Monday, March 31, 2008

Finally a photo

This photo was taken at the Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony, March 15, 2008, US ambassador's grounds, Niamey. Yes, there are some guys, just not in this picture. That's the Niger River in the background. Photo is courtesy of PCV Jody K.

Friday, March 28, 2008

On tape

Hey, did I tell you that Hausa is the 2nd most "popular" African language, after Swahili? It is! It is spoken in Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Ghana, Sudan, and maybe a few other places. I think that is so cool, because the likelihood that I'll be able to use the language outside of PC is higher. Yesterday we had our second official language exam, and they even tape-recorded everything. Yikes! I was more nervous for this one, but I had the same tester, Soba, and he knows my ability because we talk outside of class. Soba has facial scarring, called tsage, that is typical of a few ethnic groups here, and his look is particularly fierce. His scars radiate outwards on his cheeks so he resembles a tiger. Many women have a pattern called "Tears of the Desired Woman," which I think look sweet and very sad at once.
So anyway, there we were, me and Soba with a tape recorder between us, talking about stuff in Hausa. He asked me if I have any friends, which I found to be a very silly question...I told him about Marilyn, how we met, and what she is doing. Soba couldn't pronounce her name, which was so great, because now I have him on tape, mispronouncing a word!
I got my results today: Intermediate-Mid!! YAY! This means I have reached the standard required to be allowed to swear-in. Whew.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The first conversation

It has been an exceptional evening, one of unanticipated joys, and even though I wrote to you this morning, I have to catch a few more moments in writing before they are lost! I guess the magic started this afternoon, when I gave the stickers that you sent to the kids in my family and our neighbors. Everyone wanted one; they each chose carefully (pink being very popular), and proudly displayed their choices on their foreheads (who taught them that's where stickers go?). I took a picture for you! The specialness of the evening came at dinner: Haoua and I had our first conversation. For real! Until now, I've only been able to manage stilted sentences and boring questions, but tonight it was as if I'd suddenly figured something out. Nigeriens don't usually converse during meals, but after dinner is prime talking time. Women often visit each other at this time, and they'll sit out on a mat with the kids, to nurse and talk. Well, tonight Haoua's sister came over, and for the first time ever, I understood more words than I missed! I could actually follow the conversation and contribute. Everyone was very impressed! We talked about all of the volunteers Haoua has hosted, all of Abdu Salaam's new words, the health of the neighbors, the difference in what dogs look like here vs the USA, what we do at school all day, and a few other things. Hallelujah! Baby steps! I feel awesome. And the crowning moment came at the end, when Haoua said "Sannu da hira!" which basically means "what a great conversation!" True.


Do you want to learn about Hausa? It is different because the tense of the sentence is determined by the pronoun, not the verb. There are three main sets of pronouns; each set has different uses, depending on what you are trying to say. There are, for example, "na" pronouns,"ke" pronouns, and "neke" pronouns. For each respective set of pronouns you have affirmatives and negatives, and past/present/future. Basically there are multiple ways of saying things and you have to match your pronouns up carefully. Some verbs also change form depending on the tense, but the verbs themselves don't determine the tense. It's so juicy! And what has been so remarkable is that in the last four weeks, every language class has been entirely in Hausa, so we've figured this all out through practice. We use lots of conversation, drawings, skits, and practice. I've had four teachers (one per week), and find that I learn best from Abdu, but everyone is excellent. Abdu is very smart and educated, and he has great English (outside of class), so I think he is better able to anticipate and understand our questions.
I love this language.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Donkeys' Rights

