Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Visiting home!

Grandpa and me, a few minutes after the surprise. We are soooo happy.

I came home for Christmas! I flew in a couple of weeks ago, all braided-and-hennaed up, and have a few days left before heading back to Niger. And what a trip this has been... my younger brother helped me buy a ticket in secret- we are so sneaky!- but I couldn't contain the secret for longer than a week, and I spilled the beans to my folks. We did, collectively, manage to keep the surprise for my grandpa, age 90, who also came out to Oregon for the holidays! Thank you, Bliss family, for coordinating all of this!

It's been wonderful to be home. Lots of walks and runs, lots of good food, lots of time with family and friends. It hasn't been strange or scary being back; it's been a warm, familiar reminder of what a strong and loving family I have backing me up. I guess next year it'll be harder, when I actually have to adjust to living here again. Before I left my village, I had a conversation with Narba about how excited we both were for me to see my other home, and how it was 100% positive because we all know that I'll be coming back to Niger for another year. We sobered up quite a bit to think about how, next December, my leaving will feel terrible. But for now- it's been a dream!

And...who could've IMAGINED...my dear and amazing cousin is coming out TOMORROW to see me! I still cannot believe it, but she says it's true so goshdarnit let's rock n' roll. To all of you secret keepers out there: you are so awesome.

Thank you again to everyone who helped me get home and who has been in touch through the last year. It means the world to me! Happy New Year- may this one bring you health and peace.

Back to the land of snow and cellphones.

On a walk with Mom, Christopher, Grandpa, and Eddy.
Not pictured: Dad (camera duty), Ben (Japan duty) and Reuben (smelly things duty)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Girls' education

Hadiza's primary school

As for my role as her sponsor PCV, I will visit Hadiza at least monthly, help arrange a tutor, bring her a stipend each month, and start a journal/semi-biography with her. I am so curious to know her and to know what she thinks and feels and needs...I think it may take months before she will be comfortable being totally open with me. Now she treats me like quite an authority figure and probably would say whatever she thinks I want to hear.

I know, I know, education is one of the first steps to self liberation, development, women's rights; I'm not about to make a case against educating anyone: knowledge is power. But consider and recognize that the process, the logistics, even, of becoming educated in this country, especially for a female, are very very formidable. Hadiza has to leave home, alone; she's the only girl to do so; all of her girlfriends will stay in the village and continue their lives as usual. She has to adjust to a new village, family, and school. She'd have to be pretty enlightened already to be content with this situation: who at 13 is happy to leave their peer group? So there is that. Then consider the Nigerien school system: a French system, with all courses taught in French (not the language used in homes or anywhere else in the villages), where memorization and recitation are all you do, and critical/independent thinking and creativity aren't fostered. Corporal punishment is the primary form of discipline, not just for misbehavior, but also as a means of academic correction.

Now consider the long term social implications for an educated female in this country, where most women marry as girls, at age 16-18. Hadiza, if she succeeds amidst the challenges mentioned above, will have to face the stigma that educated women are less desirable as wives--the assumption being that they are too independent (willful and also financially independent), too strong-minded/stubborn/assertive, and too old to marry: all unattractive qualities to many Nigerien men.

Even as there are national campaigns to promote girls' education, there is not a "place," a culturally and socially appropriate, desirable place, for educated adult women. That takes time. An educated, open-minded Nigerien male friend of mine told me that in a recent TV campaign for girls' ed, several female "role models" were presented as examples of what you can become if you, too, go to school:
1. A pop singer (who dresses like a westerner, and therefore looks totally unpresentable and slutty.)
2. A teacher (unmarried, living at home with parents)
3. A woman with a high-powered government job (divorced, living at home with her parents)
So, as much as the ad was supposed to show "successful" educated women, it actually just reinforced the stereotype that educated women are unmarriageable, inappropriate, burdensome drains on their parents. So. In Niger, marriage is a huge rite of passage, celebrated as much or more as any holiday, and 1/2 of the ultimate achievement a woman can possibly make: having lots of babies.

I think maybe I've made my point...just that getting girls in school is tough, keeping them there is tough, and showing them that it is going to improve their lives is tough--and in the view of many, not even true.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hadiza and high school


Anyway--I had a great conversation with Hadiza's parents, Mano, and A'i, whose willingness and open mindedness about girls' education is a progressive and impressive change for such a small remote village. A'i said "We're just glad our daughter is going to see more of the world." Awesome. Mano was already scheming about who would be willing to house Hadiza, and the headmaster, Shaibu, is working on submitting a transfer for her. Until last week we still didn't know for sure if Hadiza would be sponsored by YGSP or not, but either way I was determined to find a way to make high school happen...and now we know for sure: she is funded!

I picked up all sorts of goodies for her in NIamey. The YGSP assembled backpacks full of books, notebooks, pens, pencils for all of the girls. I'll get to take it back to her when I get home next week: I can't wait to see her face when she sees all of her new, shiny school supplies. I know that I got pumped to have new school stuff every year; even through college the sight of unused crayons was enough to get my adrenaline going. Imagine never having such stuff in your life!

And so you may wonder: what does Hadiza think of all of this? To be honest, I don't really know. She is a quiet, respectful girl whom I see at the well every afternoon, and who becomes giggly, animated, and goofy when she is with her friends. She was among the group of girls who came to my house every afternoon to sew sock dolls back in April; I knew she was one of only two there who were enrolled in school, and who could read. I didn't know what was at stake with the big test she must have been preparing for. I know that the challenge of moving to a new village and stepping into an unfamiliar social circle will be tough, especially for a 13-year old girl. I don't know what her greatest fears or apprehensions are, or even, honestly, if she wants to make this change. It appears that it's not exactly her decision to make; whether or not to go is mostly up to her parents...so I hope it is what she wants, or at least she can see that there is opportunity within her reach. She is young and bright, with a big year ahead of her.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hadiza's success

Hadiza and family

The Young Girls' Scholarship Program is funded mostly by Friends of Niger, an organization of former PCVs/family/people who have lived or worked or care about Niger. Girls ages 13-to 18 who are enrolled in school are eligible for sponsorship through the YSGP, meaning they receive monetary support, books, uniform, and support of a PCV. This year I think there are around 20 girls being sponsored by the YSGP in Niger. Back in July I filled out a YSGP application with the headmaster in my village for a girl named Hadiza, who is 13 years old and was the first and only girl to pass the exam that all 6th graders must pass to be eligible for secondary school. It was a big deal that she passed; her teachers, the headmaster, and especially her parents are super proud!

The way it works here is students have a first chance to take this test; if they fail they can do 6th grade over and try again; if they fail a second time, that's the end of school for them. If they pass, they have the option of starting high school, which in most cases requires them to move to a larger village or city. Our village has no secondary school, so any students who pass and are able (ie allowed/encouraged/made) to continue their education must move to either Tajae or Illela. Even for students who pass, it's not a sure thing they'll move on to high school. For one, their labor at home is valuable, and it can be hard on a family to "lose" a child to school in another village; also moving requires parents to find a family willing to house and care for and feed their kid while he/she is living in the new village.

