Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Eventful Month

Hello to all! Ça fait longtemps qu’on a parlé ou, bon, que j’ai écrit. Compared to the last few months, I have been relatively busy. Soon after leaving my regional capital, Zinder, I was called back again due to a small security risk all the way across the country. If this raises concerns for anyone reading this blog about the safety of Niger, have no fear. I can certainly applaud the American government for diligently concerning itself with the safety of its citizens. In the end, nothing major really happened, and the volunteers in my region and I still feel much safer here than we would in the states. My mother pointed out, as people at home told her to encourage me to come home, that four people were just killed in Ohio (my home) whereas no one has even been injured here. That may say something about how we, as humans, perceive threats.

In any case, I was able to return to my village within two weeks and start on some projects left to me by another volunteer who had just finished her service. I was extremely depressed to see her go, but was excited to work on some projects. I have spent the last few weeks assembling two drip gardens, one in which we planted tomatoes, onions, carrots and beans. In the other, we planted saplings from another village including squash and lettuce. A couple of weeks after returning to my village, three of my fellow volunteers came to visit, and we designed and painted a world map in a primary school. It took us about three days to get most of the work done. I still need to go back and fill in the names of countries and put a final glaze over the entire map. Thus far, though, it looks pretty good. Considering we’ve spent the last few months simply hanging around our villages and chatting, each of us certainly felt that we had accomplished something. If anything, this project satisfied our need as Americans to be proactive and busy. I do hope, however, that the final product is helpful to the villagers. Most have rarely or never studied a world map. Some are shocked when I tell them that I have to take a bus, two planes and a car to get home, all of which takes three days at least (usually more). Akwai nesa (it’s far)!

My one regret concerning the world map project thus far is that I didn’t recruit the help of the villagers as much as I would have liked. Some village friends helped with the first few steps (measuring out the map and painting the blue background), and they also provided basic supplies such as water and mats to spread the work out on whenever we needed. Sadly, my Hausa is not good enough to describe in detail what needs to be done. Trying to describe how one can use a grid to make a basic drawing of a world is difficult even in English if someone doesn’t have a frame of reference. Although, I think part of it was the desire to do the work quickly and efficiently, which would not have happened if I had tried to incorporate more village participation. In this case my honkuri (patience) was lacking to sad effect. I am hoping, however, when the time comes to do a similar project in my own village, I will show more kokari (effort). I have already considered how I might teach as we paint the map: by having kids draw countries’ shapes and names out of a hat and coloring them in. If I could develop some good relations with some older kids and improve my Hausa, I may have a workforce ready and eager enough to draw the map itself.

Until then, in my own village, I have started tutoring English at the local junior high during the student free periods. I am also gathering scripts to record radio shows for my local station. In most regional capitals, the Peace Corps does a once per week radio show. Each show focuses on a certain development theme such as health issues, education and women’s rights. I am hoping to recruit other volunteers’ help in the next few days to record a few shows that I can play at my own station. One particularly show that I’m interested in producing is the importance of spacing births and family planning. Most of the people I have talked to here think each woman should have ten children each. I think this mentality takes into account the high mortality rate of Niger, one of the highest in the world. Have a lot of children because some of them are bound to die, and you want to have some left in the end. But what people may not understand is that by having fewer children and having their births well spaced out, their children may have a better chance of surviving. I have had this conversation with many people here, and they are still shocked that, if I ever do have children, I only want two. I explain that I want to give my children good food, good clothing, good educations, good everything. If I have many children, I won’t have the means to give them those things. While this rationale seems to make sense to me, it flies in the face of cultural tradition here. Even my local likita (doctor), or nurse practitioner really, has told me that Mohammed ordered Muslims to have many children and having children is development. I found it difficult to prevent myself from saying, “Well, if that’s the case, Niger is one of the most developed countries in the world”. The opinion here is largely that Allah will provide, and whatever happens, it is Allah’s will. I am starting to tell people that sometimes Allah may need help from us, particularly since our numbers are growing. At any rate, addressing subjects like this might have an effect (hopefully).