Donkeys work hard in Niger

"My" dog, the lovely gal who has one puppy, is so skinny from nursing that it is painful to see her. Haoua gave me permission to bring the dog food/leftovers, so I've been trying to load her with calories every night. At least her puppy is fat and healthy; he's two weeks old now. His black coat has turned to beige, and he has white feet. He looks like a little personality yet. I've grown fond of the mom; she's such a good dog, all things considered. She comes close to me and eats out of my hand when no one is around, and tonight she even wagged her tail. I still haven't tried to pet her, and haven't named her. It's very different here, but so far I haven't been surprised at the perception of animals. You prepared me well. I've "taught" the little kids in my family that they aren't allowed to handle the puppy, and so far they listen to me. And Jennifer has acquired the mission of Donkey Liberation, or at least Donkeys' Rights to be Free of Corporal Punishment. We'll see how that goes...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A good week

It's been a good week. I say this because [1] I am healthy. [2] My friends are hilarious and interesting. [3] I love learning Hausa and my teachers are talented. [4] My host family and I are in a place where we can joke around with each other. For example: this morning, Aissa was with me in my hut as I studied, and she started trying on my hats, which look ridiculously large on her tiny frame! I laughed; she laughed; then I said we should take a photo. This is a BIG deal; I've only brought my camera out once, and it caused such a fuss that I put it away. So, Aissa was pumped about the photo idea, but: "Samsiye*, you can't be in the photo until you put your shirt on right." Because, lo and behold, my shirt was on inside out. AND, best thing about it, her entire dress was on inside out, so we had a gigglefest about that, too.
A better example of the fun times here: after dinner tonight, I explained to Haoua that my friend had found a kitten, and that Jennifer and I were going to go over and do a "check-up." Well, Haoua staunchly refused to let me go! Which has never happened, and I was taken aback, but also wanted to respect her "rules." So, I asked her why I couldn't go, and a huge neighborhood-wide discussion of all of the reasons ensued! Seriously, people were shouting over the concession walls things like "No, you can't go out because it's dark," or "because you have to study," or "because you always go out and Haoua is lonely," etc, etc. Well, it turns out they were all pulling my leg, and then they told Jennifer she couldn't go out either. Fun times! Finally they let us go, but only after we promised we'd only speak Hausa. When I got back Haoua cracked up: "Na yi wasa da Samsiye!" (I fooled you!)

* Samsiye is Jessica's Nigerien name

Multiple phyla of animals

One of my discoveries from this week is that I have multiple phyla of animals living in the thatch walls of my hut. I have reptiles (lizards), mammals (hedgehogs! and maybe a mouse), and invertebrates (crickets, mostly, plus a few gross wiggly things that I pretend aren't there). Cool, huh!
Hey this reminds me: I was gone most of last week with the other NRM trainees on our tech trip. We visited and saw lots of cool projects (PC and other programs), many of which I'd enjoy copying or adapting if the opportunity is there. We saw several gum arabic and meringua plantations (cool trees, but man, the farmers use a lot of DDT). There was a community radio broadcast, anti-desertification techniques, anti-erosion stuff, and...I SAW WILD GIRAFFES!! They were so crazy looking. Really tall, and much whiter than I'd have thought. AND I RODE A CAMEL! It was actually a very jolting experience, and they're just so tall...but it was priceless nonetheless. Camels are even weirder looking than giraffes. They fold their legs so bizarrely when they sit.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The heat is creeping in

The heat is creeping in! It started a week ago exactly. At first we all just thought "oh today is a hot day, " with the expectation that the next day would be cool again. Alas, that is not how it works. The heat comes on a little more each day. This week it was 82 in the shade at 10:00 AM. Soon it will be too warm in my hut at night and I'll move back outside, where surely sleep will evade me (noise+heat=recipe for insomnia!) Or, maybe not. Maybe the next two years will be Niger's most temperate!
I am delighted to report that at this junction in time, I am healthy, and even though the heat is tiring, I have returned to myself again. It took awhile to recover from my double-whammy sicknesses. It hit me yesterday that I finally understand why so much emphasis is placed on health and wellness in the daily greetings of this country. The long string of greetings that we run through with everyone is mostly an oratory on one's health and the health of one's family. I understand now that it's not at all a coincidence, but that people here ask about health because it's really IMPORTANT. And it's much harder to recover from anything.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Today and yesterday have been so dusty that the horizon has been obscured. The air and sky and everything in between are white. It is windy and dry, not too hot now. My nostrils are coated with gritty dust; now are you relieved to be in Oregon?

