Shakatawa, Babu Layhi

25 Sep

It’s still kind of hard to believe, but I swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer Thursday morning. The ceremony took place at the Ambassador’s residence–which has grass growing on the ground and a pool! We listened to speeches from our peers in French, Hausa and Zarma, as well as the Peace Corps Country Director, and Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy. (We were just crashing at the Ambassador’s pad–she’s not actually in Niger yet.) After the ceremony, we went out for lunch and I ATE A CHEESEBURGER. This was the first one I’ve had in 14 years, so it’s hard to compare it to what an American burger is like, but it was definitely better than sheep.

But let me rewind a bit first, since a lot has happened in the past few weeks. Ramadan (finally) ended and there was a huge party in the village. (Interesting side note: in Zarma the word for fasting is “me haw,” literally “tied mouth.” Also, my first mom described an owl to me as “an animal who fasts all the time,” since they only eat at night, which I thought was pretty cute.) The night before the fete, my host dad slaughtered five chickens in our concession. My host moms and sister plucked them, but wouldn’t let me help (“You have no need of dirtiness.”), so instead I ended up peeling potatoes with them until nearly midnight. This is really late for Niger since it gets dark around 7:30, but these women kept working–after fasting all day, cooking that night’s dinner, pounding the millet for dad’s evening doonu (millet drink with sugar, yogurt, and, if you can get it, ice), carving up unidentifiable parts of the cow that the village had collectively slaughtered, and were out preparing long after I went to bed.

The next day, we had something akin to brunch where we ate rice and couscous with the chicken and cow (I’m hesitant to call it beef, since I know part of it was definitely stomach) sauce and actual vegetables! Carrots, potatoes, eggplant, and fresh tomatoes. This was definitely the most food groups I’ve ever gotten in my family, where rice mixed with macaroni is considered a balanced meal.

Ack, so running out of time, but I’m not quite caught up to the present. But for those of you who keep up on West African politics, you may have heard about this:

I’m not supposed to comment on security issues, but we’re all safe and this happened far, far away in the desert where Americans are forbidden from going. We’re still going to be installed and start our service as planned.

I’ll try to add a quick update tomorrow before I leave, but if I don’t I should have loads of stuff to write about in a month!


Handu Hinkanta (Second Month)

