Africa to Pierre: SDSU graduate has two places to call home

Emma Dejong

Emma DejongManaging Editor

In a small village in Niger, Africa, Heather Mangan could barely stand up. She knew it was something in her stomach.

“I needed to call my medical officer, but to get reception, it was a 10-minute walk,” Mangan said.

Although she could speak French, her host family and neighbors only knew Hausa, the native language.

They went to find somebody who could translate, eventually to find out Mangan was sick with a treatable stomach virus.

“That’s what they do; they look out for each other,” she said. “That day I was more thankful than ever to be with that village.”

At that time, Mangan was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Three years earlier, she graduated from SDSU in 2007. Volunteering was in the back of her mind, but she decided to pursue a career instead.

She had been the managing editor of The Collegian her senior year, and after graduation she decided to take a reporting job in Idaho.

Not knowing if that was the career she wanted, she returned to Brookings to work at the SDSU Foundation. But, she said, the Peace Corps “was not something that I’d forgotten about yet.”

“A year passed, and I still couldn’t lose the dream to join the Peace Corps,” Mangan said. “I wanted to help people in a bigger way, and I wanted to see the world.”

In the summer of 2008, she applied.

During the application process, Mangan continued to put her journalism skills to use. In summer of 2009 she created The PostSD, an online magazine for South Dakota, and it launched Sept. 1.

“I wanted to tell stories that weren’t in the mainstream media using online and social media to host and promote it,” Mangan said.

When Mangan found out she was accepted into the Peace Corps, she had to leave her creation behind.

“I quit my job for this other dream,” Mangan said. “I sold all of my furniture, my car … I gave up my cell phone number,” Mangan said.

Mangan left the United States in July 2010. She was placed in Dantchaio, Niger, which is a small village in Africa. Before she could start her service there, though, she had to complete three months of training in Hamdallaye, another small village in Niger.

During those three months, she stayed with a host family while she learned about the educational system.

“Many of the people in my village were not educated beyond elementary school,” Mangan said.

She also started a girls soccer team.

“You become part of the village and live like they do,” she said.

On Sept. 23 Mangan finished her training and became sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer. She was then sent to Dantchaio where she planned to live for 24 months.

“The biggest thing was just living like them,” Mangan said. “Niger is (one of) the poorest country in the world. In my village I didn’t have running water or electricity.”

“You eat the foods that they eat. You just live with them. That’s so important.”

Religion was a big part of the culture, as everyone in the village was Muslim.

“You’re daily life is wrapped around praying,” Mangan said.

She said she was the only Christian in her village, but she did not find that to be too challenging.

“I think I became more faithful,” Mangan said. “Ninety-nine percent of Niger is Muslim. There’s not one thing in America that 99 percent are.”

Religious extremists also exist in the country.

Al-Qaeda, a radical Islam group considered terrorists by most of the world, has been active in Niger, kidnapping people for money and attention from the western world.

“We had pretty high security,” Mangan said. “We always had to check in wherever we’d go.”

In early January, Al-Qaeda killed two French men in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

“At that point, the Peace Corps decided it was no longer safe for us to be there,” Mangan said. “We had to evacuate the country.”

Only being in Niger for six months, the news completely caught Mangan off-guard.

“That was the worst week of my life,” Mangan said. “I had an hour to pack up and say goodbye.”

In Niger, Mangan said that “people spend most of their time just being with each other. Everybody is a family.”

This made it extremely difficult to leave the people she had come to love.

“A woman that I considered my mother there started crying, and it was hard because Nigerians don’t cry,” Mangan said.

After that hour of saying goodbye, Mangan and the other volunteers were taken to Morocco for what was called a transition conference. At the end of a week there, Mangan had to say goodbye to those people as well.

“Some of us came back to America; some are in other counties,” Mangan said. “It was terrible. Those people were like my family.”

They were given the option of being flown back to the U.S., or taking that money for the plane ticket and finding their own way home.

“My friends and I decided we were going to travel,” Mangan said. “Right near us was Egypt. We wanted to see the pyramids.”

Not knowing that Egypt was about to see a series of protests that would capture the attention of the entire world, she and four friends took the money and flew into Cairo on Jan. 26. They stayed there for two days and went to Dahab, a resort city on the Red Sea, for five days.

“We were always constantly watching the television to see what was going on,” Mangan said.

“We were there; we were experiencing it. It was such a powerful thing. It was just meaningful to be there when it happened.”

The five of them were able to talk to Egyptian citizens who were both in favor of President Hosni Mubarak and opposed to him. Mangan said having that experience made a lasting impact on her.

“I used to think of Egypt as the pyramids,” Mangan said. “Now I think of Egypt as this amazing movement for changes.”

They left Cairo on Feb. 2, which was the day of the really big protests. Mangan said they were lucky to have such little difficulty making their flights.

“We couldn’t check the status of our planes,” Mangan said. “We couldn’t tell our friends and family that we were OK because the Internet was down.”

Mangan flew into the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on Feb. 3 and stayed until Feb. 8.

Mangan had good spirits when hearing about yet another potential misfortune. She and her friend were not affected by it, but they heard something in the water caused a cholera outbreak in the city.

“We just laughed at that,” Mangan said, noting the string of dramatic events that seemed to follow her.

Mangan returned to her home in Pierre on Feb. 12 and is living with her family. She said she has “amazing support,” but is having a hard time making the transition from Niger to South Dakota.

“I had planned to be away,” Mangan said. “[My friends] said it, too: “You’re not supposed to be here.'”

Currently, she is not quite sure what her future plans are. She is applying for jobs, but she has also submitted reenrollment forms for the Peace Corps.

Because she was only in Niger for six months, rather than the planned 27 months, Mangan said she doesn’t think she was there long enough to make much of an impact.

“Not being able to do that, for reasons beyond my control, is really disheartening and difficult,” Mangan said.

But, the time she spent there did have a huge impact on her life, especially with what she values.

“Before I went to the Peace Corps, I was working … 80 hours a week, or something ridiculous like that. I had to learn to slow my life down. I learned more about face-to-face interaction with people.”

When asked if she would do it all over again, she replied in less than a second.

“In a heartbeat,” she said.

#1.2042921:168498081.png:IMG_0511.png:Heather Mangan celebrating Niger?s Independence Day on Aug. 3.:Photo Submitted by Heather Mangan