Fascinating things

Chariot Spider (4-5 " long, 2-3" wide)
Photo by Josh L.

Chariot spider
Photo by Jody Kincaid

Hey, I learned about an insane and brilliant evolutionary masterpiece that allegedly lives in Niger. It is called the Chariot Spider*, although a more fitting title might be Chariot Spider and Friend. See, it's the perfect example of mutualism, the ecological term for two different species whose interactions benefit both parties: a very poisonous SCORPION rides on the back of a very fast SPIDER, and together they destroy and devour smaller creatures. I guess the spider runs after them, the scorpion leaps off and stings the creature, and the two predators share the feast. Wow, I think that I'd like to see this in action. From a safe distance, but with an excellent view.

Other fascinating things: today we had a medical session all about skin diseases and irritations in Niger. Oh. my. god. Yuck. It sounds like we're all going to rot away in the rainy season. Disgusting.

*We have a spider expert in the family: biologist MG Weber. She examined the above photos and had this to say about the Chariot "Spider":

I hate to be the one to burst everyone's bubble! Well, this particular arachnid is called a Solphugid. They are close relatives of spiders, just like scorpions and ticks are close relatives of spiders. They can grow very big, so they get a lot of attention for scaring people. But as far as I know they aren't dangerous, because they don't have venom like spiders do. That doesn't mean those mandibles couldn't give you a healthy pinch though!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Purses, shoes, and cars

Batik fabric depicting electric shavers

Hamdallay has its market day on Tuesdays; people come from all over the area to sell and buy "stuff." The market is more or less divided into sections: meat, gum arabic, fabric, house stuff, and vegetables (kind of...). The vendors spread their stuff out on tarps on the sand, underneath wooden hangars that provide some shade; they're tall enough to stand under, usually. Walking through the market was very overwhelming at first: there is a lot of dust, sand, spices, and heat, and people everywhere, and good smells and bad smells, and color all over. Mom, your observation that the women look like bright butterflies is so accurate: they have a bright zane (skirt), a shirt, and a headwrap, plus another bright piece of fabric to tie their baby to their back. In case I haven't said this yet, I LOVE the fabric here!! My favorites so far include:

1. A blue-ish fabric with alka seltzer tablets fizzing in cups of water
2. The birdcage one that I have
3. The commonly seen ones that have everyday items on them: purses, shoes, cars...

It's so funny and entertaining to see women all dressed up in fabric that would be deemed ridiculous in the states. Please promise that if I look too outlandish when this is over, that you will tell me.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A larger sense of humor

It is our lunch break. I try to load up on veggies during meals here, because in the village it's all r.i.c.e. Coming up to the center is getting more and more fun as I make some friends. During breaks we play pingpong, volleyball, and soccer in the sand and wind. (The Harmattan winds don't mess around! They've been blowing for days.) There is a group of 5 of us who live close together in the village, and all of us seem to have a larger sense of humor. I've been laughing a lot, which is a great cure for homesickness (and it appears to be a preventative!) Popular topics include: Nigerien latrines (holes in the ground), social faux pas, the multiple varieties and versions of rice, corn and millet that we eat, and just all of the day-to-day hilarities and embarrassments. For example, yesterday I came to my language teacher to ask about the word "umandaji" which had come up in a conversation with my family. Turns out we had had a whole conversation about giraffes, and I had no idea! I don't even remember what I thought we were talking about!