Because girls play an extremely important and constant role in household work--carrying water, caring for babies, cleaning, pounding millet, cooking--there are significantly more barriers to their ability to continue school than for boys. (In fact these barriers are usually enough to prevent girls from ever starting school--and from performing well or having time to study. However it is becoming more common and accepted for them to go to primary school.) So you can see why the event of (1) a girl passing the exam to begin high school and (2) being encouraged and supported by her community to actually GO to high school, is pretty cool.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Where Narba was

You might have noticed that Narba's name wasn't on the list of the women who came to the training, although she is one of the grain bank committee's presidents. The reason she couldn't be there was because her granddaughter died that week. And the reason that her granddaughter died was, to my eyes and my understanding, because of severe dehydration and starvation. It's difficult for me to write about this, and so I haven't written about it to anyone. I haven't written a single letter to anyone for this whole month, because I'm unsure of what words to use to describe what is going on in Faloa and Niger right now. I hate not telling you about it, because it's been part of every day of my life for weeks now. But I also hate telling you about it, because I don't think you will understand. That's not fair of me, so I'm going to try.

The big picture, which is easy to explain: By this time of year, people-- farmers, meaning villagers, meaning my people-- have been working their bodies, hard, for six months straight. They have used their bodies and nothing more than a few handmade hand tools to turn sand into fields of millet, sorghum, and beans; they have battled acres of weeds with their backs bent over in 120° heat, they have spent weeks harvesting giant bundles of heavy stalks of grain, they have clocked hundreds of miles on their feet that are either barefoot or in crappy flipflops, and for a month of this- all September- they did it without food or water, for Ramadan. As the doctors at four of the clinics and hospitals that I have visited in the last month have explained to me, by this time of year, nursing mothers' bodies are exhausted and broken, and they stop producing milk. Babies who weren't weaned yet get weaned abruptly, and babies who weren't ready to be weaned yet get weaned anyway. They are given more water than they would normally drink, which results in higher incidences of diarrhea. And that, for a baby, or a kid even, in this country, is close to a death sentence. I wouldn't have, couldn't have, believed it before coming here. But it's real, and it's been happening all around me this month, and I have never felt more helpless, devastated, or furious.

Narba's granddaughter, Foziya, was about 16 months old. When I left the village in early October to help with Peace Corps training, she had a fever and I put a damp cloth on her hot little body. When I returned at the end of the month, I didn't recognize her, except as a child that I could've seen on the news in a report about famine or war. By then I think she was not entirely conscious. She was just bones in a small, rigid shape on her mother's lap. I sat with her mom, Dela, and Narba, and the other women in the family in their hut- I knew they were there because that's what you do when you are waiting for a person to die. It was confusing and shocking and upsetting, and I didn't know what to do, or if I should do something, or if I could. I told Narba, please let me take her to the doctor, but Narba said that it was in God's hands. Foziya died in the evening, and the wake lasted for the next three days.

So that is why Narba couldn't come to the training. I sat at the wake in the mornings and all evening after the training was over each day. I am a part of this family, and I felt like it, and my presence was never questioned.

I'm not sure what else to tell you about, because Foziya's story is the first in what has become way too many children who have died in this village. I can't just list off these names like that's all they are, names. I don't want to do that. They're a lot more than names, they're babies that I am used to holding and carrying around when their moms are pulling water, they're babies that were learning to sit and walk and talk. It's so messed up, it's not fair, it's the cruelest thing in the world that this is true. My friend Mariama, who is lovely and clever and whose daughter Harira was born the week I moved here, is now walking around without her baby on her back, with her breasts leaking milk. Mariama is healthy- she wasn't weaning Harira and didn't have to, she had plenty of milk- but Harira got diarrhea, and even though Mariama took her to the clinic-- three different clinics, all hours of walking away- they couldn't help her. They didn't help her, and her beautiful baby, whose picture I've taken a hundred times, died in less than a week.

As this has all been happening, I've been struggling to understand it and working to find out what the options are for mothers- where can they take their babies, and what help can they expect to get? The two closest clinics have one person on staff at best, who's not usually there, and who just hands out oral rehydration salts like that's going to fix everything. The clinic in Tajae is better, but gets absolutely flooded with people. I've been there a lot lately-- I've started going with women, because they like it when I come, and I think it makes it easier for them to go. I started going a few days after Foziya died, because one of the kids who is closest to my heart started really going downhill. I know I've told you about him before-- Rahman, Zuera and Salla's son, another grandson of Narba's. He's the kid who always toddles up to me yelling 'habba!' and who squeals when I lift him high in the air.

Rahman is 18 months old, and was still nursing until October, when Zuera's milk dried up. Rahman started getting diarrhea, and throwing up, and he started to refuse to eat or drink. He'd been like this before I got back, and was losing weight and acting listless, limp. Zuera and I went to Tajae, where they gave him antibiotics, but he didn't get better. He lost his baby cheeks, his eyes started sinking farther and farther in his head, and the skin on his legs hung like paper. He just got worse and worse, so we went back. We went on a Wednesday, which is when an Irish NGO called Concern sets up at the clinic and administers a whole lot of help- all for malnourished kids. I'd never seen them in action before, and I was overwhelmed and grateful to the point of tears. I mean, you walk into this big cement building and it's full of hundreds of women holding on to their skinny babies, waiting in lines to have them weighed and measured, and then to get a week's supply of high calorie super-nutrient life-saving food. It takes courage to take your kid, you know? They want, like every mother, their child to be healthy. But it's still hard to get the guts to take them, because everyone sees you and sees your sick baby.

Zuera and I were told that Rahman was "broken", and that if he refused to eat the special food at that instant, they would write him a referral to the Concern Hospital in Tahoua. He wouldn't eat anything, and so Zuera and I returned home with him to ask for Salla's permission to take him to Tahoua that afternoon. And you know, this was really strange and disorienting for me, because I don't have authority over this child, or his parents, and if Salla didn't agree, Rahman wouldn't be going to the hospital. It was painful for Salla to decide- he was surrounded by all of the women in his family, yelling and watching, and there I am, terrified he's going to say no, and then he does, he says no. He said no, because he heard that if your child dies there, the hospital doesn't give you your child's body back. I was devastated, and Zuera started crying (people don't cry here), and the women went crazy...I told him, okay, let me call them and ask them if that is true, because if it is true, I understand. But he really didn't want me to call them, and he excused himself and consulted with some other men, and then he gave us permission.


