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.