By Michael Brooke and Cezarina Trone
The word philanthropy comes from Latin and translates as a “love of humankind, often defined as giving gifts of ‘time, talent and treasure’ to make life better for other people.”
This column aims to celebrate those who engage in philanthropy in all its forms and Brian Nowak is a shining model of what this truly signifies.
Most people would be hard-pressed to find Niger on a map. It borders seven other countries including Libya, Algeria and Nigeria. Niger is also one of the poorest nations on earth with 43 percent of its population existing on less than $1.90 per day. The country is also one of the hottest places on earth (it has been given the nickname “the frying pan of the world”) with local temperatures rising at 1.5 times the rate as the global average. Life expectancy hovers around 62 years. Niger is also the world’s youngest country with half of its population under the age of 14 and education remains a serious challenge. Tragically, 50 percent of children ages 7 to 12 are out of school and this figure jumps to 60 percent for those 13 to 16. The reasons for this failure of education are wide ranging. They include conflict-driven insecurity, climate-related emergencies, COVID-19 pandemic, hunger and extreme poverty.
As photographer Anthony Schultz explains “what is striking about villages in Niger is their way of life, very much a pastoral culture. They actually have to rely on their animals for sustenance, they live in the middle of nowhere with very little support in a farm like environment; they have to sell their milk at the local market. This is a culture that very few people on this planet would ever experience. This tells you how remote it is.”
“As a child, Brian never sat still”, recalls his mother Ellen; “he was a rebel, he hated school and found the whole experience ridiculous” she recalls. “I later realized that my son was so much smarter than what they were teaching him. I sense he felt quite bored and unchallenged.”
Ellen recalls one high school story that gives us deeper insight into Brian’s personality. “There was this girl Flo in our neighbourhood, and she had an extremely strict mother. When Brian got his license, he told her, ‘Now I can pick you up and we can drive to school.’ Little did Flo know that Brian had already approached her mother and offered her a drive. This way the mom could get a sense of Brian’s driving skills to feel confident enough in letting Flo be a passenger with him. He made a little extra effort just to give this girl a little more freedom”. Brian had a unique ability to solve problems with tremendous creativity.”
It was only when Brian got to college that he blossomed as a student. As a student at Boston University, Brian arrived in Niger in 1998 as part of the study abroad program. Souley Oumaru was the one who met Brian the very first day the BU students came to Niger. Sue Rosenfeld, the BU Program director had asked Souley and his brother to welcome these new American students and get to know them so they can learn English. “I was his first friend in Niger. I remember how they all sat around in a circle and they took turns to introduce themselves; I remember how Brian stood out with his long hair, blue eyes and his simple attire.”
Why Niger? Brian mentioned to Souley that when he was in high school, they were exploring the map of the world and the name of Niger sounded intriguing to him so he said to himself, ‘Oh, this is so interesting. I want to go there some day.’ Later, as he started Boston University, it so happened that they were offering a study abroad program in Niger. It all made sense now. Niger was his destiny. Just like that.
Brian’s love for Mother Africa was evident from the beginning.
As Souley explains, “he truly fell in love with the people. The people of Niger are poor but very kind. They feed you first before they eat for themselves; they will give you their bed and they will sleep on the floor if you are their guest. They will always put you first. I think Brian was very touched by that. He could not believe it, that he had found this kind of people who have nothing and yet they’re very happy with a simple life.”
Brian was given the Fulani name Barké (which translates as “Blessing”) and somehow, he finagled his way to stay there for three semesters since most people were only allowed to stay for two. He reluctantly returned to the US to take the one course required for graduating with a BA in Anthropology and a Minor in African Studies at BU.
He stayed in the US for another five years, completing his MA in General and Urban Education at Long Island University in New York while working as a teacher in NYC Public School 155, located in East Harlem. As an elementary school teacher, he taught ESL, kids with special needs, and received a grant to implement a multicultural music program. Music, education, and language guided his teaching in NYC and these were passions that Barké continued to cultivate his entire life.