Zuera, Rahman, and Narba ended up spending nine days at the Concern Hospital in Tahoua. The doctors showed them how to force feed him highly nutrified milk, and they were kept on a strict feeding schedule every hour. I visited them there twice, and got to see Rahman get better and better. Everyone in Foloa knew he was there, and constantly asked me if I had any news. When they finally got released, Rahman had his chubby cheeks back and even started smiling every once in a while. He'd been back for four days before I left to come in to Konni for Thanksgiving, and he seemed better each day. He still qualifies for the supplements given out in Tajae every Wednesday, so he and Zuera and I will keep going, along with the other five or so women from Foloa who have started going. Last week, a new mom joined us, Tahira, with her son Aziz. Going with them, and helping to connect them with doctors who can and will help them, makes me feel less helpless. I feel like I finally know where to go, and I'm getting to know the doctors. Best of all, women who felt helpless can see Rahman and how much better he is. And that is what really matters.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Getting the grain

And- drumroll- we got our grain! Serendipitously, our grain got delivered the next week! I had placed an order in Konni at the house of one of Moussa's friends, but wasn't sure of a delivery date. I just crossed my fingers it would be here before the end of November. What happened was comical in retrospect, but at the time I was pretty flustered. See, I'd gone to bed and fallen asleep, and an hour later (10:30?) Salla (Narba's eldest son) is banging at the door to my courtyard, saying "Samsiya? The car is here. You know, the one with the grain!" And then he disappeared, so I was left in this tangle in my mosquito net trying to figure out if that actually happened. I wrapped my sheet around my waist and went out looking like a very loose woman-- tank top! head uncovered! Yikes. And there you go, there's a big truck full of giant white sacks of millet, parked next to the grain bank building, and a whole crowd of teenage guys swarming around excitedly. I was kind of out of it, but managed to pull some Hausa out of my sleepy head, and we eventually got the building open and started the long process of unloading the sacks (60, 70 lbs a piece?). In the dark. The guys had a ball, laughing and joking and helping each other, as I took photos and grinned about the fact that this was finally happening. None of the women were there- everyone was asleep- so it felt like a big secret. I had a hard time getting back to sleep.

The committee is getting ready to have a huge meeting to show everyone the bank- they want to make it a big deal and open up the bank for all to see. It hasn't happened yet, for a few serious and sad reasons that are entirely unrelated to the grain bank or the committee (more on that in a while, I guess, if I can find the words). It will be exciting, more than exciting, when it happens.

We just might have to dance.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Grain bank update

Narba in front of the grain bank building

Grain Bank Update: We got our training! The twelve women on the grain bank committee, plus myself, were trained in (almost) All Things Grain-Bank-Management-Esque. For the last three days of October, we sat on mats on the new cement floor of a vacant classroom and learned about our new jobs and responsibilities. It's been just a month since then, but it feels like forever...I'll try to recall more of it in detail, because it was a pretty big event, both for the village women and for me.

To start- I spent the better half of October in Hamdallaye, helping to ease the newest group of volunteers into life here. As soon as that ended I zoomed back to my village, because I only had a day to get things ready and-- most importantly-- remind all of the ladies that yes, indeed, we had two fancy city ladies coming to set us straight. Much of that week feels like a buzz of constant motion: Riding to Tajae to double check with the trainers, walking around to all parts of the village to confirm the days with people, buying food to feed everyone and finding people to help cook and carrying mats and chairs and water back and forth...and, most interesting of all, finding the women on the committee and trying to explain "10 o'clock in the morning". A funny, funny concept. No clocks, no watches. Some young guys have cell phones, but their grandmas (ie the ladies on the committee) do not keep track of hours. So, I tried a few approaches. There's a word for late-morning-ish (hantsi), and it's around then that girls are done hauling water, and there's also a big piece of metal that the headmaster bangs against another piece of metal to signify the 10am school break. So I tried dropping all of those clues, and crossed my fingers that the twelve women would make their way to the classroom by twelve. Hadiza and Gembi, our two trainers, were totally in tune with village time (THANK YOU), so they understood the delays...

Brief review of our training:
Day One: Hadiza and Gembi arrive at 10, village ladies (Salamu, Ana, Habsou, another Salamu, Mariama, Huri, Yashe, Aisha, and another Mariama) trickle in by 12. Just as expected- no worries. Hadiza is young, loud, intense, commanding, fierce almost, and does most of the talking. Gembi is quieter, doesn't demand our attention the same way, but is friendlier. We learn about the purpose of a Grain Bank (first: food in the village! second: make money! Not the other way around, which is what the ladies argue for a long time, to the delight and amusement of the trainers. But we figure it out eventually); we learn about the difference between the committee and the 'big group'-- the other 200 women who've invested in the project, and we learn that we really like it when Hadiza asks Samsiya (me) if she understands, because she usually doesn't, which makes everyone laugh. And then a village woman explains it to Samsiya, slowly, which she appreciates immensely.

Day Two: Hadiza and Gembi arrive at 10:15, village ladies make it by 11. Progress! We spend lots of time reviewing what we learned yesterday- trainers ask us over and over "what is the purpose of a grain bank???" Good. We learn how and where and when to buy grain, and how and when and where to sell it, and for how much. We learn when to give loans and how to get paid back. A long day, butts sore from sitting so much, but we're learning good stuff. Decide to (try to) meet earlier tomorrow. I am skeptical. But, let's try, right?

Day Three: Get this-- village women show up at 8:30, Hadiza and Gembi at 9am. Take that! Yeah, we rock. Sneaky village ladies accurately observe that "Samsiya's probaby tired of having to send little boys after us when we don't show up on time". True that, ladies. We go over every woman's specific responsibility-- we have two presidents, two secretaries (the only two literate women, and the only two under the age of 40), two sellers/buyers, one groundskeeper, two money storers, and three key holders. Trainers make us repeat back over and over what we each have to do-- awesome. I also have a job-- self-assigned, sort of. Train our two secretaries in record keeping, and keep a spare key. I also got assigned a few random tasks- help the presidents open a bank account (VERY VERY TABOO), get a small safe made with three different locks, and make identification cards for everybody.

So: It couldn't have been better. Really. I hadn't dared to hope for it to go as well as it did. Hadiza and Gembi were great- sharp and snappy, which is exactly what you need to be to impress a bunch of village ladies. Narba's daughter, Tchimo, made delicious food for us every day, which was carried to us on the heads of a line of little kids. We got to sit in the brand new classroom, because the headmaster was very generous. Most importantly, the women came, they participated, they asked questions and talked, and they seem like they got a lot out of it. And that is dreamy, so I am very pleased and proud. In the last few weeks, I've overheard them talking about what they learned and explaining things to other women. My faith in these women just continues to grow.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

AIDS awareness

Enter AIDS education: there are many ways that volunteers work to promote AIDS awareness and education. They do radio shows, theater, classes, tours of villages, presentations, and clinics...there is an annual AIDS bikende in Niger, when volunteers ride through several villages, doing skits and shows along the way. Next month a friend of mine, JT, is organizing a similar tour of villages in my region. He and I and a few other volunteers are going to work with some CARE representatives to do day-long presentations at each site. We'll do a day in my village; and knowing how quickly a crowd gathers at the sight of another white person, I'm sure we'll have quite an audience. I'm really looking forward to helping out, whether it means acting in a skit, handing out condoms, or even just providing food for the CARE folks. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Exode and HIV/AIDS

85% of the village's men leave after the growing season to find work in other countries; most of them return in May. Meanwhile, women do much of the harvesting work, and stay behind with the children.

I'm sitting in the PC Medical Officer's presentation about HIV/AIDS in Niger; he's listing off a bunch of grave statistics about rates among nationals and volunteers. The official reported AIDS rate in Niger is 1.8%, but it is almost certainly higher...hard to know because it's taboo to talk about. I assume that many young men contract HIV during exode--the 3-9 months per year when they leave the villages to seek employment in wealthier countries. It's not even just young men; really it's anyone who sleeps with a prostitute during that long time away. Then the men come home and infect their wives.

