Monday, November 22, 2010

After a long hiatus...

I am finally writing a new blog entry. I apologize. A lot has happened in the past few months with little internet or ability to describe it all.

Goat Project: Working with women

It's interesting working with women here because you're never quite sure if they understand what you're talking about or if they are just agreeing with you to appease you. Before buying the goats, I held workshops for the women on financing and goat care. The whole time they seemed distracted and aloof. I was skeptical as to whether they actually paid attention to any of it. The night after the first session, though, one of my women's groups came to my house to talk about what was said because all but one hadn't shown up. The one woman sat there with me, describing all that had been said and gave feed back. It was amazing! Despite having yet another exhaustingly long meeting late at night, it helped me end the day feeling far more fulfilled.

Even during a project targeted exclusively toward women, men always seem to find their way into leading roles, the same roles that push the project forward. Once the women had made their financial contributions and participated in the workshops, we went to market to buy 25 pregnant goats. I asked the help of the local veterinarian of the village. Basically I wanted him to approve the goats that the women chose. Instead, he said it would just be easier for him to go and bargain for all 25 goats himself.

Later, when we realized we had extra money, the vet insisted on giving a workshop on goat maintenance himself. He did not believe the women were fully knowledgeable on the subject despite spending their entire life caring for goats and the previous small workshop that we had for them. In front of him, the women assented to everything he said for the most part. When with me, however, they adamantly stated that they wanted to buy 25 smaller goats with the remaining money and would buy the goats themselves. It was difficult to balance the opinions of an expert and those of my women. I did not know what would be better for them in the long run, what would lead to a sturdy, sustainable project.

In the end, I wanted to empower my women so I listened to them and bought the 25 more goats. Once we reached the market, they did not seem to make much of an effort to go out and select the goats. Here is when my American mentality got in the way because I became anxious to take action. Then the vet showed up unexpectedly and moved things along. Within the hour, we had 25 more goats. Looking back, I am still unsure whether I should have spoke up for my women and said they could handle it. Alas, my fear of losing all the good goats before they could step up, take charge and choose was too great.

Swearing in of the New Newbies

Before I could attend the first bi-weekly meeting with each of my women's groups, I had to leave for Niamey for the new volunteers' swear-in ceremony. The ceremony was nice, and it was wonderful to have new people coming to live in our region. Seven new volunteers came out to Zinder. We timed it so that we would meet them in Zinder with a nice welcome meal and then see them off when they left for the first time to their villages.

Getting back to ville

After arriving back in my village, I found out that the villagers and those of the surrounding villages were in the midst of a cholera outbreak. What happens during a Cholera outbreak? Well, in my village, the streets were mostly empty, everyone staying the one housing areas. When you saw a group of people, it was most likely for a funeral (2+/day). The little work that existed previously in the village was reduced. Many did not go to work save some men who had to harvest their crops. Next to no one came for our usually vibrant market day. The health hut, which I was not allowed to go near, erected temporary housing for the sick to come and stay. As for me, I had to bleach and filter ever bit of water I used, refuse any food offered to me by my villagers, wash my hands more than usual and make sure all food I ate was well cooked and/or well bleached. Of the people that died, I personally knew six of them, but none were close friends (thank goodness for my friends).

A little over a week after I arrived, the epidemic in my village seemed to be clearing up. Nigerien health officials approved the steps taken by regional health care providers, and they declared my village safe again, with only a few more outbreaks in surrounding villages.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Niger Video

For any who are interested in getting a better feel of Niger, a friend of mine made a video. Here is the address:

Monday, August 2, 2010

Newbies, Goats and Rain

The Newbies are here!!! I’m no longer a Newbie!!! It’s been a while. Peace Corps Niger normally has two groups of trainees a year, one in July (my group) and one in October. Because of last year’s consolidation, the October trainees, those from the agriculture and health sector, were sent to Madagascar instead. Thus, my fellow 2009 volunteers and I have been the newbie volunteers for some time now. It has had its advantages such as the ability to claim ignorance on most things if need be. Overall, though, we’ve been like the little siblings who never really get to grow up… spread our wings and fly sort of thing (to some extent that is).

Pretty soon, our older sister group of volunteers goes back to the United States, the new group gets prepared to become new volunteers, and we are suppose to become the veterans of the crew. Yikes! I kind of find that more terrifying. I do not feel like I have learned enough here to be a legitimate resource of knowledge. My Hausa has also not improved as much as it should have this past year. Fortunately we still have the small agriculture group that arrived the October before us. They are a small group, only two in Zinder, but they will be the true veterans for a while at least.