Last night was a study session, and somehow I was chosen to facilitate it. Weird. It is a cool language. It luckily has a fair amount of structure, so I think once I learn all of the rules and get some vocab, it'll be relatively straightforward to use. Here is my intro:
Sannu! Sunana Samsiya. Ni mutummia Amerika ce, daga Oregon nike. Ni dalibi ce, bisa dutsi.
Hi! My name is Samsiya. I am American. I'm from Oregon. I'm a student on the hill.
Ina de shekard ashirin da biyar; bani da arme. Nwata ukih Amerika sunanta Kerry; babana sunanshi John.
I am 25 years old; I'm not married. My mom in America is named Kerry. My dad is John.
Bani da ya; ina de kanwa da wa; suansu Ben da Christopher.
I don't have any sisters, but I do have brothers. Their names are Ben and Christopher.
Cool, huh? Oh, and: Karenna sunansu Eddy and Reuben. (My dog's names are Eddy & Reuben.)
I have also learned a bazillion greetings (used constantly) and I can say stuff like "Yikes, it's hot," although it isn't too hot yet. At night it's cold. I'm so glad to have my sleeping bag! It heats up in the day, but in the shade it's quite pleasant.


Tonight at dinner I ate I ate a pile of "masara da miya" (corn mush with sauce), and spilled so much stuff on my lap that I had to change my pants. How are you supposed to eat dippy sauce with one hand?? It's a mystery.
Oh, and this afternoon I learned the names of 8 local trees from Muinire (12 years old). Also, he pointed at a naked kid on a roof and I understood his Hausa: "That crazy kid doesn't have any pants!" Note: most structures do not have roofs, and if they do, they are thatch.

How long will the novelty last?

The moon is so bright now that I can write by moonlight. But...I'm not. I am inside my grass hut, laughing to myself about the fact that I'm in Africa. You guys, this place is SO CRAZY. I am totally loving it right now. One week so is as if I have time traveled to another dimension and century. Pretty awesome. How long will the novelty last? Let's hope that I can get another 26 and 1/2 months out of it..., info about NRM stuff: desertification, soil loss, and over-grazing are major problems for Niger. They need to have good soil--or any soil at all--to feed the 13 million people living here. (2-3 million of which are under 15 years old.) NRM PC people do work that falls under 2 categories:
1. Farmer/ student/community/youth environmental education
2. Land rehabilitation/sustainable resource use/small business development

Projects that I am learning about and interested in overlap with agriculture a lot. I do think that NRM will be a good fit for me. NRM PCVs do things like start tree nurseries, do experimental plots to grow anything in rock-hard soil, hold training on making cookstoves, hold enviro camps for schools, build living tree fences around fields, start grain banks, help organize community co-ops...all sorts of stuff. It'll be good.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

PC Training Staff

Suffice it to say that so far they are EXCEPTIONAL: prepared, experienced, direct, and very caring. The country director, an American, came to the training site in Hamdallay yesterday to give out some recognition awards for staff who have been here 5,10, 15 years. The guard, 60-year old Baba, has been here for at least 15 years. I interviewed him today, and learned that he has 2 wives, 8 kids, and he likes helping students (!). The NRM* people (me and 16 others) are under the supervision of Haoua Petite, the Associate Country Director. She's Nigerien, very well-experienced and passionate about her country. She has been very vocal about how relieved she is that we're here, and she emphasizes the good that PC has done for Niger. It's cool to hear that; sometimes I forget about the overall reach of PC and I get consumed by the cross-cultural excitement without remembering the development aspect. In time, I'm sure the "other work" of PC will feel more like "my work."

*Natural Resource Management

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Here is how we eat.

There is a very large platter; we sit around it and eat with our right hands. Kids eat separately, on the sand, out of a big bowl on the ground. Haoua and I, or Aissa and I eat together, sitting on a mat. Most meals are rice with a sauce over it: tomato, onion, garlic, spices, sometimes with a couple of chunks of meat. A few nights a week Arziza (the dad) brings home what looks like a large rat, which they set on the fire: fur and tail and head and all, then roast it. They don't let me eat it, for which I am ever grateful.

My Host Family in Hamdallay

Host family looking at books (& stencils) from a care package sent from home

1/16/08 (Yes, it is out of order!)