On a lighter note, one of my mayor’s daughters is getting married on the 26th of December. Weddings here usually last three or more days. The bride stays in her father’s house, gets pampered, and people visit, giving money and presents. The bride gives bits of candy to those visiting. On the last day of the wedding, the bride is taken to her husband’s house, often in another village, and the family sets up the bride’s house (I hope I get to go). Wives typically have their own one room houses where the husbands may sleep, or not. When they set up the house, there’s usually a china cabinet that displays all of the pot sets. People often give lots of pots. They come in sets of three usually and are piled on top of one another, smallest to largest. I think it’s a status symbol somewhat. I am debating whether to buy her a set of pots or get something more personal. In the meantime, I get to wear a uniform, basically a bridesmaid outfit. She picked out the fabric, her family and friends buy the fabric and take it to the tailor. I am having a wrap skirt made with a shirt top. I asked for help with the design because I know very little about Hausa clothing style. So I really have no idea how it will turn out. I will find out when I go back to my village on December 25th. Alas, since I want to celebrate Christmas a little with my fellow Americans in Zinder, I am missing the first two days of Nana’s wedding, one of which includes a huge henna party. I did get my hair braided before coming to Zinder, but I am not sure it will last until the wedding.

Now for some observations that may or may not be of interest to you all:
- Male and female relations here are obviously different from those in the states. The two sexes are much more segregated. Even within households, women have their own areas, and men have theirs. When I enter my mayor’s house, there is an open air hallway with two open doorways. On the right is the Mayor’s area with house. I have spent very little time there, and have never seen inside the house. Nor have I ever seen any woman spend time there other than saying the formal greetings to my Mayor before moving on to his wife’s area. Further down and to the left is the doorway to his wife, Harida’s area (he only has one wife, very progressive) and her house. This is also where his older daughters and all the children hang out. I assume their older sons sleep in the Mayor’s area, but I also see them hang out in Harida’s area occasionally during the day.
Part of me wonders if this segregation affects the intimacy between same sex relationships. Women and men are spending most of their time away from one another. Even married men and women have different houses with different beds. There is very little physical contact between the sexes. What is the effect on same sex friendships, which seem to be an even more important relationship in this case? One manifestation of this difference may be men walking around holding hands. As I walk around my village or market places, I regularly see men holding hands as they stroll down the road. I hate to admit it, but I think in America that would come off as stereotypically homosexual. Oh Americans! Hey, one has to make up for the limited physical human contact somehow, right? Granted, this could be complete over-analysis on my part.

- In Niger, the whole shepherd herding his sheep scenario is overrated. Here, sheep herd themselves. While they have their own area near their owners’ houses, they are not fenced in. In the morning the leave they leave the area. Sometimes the family shoos them away. They go out to the daji (wilderness/the bush) and come back in the evenings by themselves. I wonder whether farm animals in the states are smart enough to go and find their way back to their houses without the aid of farmers or sheep dogs, etc. I really know very little about farming in the states though. It’s possible.

- My supervisor is awesome. He is a native born Nigerien who speaks English very well and likes to use slang or speak English with a twist. Instead of saying “fantastic”, for instance, he says “cokestatic”. He explains that he doesn’t like Fanta, he likes coke.

Friday, November 13, 2009

BABU RUWANA (Not My Water)

To all my language savvy friends, I thought this little tidbit of Niger language and culture would be of interest. In a country that is primarily desert, water is obviously scarce and always needed. The significance and centrality of water in Nigerien culture is highlighted in the way that the word water (ruwa) and drink (sha) are used in the Hausa language. While sha literally means “to drink”, idiomatically, it can mean “to do a lot of something” or “to do something often”. Here are some examples:

- Sha aiki: to work really
- Sha wahala: to experience real suffering
- Sha yawo: to take a long walk
- Sha tahiya: to take a really long trip
- Sha ruwa: to be old/have a long life

When I walk around during the day and ask about people’s work (Ina aiki?), I often hear “Ana sha”. While I am sure there are several idiomatic expression concerning water, the one that comes to mind the most is “babu ruwana”. This expression literally translates “not my water”, but it means “it’s not my business”. I (sha-ed) used this expression a lot during the recent legislative elections. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I am suppose to be a-political. When my villagers asked me what I thought of the elections and the political events that have taken place these past few months, I responded: “babu ruwana” and “I voted in the states for Obama; that’s where I do politics”.

I am interested in hearing what my villagers have to say a propos to Nigerien politics though. Relatively speaking, Niger is a very young democracy. About ten years ago, Niger had elections under its fifth constitution and elected Tandja Mamadou. Since then, the country has seemed a fairly stable and growing democracy. Under the Nigerien constitution, a president can serve only two five-year consecutive terms. This coming December would have be the end of President Tandja’s second term. The President, however, held a referendum requesting that he have an additional three years as President to continue and hopefully finish the projects he started as President as well as have the opportunity to run for reelection after that. Before the referendum, Tandja had asked the permission of the legislature and the supreme court. Both refused to grant his request, and using a special executive order, Tandja dismissed both branches of government. He argued that, as a democracy, Niger would let the will of the people decide whether he should continue his Presidency or not. The referendum passed with an overwhelming majority of the Nigerien population saying “Referendum, OUI!” About two weeks ago, Tandja held elections to reconstitute the national legislature. A few days later, ECOWAS initiated an embargo on Niger, saying Tandja’s action were unconstitutional and question the validity and transparency of the referendum.