In the meantime, the 2009 volunteer stage (my group) get to help train the newbies. I am helping with the fifth week of training. During this week, trainees find out where they will be spending the next two years – Site Announcements. In addition, they have a workshop on a participatory development framework called PACA: “Participatory Assessment for Community Action”. It’s a relatively long and tedious workshop, but the emphasis on community participation in volunteer projects is important. Moreover, like any administrative body, Peace Corps needs to legitimate itself by having theoretical frameworks and processes that embody those frameworks. Peace Corps needs to prove that its program brings about desired outcomes to development. Practices such as PACA can help to set measures of success, which can facilitate assessment of the program. So, for the fifth time in my service I will sit through a description of PACA. Hopefully the language trainers will perform a mock PACA session as they did during the preparatory week we had before the trainees came. In addition to being highly realistic (I could see that exact conversation happening in my village), it was incredibly entertaining. I think it would be educational for the newbies.

So I spent one week in Niamey preparing for the new trainees to arrive. We did several team building exercises and had discussions concerning potential dilemmas and solutions during training. They changed the program schedule since my training. In the middle of training, trainees will break into groups of three and spend ten days in a bush village with a language trainer. The hope is that this intensive language training session will prepare trainees even more for life in their villages and provide additional time at the end of training to start an additional language, either national language or French. This experience will be particularly beneficial for hausa speakers who, up to this point, have only had training in the village of Hamdallaye, which is in a Zarma speaking region of Niger (very few Hausa-phone families).

Back in Ville

Before going to help trainees, I spent a good amount of time in my village. School is out, and teachers have left my village and gone home for vacation. I now realize how many kids also come to my ville for junior high because now they are all gone. Many kids also go to other family members for vacation. In my mayor’s family, for instance, most of the smaller children have gone on vacation to other villages, visiting his older daughters in their homes. Hence, any education projects are not feasible. Because it is rainy season (i.e. farming season), doing projects with adults can be difficult as well. In my village, men are almost always out in the fields during the day. When they come back in the afternoon, it is mostly to rest and pray. Since crops have already been planted, women mostly stay at home doing their usual work. Their usual work is incredibly time-consuming and abundant, however, no matter what the season. Considering all of this, I am taking a summer break of my own and not starting any new projects.

My goat project is progressing nicely despite the timing. It is probably advantageous that I am working with women in this case. While they are busy, perhaps more so since they are missing some of their child labor due to vacation, they still are showing a lot of effort with this project. [SIDENOTE: Thank you, thank you, thank you everyone who helped by donating money and good wishes to this project.] The project is now fully funded stateside, and my village women are close to collecting their portion of the project funding. We will be able to buy the twenty-five pregnant goats in just a few weeks. For the workshops prior to goat purchase, I am now collaborating with a Nigerien NGO representative from Aquadev, a Belgian NGO that does various kinds of development work. I am really excited to work with the Aquadev rep. He has a lot of experience is doing development workshops, particularly micro financing workshops with women. When I go into Zinder next, we are going to meet and organize the workshop curriculum. After my return from training the newbies in Hamdallaye, we will conduct the workshops and buy the goats. I will be tracking the project’s progress by attending the women’s group meetings every two weeks, when they pay their bi-weekly dues and discuss any developments such as goat births. Then in December, we hope to hold follow-up workshops. I’ll make sure to keep everyone updated.

I have continued giving computer lessons to those interested. I actually ran into one gentleman who is extremely interested in getting a few tutorials before he goes off to University in Niamey. He just passed his Bac, the large exam at the end of high school which dictates whether you graduate and can continue school. He has never used a computer and is afraid of how much this will hinder his studies. I really hope I can help him get the fundamentals before he starts school.

Mostly I have just been hanging out with my villagers. There have been a lot of births recently, so I have been attending many baptisms. No matter how much I try, I do not think I have successfully argued why one should have less than ten children. Villagers always argue that if Allah wants them to procreate and if they give birth to ten children, then that is what Allah wants. No logic can defeat Allah in this case. “Allah provides”. I find this argument very frustrating, and I do not understand it. Then again, my villagers may think I’m a blasphemer and crazy for saying that “no, Allah won’t provide for everything and everyone; He’s only one deity”. It does depend on your point of view. I will not give up, however. Perhaps approaching the problem by arguing for birth spacing IS a more effective solution. If women space their births, hopefully they will end up with fewer children thanks to biology. Although making that argument makes me feel like a lawyer, trying to find a loophole in the procreation bylaws.

Now for Something Completely Different

Thanks to rainy season, two of my arch-nemesis (yes, I have multiple) have returned!