I know that by any official standard (or for that matter, unofficial), this is poverty. But when I am living with it, around it, among it, the word "poverty" just doesn't seem relevant. It's beside the point. I mean, who has time to ponder it when there are 8 mouths to feed? I write this kneeling on a woven mat that I got at the market yesterday. It is 7:45 PM, dark; the moon is high and bright, though only half full. I have a kerosene lamp for light; huddled around it and me are three breathing, giggling, curious kids. Ibrahim (3) is quiet, and he follows me all over, greets me after school, loves the soccer ball, rarely wears pants, and is currently laying next to me, alternately watching my face and playing with sand. Aissa (8) is holding Abdi (1). She got her hair braided today and says it hurts her head. She works hard, does the family's laundry, babysits, plays with me, teaches me. She is learning to write and enjoys looking at my books. I love her; she is bright and sweet and doesn't ever let me light my lantern: she does it for me. Haoua, my host mom, is 26 years old. Twenty six!! I am 25! Haoua is beautiful. She, like all the women here, wears fantastically colored skirts, shirts, and head wraps. She wraps Abdi to her back, where he is quiet. (He's been afraid of me until yesterday, and now he smiles instead of cries when he sees me.) Haoua gets up at 6:45, starts a fire to make breakfast and get warm, and spends the day cooking, visiting neighbors, cleaning (ie washing pots), and nursing. She is a patient teacher, although my Hausa is still so poor that it is challenging for me to thank her proportionately for all the help she gives me.
Now, Aissa is approximately 6 inches to my left, looking at my Hausa manual; Ibrahim is at my right elbow watching me write, and Haoua is sitting next to him nursing Abdi. The light from the cooking fire is starting to dim, so everything outside of the glow of my lamp on the sand is dark. I can hear laughter (Nigeriens love to laugh!) and conversation and crickets. During the night I hear Afropop radio, dogs, the occasional donkey (my neighbor has 4, living 25 yards from my hut), and sometimes roosters. It gets remarkably silent at about 3 AM. I think the silence wakes me. I don't mind; it is mysterious and still novel.

Friday, March 7, 2008


Today I ate a fried grasshopper. The flavor was alright, but I couldn't get over the eyeballs.

Can a Hen Eat Sticky Things?

Here are some classic Hausa proverbs:

1. Can a hen eat sticky things? (Yeah,think about THAT!)
2. Food and drink end up in the same place. (True.)
3. He who sells a dwarf knows the price of a short person. ( I love this one.)
4. Anybody who excretes in the shade has to leave it.
(p.s. I have 329 of these.)

Today was especially windy and dusty. I'm learning more about what to expect from the seasons: Nov-March is "cold season" and it does get chilly! It's also very dry and windy when the harmattan winds come down off the Sahara. March to November is "hot season" with the "rainy season" punctuating the months of July/August/September (depending on where you are.) The sun is intense, a very white light, and I am pleased to share that my sunglasses are perfect. I've been wearing them lately.
Bunches of thoughts to share: which are first?