I have heard a few differing opinions from my villagers concerning the situation. Many applaud Tandja and were happy to show their support for him during the referendum and legislative elections. After all, the referendum results did show that the large majority of Niger wants Tandja as President; therefore, it is the will of the Nigerien people, a democratic act. For this reason, several people that I talk to do not agree with ECOWAS’ embargo and realize the true people who will be hurt by this embargo will be the Nigerien people. Still other people agree with ECOWAS to a certain extent. They think that by dissolving the legislature and the supreme court, and by removing the role of Prime Minister in the government, Tandja has not only lengthened his term as President but also consolidated his power, creating a dictatorship in a sense. Some dispute the referendum results, believing that many opposition parties boycotted the election or were silenced. Many of these people do not dispute the referendum results but state that the Nigerien population was not properly made aware of what they were voting for. Concerning ECOWAS’ actions, however, those that I talked to said these actions were taken to late to have the desired effect. If the embargo had taken effect before the referendum, Tandja and Nigeriens may have taken steps to satisfy the international community. Now that everything is already done, the Nigerien population will be the only party injured by this embargo.

Part of me is glad that I am supposes to be a-political. This is a very complicated situation, and I am not sure if I would be at all qualified to express an opinion to my villagers. Hence, babu ruwana is a bit of a god send. I do know that other volunteers who do have strong opinions about the situation (either way) are having some difficulties, particularly considering that many of us came here to work with the local governments and help develop civic responsibility. This entire situation raises the ever present issue of neutrality for foreign aid workers. Neutrality protects me and the future presence of Peace Corps volunteers in Niger. Past evidence has shown that when foreign aid workers compromise their neutrality, they can put themselves and others in danger. But doesn’t neutrality and this concept of babu ruwana also, in a sense, condone acts by state governments that would otherwise be seen as reprehensible? Please do not misunderstand me, in this case I am not referring to the events that have taken place in Niger. I am merely commenting that the babu ruwana mentality, under certain circumstances, seems like a double-edged sword (e.g. Sudan, Ruwanda, etc.). Concerning national governments, they are so tentative about interfering with the sovereignty of other states (again babu ruwana – it’s not our state, not our business), that they are extremely slow to act. In this case, I am referring to ECOWAS and its untimely embargo. I question how effective this embargo will be.


It has been one week since I wrote the above. Apparently, the embargo has taken effect. Going to my Friday market, there were next to no fruits or vegetables. I was lucky that I found cucumbers. Fresh produce, usually transported up from Nigeria, has been blocked from entering the country for the past few days. Alas, my Fridays will be slightly less exciting and profitable. One of my village friends is particularly dismayed. She usually buys a few pieces of coconut, and we snack on them together. Goodbye coconut. Given that my village is quite a bit north of Nigeria, it doesn’t get many produce from there (or in general) except for on Fridays. I wonder how villages closer to the border are fairing. Will this embargo actually influence Niger’s actions? Thus far, many Nigerien’s that I talk to are mostly annoyed with recent event, yet they are adamant that they made the decision to reelect Tandja. Others don’t know what to think.

Monday, October 26, 2009

After my first month at post

Well my first month as a Peace Corps volunteer is officially over. I wouldn’t say that it was the easiest month ever. Most volunteers say making it through your first month in village is one of the hardest parts of your service. It is also one of the periods of highest dropout for new volunteers. I can certainly understand why that is. This month furthered my understanding of culture shock. I’ve lived in other countries before, but this experience is definitely different. To start, I am the only white person, and that makes far more of a difference than I could have imagined. Walking through my village, groups of children follow me around and just watch me. Several babies and toddlers have looked at me and started crying because they are so scared of the white person. What strikes me as most interesting is this fear is not always culturally engendered. Many of these babies aren’t old enough to have learned this reaction. They are afraid because I am different. I imagine that the only reason babies do not have the same reaction in the states is that they are constantly seeing people who look different from them. Meanwhile, here, I must look like an entirely different species from every other human here. Perhaps I look like a ghost or something? This instance shows how innate the fear of the unknown or the other is in the human condition. I am not sure how I feel about that. At one point, one mother used my presence as a threat to make her child behave while she was braiding her hair: ‘stop fidgeting and crying or I’ll give you to the anasara’. Part of me is fairly amused by this irrational reaction to my presence. Another part is glad that I could be of help. Another small part, however, is just reminded how other I am in my village.