1. The flies have invaded every square foot of air and surface in this country. It is highly disturbing. They are everywhere! There is a constant buzz in the air. As I walk through my village, they are attacking anything, everything and everyone. I walk past my butcher, and I can’t see the meat because of the layer of flies. I find it impossible to sit outside without going crazy. So I spend much of the day hiding is my semi-sweltering hut. Sadly, my hut is not the cool sanctuary that it was during hot season since now there is a nice breeze outside, but my hut does keep the majority of flies away from me. Moreover, these flies are a different breed than those in the states. They have no shame. They will go anywhere. Many go straight into my mouth or just hang onto my eyelid until the very last minute, making me whack myself in the eye. At this point, I am pretty positive they are playing with me. “Let’s play chicken with the white girl! Ten points to any fly that actually makes her bruise herself!”

2. I have also discovered while in this country that I really, really dislike frogs. Have you every heard of the species of frog that only come out during rainy season and then spend the rest of the year hibernating underground? They are about the size of my fist, are an endangered species, and are one of the first animals in a very, very long time that have caused me to scream at the top of my lungs. Why is it that I can calmly flick away a cockroach crawling up my leg but freak out when a frog jumps toward me? Well, they are a lot larger and slimier than cockroaches. The sound they make at night is louder than cicada’s in the U.S. on a summer night. I really dislike the way their throats go up and down as they breathe and how they climb up walls. One night I was lying in bed (outside) and saw one crawling up the wall just two feet away from me. Eee-gats! Most importantly, though, they are so incredibly dumb that they jump into your path as you walk. One of these days I am not going to be fast enough and step on one as it jumps under my foot. The idea of squishing a frog and feeling its bone and guts spill out is one of the creepiest things that I can imagine. Going back to my village on one of my bush taxis at night, I watched at least two dozen frogs jump into the light created by the car’s headlights and get smooched. I do not want to be callous, but no wonder they’re endangered.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

End of Hot Season

It is the end of hot season. For most of my fellow volunteers, their villages have had rain, which officially starts rainy season. As soon as a village has a decent rain, villagers go out into the fields and start planting in the fresh, wet soil (a.k.a. sand). They plant as much as they can in one day and then wait for the next rain to continue their planting. I was in the more southern regions of Niger this past week, just above Nigeria, visiting friends. They have already had quite a bit of rain. One area actually had rain over a month ago. The millet is already growing, and it looks amazing. So green. I hope this is a fortuitous sign for the upcoming growing season since the previous year was so bad. Needless to say, another year of famine would be disastrous. Sadly, my village has yet to receive any rain. Hopefully that status will have changed by the time I go back to ville.

During rainy season, Nigeriens plant mostly millet, sorghum, beans, and peanuts. Most of the food they grow and consume here is what we would only feed birds and farm animals in the states. For this reason, I sometimes feel a bit awkward when people here ask me if we have this kind of food in the states. They absolutely LOVE asking me if I eat millet in the states because millet is their primary staple and, in their opinion, it is what gives health and strength. ‘Not healthy? You are probably not eating enough millet.’ So how does one respond when asked if we have the primary sources of Nigerien food in America? I do not think that answering “yes, but we only give it to other animals” would be very culturally sensitive. In all honest, millet would be a nutritious form of whole grain carbohydrates if my villagers didn’t pound it to excess. Pounding food with a large, wooden mortar and pestle is a daily task here, which happens to pound most of the nutrients out of the food (kind of like overcooking I think). At least this is what I am told. And yet, currently, all I can do is pray that my villagers grow enough of this horse feed to feed themselves over the next year.

So with the rain, the men are also coming back into the village. They had been on exode to other regions in Niger or other countries. I have certainly seen some unfamiliar faces sitting in the men’s groups, drinking tea as I walk along the road. I had a chat with one guy who had seen me when I first came to my village and then left for Nigeria. He said he was surprised it was me because I am so fat now. Apparently I have gained weight. Thankfully in Niger, someone saying that you are fat is actually a compliment. All the same, it felt a bit odd having that said to your face. I expect to have a lot more random chats with guys in my village as more come home to farm for the season.

Political Divide

To sum up, since the military coup in February, little has changed for the everyday villager. New officials were assigned to run the country, organize elections and install preventatives so that the next president can’t legally set up an administrative coup. Locally, elected mayors were disbanded and communes (kind of like countries in America) were either given new mayors or put under a larger power, the Prefecture.

My commune was put under its prefecture, and my mayor’s office was closed. We didn’t have any hired administrative staff, so there was no point in keeping it open. The interim government has said the by March 2010, a new Nigerien president will be in office. Previous to those elections, though, local elections will hopefully be held. I hope my mayor will be re-elected. Given the opinions from my villagers and those from surrounding villages, I can see he is very popular. But even if he is reelected, I wonder if this new government will be any more effective than the last.

