Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dust storm

A red-orange storm
(For best results, click on the picture and let it fill your screen!)
Jessica has spent the past 3 weeks in Hamdallaye at a Peace Corps training session; part of the time was shared with the volunteers' counterparts who all traveled in from their villages for a few days. On May 20 there was a huge dust storm, followed by rain. There was a mad dash to drag mattresses inside, and it looks like everybody was blasted with wind, sand and then rain. Quite a sight! Thanks to volunteer Jody K for the above photo.

Jessica, Angie, and Jen experiencing the dust storm to the fullest degree

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Inside Jessica's hut

I've gotten off track. Mornings. After I greet people for one or two hours, or three, depending on how hot it is, I come home to my compound, usually around ten or eleven. It's starting to heat up around now, but it's still nice enough to get things done. I'll wash clothes, sweep sand (always a chore), get out veggies for drying, wash clothes, pull water from the well. And then it's midday, and the only thing to do now is to make it through the heat, which is white light, and brightly, hotly, windily, parching. Sometimes it is humid, which is worse.

Things I do between twelve and two PM include: study, sweat, nap, eat, write, sweat, crosswords, stare into space, watch my pigeon preen in the shade, read letters over and over, drink water...It's not that bad, honestly. Yet. It will get much hotter soon, and I'll look back on this and think I was such a sissy!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The elders

N'arba and grandchildren grinding berries

There is another section of the population you might be curious about: the elders. These people are among my favorites. The life expectancy in Niger is not very high--I forget--is it even as high as fifty? So there aren't a lot of older men or women. However, there are many senior citizens in my village who, in my eyes, may be experiencing their happiest and freest years. Take N'arba, for example, my daily companion and adoptive parent who accompanies/leads me in my rounds. She is close to seventy; her kids are grown, her husband passed away. For the first time in her life she has the freedom to walk around the village whenever she wants. She can mouth off to everyone, men included. People listen to her, her family feeds her...she is living it up. It is so cool to walk behind her and imagine what it would've been like to follow her around twenty, forty, sixty years ago.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I know this picture is blurry and gray, but I love it. A group of sweet, enthusiastic boys helped me clear the remains of an old shade hangar one evening, just before sunset. They ran back and forth, all of them flushed with the excitement of helping.

You might wonder: what about the kids? There are a lot of those. Some of them go to school for a couple of hours a day (mostly boys), but a lot of them play and goof around with neighbors and friends. There are no structured "activities" outside of school for kids in my village. The end result is that kids are able to entertain themselves for YEARS with little more than a companion, and perhaps a can or stick. They make awesome toys out of used tomato paste cans: at night I can hear them racing down the street with their little metal "ponies."

Friday, May 23, 2008


Playing soccer in Niger, with a ball from Oregon


When I brought out the soccer ball, the one I bought at Big Five, a crowd of men quickly gathered and feverishly cleared away bushes and scrub brush. They cleared a soccer field! Then they played and played and played. I gave the ball over to Ibrahim, my neighbor, who is now in charge of it. They play every evening, with a crowd of young boys watching the older guys.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


It's different for the men, at least for now, because it's not farming season yet. Men have a completely different routine, and it does not overlap with the women's at all, except when sleeping. Men's schedules revolve largely around prayer times-which are 5AM, 2PM, 4PM, 7PM, and 8PM. In the mornings, from 6AM on, they sit in the shade along the paths of the town, sometimes alone, but normally in large groups. You'll find the same guys in the same places, making tea (the exception to "men don't cook in Niger"), playing cards, and listening to the radio.

A lot of the men are on Exxode right now, meaning they have left the villages for work in more "prosperous" countries: Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana...I'm told that they will start to return soon, pre-rainy season, to get their fields ready for planting. When that happens, I anticipate things becoming a bit louder and busier, and I bet there won't be so many dudes hanging out.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Morning circuit

Teen girls visiting Jessica's compound, in the shade of the hangar

I have a common "circuit" that I walk most mornings. I visit a few women at their homes almost every day, people I feel particularly drawn to
for one reason or another. There is Fati and her daughter Sahara, both of whom I adore. I came across them by chance the first time I visited the village in February; I had walked to the edge of the village and was trying to meet as many people as I could handle. As soon as I walked into their compound and saw them, I knew we would be friends. Fati is probably in her 40s; Sahara is in her teens, and they find it hilarious and wonderful that I am here. No matter what, I know I can go there and and smile with them. I also visit Karima, because she seems like a sort of powerful matriarch-type person; she sells goro nuts (kola nuts to you?) .

