for me. I thought I was stronger than that. But when you are in a foreign country, where you need a guard and that guard decides to enter your home and sexually harass you, it’s rather difficult to just ‘get over’. Though I was pretty much told to do so by one. Another said ‘yeah, but she let him in the house’; great victim blaming there. And also was told I need ‘a stiff drink’ to get over it. All in all, aside from my boyfriend, I felt like I had no support from colleagues (I didn’t really have friends).
It was a hard few weeks (maybe just over a month?) dealing with how I was supposed to feel; according to myself, others and the world. Trying to make sense of why I was so scared. I had a panic attack one Friday night with the idea of Nick not coming out to a social event, even though it was on the grounds of the hospitals with other expats; mostly teachers and missionaries. I broke down. He ended up coming. And we almost made the decision to send me on a plane that weekend. It wasn’t worth it anymore. I wasn’t comfortable in my own home. I lost all sense of independence. I wasn’t myself.
If you know me, you know I love to do things on my own. Up until I met Nick, I was moving to new places alone, traveling alone, had my own friends outside of my relationships. I prided myself on my independence. But here I was, this past year, living in a place where there wasn’t much I could do alone. Mostly due to transportation; but also now due to feelings of discomfort and not even feeling okay in my own home, let alone outside of it.
So here I was, confused on what to do, how I was supposed to feel. And I had an epiphany; I don’t have to live like this. I have a choice. I am privileged; and aware of that. And I will not take that for granted. There were too many signs that we needed to leave. But I was scared. This would be my second year in a row breaking contract, and that kind of thing doesn’t look good on a resume. That also means that reference letters are hard to come by; usually a stipulation that if you break contract, the school can’t give you one. And so I was worried we would not have any options.
Well, as soon as we realized it didn’t matter, that we could always go home and figure it out, and made the decision to not go back in August, a greater sign came. Our friend, and Nick’s former principal, reached out to us, for a third time. An assistant principal in Vietnam, she just had her new High School English teacher back out of coming in August and needed someone. My dream job; teaching High School English (Grade 8 & 10) and World Literature. It was like the universe was finally showing me the way. The position of Math for Nick was already filled, but since Nick is a man of many talents a job was put together for him to teach ESL, Health and most likely one math class as well.
So with the decision already made not to come back, we jumped at the chance to teach somewhere new, and somewhere I would feel more comfortable. So as of August, we will be living and teaching in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We have been out of Niamey for two weeks now, and I already feel like myself again. In the end, no matter what anyone else has to say about our decision, I know that we did what was right for us, and the school. Miserable teachers don’t make great teachers; and I want to be a great teacher again. When you start to question your profession choice, it’s good to take a step back and see the variables that alter your feelings towards it and realize that not all teaching jobs are going to be that bad. And you have choice.
I am excited about the future again. I cannot wait to make the transition over to High School and teach some of my favourite books. I am ready to be able to do things on my own and not have to worry. I am ready to be happy again. Cheers to having choices and be able to recognize it and make changes in your life for the better!