While I have no complaints about my villagers (they are amazing and help me a lot), the culture and environment here are very different. The people here are very friendly but very tough and hard working. I’m pretty sure I’m a weakling in their eyes since I do not do half the amount of physical labor that they do on a daily basis. Each day as I walk around my village, I am asked at least once if I pound millet. I respond that I can, but when I show them, they laugh at my effort. It’s probably fairly ridiculous looking to see a white person pounding millet. Being very direct and to the point is also important here. A statement that might be considered rude in the states is no problem here. Niger is also a very social society. I think my villagers are perplexed by the amount of time I spend by myself, even if that time is only an hour or two. Some were actually concerned that I live by myself. They ask me if I’m afraid. Needless to say, I was constantly bombarded with visitors trying to teach me Hausa and keep me company. Coming back to the theme of cultural directness, I am slowly learning to tell people to leave me alone rather than being hospitable while trying to hint at my desire for alone time.

It’s kind of ironic how one can feel so isolated while surrounded by so many people. My language skills are still lacking seeing as I’ve only studies the language for three months now. I’m slowly learning, but it is pretty evident that I don’t understand half of what is going on around me at any given time. The food here is also different and sometimes germ infested. It wouldn’t bother the average Nigerien, but I’m just not use to it. My mayor says that I need to slowly orient myself and my body to the food here. His family is helping me by monitoring most of the Nigerien food I eat. I did manage to get sick again though. I figure a few more times of getting sick, and my body will be use to most the germs here, at least enough to fight them off without drugs and without taking me out of commission for days at a time. Finally, it’s seriously hot here a lot of the time. There are definitely times where I can barely manage to think or move because I’m so hot. All of these factors combined can be a bit daunting.

According to the Peace Corps, my first three months are for integration purposes, so I am not actually suppose to do the work the I came here to do, i.e. no projects at this time. Instead I socialize and have a lot of down time. So what did I do during my first month living in my village? I would usual get up each morning, eat a bowl of oatmeal, and put away my bed. I sleep outside on a string bed and foam mattress, and under a mosquito net. Then I walk around my village for about two to three hours. Women are mostly congregating around the three electric water pumps, waiting to collect water to take home for the day. My village has a major water shortage problem, so women usually have to wait an hour or two to get water. I am fortunate in that one of my mayor’s daughters gets me a bucket of water each day. The men of the village are usually working out in the fields or are congregated at various places around the village making tea. There have been a few times where I have sat with them for a few minutes and drunk the first or second pot of tea (there are usual three rounds of tea making). I am not sure how culturally appropriate I am being considering I’m female, but people don’t seem to care: one advantage of being a white person. Finally, there are the people (mostly women and children) along the road selling street food such as fried tofu, sweet and savory donut whole like foods, potato and potato-like vegetables, spices, and peanut products.

I usually walk around and greet these people. We have small conversations, particularly when there is someone I’ve never met before. I have many conversations during which I explain that, yes, I do actually live in Zermou and will be here for two years. Most people looked fairly amazed by that idea. I do not really have the ability to articulate why I am here exactly. Community development does not really translate well. As a westerner and outsider, telling villagers that I am here to help their community grow and develop seems a bit arrogant and condescending on my part. For this reason, I am glad the Peace Corps emphasizes community integration for the first few months despite the excessive amount of free time that results. I feel like before I offer advice and take significant steps to help my community, I will first become part of the community. Hopefully, in reality, I will wind up working within MY community to make improvements (less imperialistic somewhat?). On the other hand, I may just be overanalyzing here. Is it possible to too culturally sensitive, socially conscious, or politically correct? At this point I tell people that I am here to learn Hausa and then want to work with community members in the village such as the Mayor’s office, the doctor’s office and the radio station.
Usually during the morning, I also stop by the local radio station, the doctor’s office, the school or the mayor’s office, and I talk with the people there. I try to use my Hausa but sometimes switch to French to better understand what is being said. These are usually the more educated people in the village, and those with whom I will hopefully develop projects. After talking with them, I head home, eat lunch and take an afternoon siesta. Now comes the downtime in which I try to study a bit of Hausa and catch up on my reading. I also memorize the words of the sala prayers. For those who do not know, Muslims pray five times a day: sunrise, 2 pm, 4 pm, sunset and 8 pm. As I walk around my village, my villagers say parts of these prayers for me to phonetically write down (they do not know how to write the prayers themselves, just say them). I am then supposed to memorize these words so I too can do sala (prayer) with my villagers. Certain parts of Islam are very ingrained in my Nigerien culture, sala being one. As such, I am trying to learn as much as I can so I may understand and integrate better. Most of my villagers think that I am converting to Islam for at least the next two years. Finally, in late afternoon or the evening, I walk around or go to my mayor’s family and chat.

