It has been about five weeks since I left Zermou for Niamey. I spent three weeks doing inter-service training. Basically, the once Peace Corps trainees came back from their four month stay in the bush (a.k.a. their villages) and gathered once more to have more language training in addition to more practical knowledge concerning volunteer projects. With respect to the language training session, I did get a few Hausa questions cleared up. Most of the sessions were just hira (chat), but I really appreciated talking with a trained language tutor, particularly one that understands how Americans think and speak. It made translating what we really wanted to say into Hausa much easier. Normally in my village I carry around a small pocket notebook for whenever I encounter a new and interesting vocabulary word. My teacher helped me to understand that vocabulary to a far greater extent than I had been able to before.
We also discussed some aspects of Hausa culture. One aspect that I found very interesting was the tradition of ethnic jokes. I guess this behavior is true almost anywhere in the world: there are jokes based on most ethnic stereotypes (e.g. jewish, black, southern white and asian jokes). Similarly, there are many different ethnicities here such as Fulane and Toubou, who are generally thought to be on the bottom rungs of the social ladder. There are jokes concerning their intellectual slowness and social awkwardness. My teacher explained that these jokes are made to be fun and relieve any ethnic tensions between groups. For this reason, he said, there is very little violence between groups in Niger as there is in several other countries in the world. I wonder if this explanation is accurate. It is true that people here seem to live harmoniously. Segregation, to me, seems limited, particularly when thinking about ethnic neighborhoods (I don’t think that is a common phenomenon here). There also seems to be a lot of intermarriage of groups, although I do not know whether that would be placed as a cause or an effect (leaning towards cause though).
I do wonder, however, if this tranquility will change given the increasing population, lack of land and limited resources. Will these ethnic jokes, that are currently lighthearted and tension breaking, be taken more seriously? I have heard from one volunteer that one of the girls in her school is on scholarship, meaning she is given enough money to buy books and a new school outfit. These scholarships are limited to girls who have good grades and are motivated. This girl also happens to be Fulane. The volunteer said that because of her ethnicity, this girl was teased and as a result has stop showing up to school regularly. Sadly this girl will most likely lose her scholarship and drop out. My teacher also mentioned that if, for instance, a Kanuri were to tease or steal from a Fulane, he would most likely get away with it because of the social order. I guess this kind of behavior is prevalent everywhere; however I am intrigued by the idea of humor lightening these ethnic conflicts. Maybe people do take life a little too seriously? But then again, how far is too far concerning these stereotypes and the resulting behavior?
My interservice training did get me set up with a few good ideas, which I intend to use in my village. The one nice aspect of this training was that we were able to bring one counterpart for a few days with whom we worked. Hopefully my counterpart and I are now on the same page. Since Peace Corps is an exercise in participatory development (that is working with the community to develop community driven development projects), we were taught two different approaches to holding a community meeting in which we would discuss needs and brainstorm feasible projects. I am not sure how often volunteers actually use these methods. They are fairly theoretical, and I wonder about the outcomes. I am eager to try though. I definitely do not want to spend most of my two years here doing projects that I think I can handle without the motivation and participation of other groups in my village.
By the end of my three weeks at IST, I was sad to say goodbye to my fellow volunteers. It was really nice seeing them all again, and we had a lot of fun. People do have to make sacrifices, however (wink, wink). I actually left IST two days early and headed off to France to meet my boyfriend and his family there. I walked around Paris for a few days and then headed to the Languedoc region of Southern France. It was a lovely trip whose details I will not bore you with seeing as this is a blog about Niger, not France.
While I was in France, there was a military coup in Niger. If you have read any of my other blog entries, you would have heard mention of the political conditions in Niger. The residing President, Mamadou Tandja, was not satisfied with the work he had accomplished in his last ten years in office. So he asked for a three year extension. Both the legislative and judicial branches of Niger said that was unconstitutional and refused to change the law. Saying it was the peoples’ right to choose whether he stayed or went, Tandja dissolved both governmental bodies and held a referendum which would lengthen his term three years and change the constitution somewhat. The presidents power would be consolidated somewhat and he would have the right to be reelected as many times as he liked. The referendum passed with some opposition. Opposing parties boycotted the election saying it was unconstitutional. Everything did seem to go relatively smoothly, though.
Last Thursday, February 18, the military unseated Tandja and took control of the government. The coup leader, Maj. Salou Djibou, set up a transitional government run by a Prime Minister, one-time Information Minister Mahamadou Dandah. He said that new elections would take place as soon as possible. Considering military coups in other countries, one would look on this declaration with skepticism. In Niger, however, a coup of this kind has happened before; the 1999 coup led to one of the country’s first decades of relative democratic peace. So who knows what could occur. Maybe this coup is just one more step along Niger’s evolutionary development.
Compared to most military coups, there seemed to be only a little violence. Most Peace Corps volunteers were kept safely in their villages. Those in or close to Niamey were confined to the Niamey hostel. It was so quiet that most did not fully get what was going on until ten o’clock that night when Maj. Djibou came on television and explained what had happened. There must have been some violent outbreaks because the taxi cab driver who took me to the hostel a few days later showed me his driver side door. The glass and mirror were no longer there. The door was really banged up. And he told me how soldiers had swarmed at least his area of Niamey. He had to run home with his kids and tell them to sit and be quiet. Now everything is fine it seems. I was able to get back into the country with only mild apprehension (the borders had been closed for two days). In a country with so much poverty, little infrastructure and a peaceable population, I do not think that this national coup had or will have too much of an effect on the local populations. I guess I will find out when I get back to my village.
For me, being outside of the country as this all happened was somewhat worse than if I had been inside the country. At first, I was only getting news from media sources, which most definitely framed events into a caricature of reality. At the time, part of me wondered if I would ever get to go back to Niger. I was considering whether I would be able to get my ticket destination changed to America. Then I managed to call my friend, Alex, who was actually in the country. He seemed a bit surprised to hear from me, but he was nonplused about the political situation. From what I could tell, he was just hanging out in his village. That call certainly put things into perspective. It helped me to realize yet again that relying solely on the media can blow events out of proportion and lead to panic.