Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Life in Niger Part I: Pre Service Training

Dear Kiddos

So, I've given up ever having any letter I send to you actually survive the journey from Niger to America. The first one, at least, returned to me in a U.S. mail 'sorry we can't deliver this as it's been essentially destroyed and the only address we can still read is yours in Niger' envelope. The other three, no clue. Therefore, I shall catch you all up as best I can on the past year or so, starting at PST, the Pre Service Training period before we swore in. I'll be using bits and pieces from the journals I kept, and am continuing to keep, which I'll expand on from time to time given that I've learned a wee bit in 14 months. Italicized words are Hausa, the language I've learned here, I'll try to remember to translate them into English. Names have been changed to their Niger names (I go by Malika) to protect the innocent. Apologies to Mrs. Sickenger and anyone who appreciates good grammar; this is how I write to myself :) Enjoy!

Before I begin, a little bit about Niger. It's in West/Central Africa, entirely landlocked. The population is primarily muslim. The main languages spoken are Hausa, Zarma, Fufulde, and Tamachek. French is the language of business and education, as until the 60s Niger (pronounced Knee-zsher) was a French colony. Physically, much of Niger is reminiscent of the West mesa. Closer to Niamey, the capital city and the Niger River, the terrain greens up. The hottest inhabited place on earth is located in Niger in Tillaberi, which is also close to the capital. Temperatures cool off as you head east, primarily because the moisture levels decrease as well and there's nothing to hold the sun's heat in the air. The unit of currency is the CFA; the exchange rate varies but is usually around 500cfa to the dollar.

January-March: Pre-Service Training

6 January 2008, Philadelphia

And we're off! At least somewhat; have made it to staging in Philadelphia. Managed to miraculously get my backs in just under weight and myself on the plane without a hitch. It all seems quite surreal at the moment. I suspect the other volunteers that I've met so far are feeling the same. We snagged dinner at a pizza place together, the five of us that we've managed to identify so far - we think there are a couple more here already but we're not sure and aren't about to start walking up to random twenty-somethings asking if they're here for Africa...

10 January 2008, Hamdallaye, NIGER

Rule 1 I have now learned for life in Niger: always check the toilet for frogs... Perhaps it is only me this will ever happen to, but still. We made it to Niger, more on this on a sec, got to Hamdallaye, ate lamb spaghetti then went to our bunks, dead tired. I felt filthy after over a day in the airports and planes and went to take a quick shower. Went to flip the toilet lid down so I could put my clean clothes on it and... yup, you guessed it. There was a frog. Of course, my feet moved faster than my half-asleep brain, so by the time I actually thought 'frog' I was already out the door with a squeak. Hilarious. Our helper/language trainer assigned to us came in and flushed the poor guy away, but at least Niger likes me best as it gave me amphibian gifts.

Niger is warm, dry, but red in its bleakness. Where New Mexico is yellow and tan, Niger is red and brown. I think the biggest shock driving through the outskirts of Niamey was the trash. Everywhere trash and plastic and tires and animals eating it and children playing in it. Everywhere. Hamdallaye seems cleaner, but haven't seen much; we're at H for the next two nights before moving into the village.

11 January 2008

Sleeping didn't work so well. Fell asleep at 9 but was up again at 11 as it was beyond cold and I'd only brought a thin sleepingbag for warm weather. I had thought, being Africa, that it would be humid and stay warmer at night. Instead, it's bone dry and the breeze takes the warmth away. I understand now why Absatou, she of the frog flushing, chose to stay inside. Brrr. The stars are beautiful out here, and I've confirmed we're still primarily North, as Orion is almost directly in my line of sight. There are some others I'm pretty sure I recognize, but it looks like the plane on which they're projected has been tilted. We're out sleeping under the stars; foam mattresses on wicker beds with our DEET soaked mosquito nets the only barrier to our environment. The air has cleared a bit from earlier and I suspect a telescope would be great - 10m from our training center there'd be no light pollution at all. The haze, though, was odd earlier today. When we flew in there was this almost fog feeling to the air, even though the air itself was not noticeably dark. I asked, and was informed by one of the VATs (Volunteer Assistant Trainers - basically our camp counsellors) that there hasn't been rain in months and the cloud/fog was a combination of burnt trash, smog, and dust hanging in the air. From a health standpoint... Apparently this was even a clearish day for Niamey - there are rumors of nights replacing days, though I'm not clear on how precisely that would work. Eventually gave up on sleep and read until the muezzin call to prayer - longer and more elaborate as today's their sabbath. There are three competing mosques in the village around Hamdallaye. Wandered down to breakfast - great Nigerien fanke (beignets) served with a sauce of onions and spices. Then it was time for shots (one does become a human pincushion around here) and then the culture fair - I got braids and henna on my left hand, lest I forget which one I should NOT eat with - doing things with the left hand here is entirely taboo. We had one of our placement interviews today, and I fet pretty good about it - got through about half of it in French, which was fun.