An intense longing for Niger led him to return there permanently in 2005 when he began working as a consultant for the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Brian eventually purchased land near the Niger River in the Goudel neighbourhood of Niamey and built an adobe house. He lived, traveled, and worked in Niger for more than 15 years, including teaching for the Boston University study abroad program and consulting for field research and assessment projects. He was Program Director for the NGO Rain for the Sahel and Sahara, and a research consultant and contributor to the African Language Materials Archive. Brian had a passion for anthropology, ethnomusicology, development, and education. He detested sitting behind a desk and bureaucracy but loved out of the box thinking.
One of the two main languages in Niger is Zarma and Barké spoke it fluently. Cynthia Becker (Professor of African art history in the History of Art & Architecture Department at Boston University), was with him in Niger when they stopped in a small town to eat street food. “I was in his Land Cruiser and I was impressed to see the astonished looks on people’s faces when he spoke fluent Zarma. He comfortably teased and joked with people; his laugh was infectious, and he managed to get everyone to smile and laugh with him.”
Many of the BU students who studied in Niger had similar experiences. Barké taught courses on Nigerien culture and performing arts. He coordinated field trips outside of Niamey, taking students to rural markets and sharing his intense love of Niger with them.
When Cynthia returned to Niger in 2009, she and Brian traveled extensively in Niger. They went into the Liptako region to learn about Bella/Iklan communities there. “Given that the area had no hotels, and even if it did Brian would not want to stay in them, he prepared for his journey by strapping mats on top of his car,” recalls Cynthia. He filled the back of his car with a large sack of rice, spices, onions, and a few other vegetables. The two went to various market towns, interviewing blacksmiths, tailors, and women about styles of dress and social change in the region regarding the history of slavery.
When we visited small communities, we gave people some of the food and asked them to cook it for us, sharing it with them. We camped by their homes and slept under the stars on our mats. We got stuck in the sand dunes several times, once for a harrowing four hours; only a large truck and a team of people managed to pull us out,” recalls Cynthia. Security concerns in Liptako cut short their plans to write about painted houses on the Wogo Islands near Ayerou.
When Brian came to the US once or twice a year, he stayed with Cynthia in Boston, giving at least a dozen lectures to her various African art classes. “I teased him about wearing his yellow plastic sandals with socks to BU and often had to reprimand him for using the F-word during class or making some other off-color joke. Of course, students loved him.”
Brian remained close to his host father from his study abroad days, Baba Nzara, whose family he regularly visited for Eid and other occasions. He was a devoted advocate for youth education, especially among children living in poverty, and supported several Nigerien students with school fees. He was a consultant for the music label Sublime Frequencies, traveling to Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Nigeria with Hisham Mayet to document music and dance. He worked with his longtime friend Tara Deubel as a consultant for OXFAM in northwestern Mali.
Brian also taught with Cezarina Trone at the American International School of Niamey (AISN) between 2007-2010. “Reflecting back on my three years teaching in Niger, I witnessed Brian’s daily practice of being a great listener and knowing how to follow his own inner GPS (I call this instinctual energy or intuition). Quite often I watched him teach kids about chameleons he picked up from the school garden, and it took me a while to realize he was indeed ‘a chameleon’ himself. Brian had this ability to adapt to any person, group or situation in order to be able to assist with exactly what was needed in the moment ” explains Cezarina.
Debba Robinson (AISN School Director at the time) confirms, “Brian was a white man in a very dark-skinned culture, and yet, I didn’t see him as being starkly different because he had merged into that culture. I loved the way he interacted with the people in the street, how he mingled culturally, socially and through his amazing facility of languages. Brian didn’t sit himself on a pedestal and said, ‘I am the great big white man and you need to worship me’, which is something that I abhor; I cannot stand it when the white man comes in and says, ‘You can all sit by my feet.’”
He shared his great love of Tuareg music with Eric Schmidt (Assistant Director of the Boston University African Studies Center) and became good friends with scholars Scott Youngstedt and Sara Beth Keough. For more than eight years he worked with Bess Palmisciano, founder of the NGO Rain for the Sahel and Sahara, as an organic gardening consultant, providing practical training in nutrition and health.
