While many had their eyes trained toward the sky Monday, others witnessed another rare crossing of paths at Indiana University Bloomington. Usually separated by an ocean, the American ambassador to Niger joined the Nigerien ambassador to the U.S. to forge and deepen alliances with stakeholders across campus.
Hosted by the Office of the Vice President for International Affairs, U.S. Ambassador Eunice Reddick accompanied her Nigerien counterpart, Ambassador Hassana Alidou, on a visit designed to showcase university resources that could be useful to the developing African democracy.
"There are so many strengths here at Indiana," Reddick said. "And possibilities."
The campus visit grew out of the relationship created this year between Indiana and Niger through the Department of Defense's State Partnership Program. The program links the Indiana National Guard with the armed forces of Niger but also seeks to develop civilian-to-civilian partnerships.
During their visit, the ambassadors were introduced to the African art holdings at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, met with professors teaching and developing curricular materials for the teaching of African languages, and spoke with about 30 Army ROTC cadets in a military science class.
The day included meetings with Lee Feinstein, dean of the School of Global and International Studies; Terry Mason, dean of the School of Education; David Zaret, vice president for international affairs; Patrick O'Meara, vice president emeritus of international affairs; and Kirk White, assistant vice president for strategic partnerships, Office of the Vice President for Engagement, and a colonel in the Indiana National Guard.
Alidou said she often visited Bloomington when her sister, Ousseina D. Alidou, was earning a master's degree in applied linguistics from IU. Ousseina Alidou is a professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and literatures at Rutgers University.
Tuesday, the ambassadors explored possibilities for further engagement with Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and met with administrators and faculty at Purdue University to discuss agricultural partnerships.
"I've been happy to see the relationship between the U.S. and Niger deepen in my three years," said Reddick, a career senior Foreign Service officer who was nominated by President Barack Obama as ambassador to Niger in January 2014. Reddick pointed to the private entrepreneurship that has gained traction in Niger along with organizations of multiform cooperation, such as the State Partnership Program and the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. foreign aid agency that has signed a compact with Niger to foster agriculture and infrastructure development there.
Niger is a nation at the nexus of difficult issues.
"It's a front-line country," Reddick said. Near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index, Niger is confronted with the droughts and floods that have resulted from climate change, a massive influx of refugees and looming threats on all of its borders from Boko Haram, al-Qaida and ISIS.
"Niger is in a bad neighborhood," Reddick noted grimly.
The socioeconomic impact of the crisis has increased the appeal of extremist religious factions, according to Alidou.
"Islam for us is our tradition, our culture," the Nigerien ambassador said, "but now deep poverty is pushing people to participate in different religious movements that are transformative."
Evidence of the transformation is clear in the way women's style of dress has changed in recent years, Alidou said.
"Sometimes I can't even recognize my relatives and my friends," the ambassador said. She recalled returning to teach at the Université de Niamey after some years away from Niger's capital.
"When I arrived the women in the classroom were covered like in Afghanistan," she said. "And I thought, maybe somebody died on campus, because sometimes when there is a death, we cover differently."
But a friend finally clued her in. "'No,' she said, 'this is the new trend.'"
Although Niger is a constitutional democracy, religious factions are increasingly influencing the course of politics there, the ambassadors agreed.
"Niger is a secular country -- technically," Alidou said. "It's not like we have Sharia law guiding decisions."
"It's not an Islamic republic," Reddick confirmed.
"But de facto you see religious leaders having more power," Alidou said. For example, Reddick cited the role clerics have played in blocking legislation that would promote the education of girls, and that would set a minimum age for girls to marry.
The 49 percent of Nigeriens who are under 15 face progressively meager prospects, Alidou told a class of ROTC cadets taught by Capt. Nathaniel Cruikshank, assistant professor of military science at IU Bloomington.
"The skills that you're getting today in this school are the skills that are required around the world," she said. "You're getting a world-class education; therefore you're capable of helping people around the world. That's not given to most youth in the world. It's a privilege.
"I'm very grateful that through the programs like USAID I was able to get the same type of education that you're getting today," said Alidou, who earned her master's degree in linguistics at the University of Illinois and has taught at Texas A&M University and Alliant International University in San Diego, among other institutions globally. "When you see the problems that the youth in my country are having, it's because they don't have the opportunity that we have. So how can we through engagement between the U.S. and Niger give youth opportunities like ours?"
Meeting with School of Global and International Studies faculty in the African Studies Program and the National African Language Resource Center, the ambassadors explored the potential for developing curriculum, teaching strategies and relevant materials in tandem with IU, and establishing exchange programs for students and scholars.
"The people-to-people exchanges go far," Reddick said.
Yael Ksander is a writer/editor with the School of Global and International Studies.