5 Sep
Another month nearly done. Ramadan is ending next Thursday or Friday. We’re still not sure when because it’s based on the lunar calendar. You’d think even where people didn’t have access to the internet, someone could still rustle up an almanac to find out when the new moon will start, but that’s not how it works. In Nigerien “cultural astronomy” someone must physically SEE the moon. They then report it to the Chef de Canton where there is a whole process, where they must have something like three witnesses and swear on a Koran. Sometimes this person is given a chicken–the preferred sacrifice for the end of Ramadan feast. (My family has already purchased two roosters and one hen for the occasion, and let me tell you, I can’t wait for them to die.) Anyway, once someone has officially seen the moon in Niger, they broadcast it on the radio, so often people find out the morning of Eid that it is happening. In preparation people get new clothes made, have their hair re-braided, get henna done, etc. It’s a pretty big deal.
For kids, the end of Ramadan is basically two weeks of Halloween. After the fifteenth day of fasting, kids run around doing what is called Tobey-Tobey in Zarma. (This might mean “rabbit-rabbit” but pretty much every word in Zarma is a homonym, so it could mean something totally different.) Basically, they go around to houses in the village at night asking for candy or money. Some just wear normal clothes and sing and dance, but other times the young boys will be naked (though some wear a little loin cloth) except for headdresses with long ears on them. They would have designs painted on them with white paint and pretend to fight each other with sticks. If the people in the house are asleep when the kids show up, they will beat the sleeping people or sneak into the house and steal things. So I guess that part is a little different from Halloween.
The rest of language immersion was pretty uneventful. We had class, talked to people in the village, and read a lot. Though I did have my first health problem–gundekar, or literally “stomach beating” so I’ll let you all infer what that is. And we had just covered the chapter on health, so I could even discuss all of my symptoms. What luck. Though I guess I shouldn’t really complain too much, since my host mother has malaria. And is still fasting. And nursing. (Well, actually, she used to be nursing, but since she’s fasting the baby gets ground millet and peanuts and water. “It has vitamins” my mother told me.) Even though there are specific exceptions in the Koran for nursing and pregnant women and people who are sick, those who still fast are seen as “courageous.” So our diabetic language instructor is still fasting.
After getting back from immersion, we had a Supervisor’s Conference with all of our soon to be supervisors. This was a little depressing since out of 33 supervisors only one was a woman, and over the course of the two day meeting, I didn’t hear her say a word. My supervisor is the Secretary General of the commune. The S.G. is a civil servant appointed by the central governement to work in a mairie (mayor’s office). The actual mayor is locally elected by the commune, except currently, there are not actually elected mayors since they were all replaced by “delegated administrators” after the coup. So all of these people will be replaced after the next cycle of elections, which are currently scheduled for April.
The meeting with my S.G. ended up being very helpful. The first meeting was really difficult because I could not understand a word he was saying since he was mumbling in Zarma and inexplicably always covered his mouth–with his hand, his folder, anything. I’ve never seen anyone else do that here so I don’t know if it’s cultural or just a personal tic. I asked him how many people lived in the commune and he was like “A lot.” And he kept saying that the village had “no problems.” I don’t know if he was just trying to reassure me since the last Volunteer left early, but I asked him what I was supposed to do if there were no problems and he just laughed.
The second day, I just blatently cheated in French (or really, Franzarma) and got a lot more information. And to be fair to his “no problems” comment, the commune does sound really amazing. I’ll be living inside the concession of the man who coordinates all of the NGOs in the commune. This is amazing because, a of all, there are (multiple!) NGOs and b of all, this will be an excellent contact to have. I’ll have electricity and as one PC staff member described it, “Fish are almost free there. Not totally free, but almost.” The mairie is also super high functioning–they actually try to follow their “Community Development Plan” (a four year plan all mairies write up listing their community’s problems and goals), which was recently revised for 2010-2013. People there generally pay their taxes (a HUGE anomaly in Niger) and they’ve been using the money to vaccinate animals against tuberculosis and provide free medications at the doctors office. There are several women’s groups, a farming cooperative (for rice, oddly enough), technical labor groups, a middle and high school with a library and a computer lab. I think I’ll be able to bike to Niamey or if I’m feeling lazy, I can even catch a city cab. Of course, there are also problems–lack of potable water, unemployment, women chose not to go to the doctor even though it’s free, flooding, etc. So while some of these are clearly outside anyone’s control, it sounds like there are enough resources in my village that I’ll be able to actually work on some projects, so I can’t wait to start.
Only three more weeks!

Stupid Terrorists Ruined My Weekend

17 Aug

As you may have gathered (since I am on the internet), I am not currently at my site. Friday afternoon, the day before we were all supposed to begin travelling to our sites, a “standfast” order was called for the provinces of Maradi and Zinder, due to some Al-Qaida kidnapping threats against Medicins Sans Frontières, which operates out east.  A standfast order essentially tells us to keep a low profile and not to travel. While there were no problems in Tillaberi or Dosso, they couldn’t send just half of us to our sites, so we were instructed to remain at the training site until the situation was resolved. There were no actual incidents and the order was called merely as a precautionary measure. In these cases it is also good to be an American, because unlike the French and some other European governments, the US will not pay terrorists to have you returned, so we are low on the scale of kidnapping desirability. Peace Corps Volunteers are also less likely to have issues anyway, since we don’t really fit the profile of most Westerners. Unlike NGO workers, we’re not driving around in shiny, new Land Cruisers; we’re probably squashed in the back of a bush taxi with a bunch of Nigeriens, so our visibility is much lower.

We were all a little upset to have the site visits pushed back, but with 30 of us at the training site and no scheduled classes, the atmosphere quickly became camp-like. By the next day we had held a volleyball tournament and a talent show. We were planning a round of capture the flag, when we were informed that the Bureau had decided that we could go to the American Rec Center in Niamey since they were worried that our morale might be dropping. So, we got to enjoy an afternoon at the pool with some JICAs—the Japanese version of Peace Corps, but with a much bigger budget. (They are issued motorcycles!)

Yesterday, the standfast order was dropped, and we are now allowed to travel. Unfortunately, we lost four days in the mix, and the site visits had to be cancelled. I’m disappointed that this happened, since it means I won’t get to see where I’ll be living for the next two years until it’s time to move there. Instead, we are going straight to language immersion. I’m headed to a village in Dosso with three other trainees and a language instructor, and we’ll be expected to live and breathe in Zarma for the next two weeks. We were told to prepare for the “burial of Mr. English” upon arrival. When we return, we’ll be expected to be proficient in our first language and switch to our second. For Municipal and Community Development volunteers, this would be French, but I’m hoping I can switch to Hausa, since my French is passable.