13 January 2008

Have been placed into the Hausa group, and am now at my new home for the next couple months. The small children (Oubweda and Nafiza) are tapdancing on my last nerve, in cleats!, and so I'm hiding inside in the shade. The raising of children is very different here from the states. The older kids are good, though. Ramatou's my favorite - she's 21 and nice and between French, Hausa, and a bunch of pantomime we get the message across. Habiba (Biba) is older and I suspect I amuse here more than anything else. She seems more traditional than Ramatou, wearing the full black regalia to salla (prayer). Ramatou, Habiba, and Nafiza are the mother's only children. Their father (Alfare Toure) has 3 wives (they are allowed by Islam to have 4), the other 2 live with him in a compound across town (tried asking why but it was either too complicated for my baby Frausa or taboo...). Ramatou is also married, but her husband is in Nigeria on what they call exode, seasonal work migration that carries a lot of concerns, especially as these men may carry back AIDS and other diseases to their unsuspecting wives. There are a lot of sensibilizations going on to stop the spread of such diseases.

16 January 2008

We got mail today! We're all amused that people sent us mail days before we left the states - looks like it takes a little over a week to get a letter from Niger to the U.S.

28 January 2008

Have invented a new song, 'Peace Corps Camp,' based on the song we sang at Girl Scout Camp.

Verse One: "The health care that they give you, they say is mighty fine, but the injections I've been given now number 99"

Verse Two: "The buses that they give you, they say are mighty fine, but where you'd normally put 15 they make fit 29."

More to come. Such are the verses that appear when you've packed 26 trainees and 3 VATs into a bush taxi from Niamey to Hamdallaye. We were packed like sardines. Barkatou has a video. It was insane. 

3 February 2008

It's amazing the little things that make you feel accomplished. Bought flip flops and four packs fo matches today all by myself. Granted, the merchant switched to French halfway through, but details... Later on I went to a wedding in my host's family. I committed a bit of a faux pas and forgot to bring money (usually 100cfa or ~$0.25 is appropriate) for the bride and groom so got chased a bit by the drummers. I gave it to Ramatou later, she said she'd get it to them. We hadn't gotten to that part of the culture training yet! When I got home, though, it was only Oubweda and Nafiza, and no adults. Recipe for disaster. I love Halima, though, one of my good friends here. I packed myself off to her place before I tossed one of the bratlings down a latrine to be eaten by cockroaches and we chilled out and watched 80s music videos on her host family's television while agreeing that the lack of structured child upbringing is definitely not a good sign around here. Niger's population is growing rapidly, a 3% growth rate, whereas most western countries are slowing to almost stable. In Niger this means that there are a lot of children left to basically raise themselves. No real parental supervision; by age 4 they're expected to be able to run simple errands. For all that the legal age is 18, many girls (and most girls in villages) are married by age 14. Structures like school, day care, even parental oversight, just aren't in place here.

5 February 2008

Talked to the training staff yesterday. Apparently I was the volunteer who took the longest to complain about the bratlings, which is good, but I'm not sure why volunteers are still posted with them... We had the first Cafe Langue tonight. Absolutely amazing. Plus, I learned the names of two delicious foods: kilshi (spicy goat jerky) and tsire tsire (kabobs). Yayi kyau! (Very good). Went to market today as well and I went a little nuts... I got an adiko (head scarf, like a bandana), 4 zanes (1 1/2 meter pieces of fabric, usually a bit over a meter thick), a so (bucket, seau in French), and a sahani (a plastic kettle used to carry water, and wash hands). The adiko is bright flaming red (I still have it) but probably the best is the computer-licious fabric. Blue, yellow and orange with @ symbols and little keyboards with 3 W keys and the arrows. Love it.