This brings me to my point. I have had several conversations with people here about their politics. When you compare politics here with that of America, our polarized political system looks like playground spats. Because people are from different political parties, they will refuse to do their jobs. The Sarki in my village, for example, will refuse to give the tax money to my mayor’s office because he and the Mayor are from different parties. They’re rivals instead of two pieces of the government working together. This polarization (in addition to the blatant corruption within the government) has not only created an ineffective government, but it has also influenced people’s willingness to participate in government. Why would someone entangle themselves in government business or elections when a) there community is not really getting any benefits from the government, and b) participation most likely means you have to take sides in a conflict between two significant powers? A villager is not going to win under these circumstances. Moreover, how is Niger going to develop when its government is bound thanks to these political rivalries and its people refrain from getting involved? In theory, increased participation via democracy should aid development. In reality, it seems to have made development even more prone to stagnation.

Gathering of Volunteers

Peace Corps Niger just had its first ever all-volunteer conference. Seeing as the areas around Niamey are not as safe as one would like (i.e. higher theft and some political activity), we had the conference out in Zinder. It was a wonderful opportunity for those in the west part of the country to visit the eastern parts of Niger. Western volunteers often do not have that chance. Zinder volunteers came in a few days early to set up for the three-day conference during which various second year volunteers gave presentations on successful projects they conducted while in Niger. Presentations ranged from population education and girls camps to drip gardens and business clubs. We discussed funding opportunities and grant writing tips. While some of these project ideas are covered during our pre-service and mid-service training workshops, this gave volunteers the opportunity to trade thoughts and reactions to those projects as well as offer new project ideas. Like so many things in this world, the theory and the reality rarely mimic one another. Volunteers were able to say how they used the materials given to them and how they adapted those resources to their village needs. It was truly inspiring to see other volunteers’ accomplishments and to see what one is capable of while in this country.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Help Me Buy Some Goats!

I interrupt my regularly scheduled blog entry for a special announcement...

As stated in my previous blog, I am doing a goat project. Please see previous entry for details. Well the proposal has been approved. Yay! Now all I need is your help. I need to raise $1200. If you would like to contribute...

1. Go to
2. Under "Resources for", click "Donations"
3. You can search for my project using one of the following:
- Last Name: Lyon-Hill
- Country: Niger
- State: Ohio
- Title: Women's Goat Microfinance Project

Hopefully the link will be up by Monday, June 7th.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Whoa it's hot!

Well, it is officially hot season in Niger. It has been hot season for some time now, and it certainly shows. Midday until four o’clock in the afternoon, no one can do a thing. I went out a little before two the other week and saw next to no one. Those I did see were sleeping or barely moving in the shade. For me, I can barely go past eleven in the morning before I feel the signs of heat exhaustion. I did not actually register that what I was feeling was heat exhaustion until I read the symptoms in this month’s country newsletter. Now I am trying to rest even more than before and drink more (deliciously hot) water, just in case. The idea of fainting in front of my villagers does not sound appealing. Even the nights are hot, and you wake up drenched in sweat. While this experience has certainly helped me overcome my fear of heat, my distaste for it still remains. I am not planning to move to Alaska when I go home, but the deep south or south west are certainly not on my list of places to live. I miss cold wet rains, chilly winds and snow.

Of course, when I have these thoughts, part of me yells profusely at myself because I am only here for two years. In the meantime, my villagers have to live here their entire lives. Even when I am here, I am not living like my villagers do. While I am guaranteed water no matter what (it’s in my village agreement), I am sure there are some people in my villager who are certainly not getting enough water, particularly when considering this heat. When ice or cold water is available, usually a couple times a week, I buy as much as I can. My villagers can’t do that. I also do not do half the amount of physical labor that the people in my village do. I spent one day sitting in the shade with friends in my market, watching five guys build a four-room, mud brick building to house small shops. They were still working by the time I headed home for lunch, and it was probably 105 degrees out or more.

More importantly, I am not starving and suffering from malnutrition. Many, if not most, of my villagers are malnourished all year around. Now, during hunger season, conditions are ten times worse. The last rainy season was not very good, and not nearly enough crops were harvested. Even with subsidized food from the government and humanitarian aid from the UN and other countries, people are not getting what they need. This is the first time in my villager when I have been regularly asked for food by ten or more villagers a day; that estimate does not include everyday beggars or the koranic school kids who beg for food as part of their, for lack of a better term, studies. With the starvation and the heat, it seems as if the death toll in this country has jumped significantly. I literally hear of at least one death a day somewhere in or near my village. These are certainly arduous conditions. And yet, my villagers just go about their days, heads held high and proud. Sure they complain about their wahala (hardship and tireness), but who doesn’t complain in the U.S.?