To provide a little conte
xt to all of this: under Islamic law a man can have up to four wives. I believe most, if not all, men in my village have two or more wives. During day time, most women (ages17+) are within the family compound, working. Each woman has her own hut for her and her kids. Younger girls and teen girls leave frequently throughout the day to get water-you'll always see them coming and going-but for the most part you won't see women hanging out in public spaces. In the hottest part of the day, the women do congregate with their friends in the shade for a few hours, but really they are without much "free time."

Friday, May 16, 2008

On TV!

This footage, a little blurry, was taken at the Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony in Niamey, March 15, 2008, and broadcast on Nigerien TV. It is about a minute and a half long, and towards the end there is an interview with Jessica, speaking her newly-acquired language, Hausa.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Women here are hard-core; they pull water from the wells (which I do for myself because it's fun/hard/a good place to chat with women) and then carry it on their heads home. I do not carry it on my head because-oh my god-do you know how heavy a bucket of water is? It's got to be 200 lbs or something; I swear I'd do it if I could, but I simply can't. Instead, I carry my buckets by hand, and as a result, instead of looking really, cool and strong and straight-backed, I look really spill-y, and waddle-y and wet. Sigh.

Women also give birth to 5+ children, walk for miles to get firewood to burn to cook 2+ meals a day, and still find the time to laugh and joke and welcome weakling girls into the fold with open arms and exclamations of gratitude. It's remarkable.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pounding millet

NYT photo

In the morning, women are really busy pounding millet or other grains to cook for the day. "Pounding millet" is a really literal term that could also be described as "using every muscle in one's body to lift a really heavy pounding stick straight up and beat the heck out of grains in a wooden bowl-thing, the end result being women with callouses the size of mushrooms, and men with full bellies."
People ask me all the time if I am able to pound millet, and the answer is "kind of."
I try to help my neighbors and take a turn at it, but the reality is that I suck at it and I always end up getting blisters and really sore shoulders. So, by the end of two years I should be wickedly strong. You can pretty much hear the sound of millet being pounded (thump! thump!) all day long, and into the evening.

Morning greetings

After I eat breakfast I head out into the village to talk to people, and visit them, and see what's up. Morning greetings are really fun, and I like to make them last a long time. Typical sequence: "Congrats and greetings on being awake! How did you sleep? Did you wake up healthy? Are you healthy? How did the people in your family sleep? Are they healthy? How's your tiredness? How's life on earth? How is work?" Etc., etc. One question they asked me a lot my first few weeks was "How is the life of a stranger?" To which the appropriate reply is "God have mercy," which is my favorite response because:
1. The word is Arabic and fun to say: "Allhumdililahi."
2. "God have mercy" is not something I would ever say at home, so it's neat to put it out there.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

So hot that you could...

In a recent phone conversation with Jessica, she said that she had decided to test the urban myth regarding frying eggs on sidewalks. Since the start of "hot season" in Niger, temperatures have been in the 100°+ range every day, so it seemed like a good opportunity. She chose what looked like a "bad egg" and put it on the hard dirt. She reported: "The crazy thing is that it didn't even take that long!"

According to the American Egg Board, temperatures need to reach at least 144°-158°F in order for an egg to cook. "A sidewalk would have to be awfully hot to fry an egg," the AEB concludes. Oh, and also, May is National Egg Month.

Friday, May 9, 2008


I make myself breakfast, and because my grandpa is AWESOME, I have lots of delicious dried fruit to eat it with. Nigeriens eat breakfast too ( that was a funny statement, wasn't it? But hey, who knew?) Normally they will eat leftovers from the night before: millet with sauce, or a drink called hura (millet with milk and sugar), or on special occasions, fried flour with sauce or sugar (think donuts!) called fanke, or fried bean balls with sauce, called sosay. I like fanke and sosay, but haven't had hura because I'm not supposed to have milk due to the presence of TB.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Morning run

Some mornings I get up and go for a run. That was another, earlier wonder of mine: would I be able to run here? Geographically? Culturally? Happily, yes! There's a laterite road that is not too sandy, and perfect for running!
It's coolest in the morning, so I'll take off either north, towards a mesa with a view, or south (no mesa, flat, still a view). People are used to seeing me run now; they understand I do it to keep my body strong. It's true enough that running in general is unusual here outside of soccer games. People simply don't do it, not for sport (they have enough physical work to do that running in free time is a ridiculous notion), and not for the sake of getting somewhere quickly. I saw a guy running in a different village a month or so ago, and I stopped in my tracks: what was he doing?? Well, it happened that he is that village's "crazy man" and he does taboo stuff, like run around from place to place. So. You see, running is not a hobby, except for me and that man.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