I’ll try to update again in a few weeks, after language immersion. In the interim, feel free to write or call so that Mr. English may not truly die!

Somehow the Connecting Thread of this Post Became Donkeys

13 Aug
Note: I technically wrote this on Tuesday, but the power went out right before I could post this…so, welcome to life in Niger.
To, I am officially one month into Peace Corps Training. I’m currently in Niamey for the day, to get our site announcements–the place where we’ll be living for the next two years. I’m not allowed to post the specific village for security reasons, but I can tell you that I’m in the Tillaberi Region, about 30 km south of Niamey along the river. This means my address won’t change, so you can continue to send things my way at the Niamey PO Box. It’s a little hard because I’m replacing someone who left during the kidnappings, so I don’t have a letter from them explaining anything about the village, or people they worked with, or projects they did, so I’m kind of starting from square one there. But I hear the village has a cool 28-year-old woman mayor, so I’m pumped about that! I might have electricity, and I’ll definitely have access to fish and more fruits and veggies.
Anyway, since it’s been a whole month, I’ll try to boil down the last four weeks and describe only the most shocking and ridiculous things that have happened, so that you can all get a totally skewed and inaccurate idea of what Niger is like. Here goes:
Week One
This was probably the longest week of my life, because I had to relearn how to do pretty much everything–eat, wash, talk, dress, &c.
The bulk of our stage (training group), live right by the training site in a larger village about 35 km from Niamey. That village is around five thousand people and  has electricity.  I, however, am staying in a smaller village (about a thousand people) 11 km from the training site with 5 other trainees. This is nice because it means we get to bike in for trainings two days a week. (And we got pretty nice Trek mountain bikes.) On the down side, it is definitely more “bush”–no electricity,  no real market, more conservative.
Also, for my job, Municipal and Community Development, apparently French is not really used, so we’re all learning a local language–Zarma or Hausa–and we have approximately five or six thousand language classes a week. Despite this, the first few days with the host families were pretty overwhelming. Luckily the daughter speaks French and so we (my roommate, er, hutmate and I) were able to cheat a little bit, but mostly our family just gestured until got the general idea. I also have a new Nigerien name, Malika, since mine is too difficult for Zarma speakers.
Like most villagers, our dad is a farmer, but he also sells fabric in Niamey in the off season, so we’re a little wealthier than a lot of other villagers. Most importantly, this means that our food is a little better–millet OR corn for dinner every night with some kind of sauce (baobab leaves, squash, okra) and maybe beans with our rice at lunch time. We also even got fish one time! All with a healthy serving of sand. We all eat out of one big pot with our hands. I think I’ve built up a little bit of a tolerance against totally scalding my fingers since I’ve been, but I am really looking forward to being able to cook for myself. And eat with utensils.
Anyway, family. So there’s my dad. He has two wives. The first night when we met him, he pointed this out and was like, “Polygamy!” and cracked up. The first wife is in her thirties and has four kids–a 13-year-old girl, an 8-year-old boy (who goes to Koranic school in Niamey and I’ve only met once), a 3-year-old boy, and an infant. He took his second wife, who is 19, just recently (while the first wife was pregnant with the new infant), and she doesn’t have any kids yet. The thirteen-year-old daughter, Hadjara, is pretty awesome and really smart. Sometimes we have little dance parties at night with her and her cousins which usually consists of playing “Single Ladies” and “Waka Waka” over and over, since those are the only songs they know. They also have this hilarious version of Nigerien beatboxing, which I hope to get a video of, and cool clapping games and little dances. It’s sort of  strange because the second wife definitely knows all of the little songs and games they play, since she’s closer to them in age than to the other mom, but she doesn’t dance or play with them, but sometimes I’ll catch her singing “Single Ladies” when she’s washing clothes or something.
Our family is actually pretty small compared to a lot of those in the village. Some other trainees in live with a family where the father had 4 wives (the limit according to Islam) and approximately a bajillion kids. Twenty-seven people live in their concession–the living area, usually walled off–which is crazy because that means there is nearly always someone pounding millet.