My mayor’s family also watches Hausa movies in the evenings. While I do not understand most of what is being said, there are various things in these films that amuse me to no end. They are like inside jokes. So although I don’t understand the storyline, I do understand little tidbits of culture that those around me may not. The other night, for instance, one of the characters spent the entire movie wearing a Red Wings jersey. My guess is no one here knows about the Red Wings, or hockey for that matter. Another night, one of the main music themes to the movie was ripped off the movie Mulan. Do you remember the scene where she decides to take her father’s horse, cuts her hair, changes and leaves? If so, that was the music. I could even here the storm in the back ground, the horse neighing when he doesn’t recognize her and the barn doors breaking open. As these highly dynamic and emotional score was playing in the background, a female character in the Hausa movie was in a grocery store buying shampoo. It made me smile.

Other fun and special events here are bukis or sunas (naming ceremonies). Whenever a baby is born, the mother and baby have to stay in their house for one week. Seven days after the baby is born, friends and family come to the house to see the baby, give gifts (money, baby stuff, food), and listen to the village imam declare the baby’s name. Until then, the baby has no name. At the suna that I went to, we ate a lot of food, sat around and talked a bunch, and danced. The baby was so very very tiny. Many children here are born premature and spend their most of their lives underweight. The recently released 2009 UN Human Development Report revealed that 44% of children age 5 and under are underweight, aka malnourished.
To shine more light on where Niger is with respect to the rest of the world, the UN Human Development Report ranked Niger 182th out of 182 on the Human Development Index. While Niger’s HDI did increase 3.92% from 0.258 to 0.340, that increase rate was less robust than those of the rest of the world. Indicators used were life expectancy at birth, adult literacy, school enrollment, and GDP per capita (using purchasing power parity). On the UN Human Poverty Index, Niger ranked 134th out of 135. The HPI ranks using probability of not surviving to age 40 (29%), the adult illiteracy rate (71.3%), percentage of people not using an improved water source (58%), and percentage of children underweight for age (44%). Needless to say, Niger has some work ahead of it. With the recent legislative elections and the upcoming regional elections in December, hopefully Niger will have a fountain of human capital to help towards its development (ironically during dry season).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

September 15, 2009

So I have found time and internet to write one more blog before going out to my village for my one month of stay. As a volunteer, I am required to stay in my village slash sub-region for the first month. After that I am free to travel to my regions capital and possibly around my region to visit other volunteers. Volunteers generally travel to their regional capitals once a month for a Peace Corps Hostel meeting. We discuss our progress in our villages and other administrative work. Most volunteers seem to visit there regional capital every other weekend. I can imagine it’s nice to relax and be American every once in a while. In our hostels we can watch movies, play games, sit on couches, wear shorts and tank tops, take real showers (cold but that’s fine), get mail from loved ones at home, and speak English. I am not sure how unique to Niger this hostel concept is. At face value it seems to interfere with the integration process. Having been here for a couple of months, however, I can certainly understand the need for a support network. After the first three months, I go back to Hamdallaye for a three week technical workshop (e.g. learning about grant writing, resources, project building, and technical basics of participatory development). After that I have the opportunity to see other parts of the country either through work such as visiting other volunteer projects or through vacation. But I will try not to get ahead of myself.

After writing my last blog, I took a language exam to determine whether I could swear in as a Peace Corps volunteer. Luckily I passed, and I swore in this past Thursday (September 10, 2009). The American Ambassador to Niger was gracious enough to allow Peace Corps to use her residence for the ceremony, and she gave a speech. Following tradition, most volunteers had traditional Nigerien celebratory clothing made. For women, that is the complet. We buy two to three pannes (standard size, about 3 yards?) worth of the same fabric, and have this fabric made into a shirt, skirt and head wrap. Niger has wonderful fabric with really bright, fun fabric called atampa. I think this might be the first time in my life where I will be wearing intricately patterned fabric on a daily basis. You can also buy really fancy embroidered fabric which is lighter but much more expensive. At this point I’m sticking with the atampa. For the men, they also buy fabric, and have the tailor make a booboo – long shirt and pants.

