Friday, August 15, 2008

The First Big One

Hi everyone,
I’m sorry that this is really my first true Niger update. I don’t quite know how 7 months have already slipped by since landing here, but they have.

Before I left the states, I vowed to write pages and pages about life in Niger to myself in my journal and to everyone back at home. I haven’t done that, and I’m very upset with myself for it. I can’t really pinpoint the source of my writer’s block, but think that it is a combination of:
1. Not yet figuring out how to manage my time and responsibilities in the village well. I need to demand from my bosses, from my villagers and from myself that I get periods of the day to myself, and only myself.
2. Laziness and letting myself be overwhelmed by trying to put words on a page to describe this place.
3. Not wanting to convey anything but all of what I’ve seen and done.

So, this is the time to start. I need to catch up, and that’s going to be hard. Maybe going backwards will work better than anything.

The present. I am currently in Niamey. I just got back from a month-long vacation/trip(s) a few days ago, but more on that next. I’m stuck in the city, you could say. In a meeting with a couple Peace Corps Niger staff I had two days ago about my village’s idea to build a chain-link fence around its large community gardens, the guy in charge of our relations with several important grant funds (like Rotary International) told me that I should have my final proposal to him within a week. We still hadn’t gotten much farther than the most basic conceptual stage. So I immediately started writing the narrative sections of the proposal and researching price-per-meter on chain-link fence from various vendors around Niamey, and have been doing that up until now. I probably won’t be able to return to my village until the day after tomorrow, and when I do, it will be a brief stop to have some meetings with the gardeners about the proposal, get everyone in agreement on the specifics, and then rush back to Niamey to finish the budget and turn it in.

The garden needs a fence because the next-door Fulan herders let their cows, sheep and goats roam wild and refuse to accept any responsibility for them. The livestock constantly invades the gardens and eats any edible plants around. So, aside from the rare gardener who fences a little plot of land with thorny branches (what we call dead fencing), the gardeners have no choice but to plant their gardens with tobacco. I worked in the tobacco fields/gardens for a while during my first two months here. The stuff is (not surprisingly) nasty. Even walking through a tobacco field for 60 seconds makes the unaccustomed light-headed. I learned how to harvest the flowers and the seeds, how to prepare the still-moist stalks for packing and storage, how to stuff it into big 50kg bags, and how to most efficiently pile these bags as high as possible on a cow cart. Day after day, the villagers warned me not to get near the tobacco work because, apparently, if you’re not used to it and breathe in too many of the noxious fumes and dust flying around, you can start vomiting uncontrollably for hours. Luckily, while the fumes did ruin a couple of my afternoons, I never threw up. I guess I have inhaled enough second-hand smoke in my day.

Having a fence around the garden will benefit the villagers in lots of ways: First, it will allow all of the gardeners to stop growing tobacco in favor of edible, nutritious and more profitable fruits and vegetables that they could both consume directly and sell in market. It would let them garden year round with peace-of-mind, rather than for only three months of the year. It would give them the protection needed to plant mango, papaya, guava, lemon, orange and Moringa trees (more on Moringa later). And the village would be able to start a tree nursery inside it for planting a live-fence (basically a hedgerow) in the garden, for raising fruit trees and for raising native trees to plant in the village and in the fields.

Now, moving backwards a step. I’m in Niamey because I just returned from Ghana, where I saw Kell off at the airport for her flight back to Richmond. Two and a half months earlier, she had started volunteering with a little NGO in Accra, Ghana. She stayed there for 6 weeks before I took a 2-day bus ride through Benin, Togo and Eastern Ghana to meet her. It was something that I had been looking forward to and pacing my life toward since the beginning of the year.

When I arrived, I had bought a Ghanaian SIM card for my phone and we were texting each other back and forth, me keeping her updated on where we were on the road and her telling me about her quest to find the right bus station in beyond-overwhelming downtown Accra. Once finally at the station, our bus began its slow, cumbersome, precarious journey through a tangle of parked cars before pulling into the final home stretch alley…where it was thwarted, stopped cold by a slightly double-parked Renault. Emissaries were sent to resolve the problem, but there was apparently nothing to be done but to wait. So we waited…for almost 10 minutes. While everyone in the bus sat patiently, I was fuming over the ridiculousness of the situation and wanted to get off and find Kell on foot. And then I realized: what was stopping me? So I gathered my stuff under the starting eyes of 75 passengers, struggled to the front to argue a bit in Zarma with the driver – still under those staring eyes – and finally pushed my way down the stairs and out the door. The second I stepped out I saw Kell waiting for me, dressed in a beautiful green African-style dress and looking antsy.

We spent an entire month together, in all. We started out by making our way – as fast as possible but still somewhat slowly – from Accra to Ouagadougou and then back to Niamey. We ran into problems finding spots on a Ghanaian bus, and then Kell got badly sick in Ouaga, but it was time with her, so still better than any other (at least for me). From Accra to Ouaga, we were in the bus from 9am one day till 12 noon the next. The ride from Ouaga to Niamey was a tame 10 hours by comparison.

In Niamey we relaxed for a while. We exchanged Ghanaian Cedis with a black market money changer for a terrible rate. We had dinner with Jill, one of the coolest people from my stage (the group of volunteers I came with), and who is based on the very opposite end of the country in the Zinder region, a 24-hour trip away. We ate hummos, baba ganoush, falafel, and pita bread that night, pizza another, several Greek salads and lots of spicy salsa with free baguettes. I wanted Kell to eat locally, but I also wanted her to eat good food and not get sick. She wanted that, too, I'm pretty sure.