Now for something completely different…

I am doing a relatively large project and, depending on the success of my proposal, I may need help from all you wonderful people in the states! Yes, I am begging for help and for that, I apologize.

The project is pretty much your basic income generating goat project. Here’s the official project description:

Niger is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, ranked least developed out of 182 countries according to the 2009 UN Human Development Index. Among other things, Niger suffers from lack of human capacity, few natural resources and increasing desertification. This project will provide resources by giving goats to fifty women, who will then work together to breed and sell the offspring. Through workshops, the project will increase participants’ ability to breed and manage livestock as well as improve their knowledge of financial planning. While the community can provide the training, it does not have the means to buy the goats. Twenty-five pregnant, healthy female goats will be bought and given to fifty women, one goat for every two women to ensure initial cooperation and teamwork mentality. These women will work together, and once the goats give birth, each woman will then have at least one female goat to breed and sell the offspring. A portion of the money gained from this venture will go to the women and their families for food and living. The remaining profits will be saved in a group account to be used for other development projects. Within eight months, participating women will gain the knowledge and confidence needed to make good business decisions. They will have the means and know-how to continue their goat breeding business as well as pursue other income generating activities.

So here’s where I need help: fundraising. I have to raise a little under $1200. The fundraising for this project is run through a program called Peace Corps Partnerships, one of the most commonly used funding sources in Peace Corps. The community contributes at least twenty-five percent of all project costs (in this case, it’s 27% not including the cost of caring for the animals). The Peace Corps volunteer writes a proposal, which then goes through the country office and then the National Peace Corps office in Washington D.C. If they accept the proposal, they will put the project up on a website (I will give you the address when I can), where people can then contribute money online. Peace Corps Partnerships is funded through Peace Corps, so all proceeds raised for this project will go to the project and not elsewhere. You are also able to get a tax deduction from this contribution.

I feel fairly awkward asking all my friends, family and possible other random people for this. But I also figure you may feel more comfortable giving to charity when you know (100%) where that money will go (to my village via me!). Of course, my proposal is still waiting for approval from Peace Corps, so this whole project may blow up in my face even before it’s begun. However, I wanted to give you all time to think it over and ask me any questions that you might have. As soon as my project is approved and put on the website (knock of wood), I will be sure to advertise it anywhere and everywhere I see fit.

I would really like this project to be successful. My women in my village are so incredibly excited. They’ve even started raising their own funds to care for the goats. Originally I said they each had to contribute 1000cfa (about $2) each by the time we buy the goats. That is 100cfa a week for ten weeks. Of course they decided to start now. So by the time the project starts, they will certainly have more than the 50,000cfa that I specified as part of the community contribution on the proposal. Having heard from other volunteers about their villages’ lack of motivation, this demonstration of dedication has really inspired me. I love my villagers!

So there it is: another blog entry. I will try to make the next one more interesting. For now, sai anjima!

Friday, April 9, 2010

April 2010: Projects Galore

Toe… I don’t know if being in Niger has lowered my expectation in terms of accomplishment, but I do feel like I have accomplished much in the last few weeks. Here we go…

Girls Camp

Several volunteers in the Zinder region brought 1-4 girls to Zinderville for a week long workshop. Most of these girls were junior high age and (happily) still in school. The first day we made name tags, played games and had a health fair. I really hope to do a health fair at some point in my village now, but I would have to improve my health vocabulary. I was helping out at the food station, where we taught the girls about three different food groups: starches, meats and fruits/veggies, and why each is important. In the starches section, I was suppose to explain how these foods provided durundakum (energy), but I often screwed up the pronunciation. The following days were filled with other classes such as civics education, geography, learning about women from around the world, sensibilization mural paintings, practicing good study habits, and going to the radio station to tell what we’ve been doing and greet our villages. Greeting one’s village and friends is very important and exciting to most Nigeriens. Each girl was able to go up and say, “Ina son gaida…” (I want to greet…) and then they would spew off a list of names. Normally Hausa radio seems a bit tedious because of this aspect, but in this case, the girls’ greetings were adorable. Overall, the entire girls camp was a great success. The volunteers who organized it, those who came a year ahead of me and my stage mates, were amazing! I only hope that we can do as good of a job, if not better, next year.


