Brian Michael Nowak, 44, tragically passed away on November 19, 2021, at his home in the Goudel region in Niamey, Niger in West Africa. As a student and then as a talented educator, independent scholar, generous humanitarian, and avid adventurer, he spent nearly 18 years working and consulting on numerous projects in Niger. Brian was the victim of a violent crime currently under investigation by Nigerien authorities.
Born on March 30, 1977, to Ellen Marie (Renc) Nowak and Raymond Nowak in Suffern, NY, Brian graduated from Nanuet High School in 1995 and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology and African Studies from Boston University in 2000. While at Boston University, Brian spent three semesters studying abroad in Niger during which his love of the country and the people of Niger developed. It was at that time that his Nigerien friends gave him the Fulani name of Barke, which translates to “Blessed,” by which he is affectionately known there to this day.
Following his graduation from Boston University Brian spent five years teaching special needs and ESL in bilingual and inclusion settings at New York City Public School 155 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. During that time, he designed and implemented the school’s first multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary music program, which had the honor of performing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In addition, he began graduate studies at the Teacher’s College Columbia University in Comparative and International Education and Anthropology. Brian completed his Master’s Degree in General and Urban Education at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY.
Brian moved back to Niger in 2005 and spent three of his early years there teaching at the American International School of Niamey. Prior to that he conducted Independent Research on Niamey’s Street Children. Referred to affectionately as the “Legendary American in Goudel,” the section of Niamey where he lived, he was known to speak the indigenous Nigerien language of Zarma better than the locals. Brian was also fluent in French and Hausa and could communicate in multiple other African languages.
For the last seven years Brian worked with the African Language Materials Archive (ALMA) as a Field Research Director and Board Member. He documented musicians and oral tradition specialists through video recordings and coordinating transcriptions and translations of performances in many endangered languages covering 77 artists in 22 languages including over 1,000 pages of text documentation from Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Northern Ghana and Togo. He also coordinated the archival of over 300 pages of human rights documents in 14 West African languages.
Brian spent thirteen years working for the Sahel and Sahara operations of the non-governmental agency Rain for the Sahel and Sahara, most recently as Programs Director overseeing staff and projects in its Niamey and Agadez offices. While at Rain, Brian implemented programs in education, agriculture, community enterprise, literacy programs in Tamasheq, Zarma and French, and secondary school dorm program for students from nomadic communities.
In addition, 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 US 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).
Among his many projects, Brian designed and led field-based research exploring the historical and social change and diversity among the Bella/Iklan communities in the Niger and Burkina Faso region. He jointly performed research and co-wrote an article for the academic journal African Arts, “Iklan Aesthetics in Niger: Identity and adornment from servility to self-agency”, which will be published in 2022.
Brian was an avid outdoorsman and spent his leisure time hiking and camping both in Niger and the adjoining West African countries, as well as across the United States and Canada. He recently completed the 273 mile Long Trail in Vermont, the oldest long-distance trail in the United States. Brian loved spending time at his family’s farm in upstate New York and hiking throughout the Adirondack Mountains, including many of its 46 highest peaks.
Brian’s infectious laugh, warm smile, engaging personality, caring heart, fierce loyalty, and boundless energy will be greatly missed by all who knew him.
Brian is survived by his mother Ellen (Renc) Nowak, father Raymond Nowak (Maureen Whyte), sisters Cindy Lanteri (Ronnie) and Laura Nowak (Rob Restrepo), his nieces Eva, Farah, Sophie and nephew Santino. Brian was predeceased by his grandparents George and Georgiana Renc and Raymond and Lucille Nowak.
The family will receive friends from 12pm to 5pm Sunday Jan 30 at Wanamaker & Carlough Funeral Home 177 Route 59 Suffern, NY. Prayer service will begin at 4:30pm.
A memorial service will also be held in Niger.
In lieu of flowers the family suggests contributing in Brian’s name to Friends of Niger, online at www.friendsofniger.org or Friends of Niger, PO Box 452, Haverford, PA 19041.
Fond memories, photos and expressions of sympathy may be shared at www.wanamakercarlough.com for the Nowak family.