After swearing in, we had one day of recovery. We did some last minute shopping in Niamey. There are certain things that one cannot find anywhere else but the country’s capital: a good frying pan, decent knives, various food items such as muesli or granola. Since I am over twelve hours away from Niamey, I figured I should take advantage. I even bought some tahini in case I become motivated to make hummus in the bush. We’ll see. On Saturday, we took a Peace Corps vehicle to Zinder. Normally we would take a large, Greyhound like bus, except the Greyhound looks like it is from the eighties and has no air conditioning. On these buses, it is vital that you make sure you are in control of a window. The bus will stop along the way for rest stops (stalls with holes in the ground; bring your own toilet paper) in larger villages and cities. Along the way you can buy bread, dried meat, juice, soda, sesame cakes, and hard-boiled eggs. In our case, since we took a P.C. vehicle, we had a bit more freedom to stop and go when we wanted. This is probably the only time I will experience this privilege. The road connecting Niamey to Zinder is mostly paved but with many pot holes. I want to say that I will never complain about the roads in America again, but my memory is not that good. Eventually after being back for some time, I will have to comment. In the mean time, though, I dream happily of American roads and construction workers.

Now I am in the Zinder hostel. I have spent the last few days here relaxing and preparing for my installation into my village. As protocol, all new volunteers visit the important officials of the region such as the regional governor, the mayor of Zinder, the head of the regional gendarmerie, and more. We also, again, collect food that we will be unable to find when out at bush – mainly vegetables. They’re limited even in Zinder, but I take what I can get. Being here these past few days has also been advantageous because I realized on Saturday that little amoebas were playing around in my digestive system. My parents pointed out to me that this is more commonly known as dysentery. Yay dysentery! No serious, this is a pretty common maladie. Three days after taking nasty metallic tasting medicine, I will be healthy once more. The only reason I am praising my good fortune is because in Zinder, I have access to indoor plumbing… a toilet… I love toilets. Squatting in a hole is just not as fun when you have to do it numerous times a day. In addition, I have the comforts I described above.

Tomorrow I will be installed in my village. I do not know really how to describe what I am feeling at this point. I came here to live in a village, integrate into a community and help in any way I can. Now the time has come to take that first step, and it’s a bit scary. What can I say? Like many human beings, I am afraid of the unknown. This is certainly the unknown. I will be the first Peace Corps volunteer to be installed in my village. While villagers have seen other Peace Corps volunteers on Fridays for their market day, they have not had constant contact or relations with Peace Corps before. What will they expect? What will be my first cultural faux pas? Will the village be receptive? Fortunately my town’s mayor seems very intelligent, open and receptive to the work I am doing. He is very adamant that I spend these next three months integrating with the village culture. His expectations seem very in line with those of the Peace Corps thankfully. I also live next to him and his family, who also seems very kind. A few weeks ago, trainees each had a chance to see their villages for a few days before becoming actual volunteers. During my short time there, I spent time with the mayor’s family. I attempted to help them pound millet. It is definitely not as easy as they make it look. I did manage to make them all laugh, so it wasn’t a complete loss. Plus, later on I got to have some of the coco (or kunu?); it was delicious!!! I also watched a Hausa movie with them one night. It was pretty humorous. For those of you who like really bad Bollywood, you would have truly appreciated this film. I know I did. So in sha allah (if god wills it), this next month will turn out equally as well. I will attempt to document as much as possible and relay it to you all when I get back. Sai anjima! (See you later!)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

September 6, 2009

Hello to all! I apologize for the long awaited blog entry. These past two months have been busy with training and filled with little access to the outside world, i.e. next to no internet. I have spent most of my time in a village about an hour outside Niger’s capital, Niamey. While there, I have slowly but surely learned how to speak Hausa, which is probably the most commonly spoken language in Niger, particularly in central and eastern Niger. I am still far from being even close to fluent, but I can hold a conversation limited to certain topics. The one nice thing about Niger is that you have many set questions that make up a lengthy greeting to everyone you see on the street. The typical greeting for a complete stranger might be:

A: Sannu! Ina kwana? (Hello, how was your sleep? Or how is you day?)

B: Lahiya lau. (Very well)

A: Ina gida? (How is your house?)

B: Gida duka lahiya lau. (My household is well)

A: Ina aiki? (How is your work?)

