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.