Niamey was just where we passed through to get to our ultimate destination: my backcountry, Zarma-speaking, un-air-conditioned village. My villagers knew that Kell was coming long before her arrival. I had been talking about her since the first week I moved in. But, having witnessed the country’s rampant bigotry toward women, I was worried about her coming, worried about the village’s response to her.

Of course, I had been aware that rural Nigerian culture deplores male-female relationships outside of marriage. Many veteran volunteers had told us that they pretended to be married – if not to a real boyfriend/girlfriend then to an imaginary one – in order to deflect annoying and insulting comments about their undesirable single/sinful status. Overeager and na├»ve in the beginning, I shrugged off their suggestions, convinced that I had the language skills and motivation to tell the truth, deal with the consequences, and, ultimately, use it to promote cross-cultural acceptance. So when I talked about her, I was honest; I told them she was my girlfriend, that we were not married.

It didn’t take long for me to see, though, that this was probably a pretty stupid thing to do. I realized that my Zarma skills were nearly useless for me in the middle of my village, a village that had almost no experience speaking to foreigners in Zarma and, anyway, spoke a wildly different dialect to the one I had learned. I also became aware that being repeatedly, incessantly accosted about such things as not being married even though I have a beard and not having a woman to give me a massage after a hard day in the field is exhausting and sometimes infuriating, no matter how amusing at first. Finally and most importantly, I imagined Kell walking into a flurry of degrading comments and general hostility, and decided that it definitely was not worth it.

I pulled a sharp U-turn and began calling her my wife, even to the people that I had earlier told I was unmarried. I figured that if I stayed consistent enough with the “wife” story, I might confuse them enough that they would question whether they had initially heard me correctly. The rest I hoped to convince outright.

Everything worked out, in the end. Kell came away from my village saying that it was, by far, her best week in Africa. We planted trees all over; hauled bricks, soil, poop and sand; visited gardens; cooked both amazing and awful food on three-rock wood fires and a gas stove; farmed my millet and bean field; mowed the lawn; fetched water, twice; killed scorpions; and discovered that Kitty Panda is pregnant.

Missing from that list are the innumerable inane-yet-enthralling interactions and coincidental happenings that define each day more than any “primary activities” when one is a white person living in a Nigerien village. It is the small events of each day that are the most revealing, the most interesting and the most memorable. Writing this, I see all over again how much I have neglected to write about, just like I do at the end of every day. I see how much catching up I have to do with all of you, and how much is truly incommunicable. But I will try, little by little. It might end up being a disjointed picture of life here, but maybe it will add up to something cohesive in the end.

Back to the executive summary, for now.

On leaving the village, we had planned to travel north to Ayorou to see the area’s abundant hippo population. Rose, a fellow PCV also traveling with her significant other, had invited us to her house in town to do a group hippo tour. Unfortunately, the PC Med Office slapped a medical restraining order on her at the last minute, holding her in Niamey. We decided to return straight to Niamey and work on the second part of the joint trip we had laid out: seeing giraffes. Specifically, the last wild giraffe herd in West Africa, 35km south of Niamey. We took a cramped, disintegrating bush taxi down and hired a guide at the giraffe tour center, a very well run place working in close collaboration with a Peace Corps volunteer in the area. It was getting close to noon when we got there, and the sun was already getting hot – probably about 110 degrees. I had come to see the giraffes during training on one of our technical trips. Then, we stayed in the air conditioned Range Rover as our guide directed the driver from on top of the roof. This time, we knew we couldn’t afford the $150 necessary to rent a car, and had instead planned on renting a cow cart to ride. It had been a goal of mine to get Kell onto a cow cart before her leaving Africa, so I could not have been more excited. Unfortunately, the cows were out to pasture that day, so we had no choice but to hunt (bad word choice?) the giraffes on foot, in the heat and in our dorky hats.

Our guide’s name was Kimba, I believe. He was passionate about giraffes. He winced in pain and covered his ears when Matt asked him if people ever poached and ate them. He climbed up in trees and on rickety, skeletal observation towers to locate the separate herds. He spoke at length in Zarma, French and a little English about the history of giraffes, about the strange mating rituals and lack of allegiances between giraffe families, and about how one should never chase a giraffe can because it will break its neck if it trips. He obviously knew and lived his passion. He led us in a zigzag pattern, and at every turn we saw dozens of giraffes marching through the dry, hard-pan brush, eating from the tops of the scarce Acacia trees.

The giraffes are one hundred percent unafraid of humans. Whether you are on foot or in a trundling, backfiring minivan, the giraffes don’t run away. They watch, instead. They are curious. It almost feels like you and the giraffes are mutual tourists. They stare in wonder at you just as you stare in wonder at them. They move slowly and carefully, for the most part, but that isn’t to say they aren’t graceful. You can tell that if they weren’t cursed with such long, fragile necks, they would be as powerful and fast as horses (their distant cousins). But alas, it is Niger, and everyone gets screwed over one way or another.

To be continued, soon.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


This is the blog that I set up months before leaving for Peace Corps/Niger, the blog whose first post I had originally planned to be about my work and emotions leading up to Africa, the blog whose color scheme I sweated over for at least an hour. I had high hopes for it.

So, first post. I've been in Niger for almost 5 full months now. Almost half a year. I've dug myself into a large latrine pit, here. I didn't know how or where or what about to start writing people even a week into service. Now that I have 5 months of living and working in this country under my belt, I'm even more intimidated by my pen and/or keyboard.

I officially declare this first blog entry as my entry into diligent writing and reflection about my village and my new work and life here. Well, I'm hoping that it will goad me on a little bit, at least. How about I throw in a photo to encourage better photographic efforts, as well.

But now, everyone, until I find the words to sum up the most indescribably fascinating, infuriating, saddening, stressful, terrifying, beautiful 5 months of my life, I must say goodbye.

Love, Alex