  • I definitely have some awesome new friends whom you will love when you meet them. We practice Hausa together, take each other food and medicine when one is sick (so far that's been me...), and play cards at our huts a few nights a week. I hope that I am placed close to at least one of them; they will become increasingly precious as times get hard.
  • The diet is generally poor, very heavy on the starches, & devoid of fruits or veggies, at least this time of year ( which doesn't make sense: in the PC gardens there is lots growing.) I've already cracked into my food bank; the diced fruit and tuna hit the spot! I'll have to grow veggies.
  • Today I started my first ever tree nursery! We've been doing lots of tree ID. I think I have 15 or 20 species to learn this week. Can you believe that: in the desert? I also get to collect my own seeds and plant them. Today I planted 40 little seeds into plastic bags. I chose 7 or 8 kinds to test; my favorite is the baobab because its name is fun AND it has an edible, yummy, white fruit.
  • A note on plastic bags: they are the landscape of this country. Black bags, clear bags, white bags; they cover the ground everywhere, are caught on every imaginable twig, rock, edge, and surface, the roads, the trees, the bushes. It was the first thing I noticed here. People buy everything in these lightweight, flimsy, small plastic bags: a 1/4 cup of sugar on the corner, a couple pieces of garlic, etc. There is no garbage area, and everything gets tossed right next to you. I don't have any choice but to do it; there is simply no designated place for trash. It feels so wrong to's been ingrained in me to carry my recyclables to the curb...aaaaahhh! I'll get over it and you'll have to retrain me.
  • Dust is also everywhere. When I get home each day, all of the contents in my hut have a layer of dust on them. It makes it seem like I've been away for months when it's only been a day. The wind blows the dust in through the walls and roof. Most volunteers have perpetually runny noses.
  • I moved my bed inside, thinking I might get better sleep. So far it is working; it is marginally quieter. But I do miss the stars: they are magnificent.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Jessica and all of the other trainees went on a "demystification weekend," spending a few nights with a volunteer at their home site. The volunteer kindly loaned Jessica the use of her phone. This letter was written a few days after that conversation:

Hello again!
Can you believe that this is the 1st real chance I've had to write to you in days?They keep us busy here--it's a bit much, really. But it's okay. I'm learning a lot, most of the time, until I get too full of new words that my brain drops everything. The big news is= I got to talk to you! That was SO cool-- I was exhilarated for hours. I'm so glad you were home! It surprised me that I didn't cry the minute I heard your voices--it was just so wonderful that I could just smile. Interestingly enough, 21/2 hours after our conversation, at 11:30 PM I was visited by my second bout of bacteria, which was much worse in terms of volume than my 1st time. After 9 hours on the squat latrine, a Peace Corps "ambulance" picked me up & took me to the regional hostel where I got more meds. And now I'm fine! Peachy. Did you know that Niger has the highest rate of diarrhea among PCVs in the world? Shiiiit...they should tell you these things before you sign up...
Also: after demyst I returned to Hamdallye to find that the skinny guard dog that my family owns was PREGNANT!! She had 3 puppies over the weekend. There is just one now--I didn't ask too many questions, but I since learned that the other two were killed by my host dad, presumably because they're too expensive to feed . There is no extra food around here--I'm amazed they even let the pup live. If my language gets good enough soon, I'll try to find out what their plan is--because it's all so serendipitous that I should overlap with a puppy. Really. Alright it's bedtime. (p.s. Please tell Grandpa HAPPY BIRTHDAY when you get this, even though it'll be weeks late. 90!!)

We'll start with the second letter.

Jessica's very first letter from Niger was sent during the second week of January, but sadly it never arrived. Then we received a classic Peace Corps letter telling us of her first bout of illness, of which she concludes:

...WOW! And you know, not all of it was awful. Lots of people visited me and made me laugh & laughed at me & put cold wet towels on my head. Plus I got to watch some "tv" on Jennifer's iPod which she left with me overnight, and I ended up sleeping for SIX straight hours, which is approximately 3x longer than I have slept since I got here. The infirmary had a blessed absence of donkeys, radios, & howling dogs, thus I had peace & quiet. Anyway, I am on FIVE medications now, & I think I'm on the mend. Needless to say, your letters helped a lot!
Last night I dreamed Eddy and Reuben (the family dogs) were kissing my face! It was so sweet. I've had several dreams in which I am preparing to leave for Niger--you two are usually in them helping me get ready. Then I wake up & I'm here, and its all a bit disorienting. Sometimes I get confused in the middle of the night--like "How did I get here so fast, and when did I decide to do this, and why?" It's that last question that gets confusing, especially when I am exhausted from being in class all day and around people nearly constantly. I've found time for myself occasionally alone, but not enough-mostly just on runs (which are a mere 20 minutes because it's hot/dry/windy/dusty), and at night after dinner, which is when I write to you.