My village has started a kindergarten in town, and the director/teacher asked me to see if I could find funding for school supplies. Since this is exactly the kind of work I want to do – providing assistance to community organized and run projects – I was thrilled to help. Luckily the community was not simply asking for handouts. With any funding project, the community has to contribute at least 15% of total project costs. My villagers had already planned to build the kindergarten facilities (a grass hut), each family was paying 100cfa a week per child for the teacher’s services, and the local primary school was already helping out by providing some supplies such as a chalkboard. I did hold a meeting with the traditional head of my village, the sarki, to reinforce these obligations. I emphasized that without this, there’s no money. I also tried to point out that this is a one time thing and that if supplies needed to be replenished at a later date, another solution would have to be found, namely starting a collection or looking for an NGO that specializes in school funding projects.

Several of my villagers have clearly expressed to me that they are motivated and want to do projects, but they simply lack access to funds. This kindergarten was such a case. When talking to my mayor about this problem, he explained to me why funding is such an issue (besides the obvious fact that it’s a poverty stricken country). In most developed countries, government support is provided for many community development projects. My local government cannot provide this assistance. Its tax collecting capabilities are limited. Because people have never benefited from public assistance, they do not see the point of paying taxes. The few taxes that are collected, are traditionally collected by the sarki. According to several villagers, in the case of my village at least (although this may be the case for many others), the sarki and my mayor are from different political parties, which has caused some animosity between the two. As a result, the sarki refuses to give the tax money he has collected over to the local government (or so I am told). Most of the tax money that is collected then goes to the department capital, where in theory it should be redistributed among the various communes (my village is the head of one of those communes). This does not happen however. Of the ~25,000,000 cfa that should go to my mayor’s office for the past few years, they have received less than 7,000,000 cfa.

So this is the situation that my villagers seem to find themselves in. Since I am a white person who can read, write, and who has access to resources that most villagers do not, I am definitely inclined to help financially if I can. I just hope this whole thing does not blow up in my face, i.e. the funds I do get for these projects do not go to the projects and end up being pocketed or wasted on personal expenses. There have been many cases where a volunteer will do a project, such as finding funds and building a water pump, and the village doesn’t take care of it or takes the money for something else. The percentage community contribution is meant to create a sense of ownership for the village so that they are more willing to maintain and cultivate the project. This contribution is sometimes ineffective. The end result is a failed project. I guess the kindergarten will illustrate how much my villagers are actually motivated and how much of their motivation is just talk.

Other projects

I have gotten my first round of pen pal letters almost done! Girls in my junior high school have written letters to girls from my home town junior high. We have just now gotten replies, and I am excited to go back to my village and read the letters with my girls. Even with me translating the letters into French, some explanations will be required. For instance, many of the American girls said they liked to play outside. This seems like a perfectly normal activity in America, but here one might ask, “Play outside? As opposed to what?”. Life here is spent almost entirely outside. If one is inside, it is mostly to sleep at night during cold season or rest when the flies are annoying and it’s actually hotter outside. The buildings here are definitely a lot smaller (one room usually) and don’t even have what we would think of as traditional windows or doors. Little stuff like that is going to be really fun and interesting to talk to my girls about.

I am heading back to my village in a couple of days with some fellow volunteers to do a health mural at my doctor’s office. I plan on painting three different images: 1) a women holding her child for the doctor to give the kid a vaccination; I want to have little pictures illustrating the different times that a child needs vaccines (this is a wonderful idea brought by my artistically talented friend Audrey. Thanks Audrey!); 2) a family with three children who are of different ages to illustrate proper family planning; 3) a pregnant woman sleeping under a mosquito net because pregnant women are actually far more susceptible to malaria, and their babies are at higher risk of death. Hopefully the mural will take only a few days to paint, but will then be used numerous times as visual aids for health sensibilizations. Inshallah!

Since coming back from a fellow volunteer’s town where we did participatory development workshops using theater, my plans for radio in my village have changed somewhat. In Sarah’s village (the volunteer who we visited), we took women’s and men’s groups, and asked them to act out a common problem about village life. Some of these problems dealt with health, cowife issues, lack of food, and problems inherent in the microloan system. We then asked them to think about possible solutions to these problems. The point was trying to visualize these problems as a group in order to better understand them and their potential solutions. For the most part, the results were interesting and informative. Some groups understood what we were trying to do and came up with very detailed, enlightening skits. Others did not quite understand and either mimicked the examples given or went into diatribes describing why they need money. Hausa villagers are not often exposed to activities which encourage creative thought and acting. The idea of thinking in abstractions is a foreign concept in many cases. For instance, if I were to get a group together, ask them what projects they want to do, and then provide an example of a project, they would most likely choose the example I just stated rather than innovating their own project ideas. By using theatre to express real life problems, perhaps abstract ideas and concepts can be merged with reality, creating a bridge of communication and collaboration in some respect. That is the idea at least.