Our family’s concession has two bigger mud brick houses–one for each wife, and a smaller walled off area with our mud hut. The cooking is done outside over an open fire, next to where the sheep lives. (I suspect that they are raising it to be slaughtered for Tabaski.)  There are two shade hangers inside the concession where people hang out, eat, and talk. We have wooden beds that we sleep on outside (unless it rains, and we have to move in our mattresses and mosquito nets inside in the middle of the night, wasi, wasi (fast, fast)). We have a pit latrine/shower area with millet stalk walls where we take our bucket showers.
Probably the most useful thing I learned this week was the phrase “gunda manti farkay,” which means, literally in Zarma, “my stomach is not a donkey’s,” or idomatically, “I am really, really full and seriously can’t eat any more. I swear to God.” But it usually gets a laugh, and people (usually) stop trying to get you to keep eating.
Week Two
There were two biggish events in the second week. A visit from the Charge at the Nigerien Embassy–the person standing in for the Ambassador while she’s awaiting confirmation. He had actually been a PCV in the Philippines, so he was definitely very positive about what we are doing here.
The second exciting thing was “Demyst,” which involved going to visit a current PVC at their site and just living the life for a few days. I demysted with an MCD Zarma in the Dosso region. Mostly, my experience consisted of reading books and eating delicious food. We checked up on some of the projects our demyster was working on, but since she is preparing to leave within the month since her two years are up, most things were pretty wrapped up. Luckily, this left us plenty of time to windi windi (walk around the village and greet people) and make chocolate pudding.
We also ate with her neighbors, who had a sheep that had had four babies. Apparently it was like a huge anomaly and people were coming from all over the village to look at them. But then two of them died.
Our demyster also told us about the benefits of eavesdropping on children, who are apparently super funny without the distractions of things like video games (or pants). She told us about how one time there were a bunch of kids just sitting in her concession, arguing about whether or not donkeys know their dads. In our village, however, the lack of entertainment for children usually means that they follow us around constantly (“Anasara, fo fo!  Mate ni ma? Fo fo! Fo fo!” “Foreigner, hello! What’s your name? Hello! Hello!”) or just sit and stare at us in class for, literally, hours.
Part two of demyst involves finding your way back to the training site via appropriate transportation. For us this first meant 30 -some km in an open back truck. In some ways these are nicer than the bush taxis, because you get a little more air. On the other hand, I kept sliding off of this pile of mats into this old, old, old man who was praying for about a half hour. (Transportation is the only time when the “no touching members of the opposite sex” rule doesn’t apply.) After the first batch of people hopped off, I got a prime seat on a 50 kilo bag of corn.
Unfortunately, the extra space meant that the goat that had been trapped in the other corner could now come hang out by me and try to eat the corn falling out of the bag. People were laughing pretty hard at me, trying to avoid its horns.  We then got to a paved road and took a bus to the Dosso hostel.
The next day, we got a bus into Niamey and got lunch there. Then we had to negotiate our fares on a bush taxi to get back to our training villages. This was pretty overwhelming. It took a long time, a lot of arguing, and I think we still got overcharged, but we made it back. So that was important.
Week Three
This week was mostly classes. We had more language and tech sessions, as well as the med bureau continuing to scare us about everything–amoebas, parasites, skin diseases, shisto, malnutrition, heat stroke, motorcycle/bike/car/camel injuries, etc. Perhaps this is actually helpful, because they said that our stage set a record by not getting any amoebas in the first week. Too bad the filtration process makes our water taste like drinking out of a warm pool.
This week we also got our official “Safety and Security Tour” of Niamey. This was comprised of us riding around in the big white van, being told where not to go. We also walked down one street–FOR THE FIRST AND LAST TIME–where the security officer just pointed to people and was like “See him? See his pants are rolled up? He is ready to run. I am 80 to 90%  sure that is a thief. He is a bad guy.” “Over there, look, they are sniffing drugs. This is very dangerous. They will grab your bag and jump in a hole. You need to be paying attention twenty-four slash seven.” And no that was not a typo. He said “slash.”
However, now that we’ve had the official tour, we’re allowed to go into Niamey on our free weekends.
This week, it also really sunk in about what it means to live in a village. You’ll be greeting people, and they’ll tell you things, “Your father just got back,” so I’ll know before I walk in the concession. Or I can ask one of the other trainees how her run was, because someone told me they saw her running that morning. You’re also expected to step in on discipline as an adult. We also got told off one day by an old man, because a trainee had given the kids his soccer ball to play with but didn’t notice they had started fighting. But if kids start fighting, you’re supposed to break it up. Though there is still no problem with kids playing with axes or rusty cans.