Although I haven't heard any talk of HIV/AIDS in my village, I did recently have a pretty candid conversation about prostitution. Some male villagers and I were talking about the pros and cons of going on exode; I had asked a bunch of questions, like "Do men look forward to exode? Do they prefer to be away, or to be at home in the village? Why do some men stay away longer than others? What do people think of men who stay away for so long?" The guys I was talking with--Ibrahim, Idi, Issiah, and a few other older men--seemed pleased to talk about everything. They said that they enjoy exode because there are so many more amenities than in the village. Usually they are in big cities in Nigeria, Ghana, Bukina Faso, etc., so they have access to electricity (fans, refrigerators, good food). They laughed when I asked them if being away was more the "good life" than in the village: "Of course it is!" And at that, I took a little offense, "But what about leaving your family?" To which they said that yes, it's hard to be away from their wives and children, but that everyone likes to get $$ in the village, and it's only natural to leave once farming season ends and to return before it begins again the next year.

While they're away, they accept any kind of work: construction, cement, selling trinkets on the street. They send cash home with friends, and when they come back they also bring new clothes for everyone in their extended family. For many--if not most--families, this is the only source of monetary income: $ made by the men in the family while they are on exode. Guys from ages 18 to 40 or 50 seem to go; I'm told that by December, 85% of the men will have left my village, not to return till around May. Some men leave for much longer, a full year or two, depending on where they go, and whether there are other men who can help them farm their fields in their absence. When I asked about this, the opinion of men who leave home for so long, the topic of prostitution suddenly came up. Ibrahim explained that in some cases, men who haven't been able to make/and/or save much money on exode won't come home because they have nothing to show for their work. He then added that often, these men spend the money they made on prostitutes, and just never end up coming back. I was surprised to hear him bring that up; it wasn't a big deal, I guess, to mention. He emphasized that this behavior is Bad, and the other old guys agreed, although they did so jokingly, kind of in the same way that people joke about men who visit prostitutes in the states.

I don't really know how many of the 85% of men who leave my village for work this year will visit prostitutes. Or how many of them will use condoms, or how many of the prostitutes have HIV/AIDS, or how many of the men will contract HIV/AIDS. All of the possible numbers are frightening, but none of them upsets me more than the number of wives who could be infected as a result of their husbands' careless behavior. The thought of women, mothers, who work year-round in a hot, harsh, unforgiving climate, who take care of half a dozen kids all day, who get no break from the village life even once in their lifetimes, the thought of them being infected with HIV/AIDS and never knowing it, but eventually dying from it and seeing their children die from it...it's a cruel, unjust, infuriating possibility.

I don't know who or how many people in my village have HIV/AIDS, but I assume it's present...and let me be clear...that even as I assume it is present, I also assume that the men who become infected do so ignorantly; this is not a story about evil husbands vs. angelic wives. It is about people engaging in risky behavior, of which the consequences are unknown, or distant, or misunderstood.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Not a rabbit

Five boys, about age 7, are over to look at books. (I got these in care packages...there are otherwise no picture books in the village.) The boys' names are Turjani, Malaru, Halilu, Ousman, and Alhassan. Their banter is just terrific. I gave them each a book to look at and here's what they are saying:

"That's a lion! It has 4 legs, but we can't see one of them." (Darn 2-dimension.)
"Pretty sure, but even if he's just got 3 legs, he looks pretty happy."

"That's a rat."


"That's a rat."
"That's also a rat."
[Can you tell what book he was looking at? (Your Friend the Rat)]

"That's not a bird, actually. It's kind of like a fish because it lives in the ocean! But it's also like a cow because it has breasts and feeds milk to its babies." (Glad I paid attention in science class...it was a photo of a seal...)
The response: silence. Awe? Or disbelief?

"That's a rabbit!"

"Yeah, it is! Why isn't it a rabbit?"
"Because it's STANDING UP, and everybody KNOWS rabbits run on the ground!"
"Well, yeah...but it's supposed to be a rabbit."

"But it's wearing PANTS! IT'S NOT A RABBIT!"
"OK, then what is it?"

"I dunno."
(This was a Richard Scarry book.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fund the Peace Corps

Peace Corps programs around the world have had to cut their budgets by 15% this fall. Peace Corps trainees and volunteers in Niger are feeling the pinch; training sessions and services have been cut. The Nigerien training staff is now doing double duty, teaching both language and tech skills. Volunteers are doing without programs and services that they had 6 months ago. Staff has been reduced.

Peace Corps has been hands-down the most cost-effective foreign aid program that the US has had for over four decades. Recent budget cuts have hurt. If you have a friend or relative in the Peace Corps, they will be negatively affected. Through the website Fund Peace Corps (set up by PC volunteers in Mongolia) you can easily send a message to your congressmen and women: please restore funding to the Peace Corps.

If you go to the above link you will see that it is set up to generate letters to mail to your senators and representatives. For the simplest case all you have to do is enter your zip, then at the end copy and paste a bit. Or you can get fancier... It looks up info on the representatives and adds references to their Peace Corps service (if they served) or their ability to change the budget (if they’re on the Appropriations Committee). So please check it out.

Oh, by the way:
To put the Peace Corps budget into some perspective:
Peace Corps proposed 2009 Budget: $343.5 million
2009 Enacted supplemental Global War on Terror Funding (pg 22 of this document ): $68 billion

Peace Corps 2009 budget= .005% of 2009 Global War on Terror budget
In 3.65 days the Global War will spend as much supplemental/emergency funding as the whole Peace Corps budget for the year. Gee, couldn't we round it up to 4 full days?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Millet harvest

Millet that I planted in my concession
I'm trying to remember what the last season was that I described to you; I think it must've been when things started to turn lush green. Oh, and then I wrote about the dry spell when things turned yellow. Let me catch you up. The hasi (millet) is now several feet over my head, and it has started to lean and bend in tall green curves from the weight of its seeds. In most fields, the millet heads are filled out and still slightly green, though some are dried out and ready to harvest. Last week people started to harvest some of the green heads; they can be grilled over coals and eaten like that, or set out to dry in the sun and then pounded as usual. To help you imagine, millet plants resemble corn plants, and the heads are a similar shape and size, but they aren't covered by husks. The seeds are much smaller, and round (just take a peek at your birdseed mix). The heads are harvested ki
nd of the same way as corn--well, not exactly--you cut the stalk close to the base of the seed head. It is the hungriest families who harvest the green millet; they do so because their personal stores have run out.

Harvesting my own millet:
The knife was a piece of scrap metal; Narba finally just took it from me, and I was glad.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The 16-mile walk

The other day Narba and I walked a total of 16 miles to visit a woman who fell off her motorbike near our village. It was a pleasant walk; both of us were in good spirits, and the weather was nice. Narba carried a bowl with nine eggs in it to give to the lady, and I sneakily videotaped her walking through the sand. We walked the two hours there, stayed for 45 minutes, then walked back. Most of the walk home we debated the merits of getting a horse or a camel: a very fun conversation to have with Narba. The verdict was that most likely I will not be getting either, but IF I did, Narba recommends a camel, because they are easier to take care of. We'll see about that. Camels are really expensive.

Camel market, Badigishiri

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Petition to Obama regarding the Peace Corps

The election of Barack Obama opens a door of opportunity to elevate the possibilities and the promise of the Peace Corps. If you would like to sign the following petition (you do not have to be a returned Peace Corps volunteer), go here.

To: President-elect Obama

We congratulate you on your election victory.