I am hoping to take this experience and translate it into radio shows. I had already decided that using groups in my community, particular the young girls group I am working with, to do radio shows was a good idea. My Hausa is still fairly mediocre. There are some things concerning pronunciation at the very least that I know I will never get. So working with groups to convey messages such as hygiene, family planning, supporting your government, might be the better approach. If they can make these skits up themselves and do them over the radio, that would be even better.

In other news

On the other side of things, I haven’t spent much time in my village. Most volunteers tell me that both I and my villagers should get use to me coming and going. It’s natural, particularly when I am working, trying to get projects off the ground. I am hoping for a cool down soon, though. I hope to spend the majority of this coming month (as in all but two or three days) in my village. People also say that volunteers can’t do much anyway in the upcoming months because the heat makes you not want to move, you’re villagers are probably beginning to starve because supplies are starting to run low from the previous harvest, most men are somewhere else try to work and earn money, and it’s summer break for the kids. So really, it will be just me hanging out in my village, doing what I can.

With any luck, my mayor’s office will get funding for writing a community plan, and we will travel around our subregion (kind of like a county) and talk with communities about their needs and resources. This process may be hampered, though, by the recent political changes. As of April, all elected officials have been stripped of their titles and disbanded. In reality, the elected terms of these officials, namely the mayors, expired a few months ago. With President Tandja changing the constitution and then the military coup, the term was lengthened. But now the new regime has decided a let go all of these officials and have the local governments run by civil servants until new elections can be held. One would think that this would have a large impact on my work. Since there are no civil servants even in my mayor’s office, only elected officials, the local government should technically not exist for the time being. My feeling is, however, that my mayor and the elected commune officials may ignore this official disbanding for the most part. It is not like they were even paid to work in the first place. They recognize that their commune needs help developing and establishing infrastructure. I do not think that this motivation will end just because the national government says they may not officially work. At least I hope they will still show effort.

Monday, March 15, 2010

March 15, 2010

I have just come into Zinder after a week and a half in my village. Not very long, I know. Honestly, I was very tentative about returning to my village. I had not been there for about six weeks. I was also going back with full authority to initiate development projects. While I had many ideas about kinds of projects to implement and different questions to ask my community concerning future endeavors, the idea of actually returning and starting my life as an active, project-doing volunteer was a bit overwhelming. While I try to keep my irrational fears of failure in check, they are definitely always there. Once I actually returned to my village, however, most of those fears and trepidation melted away.

I was lucky to have my friend, Audrey, accompany me back to ville. She was having work done on her house, so we decided she could come with me to do a radio show. Having another volunteer at hand while I immersed myself yet again into Hausa culture was definitely comforting. I hadn’t spoken Hausa much for the past two weeks or so. I was definitely out of practice. I picked it back up pretty quickly though with Audrey to back me up. Seeing and greeting my villagers again was also a wonderful reminder of how great they actually are. I love my villagers. They are very sweet and considerate people. They are definitely more forward than I am use to at times. For instance, they say welcome back and then ask for their zigaygay (present you give when coming back from a trip). In a village of seven thousand people, you kind of wonder how much they expect you to bring back. [Side note: this is a shout out to three wonderful and amazing friends in Toledo (Jayme, Jen and Kim), whose recent package filled with Valentine’s day goodies was much appreciated. My villagers thank you for the zigaygays.] But for the most part, it’s wonderful to have people come up to me, ask how my trip was and say that they missed me while I was gone.

While I was in my village for only a week and a half, I was able to get a few activities underway. First, my grant proposal for a health mural at my doctor’s office went through. I was able to get paints and work out ideas and sketches with the staff members there. They want at least some of the mural to focus on family planning, childhood vaccination and nutrition. I am hoping to actually start the painting in mid-April as my time over the next few weeks will be spent in Zinder and another volunteer’s village doing workshops. Second, I set up a pen pal group with girls at my village’s junior high school. We wrote our first set of letters that I will translate and send off to my middle school in America this week. Third, I got two girls signed up to go to a girls camp with me next week in Zinder. We will be participating in workshops on self defense, physical health, nutrition, entrepreneurship, career building, and more. Finally, I got back into the habit of village life. I visited my radio station, my schools, the doctor’s office, the mayor’s office and houses of various friends. I helped my mayor’s office write birth certificates. I helped out in a few English classes. I also had the chance to help out my medical staff dispense prescription drugs on market day. Overall, good stay in ville.