One day, one of the young boys, maybe nine or ten-years-old, was riding a donkey with a bundle of sticks in front of him. He went to turn into someone’s concession, but the doorway was too narrow. The donkey however, slipped through, so the boy fell off and the sticks fell on top of him. It was probably the funniest thing that’s happened since being here. (Disclaimer: He wasn’t actually hurt, and he’s one of the few really bratty kids, so I felt fine laughing at him.)
I also learned this week that the chief of our village is actually my grandpa. He’s a pretty BAMF dude who just lies around at the mosque all the time in his sweet (clean!) outfits and hipster glasses. The chief’s brother is this really nice deaf guy who will try to tell you these long stories with Zarma non-verbal communication (which has a surprisingly extensive vocabulary). Basically, the only ones I understand are “marry me” and “stay away from the well!”
Nigerien Independence Day was also this week (August 3) and we planted trees to combat desertification. It sounds like a lot of these trees (170 in all) will probably survive because they were planted in a school yard, so children will take care of them and animals aren’t supposed to graze there. Peace Corps also gave a small tree to each of our host families to plant as well, which was a good idea, en principe, but when I got home, I saw that my sister had planted it in the concession, right next to where the sheep is tied. Now remember that this sheep is probably going to be no more in a few months, but he’s already made a few attempts to get at the little tree, so I’ll keep you posted about who wins that little battle.
Week Four
More language class and frightening medical stuff this week. Highlights were the LPI–Language Proficiency Interview–where they checked to see how we’re progressing in the language. It’s really amazing how much you can learn in four weeks. On the other hand, it’s also a little terrifying to think that I’ll be totally on my own with what I know in just another month.
We also went back into Niamey for the weekend and hit up the Grand Marche. It was crazy. There were Obama brand jeans and Obama underwear. Unfortunately, no fabric with Obama’s face on it, but I have a moratorium on buying fabric for a while anyway. Anything else I buy, I am always thinking about it in terms of how much fabric it could be in my head. I’m like, “I could buy half a pagne for the price of that cheese.” I also had my first experience with the Niamey tessam, or station, where you get a bush taxi. You basically just say where you’re going and people point you to a vehicle going in that direction. Then you have to negotiate a price with the driver and hope that the car is almost full so you don’t have to wait for the driver to find enough people to justify the trip. It’s also important at this point to make sure the vehicle has actual seats and no flat tires.
The next few weeks will be pretty busy. We’re doing “live-ins” where we go to our site for a few days, move our stuff in, and buy our bed, stove, buckets, etc. Then we head to language immersion for two weeks to do intensive language classes. This is doubly great because it means we get to cook for ourselves for several weeks of Ramadan, which starts in two days. I thought about fasting with my family, but a of all, we won’t be with our families for most of it and b of all, the not drinking water part would probably be really bad, especially with the biking. I’m thinking I might try next year though.
When I told my family that I was going to be gone for a few weeks, my sister was like, “Oh no! We will miss you! We will suffer! That is so sad!” My mom (who I am still a little afraid of) taught me this proverb: Yaw ya harandan no. Nda a man biya a ga wayma. This means, “A stranger is like dew. If they’re not gone in the morning, they’ll be gone in the afternoon.” So I guess she’s not really very attached to me. But Ido  love the proverbs here, so it’s always nice to learn new ones. People are always really surprised when you know them. I know this because surprise is expressed by grabbing your chin with the thumb and index finger. Or laughing.
Well, that’s all I can think of for now. I’ve been taking a ton of  pictures that I’ll try to upload sometime when I have faster internet. And I’ll definitely update once I find out more about my village.
To, kala ton ton!

Last few hours

7 Jul

Well, I guess this is it.

I’m at the Philadelphia airport enjoying my last American beer, watching the Germany v. Spain game. I don’t know when I’ll next have access to teh Internets, but probably not for at least these first 9 weeks while I’m in training. I’m kind of excited about training because (and I know I sound like Pants) it will be like mini-school with language classes, hanging out with all the other Peace Corps kids, and living with a host family.

I miss you all already! Sooooooooo, you should all write me letters. My address is on the “about me” page. Start writing. Now.