B: Aiki da godiya. (I am thankful for my work)

A: Ina gajiya? (How is your tiredness?)

B: Babu gajiya. (I have no tiredness)

A: To madella. Sai Anjima! (Thank goodness. See you later!)

There are definitely more questions one can ask. One of my favorites is, “Ina Zaman Dunya? –Sai Honkuri”. This exchange means “How is the world sitting?”, and you respond: “With patience”. (NOTE: I apologize if I am butchering the spelling or direct translations of these phrases, but you get the gist.) Whenever this dialogue is said, of course, people talk over each other and blend the dialogue together. They don’t really listen to the response because they already know what is going to be said. It’s rather comforting. I can spend a good three to five minutes just rolling off different greetings before I actually have to say something substantial. Usually by then I am on to the next person. I also really like this tradition because, well, I am from the Midwest. In the Midwest, we smile and say hello to strangers walking on the street. Almost every other place I have lived, people are a tad confused by that. This is not the case in Niger. In fact, Nigeriens are even more outwardly friendly and hospitable than the typical Midwesterner, which means that I will have to become even more outspokenly friendly. One Peace Corps volunteer actually told me that I would learn to yell out my greetings to a certain extent because people here are so verbose and extraverted. So for those who know me well, just you wait for me to get back to the states!

So I arrived in Niger at the beginning of July, and basically spent the first two weeks sweating a lot and cursing the heat. I got a nice shiny sunburn despite constant application of sunscreen. The malaria medication I was on made my skin even more photosensitive that it already is. Thankfully I am now on methloquin. Shots were a major theme of those weeks. My allergies also took their time acclimating to the new weather conditions. If it weren’t for the exciting new culture, language, people (both Nigerien and PC trainee), I would probably say that those first two weeks would definitely be on my top three list of places I would go if I ended up in hell. I did adapt, however. I am getting use to sweat. Nights are actually chilly at times. I have remained relatively healthy. Plus, I am still really enjoying the culture, the language, and the people.

I have lived with a host family these past two months. Knowing the precise size of a family in Niger can be difficult. I live in a concession (that is basically a walled-in area) in which resides a large extended family. My close family has a husband, one wife, and at least two daughters and two sons. I am pretty sure that these four children are the biological children of Ousseina, the wife. There are many other people who are constantly around, however. For the longest time I was hanging out with this thirteen year old girl, Aisha-tu, who I swore was Ousseina’s daughter. It turned out, though, that her mother and father are actually in another region of Niger, and she was here with her grandmother who also lives in the concession. At least three other middle aged women live in my concession, and possibly two other men. Honestly it is difficult to say. One hurtle is that the Nigerien concept of family seems far more fluid. When I asked about my family and how many children my host mother had, she never answered me directly. Aisha-tu considers Ousseina’s children to be her brothers and sisters. So whenever we talked, she referred to them as her siblings. The lines between familial relationships seem fairly blurred. In the states, I have people who I call my uncle or aunt, or who I consider to be part of my family even if we are not biologically related. This takes that to a whole new level. As a result, however, there exists a large, warm community atmosphere where people share and share alike. Most nights, for instance, my host mom makes a large pot of food, separates it between several bowls, and my host siblings take many of those bowls elsewhere (I have no clue where). Later, people come from all around the concession and neighborhood to chat, or they yell across walls at each other. That is just one aspect of Nigerien culture that I have picked up while I have been here.

For those of you who know little about Niger (shame on you!), this is the country north of Nigeria. The UN Development index ranks Niger 174 out of 177, which means it is definitely one of the poorest countries in the world. Niger is almost twice the size of Texas, three times the size of California, and about two-thirds of its land mass is consumed by desert. Thus, the majority of the over 14 million Nigerien citizens live in the southern most portions of the country. Meanwhile, Niger has one of the highest growth rates in the world. Not only do women give birth a lot here, but the amount of people who have or who are twins is incredible. I have theories as to why there are so many twins in Niger (i.e. biological adaptation or whatnot), but if any of my scientifically inclined friends wish to enlighten me with fact, I would be happy to hear an explanation. While Niger does have some valuable natural resources – uranium and an unknown supply of oil – those resources have not been successfully tapped. Over the past few years, the Nigerien president, Tandja, has partnered with the Chinese government to explore these resources in addition to building new infrastructure such as a new bridge over the Niger River. NOTE: I would suggest to any that are interested in democratic development and politics to read about the recent referendum in Niger. It is an interesting case study.