When I was in my village, I received a call from one of my sister’s college friends. She is writing a thesis in which she proposes American foreign policy for a certain country. Most specifically, she is looking at how American foreign policy might be use to stimulate economic development in Niger. Hence, she called me, an American living in Niger, to get my perspective. Although I did have my own ideas after living here for a while, I did want to ask others’ opinions. So I asked my mayor what he would focus on with respect to Nigerien economic development.

My mayor enumerated the various issues on which to focus. First, he discussed education. The children here are not given a quality education, and they quickly drop out of school. Like the UN Millenium goal states, focusing on basic primary school education is vital to improving Niger’s social and economic development. Equally as important, however, is tailoring educational programs also to the Nigerien way of life, that is to say focusing more on technical training. Many people here drop out of school at an early age primarily because their parents and they do not see the benefits of staying in school. Most of the subject matter, while important for the intellectual and cognitive development of children, is rarely used outside of school. Particularly since most people here are farmers, focusing at least to some extent on curriculum dealing with that subject matter would be relevant and beneficial. Related to this is the need to improve farming methods in Niger. Currently most farming is done by hand, using rudimentary tools and man power. By improving the farming here, Nigeriens may be able to increase their farming output beyond the point of mere subsistence farming. On a side note, this will also remove one more reason for having so many children per family (needed man power for farming), thus addressing population growth concerns in the country. Thirdly, he discussed health issues in the country, which are often connected with lack of health education and malnutrition/starvation due to failed farming in Niger. I was really happy and pleased to see how he emphasized interdependency and need for a multipronged approach to addressing these issues.

My mayor and I also discussed the growth (or lack there of) of industry in the country. In Zinder, for instance, the only real industry today is tannery. While there are many small businesses and a few artisanal endeavors in the region, they are still very small scale and bring little money to the area. My mayor said that there had been several growing industries in Niger. Like many countries and (on a smaller scale) towns, Niger’s industry has suffered from lower cost, sometimes better quality imports. The notion of supporting your local businesses, “buy local”, has yet to catch on. As a result much of the industrial growth here has stagnated, even degenerated.

Random points of interest:

- In English, we often use “ok”, “so” or “anyway” to express the fact that we have heard someone’s point, we possibly agree, and let’s continue. In Hausa, all of that is expressed by the simple word: Toe. I love this fact. At first I felt a little weird continuous mentioning an appendage of my foot. Since then, I have embraced this word as a space-filler, a sign of agreement, and whatnot. I basically say “toe” whenever I can. It’s fun.

- We have reached hot season here in Niger. Thus far it has gotten as hot as 110 degrees Fahrenheit (more heat to come). What does this mean besides the fact that for most of the afternoon everyone here does absolutely nothing? Most of the men have gone on exode, meaning they have left their villages, going to other countries (sometimes other regions) to find work and send money back home. Most men here go to Nigeria, although some also go to Chad, Libya, Algeria, Benin and Togo. I imagine that the amount of foreign remittances (money gained abroad and sent back to country) is pretty high here. Unfortunately, I have also heard that as a result of the men spending so much time away from home, they often create new families abroad. Hence some of that money they gain goes to those families and not to those here in Niger. The men should return to Niger at the beginning of rainy season (July) in order to plant crops.

- I have a correction to one of my last reports concerning pasture animals. I have been told that animals do not actually herd themselves. There are in fact shepherds who herd these animals. They’re just usually far off, maybe watching from a far atop hillside. Part of me is still a little skeptical about this. I have indeed seen animals out in the middle of nowhere, slowly walking back to their homes, with no one anywhere near and no hills/trees to mask their presence.

- “Dead man’s clothes”: these are used clothing, sent to Niger from western countries and sold at market. It’s kind of like Goodwill, although it’s the clothing that Goodwill couldn’t or wouldn’t sell. The clothing might be slightly more damaged or was originally sewn incorrectly so that no one would buy it in the developed world. What’s really cool about dead man’s clothes is that there are usually jewels here and there in the mass of weird clothing. A Monty Python and the Holy Grail t-shirt, for instance, was found by one volunteer. All you have to do is look. What’s even better, though, is seeing Hausa people wearing these clothes. A lot of this clothing has a certain cultural relevance or context such as a Detroit Tiger’s shirt. One friend saw someone walking around his village wearing a t-shirt saying “It’s all relative in West Virginia”. Not only is it funny just to see something so American in a so not American environment, but the fact that they do not know what they’re wearing is also humorous, although sometimes disturbing (there are definitely things I don’t like seeing written on t-shirts in the states, much less here where no one has a clue of what they’re displaying on their chests). I do like seeing ten year old boys walking around town in pink teddy bear pajama pants and shirts.

To, I guess that’s it for now. Sai anjima!