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.