I sleep outside, underneath a yellow mosquito net, on top of a foam mattress, on top of a bed made out of millet stalks, on top of clay bricks made from the bottom of a nearby seasonal lake. I wake up around 6 most mornings—I think it’s often a combination of the light and the morning sounds that start around that time (women pounding millet or talking at the well). Other, earlier morning sounds—the 5am prayer call, roosters, cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, etc.—wake me up too, but not as decisively as sunlight.
I usually spend about thirty minutes lying there, coming alive, reminding myself where I am, and thanking God/Allah/Goddess/Whoever Invented Water Filters for getting me through another night without sickness. Seriously, every morning that I wake up healthy, I feel extremely grateful. That is one thing—health—that is on my mind much more often than ever before. This is no place to be sick, not for anyone.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Idle time

Niger landscape

I remember being anxious about having excess “idle time” here—it was hard to imagine what exactly I would do all day, given my budding language skills and the time of year (it’s hot season, and there’s no rain yet, so there’s not much (any) planting going on…). But, on the contrary, I’ve found that there is plenty to do—both out and about with people in the village, and on my own in my concession. Of course, time does pass differently here, and there are afternoons that seem endless…but I am beginning to treasure this time. When else can I begin to understand everything that is happening around me/to me/within me? It is as if I could spend all day in the shade, drinking a theoretical raspberry lemonade, and solely watching the movements of the village, and still I would be exhausted by evening. Things are that different/stimulating/complex. Or perhaps complex isn’t the right word…it’s mostly just the different-ness. And of course, I don’t spend all day on my bum, so my mind and body are getting a pretty solid workout. I know you are curious about the day to day things –what do I eat? What do I wear? Who am I with? And I want to answer all of these questions (they are, after all, what makes up the differences), so I will start now…keep in mind, though, that I have only been in this village for a few weeks, and that my semi-routines are sure to change with the weather, with my language acquisition, and with my increasing sense of belonging here…

Sunday, May 4, 2008


4/4/2008 OH I AM EXHILARATED. And this time, it is not because of newness or discovery or achievement. It is because of things so beloved and important to me—it is because yesterday, a car came to my village with ten letters for me, me, Jessica, my American name written out on all of them in the familiar, precious script of friends and family. I still cannot believe it, the impossibility of getting mail here, overcome! Tenfold! And to add to the excitement, I’d gone to the market in Badagishiri that morning, so my table was overflowing with: 2 cabbages, 5 tomatoes, 1 bag of dates, 8 red onions, 9 carrots, and 2 little bags of candy (which looks like pieces of white chalk but tastes like a circus).

SO: not only is my belly well fed, but my heart and my spirits are soaring. Here is how I dealt with my unimaginable good fortune: I divided the mail to allow myself 1 letter per day, to be read in the order they were postmarked, in the hopes that perhaps in 10 days I might be able to get mail again (wishing makes it so, right? Bothun taught me that). Alas, my plan did not get executed so neatly…I just got so very HAPPY about everything that I ended up reading 3 letters right away…but then I was distracted (good!) by the 3 volunteers visiting me. Then: a variety of things happened and it became night, and oh man am I in trouble because last night was So Hot. I was just laying there, sweating a shadow of myself onto my sheet, limply considering things like swimming, skiing, sailing…and remember, I had guests---3 of them---and as I lay there in a puddle I wondered “Are they sleeping? Are they hot?” I tried whispering their names, but in my dehydrated semi-conscious state my voice was not very loud…so I just kind of hung out all night, alone in my mosquito net, sweating…until 4am when John stumbled out of his sweat lodge, at which point I was elated to be sharing misery. We had a brief conference in which we concurred that yes, holy &@% it was hot. And then I think we each felt even better, because we’d confirmed our individual sanities.

SO ANYWAY—back to my favorite topic, mail: Given my sleep-deprived state, by noon the next day I was a bit of a mess, and my friends left to beat the midday heat, and I was feeling a bit needy (and hot), so I opened the rest of the letters and read each one at least twice and cried all over (happy!) and tried to take a nap but couldn’t, so I read them all again and cried a bit more, because I LOVE YOU GUYS! And then N'arba came over to take me to a baby naming ceremony, so I got up to go, and she said matter-of-factly: “But you can’t go like that because you look dirty”. Great. So I changed my skirt and off we went….

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sock monkeys

Geronimo, the afore-mentioned sock monkey, was the pure delight of five teen-aged girls at my home yesterday. As promised, I showed them how to make their very own. Although, of course, they are sans-socks, because who would wear such things in 130 degree heat? So the village's first generation of "sock" monkeys is in the works. We are using old pieces of fabric, bright, dashing, and perfect.

Painting by Brenda Young