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!