8 Februrary 2008

I was worried I didn't speak Hausa. Turns out I speak Hausa to the level of Novice High, which is good. Just two more levels to go.

14 February 2008

Barka da salla soyeyya. Or, Happy Festival of Love. Yay Valentine's Day! We exchanged homemade valentines. Great fun.

15 February 2008

I'm not convinced that my APCD (Assistant Peace Corps Director) isn't a little bit crazy. I'm going to be opening a village. I'm the first volunteer for a village whose name translates as Lord of the Millet in Maradi, Niger's South-Central state. Me. The first American they get used to. (Note: I now LOVE being the first volunteer. Listening to those who've replaced past volunteers has convinced me that the benefits far outweigh the problems. But wow. Was really not expecting to open a village). I'll be working with World Vision, INRAN (Niger's version of the USDA) and Purdue University. The team is big and fun. I'm only about 30km from Maradi itself, a ride which should take about an hour and 500cfa (~$1) on fairly decent roads (Note: 'decent' is definitely a relative term...)

26 February 2008 Lord of the Millet, Maradi, Niger

I'm in my village! It's amazing! My stuff got here in one piece and noone got sick on the bus. Yayi kyau, alhumdilillahi (Very good, thanks be to Allah). The Maradi team is a bunch of good people. Met 25 of them last night; will never be able to keep all of them straight. Got more stuff for my house in the Maradi market, food, buckets, trunks, etc. One of the current volunteers, Rabe, helped me get settled in yesterday, introducing me around the village and helping me get the stove set up. My host dad, Issaka, took us on a tour around the village. It was awesome. It's spread between three hamlets, I live in the central one, and the children are amazingly well-behaved, discounting the staring and running up and then away, but I'm a new zoo attraction, so that I expect). The men almost all shake my hand (a definite sign of respect and forward thinking: men and women do not touch in traditional society here). There's a 3 room school for the children, a grain bank, a pump (currently broken), two wells and a health hut. There are, oddly enough, no gardens, though there's plenty of room (more on this later but the main problem is that the water, reached primarily by pulling rubber buckets in the cement wells, varies between 50 and 75 meters, which is really really far). My house has two huge adobe rooms (other volunteers' would fit inside mine) with wood ceilings, strangely New Mexican. I'll be planting trees in and around as there's no shade at the moment. Minor interruption in the form of a few older women and a gaggle of children. I kind of had to barricade my house with my body and greeted them as they cooed over my yard and latrine, then scattered again. I should mention that to the best of my knowledge I'm the only one with an actual latrine in the village. Everyone else either goes to the fields (euphemistically bayan daiki 'behind the house'). It's incredibly windy and dusty here.

My host family consists of Issaka and his three wives (Sa'a, Mariama, and Hinda) as well as his son Abdu Kader (23 years old) and his wife Hassana. There are countless children running around. My favorite is Nuwaru, who's 6 and has appointed himself my guide and keeper-out-of-trouble. There are also Lowali, Abdu Raman, Nafiza, Monsur, Sakina, Nana, and a bunch of others who wander in an out (Note: I still can't keep track of everyone). Abdu Kader and Hassana have one son, a year old or so, who goes by Mehdi but I think that's short for something else. All the children have the same enlarged stomach that is the result of poor nutrition. Apparently the muscles don't develop enough to hold in the stomach cavity. It's disturbing, but hopefully with me helping out the village with food there'll be improvement. Hopefully.

28 February 2008

Came across some photos of my American family while unpacking/organizing. Tossed on my ridiculous yet effective big sun hat and tromped off to the mai gari (traditional mayor) to show him, after showing the host family and getting directions to the mai gari's house from small children on the road. Of course, he wasn't there. Babu laihi (no worries). I showed the picture to his wives and children then to the old men on the corner, then to a much larger congregation of host family and friends. I was quite the hit. Plus, they do seem to hear my Hausa, for all that I'm struggling to hear theirs. Most people here don't have pictures of themselves - cameras are expensive, as is the printing process - so they're always excited to see pictures and have theirs taken, though some try to make you pay as you're a foreigner (anasara) and therefore have more money than they do.