“His talent for connection, in addition to his experience as a teacher, was crucial in defining Rain’s approach to community development” says Bess. “Our shared vision of Rain focused on valuing local traditions while introducing new ideas, discussing options and forming consensus. It was here where Barké’s natural charm factor flourished. As Bess fondly recalls, “Brian coddled babies, played with children, connected with every person involved in a project. He eagerly ate local food, danced with them and sang. Whatever was happening, he was there.”
Bess believes that Brian’s ground level talent was more than matched by his intellect. “His curricula for adult literacy classes were unconventional, participatory, and wildly successful. Some students had never held a pencil, others didn’t know that their language could be written. Classes were held in straw structures; passersby often stopped to listen and asked to join.”
She also remembers a little boy who walked 12 miles to school each day. “I was skeptical, so I drove him one day. It was true. Brian loved people and for every mile they walked he was willing to walk three, or more, whatever it took to reach the goal.”
In his position as a Programs Director for Rain, Brian evaluated programs in agriculture and education, worked on a dorm program for students from nomadic communities, and designed curricula. Brian maintained close friendships with his Rain colleagues, including Halima Aboubacar, with whom he collaborated on humanitarian work across the Tillabéri and Agadez regions.
Every American who passed through Niger doing research or as a student encountered Barké. No doubt there are so many others not mentioned here who would agree that he had a profound impact on their lives.
Over the last few years, Barké began to devote himself to his true passion: music and oral traditions. He worked with John P. Hutchinson, Professor Emeritus of African Languages & Linguistics at Boston University (Friends of Niger Nonprofit Organization) and traveled throughout the Sahel and documented more than 77 artists performing in 22 different languages. “Brian had a deep love for and appreciation of the music of West Africa” explains John. Brian traveled widely filming and documenting African musicians. He would get to know the musicians and would film and record their music, he would contact linguists at local universities and hire them to transcribe and translate the recording.
Brian was a talented photographer, often choosing to photograph people from below, presenting them as majestic and proud, which is clearly the way he understood them to be.
Anthony Schultz was one of 12 students who stayed with Brian during his time in Niger. “He divided us into groups of four and we’d stay overnight in a very remote part of the country. We were the last group to go out and it was seriously off-road.” Anthony recalls that a number of children had gathered around their group of students because they were very curious. “These children had never seen white people in their lives and they hung out with us. We ate dinner with them and got to learn about their way of life.”
Brian very much had the desire to connect with people in such a heartfelt way that it truly transcended what we have been taught in our culture about connecting with others. “He’d drive through the city of Niamey and it seemed like he knew everyone on the street. He was recognized as being an integral part of the local community” says Anthony. When Brian’s mother visited Niger in 2006, she recalls driving around to lively shouts of ‘Barké:’ “Everyone knew his name and kids would just flock to the car at every red light we stopped at.”
An avid hiker, Brian loved spending the night under the stars, whether it was in northern Ghana or on the roof of his house in Niamey. Barké was deeply spiritual and a seeker of mystical knowledge, facing life with an open heart and mind. He was not a dreamer but a visionary soul in action, and he would go wherever the road took him because he was trusting himself. Brian also had his own day to day challenges and worries as we all do, sometimes even wondering how he may be able to make ends meet and continue his life in Niger. Nevertheless, he continued to follow his soul mission, and this made all the difference.
Brian worked with Sublime Frequencies, an ethnic music label, doing field recordings in the Tillaberi and Filingue regions of Niger and as an archivist for Sahelian folk collection in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Mauritania. He also consulted in northwestern Mali with OXFAM — a global organization that fights inequality to end poverty and injustice; the International Federation of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, and the British Red Cross during their response to the 2005 food crisis in the pastoral zone; and PLAN NIGER, where he worked as a consultant and author of a mid-term report/assessment of a U.S. Department of Labor-funded project for Child Labor and Trafficking. Brian also participated on the Niger Heritage Museum Committee and was a member of one of its paleontological and archaeological expeditions.