We are inspired by your call to U.S. citizens to serve the nation, and are especially excited by your often repeated pledge to double the Peace Corps by the 50th anniversary in 2011.

We sign this petition to express our strong support for a bigger, better and bolder Peace Corps. The Peace Corps can and should be at the foundation of your administration's renewed commitment to reach out to other nations in the very best traditions of the American people - cooperation, friendship, cross-cultural understanding and positive engagement designed to improve the human condition for millions of individuals around the world.

We look forward to working with you in achieving your goals for the Peace Corps.


The Undersigned

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Split pea mush

Pasta (and some tuna from a care package)
I have gotten into the habit of photographing meals that I have cooked that are particularly delicious. For instance, today I made a split pea stew/mush with peas you sent, potatoes, onions, and cabbage that I dried last April, and BACON BITS from an ingeniously engineered care package. (Thanks, mom! The peas cook in under 15 minutes.) Dee-licious. But don't tell my neighbors that I'm eating pig, especially now that it is Ramadan.

Peas, beans, etc.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Best friend

Another bio:

I'd say that Fatchi is my best girlfriend in the village, the person whom I feel understands me the best, and with whom I feel really comfortable and natural. She's probably in her 50s, and lives with her husband and kids in a hut way out on the edge of town. I probably wouldn't have ever met her---or at least wouldn't have realized how amazing she is--if I hadn't made myself go out to her far-away hut during my first month. At the time I was determined to push myself and greet as many people as I could. It really paid off: I met Fatchi! From the beginning I felt really good around her; she has this great humor about her, and no matter what you say (no matter how unintelligible your Hausa is) she does her best to understand and make you feel spectacular. As soon as I step into her concession, she shouts out my name with a laugh, like it's the most wonderful, surprising, unlikely thing that I am here. And what I realized sets her apart from most other women is that she is bursting with questions and curiosity about the USA. Other women are definitely curious, but I think that perhaps they don't know where or how to start asking, and they don't want to reveal how little they know or don't know of the differences between here and there. ( And I recognize similarities in myself and other Americans: where do you even begin to start asking questions about the unknown? It's hard!) Fatchi, however, always has something to ask or say. I go over there every other day and usually hang out for an hour, sometimes two. It is always a laughter-filled time, with both of us discovering lots about each other.

Off the top of my head I can recall conversations with Fatchi about: washing machines, bridal showers, obesity, post offices, and of course millet, hunger, cows, marriage, and giving birth (popular topics among village women.) One question Fatchi asks me is "Samsiye, kasanku, da gaskiya baku sha hura?" "Samsiye, in your country, is it really true that you don't drink hura?" (Hura is the millet and milk drink, a staple food, kind of like bread in the states, but more central. Every meal, really...at least in the village.) It's basically impossible to imagine a country surviving without hura. Another question that we've talked about a lot--and man, does it blow me away, and her, too, how different this is--is the question of how women give birth here vs. the US. Here, the women give birth alone, inside their huts, in total silence. No doctor, no family, no one--and no drugs, and absolutely no yelling. I can hardly believe it, but I know it is true. And she can hardly believe that many (most, right?) women in the US give birth in a hospital, with at least a doctor present, and often family, plus their husbands ( no way that would fly here), and they sometimes even yell.
Obviously Fatchi and I have a lot to learn from each other.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Lahadi, mixing up some hura (milk, millet, hot pepper)
Another bio:
Lahadi was married to Narba's husband's younger brother, so she lives in the same large extended family compound as Narba & company. (There were five brothers in all, two of whom are still alive.) A first I thought Lahadi was austere and imposing, but I've learned that she is anything but. She is probably around 50 years old, and she is a patient, graceful, respected, true "lady." Her children are adults, i.e. my age, but she doesn't have grandkids that I know: I'm sure they are somewhere! Lahadi is raising Ala, a two year old buster whose mother died giving birth to him and his twin brother, who is being raised in another village. I usually spend at least a half hour chillin' with Lahadi in the afternoon; she doesn't work as much as some other women because she has a bad hip. She's a fun teacher, too; and she loves it when I do anything that slightly resembles dancing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Narba's family

Zueria and her son Rahman

I was thinking it is time to give a few bios of people with whom I spend a lot of time, and are especially interesting. I know that I mention Narba often, which is partially because I hang out with her a lot, but also because you know who she is, sort of. But there are plenty of other people who deserve a shout-out, and who-if you visit-you will definitely meet. (Truthfully, you will meet every person in this village and you will be talked about for at least one, possibly two decades after the event.) We will re-cap the familiar figures, beginning with:

Narba Sama'ina: Good, precious, devious, everywhere-at-once, Narba. 70 years old-ish, the matriarch of a large family, all of whom I have come to know pretty well. Narba's family is the closest thing to family here. They include: her sons Sala, Shaibu, and Omarou, and their wives Zueria, Rasida, and Mariama, and their children. Of Narba's daughters'-in-law, I guess I know Mariama the best. She is close to my age, and very much loves to tell crazy stories about how she is going to sleep out in the bush, so would I mind watching Hairira (her daughter) for the night? Rasida is pretty young, maybe 17 or so, and she watches my garden when I leave the village. Zueria is married to Narba's eldest son, and they are the only married couple I know here that spends time together outside of their home: they joke and tease each other in the somewhat "public" shared space between the brothers' three houses (but certainly not in the village). Zueria is beautiful and loves to laugh. Her five children are also lovely and sweet. Rahman, the youngest, thinks I'm #1, and toddles over to be held as soon as he catches a glimpse of my white ankles. He calls me "Haba! Haba!"


Monday, October 20, 2008

A smoky mess

Haoua: "See? It's easy!'

It was a few days before anyone noticed that I was cooking "like them." I confess to feeling very inferior and pathetic in my fire-building skills despite my years as an explorer scout, backpacker, and--gasp--firefighter--but yesterday Narba discovered me huffing and puffing over a smoky mess. (It spoke very much of her fine manners that she didn't fall over in laughter.) Instead of showing a speck of condescension, she got down on her knees and within 5 seconds--I swear--she had a blaze going. How the??
So, humbled and exposed, I once again am under Narba's tutorial care. This morning, to my delight, I boiled a big pot o' water by burning another section of my fallen shade hangar. Satisfaction! It's strange how I always considered myself fairly capable in matters like this, but that here, my state of knowledge about living in the bush was exhausted by day two. A word to the wise: surrender your silly pride and ask for help when you need it. Your water will boil faster.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Out of propane

Haoua, frying millet pancakes (masa) over a typical cooking fire

I ran out of propane for my little stove, so for a week now I've been cooking over a "fire," which has been entirely enjoyable and amusing, if also frustrating at times. Frankly, the privilege/ease/and also expense of cooking with propane eliminates a significant job that all other women slave over daily, and by not sharing in their labor, I have missed out on a very accessible means of exchange. So, although I have lamented the loss of such a sweat-free cooking apparatus, it has felt right and valuable to spend this week considering things that the other women have to consider all the time: do I have enough wood, is it dry enough, why the heck isn't the fire starting, and how the hell can it not be dry enough in the hottest country on the planet?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A sigh of relief, and current food security in Niger

Estimated food security conditions, 4th Quarter 2008 (October-December)
US AID /Famine Early Warning Systems
Green: Generally food secure
Yellow: Moderately Food Insecure

