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).