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.