Brian continued to teach throughout his time in Niger and was an annual guest lecturer for Boston University’s African American Studies Program. He was also an Instructor and Program Assistant at Boston University’s Niger Program until 2011, when it was cancelled after multiple terrorist attacks by the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
“In my memory, Brian was this big breath of happiness” says Amina Allele Abou who worked as a secretary at AISN. “He was just filled with joy. I never saw him angry. He was always positive and always had something nice to say whenever I saw him in the office.”
Amina says that Brian loved Niger so much, but he disliked the fancy embassy parties “Every time I handed him an invitation, he would rip it up and throw it in the wastebasket. He refused to go and was content mingling with real people — not government bureaucrats.”
Tahira Tameez, preschool teacher at AISN had an extraordinary story to share: “Brian would go out of the American School grounds to buy street food for his lunch break and one afternoon I asked him what he ate. He casually replied, ‘Well, I was out buying my street food and there was a boy standing next to me and he looked and looked at me… I asked him, ‘Are you hungry?’ He nodded a big ‘yes’, so I bought my lunch and gave it to him; I had no money left, so I came back.”
Tears filled my eyes, Tahira said. “I thought to myself that day: How could anyone do that? Give away your own food to somebody you don’t even know? You need to have a big, big heart for this is a huge thing. And Brian was very casual about it, as if nothing ‘special’ happened. I remember asking him, ‘Can I order something for you now at the school cafeteria now?’ He did not want to take anything. He went on teaching.”
As Brian mother confirms, “there are many things that Brian did that he never talked about. He helped out many people quietly without showing off and he was truly a humble person.”
Brian was in the process of establishing a formal appointment as Research Affiliate of the BU African Studies Center when tragedy hit.
According to Air Info (a local newspaper) in November of 2021, police investigators were summoned to Brian’s house. Sources reported that the investigators had to go through the roof to access Brian’s room as it was locked. Strangely, there were no signs of forced entry and no valuables were removed from Brian’s house. Police discovered Brian lying on his chest. His body was unrecognizable because of having been set on fire. Blood was found on Brian’s vehicle further adding to the mystery of his death.
The newspaper said that Brian lived in complete symbiosis with the people of his neighbourhood. A few comments from the locals give an indication as to how much impact he had on the community: “He’d become like a brother to us! I knew him from a young age. One local said, “He speaks Zarma better than many of us.” A young woman was quoted as saying: “It’s very sad! Barké was an incredible human being! We don’t know why he would be murdered. With his death, Niger has lost a great friend, a brother to us and a sincere lover of life,” said another neighbour.
The US Embassy is continuing the investigation with Niger’s security forces. As of May 2022, one person is in custody and two others of interest are at large. “I just can’t wrap my head around this — nothing makes sense. He never ever mentioned to me that he felt unsafe” says Ellen.
“Brian brought so much richness to all life around him. And in the end, isn’t it all about the richness we bring to every life experience? Brian did not have access to financial wealth, and yet, look at the richness of all the relationships he has created around the world, the profound transformational experiences he initiated for others and the tangible impact he had on so many lives in Niger at so many levels. His loving presence is now continuing to change the world he left behind. This is the true wealth of being” says Cezarina.
One essential reflection we are left with when reading these pages about Brian’s life revolves around the idea of taking action. If he did so much with so little, how much more can we do now as we receive this deep understanding of true philanthropy and start embodying it in our day to day lives?
“Barké is teaching us to inhabit our lives in such a way that not one moment is wasted. It is as if Brian died a martyr’s death. Through the fiery death that he has experienced, Brian has brought forth a sense of freedom for humanity. May we all allow this energy of being our own free and authentic self to become part of us, to make this world new and gentle, beautiful, powerful & clear. We are the ones we have been waiting for.” – Cezarina Trone.
Michael Brooke and Cezarina Trone are collaborating on a special book of inspirational philanthropy stories from Brian’s life. This article was accomplished with assistance from beloved friends, family and colleagues of Brian Nowak around the world. Stay in touch by following their websites: www.timeformystory.com and www.cezarinatrone.com