Orange: Highly Food Insecure
Red: Extremely Food Insecure
Black: Famine
Gray: No Data

(My village is in the "yellow zone" on this map)

8/19/08 What "moderately insecure" actually feels like:

IT RAINED! Finally! After three long weeks of not-a-drop, after which the millet had gone brittle and yellow and slouchy in the fields, the sky finally filled with cloudy water balloons that popped above us. Mun gode Allah! Thank god! Sunday morning at 4 AM--wait it was Monday-- wind and splatter drops woke me and brought me indoors, where I sat and listened to the downpour begin. It is fabulous news, the best thing for farmers far and wide--everyone is talking about it, and praising God and smiling skywards. We got a good soaking! And then, not two hours later, another storm came through. So there is a sigh of relief shared by the thousand or so of us in town.
My roof is a little more waterproof since Ayuba and Shaibu fixed it up, but it still leaks in several spots, so I'm getting good at timing when I need to move and/or empty water buckets, pots, and cups that I rotate from drop to drop. One way you can gauge how hard it rained is by the number of household articles set out to dry in the sun the next day: clothes, mats, mattresses. This morning all of the contents of Narba's little hut were strewn about her concession! And yet no one complains because the blessing of rain for the harvest trumps all, even the caving in of mud walls and huts that I saw this afternoon.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A session with Ibrahim

Ibrahim: sometimes he sets up a table and sells assorted things

I had another "decipher the proverb" session with Ibrahim, and as always, it was revealing and silly. Most importantly, he explained one of the proverbs about dwarfs (there are several); Durkusa ma wa'da ba gajiyawa ba ne. In ka dirkusa mishi sai ka tashi da tsawonka. The translation given is: "Kneeling down for a dwarf is not sufficient. If you kneel down for him, you can then stand up to your height." Doesn't make much sense, does it? What it really says is: "Kneeling down for a dwarf is not going to exhaust you, and when you kneel down, you will realize your full height." So, take the time to acknowledge everyone, and you will see how great you really can be. (Too bad they use a dwarf as an example of an inferior being, otherwise it's a nice proverb.)

I also learned a new favorite: Shimhidar huska ya hi ta tabarma: "A welcoming face is even better than a welcoming mat." Ibrahim did a kickass job of acting this one out; he set up two scenarios to show that a person may roll a mat out for you when you arrive, but if they then turn their back on you and ignore you, what's so nice about the mat? Whereas if you show up and are greeted warmly and with smiles, it doesn't matter if there's a mat or not, because you're happy. Isn't that nice?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Nuances of joy in this hot, harsh place

I am on the left, Meaghan on the right; her village is nearby; I sewed the dress I'm wearing!

I think it's safe to say that I've entered a new stage in my time here, socially, emotionally, and work-wise. And in a very "aren't we all connected" way, this shift has lined up quite naturally with the change of seasons. It's hard to put a finger on it exactly; it's much bigger than a finger! But I can try to explain it. My first six months here were spent starry-eyed, taking-it-all-in, bombarded by the newness and the impossibility of it all. Now, gradually, I am accepting the realities, the possibilities. And with that acceptance, the realization that this is my life-- not a movie, not an article out of National Geographic, not a vacation,or a foreign exchange program done for credit--come so many little knots to untangle. Life is complicated! Life is astounding! It is more than being perpetually high on adventure. As if one could ever forget. I was so dizzy with the high of being here that I had nearly forgotten what it was like to have a bad day. Such luck!

But let me stay on track--back to this shift, this process of realization--I feel more grounded now, more human I guess you would say, with a wider range of emotions. More real. I do have bad days, and they suck, but I see how important that is. I'm at a point where my relationships here are more complex than they were three months ago. My language skills are catching up, and inevitably this double-whammy reveals a whole new array of possibilities: conversations, disagreements, confusions, questions, expressions...whereas before, these things were simpler, and although it was frustrating, it was not so complicated.

Now. Knowing people better and understanding more of what is going on, I am suddenly aware of the bizarre and involved politics and dramas of my village. No more parading around, blissfully ignorant, riding the high of an adventurer in a new and exciting land! No! Now, I can listen and whisper, I can step on thorns both real and figurative, I can appreciate the nuances of joy that decorate the lives of people making it in this hot, harsh place. Do you see what I am trying to describe? Things have changed and it is hard, but it's the right thing; it's good.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Aloe, and a tree by the lake

The Aloe is endemic to Africa

It felt really good to survey my work and be commended for it by women whom I respect. After they had seen it all, they had a bunch of questions about an aloe plant that I brought back from Hamdallaye. I explained it is good for burns, and I'll give them some clippings when it's bigger.

I gave Karima a little sapling of a tree I planted--not sure of its name in English--but it's called sa miya in Hausa (literally "put in your sauce"). I guess its leaves are edible, but I have no place for it. Hopefully she will plant it by the lake; she said she wanted it for that reason.

Meaghan, Claudia, John, and Jessica in a photo taken by Char H. In Tahoua

Char said this about the trees planted at the lake's edge:
"Babaye is a lake, in the rainy season, that used to be surrounded by trees. The trees were so plentiful that when the colonists came to Tahoua, the villagers ran to the lake and sought cover by climbing the trees. They survived while others did not. You can see by the photo that the trees are now gone, but the the City of Tahoua is now planting trees in the hope of using it as a historic attraction in the future. John gave a wonderful impression of a tree ."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Millet, moringa, neem, baobab, veggie starts

Baobab seedling
For several weeks now--months, even--I've been prepping areas around my hut for gardens. It's really gratifying to see what was just solid, heat-baked clay and sand be transformed into something that more closely resembles soil! After chopping at the slate-like plots with every tool available (village-made hoe/ax and big sticks), I mixed in manure that my neighbors gave me. They watched with great amusement as I shoveled their goats', cows', sheep's, and donkeys' poop into my big "I Love Africa" bucket. Since then I have been adding water and millet chaff. And now: I have four garden beds! With plantable soil! Well wait, "plantable soil" does not make sense , but you get it, right? And in the meantime, the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and collards that I seeded are close to ready for planting.

I should clarify what I wrote about my neighbors: while at first they were just amused about my garden project, they quickly saw I was earnest about it and helped me collect and carry everything home! Ibrahim asks about it every day, and my women neighbors Lahadi, Abu, and A'i are ever-curious. This morning I was hacking away at a new bed when Karima, an influential village lady who sells odds and ends and goro (kola nut) from her home, and Aoma'u came by with Narba. Narba was so funny. She led them all around my concession, showing off all of the work I've done: my two meager rows of millet (now almost as tall as me!), the moringa, neem, and baobab trees, the beds I've dug, and the little veggie starts. I was dripping with sweat and covered in sand and goat poop, and even goat fur, but I stood there proudly as Narba clucked away.

