Friday, January 22, 2010

January 2010

It’s winter in Niger. Well, it’s cold season, which means that it may get down to the fifties at night and seventies during the day. I walk around and see people wearing winter coats, hats, heavy sweaters, etc. Most of this is in the morning when even I wear a light sweater that I brought from the states. The “cold” weather provides a great conversation topic as I walk through my village. People ask me how the cold is: “Ina sanyi”. I respond, “Lokacinshi” or, it’s that time of the year. Then people skeptically ask me if I actually feel the cold. I tell them a little and then describe snow. I am not sure many people understand the concept of snow even after I explain that it is ice that falls from the sky. Although, until coming here, I found it difficult to imagine how hot I could be without going mad. Experience (and thus frame of reference) is important in these situations. These past couple of days it has been particularly chilly because of the wind, to the point that taking a bucket bath (i.e. filling a bucket with water and using that to bathe myself) is rather bracing. Sadly, this season will not last very long. I am off to Niamey for a three week workshop and then going to France for two weeks. By the time I return to my village, cold season will most likely be ending, and I will be looking forward to several months of hot season where it can get up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Oh joy. This may be the true test of my fortitude as a volunteer in this country.

In other news, after returning to my village in December, I celebrated my friend, Nana’s wedding. As I said before, weddings in Niger are certainly different. Like many events here, the celebration is segregated between the men and women. Women have their own party, similar to a bridal shower, during which people come and give kitchen pots or money. They also give each other henna and braid each others hair. The bride, of course, gets special pampering. To the best of my knowledge, men give each other money, or give money to their pre-existing wives. Depending on the household, there is also dancing at night (also fairly segregated but not totally). At the end, the wife goes to her husband’s house and spends the next few days cloistered in her hut, getting all of her new stuff arranged. A few days after that, her husband visits her and they consummate the marriage. Nana’s husband lives in another village, and I had planned to go with her and see her new home. Due to security restrictions, however, I had to back out at the last minute. I was disappointed particularly considering I came back to my village Christmas day in order to celebrate and spend time with Nana. I just have to keep telling myself, “better safe than sorry”, right? Since Nana’s wedding, I did attend a few others. Similar to the stereotypical month of June in the states, now is the wedding season in Niger. I stop in, check out all the bridal loot, give a mille cfa to the bride, get some gum, and leave. I am still a little fuzzy on whether I should give a mille to a bride I don’t really know. My village friends were shocked and amazed that I gave that much. Apparently I was just supposed to give a hundred. Oops.

After the wedding, I was back to the usual routine. In the mornings, I walk around my village, stopping at various places such as the doctors, the radio station and the mayor’s office. I chat, hoping to improve my hausa and learn more about my village. It is clear at this point that my mayor brought me here because 1) he wants a better educated and aware female population and 2) he is hoping that I may be able to do some fundraising while I am here. For the former, I think I can make some progress. I have several projects in mind in which I can interact with the schools, the doctor’s office, the radio station and several women leaders in my village. For my workshop in Niamey, I get to invite a village counterpart to participate; this is someone whom I think will be a great resource, aid and initiator of projects. I have chosen to invite Aisha, a woman who has certainly carved out a leadership role for herself. She is one out of twelve representatives (one of two women) in the regional governing body. She is vice president and lead spokesperson in the local radio station. In addition, she is vice president of a women’s group that Project CARE (international NGO) helped to set up for the larger Zinder region. She has been a good friend these past few months, and hopefully she will be a motivated counterpart. I am also hoping to rely on the women in my mayor’s family. Several of his daughters are teachers in primary schools, and his wife seems to have some unofficial leadership status among the women in the community.

As for the mayor’s second goal, fundraising/material resource, I am not sure how difficult that desire will be to achieve. Like most communities today, resources are slim (although they are obviously scarcer here than in any developed country). The mayor and several other village leaders have explained to me that while they have certain ideas and plans for how the town should develop as a community, they lack the means of initiating those plans. They barely have the money to write their own community development plan that would outline the community’s top priorities and plan of action for obtain those goals. This document is commonplace in most American communities.

One potential hurdle to my work here is the change in government representatives, conseillers. The recent local elections changed the party majority from my mayor’s party, Sintsia, to the leading national party, MNSD. I hope the mayor’s popularity will keep him in office. If not, I will have to adapt somewhat considering I have basically been adopted into the current mayor’s family. Related to this is the way in which the party majority changed. The MNSD party has far more resources (i.e. money) than the Sintsia party. They are able to go further into the country, spending more time and money there. More importantly, because illegal bribing is not regulated here, political parties are able to give out free stuff to citizens right outside the voting polls thereby influencing their votes. During elections, my villagers got t-shirts, soap, skirts, pamphlets, posters, and more. Of course campaign financing is certainly a problem in the states, but this situation is ridiculous.

During this past month, I also spent time in another volunteer’s village. While there, we recorded a few radio shows and painted two health murals on her doctor’s office wall. For more information see:

Other random thoughts:

- It is very difficult to make change in Niger. If you go to the market, a store or outdoor street vendor without correct change, there is a good chance they will not be able to exchange your bill. They often send a kid running to ask someone else in the area if they have correct change. Sometime, such as when you go to the post office, you are out of luck if you do not have correct change. You have to go and find someone who will exchange you money or you give them more than they request. Sadly, when you go to the bank to withdraw money, they generally give you large bills even if you request smaller ones. I know some volunteers go to the market in Zinder and play the change game. They go to various vendors and see how large a bill they can break.

- How many people/animals can you get on a motor cycle? A Nigerien would know. We have seen motorcycle taxis carrying goats, chickens and multiple toddlers.

- While some children are deathly afraid of seeing a white person, others like to slowly walk up to the local anasara and poke, touch or caress them. I have heard some people think it is luck to touch a white person. Although, if you attempt to touch a child yourself, they will often start backing away and screaming. Even adults at time seem to be interested in touching an anasara. Sometimes when I am walking around my village, someone walks up to me, holding out their hand as if they want to shake my hand except they hold it for an exorbitant amount of time (according to my cultural values that is).