Probably the largest hindrance, however, is the lack of human capacity in the country. My supervisor pointed out the other day that while Niger has railroad tracks, it has no railroad. In the past, NGOs and other countries came to Niger to help build this infrastructure but then left the Nigerien people with no way of using or developing that infrastructure. So for any of you wondering why I would join the Peace Corps and come to this country, it is for reasons such as this: I would like to help in the development of a country where I am not bringing solely capital to the development process. In the Peace Corps, I get to integrate into a society and hopefully translate and teach the skills I have learned to the people of my community so that they may use those skills and improve their own community’s way of life. Key terms that come to mind are: capacity building, sustainability, catalyst, participatory development. While these ideas may form the current development paradigm and hence may be considered cliché, as far as I can tell, they have yet to be proven wrong. Not to mention, is there any better idea out there (ideas anyone?)? So this is my way of giving back a little (how privileged has my life been thus far?) and of putting actual development theory to practice.

In the Peace Corps, I am in the Municipal and Community Development sector (MCD). As an MCD volunteer, I am supposed to aid in sustainable development via capacity building. My two primary goals are to help improve the skills and knowledge of the people in my local Mayors office. Most offices here do not operate the way an office in the states might. One MCD volunteer noted that there was no real calendar of events, so she is never fully aware of what and when events are happening. Sometimes she walks in on meetings. Other times, a coworker might ask her why she was not at an event the day before. Basic communication tools seem to be an issue here. Sadly, this problem is compounded by issues of illiteracy. The minutes of most city council meetings, for instance, are written in French. Most council members do not speak French much less read it. Women in particular are less likely to know French, another barrier to gender equality. In Hamdallaye, where I am training, the city’s General Secretary must translate the minutes of previous meetings before the meeting itself. I wonder how many other city G.S.s translate for their populations. Another basic office trait lacking in Niger is filing. There are many Mayors offices that do not have filing systems for official documents such as birth certificates.

The other primary objective of an MCD volunteer is educating citizens on government and municipal issues. Volunteers can go into schools to discuss roles of the government, start student government groups, and conduct activities that get children excited about participating in government. Current volunteers have discussed sensibilizations, one-time events on topics such as voting, health issues or education. Many volunteers who have had less success working with their local governments rely primarily on these projects.

Ok. I hope the above information was not to dry for people. Here are fun and interesting aspects of Niger:

1. Giraffes and Hippos. I think Niger has one of the largest giraffe populations in northwest Africa. I can’t wait to go and see them. I have seen one from far away, but I should have a chance to actually go out into the daji (the bush) and see some up close. I will not be getting to close to the hippos, though. Do not get too close to the hippos. They’re dangerous and could bite your head off, literally.

2. One can buy crazy fabric for incredibly cheap prices by American standards, and then have that fabric made into pretty much anything you want, also for very cheap prices. I, for instance, managed to find a lime green fabric with thin navy blue stripes and large red turkeys printed all over. It’s amazing! I am wearing it as a wrap around skirt, or zané. It makes me feel like celebrating Christmas; hence I call it my Christmas turkey skirt.

3. The food here, while limited, can be very tasty. Most food is made from grains, usually millet. At this point I have eaten millet in various forms: sugary donuts, spicy donut holes, mini-pancakes, a hot drink with the consistency of a milkshake, a chi tea like drink with edible chunks of millet (I swear it’s really tasty), a solid pudding like mass with sauce all over, and large round balls of dough also with sauce. There is also a spice here made from peppers and other spices. They call it tonka in the Zarma language and yaji in Hausa. This spice can pretty much make anything really tasty and give your food a little bite.

4. The artisan culture here, while small, is amazing. The silver and leather works here have the potential to go far if they only had the market and resources to expand.

Well, I hope this blog entry makes up for my long absence. Provided I pass my language proficiency exam (wish me luck; I need it), I will swear in as a Peace Corps volunteer this coming week. I will then go to my village in the Zinder region of Niger, where I will spend one month solid. After that, I can go back to my regional capital and send you all more word of my activities. Oh, and here is my new address if people feel inspired to send mail: My name; Corps de la Paix; B.P. 641; Zinderville, NIGER. If anyone has any questions, comments or concerns, feel free to post them here or email me! I would also love to hear what is going on in the states!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ok. This is a blog about my adventures in Niger. I am required to say that everything written here are my thoughts and do not represent the Peace Corps in any way, shape or form. I am going into training for a few months. So I won't actually write anything here for a while. If you are interested in write a letter to me ever, here is my address:

Corps de la Paix
BP 10537, Niamey NIGER
West Africa

I hope to give you some news soon.