Mature baobab tree
Photo by Brett

Monday, September 29, 2008


Narba and granddaughter Harira

In Niger, a typical woman has less than three years of education, and the life expectancy of a girl born today is only 45. Only four per cent of Nigerien women use modern contraception, and one child in four never reaches the age of 5. At this rate, every mother is likely to suffer the loss of a child during her lifetime. Source: CBC News

Lately I've really been appreciating the evenings. It's a time when more people are gathered at home, talking or sitting or eating (women with the kids, men separate, of course). I find myself staying out a little later each evening, picking up strands of conversation, contributing some, mostly listening, laughing at the kids, whose antics--in the dirt and ash and whatever they can roll their naked little bellies in--are often the focus of our attention. Children are so precious here. I don't know why I was surprised to see the tenderness with which Narba treats every one of her grandkids, great grandkids, and neighbors' kids. Maybe because there are SO MANY babies, kids, everywhere, 4,5,6,7,8 per woman, as many as 10,20,30 per husband if he has several wives; maybe I assumed that they were somehow less special, less treasured in the eyes of old women, who in their lives have held hundreds of babies. But it is not that way; it is the opposite, and it squashed my assumptions absolutely. To see Narba goyo (tie to her back) her daughter-in-law's baby, Harira, of 4 months, and carry her all over the village proudly, is seeing a happy woman doing what she has done since she was a girl herself.

I will often come upon Narba at her home, sitting on a mat in the sha
de, with a half dozen of her family's babes napping or crawling or playing around her--and Narba is totally into it, singing for them or clapping or chuckling. Last night Rabi had batteries for a radio, so we listened to some afro pop, and immediately a crowd of bouncing toddlers was gleefully stomping in the dust...Narba, delighted, rushed to get her flashlight to shine on them in the dark. Together we watched them, their brown legs and arms, pumping, kicking, bottoms falling into the sand, turning them a lighter brown. They were so funny. But mostly I watched Narba, who had eyes only for them; she clucked and sang and held that light over them, exclaiming "Toh! Gareka! Toh!" (Hey! Yo! You got it! Yeah!))

So, you see, these babies, all gazillion of them, they are beloved. And it's not just Narba, it's everyone, all of the women who dote on every baby, the men who hold friends' babies in the afternoon, and the kids, who as soon as they're big enough, hope to carry a baby around, too.

Me in my village, and kids in Hamdallaye

Monday, September 22, 2008


Chameleon in Konni
Well, a week has passed since the beginning of the Mosquito Wars. I am still peppered in itchy welts, but my attitude has improved. Plus, most of my new bites I got in a neighboring village, which somehow makes them easier to deal with. I had four really busy days in a row--lots of walking to and from new villages, lots of interactions with new people. Two months ago, any one of my recent escapades would have wiped me out completely, but now I see that I'm more able/adjusted. It no longer takes quite as much effort and concentration to make it through a day. Not to say that a day here was particularly grueling, but the sheer difference of this place left me physically and emotionally drained on a daily basis for the first several months. And today, sure, my legs are pretty tired, but I'm no worse for the wear...wait, is that how that saying goes...I don't even know! You get the picture.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A walk with Amu

So. OK. I went out with Amu to their fields, which were northwest of town along a path I hadn't been on yet. It climbed gently for awhile, and I got a good long gulp-of-a-view of the farms and villages spreading out south of us. Ahead and behind and on other paths in all directions were other women, chatting and laughing and hauling their loads--babies, food, water--towards their men and their fields. It was like being in a painting where everything is green except a wide stripe of blue at the top and bright dashes of red, yellow, pink, and brown all throughout.
When we reached our fields, the men came and sat with us, and we had a lively conversation about the delicacies of fried crickets. Amu's baby daughter, Saphara'u, played in the sand, the men drank hura, and I learned the word for "crunchy"(kamaskamas). Then, Amu and I returned to the village, a nice 40 minute walk, as colorful and chatty as the one out.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Rainy season routines

Photo by James

On Wednesday morning I accompanied my friend Amu out to the fields where her husband Habibu and his brothers Ayuba and Zabairu were working. Wait--I should explain what these rainy season days are like; it will give you an idea of how people spend their time now. The last few weeks I have awakened at 4AM to the sound of women pounding millet to make hura (millet, milk, and hot pepper drink) for their husbands and sons to drink before heading to the fields at 6. Once the men and boys all leave, the women continue pounding for the rest of the day's meals, plus they pull water and wash clothes as usual. At around 10:00 AM, one or two women from each household will carry (on her head, in a big round gourd the color of dry grass) more hura and tuwo (millet mush with sauce--think polenta, that's about the right consistency) to the fields for the guys to eat during breaks; this is what they'll have to eat until they come home. Depending on how many women and girls are in a family, sometimes the hura/tuwo carriers will stay out in the fields and work the rest of the day, until everyone comes in at about 4 or 5 PM. If there aren't many girls in a family, they'll have to come home right away to make food for dinner, gather firewood, pull more water, and take the cows and goats out to forage. (I finally figured out that at noon each day, women herd all their animals out of their concessions, through the streets, and to the giant puddle outside the village to drink, eat the new grass, and I guess, socialize. This explains the mooing ruckus that surprises me every day about 11:30: the animals are reminding us that they are ready and waiting! The animals stay out until around 6, when they seem to find their way back, or are rounded up by their people. It's cool to be out and watch the goats and sheep charge for home, each one knowing exactly where to turn off.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Peace Corps budget cuts have an effect

Peace Corps Headquarters has required all offices worldwide to take a 15% budget cut. Peace Corps Niger is having to make cuts in many areas to meet this percentage; below are some of the most important decisions they've had to make. It really sucks, for everybody- staff, volunteers...personally I'll notice it most in the cut to regional shuttles; I have really appreciated having a monthly opportunity to get mail and supplies delivered to my village, as well as the help of Moussa, the driver. His ability to support the work I do will be diminished considerably.

Dare I speculate that the cost of war is severely affecting this program's ability to do effective, peaceful development work?

- Education Program Training Assistant position cut (this person runs all the training for a specific sector -in this case, education- during your first 9 weeks in country.)
- Programming and Training staff travel cut by 35%
- Close of Service Conference for volunteers exiting this year to be held in Hamdallaye instead of Park W.
- Fuel consumption for staff travel cut by 35%.
- Fuel for regional shuttles cut by 40% (this is the shuttle that used to come to my village once a month to bring mail or other supplies, and the time when Moussa would be available to facilitate meetings and conversations).
- Funds for PCV travel in country reduced by 25%
- Mid Service Training has been eliminated (this is a 3 day conference formerly held at the 1 year mark, for volunteers to receive additional training and to share work progress/questions/plans with each other.)
- Day-to-day medical supplies reduced (sunscreen, bug repellent etc)

Yup. I will send more info if I get it.*

*Hostels are under review for being cut.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Current food situation in Niger: the official word

The map below (from AID sources) illustrates some of the text beneath it (info recently sent to Peace Corps volunteers). 700,000 people may need food aid this year (see #7), which makes it a good year; last year the figure was 2.9 million people in need of aid.
Points #4, #9, #10, and #11 seem especially worrisome.

Estimated food security conditions, 3rd Quarter 2008 (July-September)
US AID /Famine Early Warning Systems
Green: Generally Food Secure
Yellow: Moderately Food Insecure
Orange Highly Food Insecure
Red: Extremely Food Insecure
Black: Famine
Gray: No Data


1. Summary. All signs indicate that Niger will have a bumper annual harvest of major food staples in September-October 2008,representing an unprecedented fourth consecutive good annual harvest for Niger. Pasture conditions are excellent and no major outbreaks of crop pests have been reported. Crop conditions in Nigeria and other countries in the sub-region also appear to be favorable; therefore, added pressures on Niger food stocks will be minimal.
Niger will not need any emergency food aid over the coming year, but will need help to reconstitute its national food reserves and to continue programs to address food needs of vulnerable groups and chronic child malnutrition. There will also be a need to address the problem of insufficient imported rice for urban consumers.

2. The rainy season has generally been exceptional and, even if rains stopped now, there is enough moisture in the soil in most areas to permit a good harvest of the major food staples (millet, sorghum and cowpeas). If like last year the rains cease in mid-September, the harvest will still be better than the good 2007 harvest. If like in 2006 the rains continue into early October, Niger could have a record harvest. On the other hand, too much rain and continued heavy rainfall will make it difficult to harvest. Already the harvest of millet and sorghum is occurring in a number of places across Niger.

3. Flooding in some areas has caused some crop damage and, as of the end August 2008, the loss of shelter for almost 40,000 people. Pasture conditions throughout Niger are reported as excellent without any major outbreak of crop pests. Niger appears to be on the path to a fourth consecutive good annual harvest. This may be the first time in modern history that Niger has enjoyed four good annual harvests in a row. These good harvests and livestock conditions will make life better for rural inhabitants (85 percent of the population), contribute positively to Niger's GDP growth, and reduce budgetary and political stress on the Government of Niger (GON). Furthermore, full household granaries are the best insurance for the maintenance of peace and stability in the rural zones.

4. The food situation of urban inhabitants, who depend heavily on the consumption of imported rice, is, however, worrisome. The cost of imported rice on the open market is at a record high and stocks of rice are at an all-time low. The GON tried to procure on the international market 10,000 megatons (MT) of rice but was only able to obtain 3,000 MT, which it is selling at a subsidized price (35 percent less than market price) during the holy month of Ramadan that began September 1. Given that Niger consumes about 20,000 MT of rice per month, this is a relatively small quantity of rice. It is an open and troublesome question as to how Niger will obtain enough rice in the coming months to feed its urban population.

5. Related to this rice shortage problem was the receipt on July 21 of an official request from the GON for 60,000 MT of rice and 15,000 MT of wheat over a three-year period, beginning this year. This request was made within the framework of the USDA's Food for Progress program. This request follows the signing of an agreement in September 2006 for the same kind of program. Under this previous Food for Progress program, 12,000 MT of sorghum and 5,000 MT of rice (for monetization) were provided. The 12,000 MT of sorghum was used over the past few months for free distribution to the most vulnerable groups. The 5,000 MT of rice was sold to private traders over a year ago and the proceeds generated are being used for food security activities. Concerned GON authorities will need to satisfy some outstanding reporting and accountability requirements for USDA before tackling another USDA program.

6. It was planned that some rice be provided by the end of the year under three new PL 480, Title II Multi-Year Assistance Programs (MYAPs) that USAID signed in August 2008 with participating U.S. non-governmental organizations. These three- to five-year MYAPs have an estimated value of over US$70 million and cover all regions
of Niger. The main commodity to be monetized under the MYAPs is rice and 7,000 to 9,000 MT of rice were to be shipped to Niger by December, but the first effort to procure rice was has not been successful as not enough rice could be sourced. It is still uncertain when rice will be available for these MYAPs and, when sourced, how much can be procured with existing budgets. Higher rice prices will mean lower quantities of rice for the MYAP programs and it may be some time before FY 2009 funding is available for these programs.

7. Notwithstanding the favorable prospects for good annual harvest in Niger, there remain pockets of low rainfall in Niger and agricultural production growth has difficulty keeping up with Niger's fast annual population growth rate of 3.4 percent (or about 400,000 additional people per year to feed). Niger is reaching the limits of the quantity of food it can produce and in the future, even in a good rainfall year, it will not be able to produce enough to feed its population. Current projections show that up to 700,000 Nigeriens (about 5 percent of Niger's 14 million people) will need food aid to one degree or another over the coming year because of poor harvests in some geographic areas. Nevertheless, this is a huge improvement over last year when 2.9 million people were estimated to be in need of food aid.

8. As of August 27, 2008, Niger's national food reserves contained about 40,000 MT of cereals (down from 77,000 MT last February). If current reserve utilization plans are adhered to, this total stock level will fall to about 3,000 MT by the end of September. In the July to September period, 15,000 MT has been utilized by the GON, with donor concurrence, for free distribution to food vulnerable groups and 15,000 for sale at subsidized prices to those in need. The GON goal is to have 100,000 MT in stock in case of poor annual harvest and, thus, its plan is to begin local purchases of cereals
in October following the harvest to reconstitute its food reserves. It plans to buy on the local market 20,000 MT to 30,000 MT of millet and sorghum in the October 2008 to March 2009 period. Currently, the GON does not have sufficient funds to make these purchases and it will be calling for donor contributions for as much as US$12 million in additional funding for these purchases. These reserves are small compared to Niger's cereals consumption rate of 220,000 MT per month.

9. Niger's child malnutrition levels remains among the worst in the world in spite of four good annual harvests in a row. Niger’s low child nutrition levels are not unrelated to a persistent high poverty levels and a consistent rank among the lowest five countries on the UNDP human development index (HDI). Child feeding practices, including breast-feeding, and dietary diversification need much improvement. A challenge to progress in these areas is low female literacy rate of less than 15 percent.

10. Other sobering development statistics for Niger include facts such as 40 percent of its children are stunted and almost 70 percent of the population is less than 25 years of age. The youthful structure of Niger's population and its fast population growth rate represent daunting development challenges. The population growth rate is out-stripping advances in economic and development growth and will not change unless the high average fertility rate of 7.4 children per woman of child-bearing age is substantially lowered.

11. Nutritional surveys led by UNICEF in the June-July period indicate some slight improvements in child nutrition levels among children under five years of age, but global acute malnutrition (GAM) remains alarmingly high by international standards and in this recent survey the overall average GAM reported was 10.7 percent (versus 11.2 percent a year ago). Extrapolation of survey data indicates that over 260,000 children of this age group suffer from much higher levels of malnutrition. Most alarming are survey results for the Region of Zinder that show an emergency level GAM rate of 15.7 percent. The survey also reports GAM rates much higher for children under three years of age. Also, in the regions of Diffa and Zinder the child mortality rate was over the emergency rate of 2 deaths per 10,000 children per day. This survey also reported that only 4.4 percent of mothers are exclusively breast-feeding their babies during the first six months.

12. Comment. Nothing can be better for Niger and its people than a good harvest, but a good harvest alone does not eliminate hunger and malnutrition nor develop over the long term a country. Much investment is needed in Niger's rural infrastructure and agricultural sector to achieve the food production and household income increases Niger needs to feed its people and to improve its rank on the UNDP HDI list. Investment in irrigation schemes that make Niger more drought proof and less dependent on rainfed agriculture is essential. At the same time more diversified ways of creating wealth need to be found to benefit a much larger segment of the population. As long as the vast majority of Nigeriens remain dependent on subsistence agriculture, sustainable development advances will remain elusive. The main
development aims should target less hunger and higher incomes. High levels of good governance, technical competency, managerial capacity and stability are needed to achieve those aims. ##

Niamey, September 3, 2008

For an update on this post, go here.