Sunday, June 29, 2008


For a good book list on Niger and the Peace Corps experience, check this out. From this list I (mom, here) have read Riding the Demon, and if you don't want to know just how scary African bush taxis can be, then you shouldn't read this book. (Author Peter Chilson has written other works rooted in his PC Niger past, and I think they are a little scary too.) Also sitting on my desk is the novel Still Waters in Niger, which was a New York Times Notable Book in 1999, and I am hoping that it will be good.
John and I both really liked Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman, and although it takes place in the Ivory Coast, not Niger, it was a very well-written representation of the Peace Corps experience in West Africa. A neighbor (thank you Peggy!) recently loaned us Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway, which is a wonderful chronicle of a very special relationship between a PCV and her mid-wife colleague, Monique, in Mali.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Slide show 1/08-5/08

Some of these photos will look familiar, but others you haven't seen yet. Thanks to Jody K for most of the dust storm pics and the swear-in photos.
View Album

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Cholesteric Phase Transition of the First Order (what you get when you type "transition" into Google images)

So today is Tuesday, and it has been exactly four weeks since I moved in. Somewhere along the way I think that I transitioned from feeling "Whoa, this is what my life is going to be like" to "Hey, this is my life!" Things feel more comfortable; it's nice to come home after an interaction, and instead of feeling extremely giddy and hyped-up about the incredibility of it all, I feel calm, glad, understood. The giddiness of being here is still frequent, all the time, almost; but it is tempered by a developing sense of competency. I can see the opportunities to be very content, productive, involved. That is important, just to know that they are there. People have so much going on: they are really tireless in their work, and I am enjoying this chance to join them.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Care package ideas & tips

A can of sausages

Honey mustard

Chelsea And Jessica in the Konni hostel

Rad Care Package Ideas (updated 10/23/09)

Dried fruit
Dried veggies
Dried eggs
Nuts, trail mix, anything crunchy
Jerky (SlimJims are good, too; take'em out of their box & tuck into corners of the care pkg)
Cereal (Cheerios, Chex, Granola, Grape Nuts...)
Spices, sauce mixes (see below), soy sauce, Thai boxed foods, Indian spices, HOT SAUCE
A big thing of seasoned salt (we salt our food, then sweat it all out)
Mustard, honey mustard!
Parmesan cheese (or other nonrefrigerated cheese)
Cheeses like they sell at Xmas, which don't need refrigeration
Packaged tuna (or cans, which can be re-used here)
Packaged chicken
Real bacon bits
Packaged meat in general (although I'd caution about the waste thing-- the tuna packages don't burn very well, so they're a bit troublesome to dispose of...)
Dried faux-meat (This stuff is surprisingly good)
Coffee (a BIG one with coffee drinkers-- you can't get it here. just nescafe)
Things to flavor water (powdered drinks) CrystalLight individ packets fit in corners of pkg
Emergen-cee (immunity boosting supplement)
Underwear (cotton)
Anti-itch products (Aveeno, cortisone, anything for heat rash/bug bites)
Batteries (AAAs power most headlamps)
Wind-up flashlight that doesn't use batteries is a good gift
Magazines w/news of pop culture in US (trashy zines we would never usually read)
Children's picture books
Movies (all hostels have dvd players)
Music (some folks have laptops and can transfer songs on to others' iPods for them)
Peanut m&ms (regular m&ms are great too)
'Just add water' cookie mixes (I've personally never heard of this, but someone here swears by them)
Peat pellets for starting seeds
Seeds that will grow in a hot climate (tomato, eggplant, collards, cucumber, beans, peppers, melons: seeds can be hard to find in Niger, and quite expensive)
Memory card for camera (of course you have to know what model the camera is. An extra card is nice b/c it makes it possible to take some video footage, and maybe even send it home)
US stamps that can be put on letters that are mailed by people coming back

Don't worry about the "import taxes" that you may have read about on some blogs, quoting erroneous information about ridiculous amounts of money that volunteers might have to pay when claiming their packages. The duty I have had to pay has never amounted to more than the equivalent of 2 US dollars. Sooo worth it.

Several volunteers collaborated to make the above list; it might be of special interest to families and friends of new volunteers. I (mom) added the dried eggs because eggs are hard to find where J lives, and they are such good protein for a great price (80 eggs for $10). Other big hits in the packages I have sent include the small items that she used to like to "borrow" from my desk: glue, tape, pencil sharpener, paper. I sent an inflatable beach ball world globe (cheap from eBay), a children's French picture dictionary (Usborne), a Unicef children's book with great photos (Children Just Like Me), books with farm animals, a Hausa dictionary, a book of n. hemisphere star constellations, and a map of Niger. Jelly bellies survived the hot trip, as did an outdoor thermometer. Graham cracker and Oreo pie crusts (plus instant pudding mix) were a nice surprise; acidophilus was an early request. Knorr's Pesto sauce, taco seasoning, soy sauce, and Indian sauce mixes made the trip. ( I found soy sauce in a plastic bottle, but anything that might break or leak should be put in a sturdy zip lock baggie.) And what a great place to which I can happily send stacks of National Geographic.

Cheapest way to send a package: get a Flat Rate box free from the post office: there are 2 sizes that you can send for $41.95; there is a larger size costing $53.95. They can weigh up to 20 pounds. No such thing as "surface mail" anymore. Be sure to get the right customs form for it, declaring things in a general, uninteresting way, "school supplies" for example, so that it will be unlikely to be tampered with.

How long does it take to get a package to Niger? To Peace Corps Niamey addresses it seems to take a bit longer than to some of the outlying regions. It takes, on average, 3 weeks for a package to get to Konni. Then the volunteer has to pick it up. Allow one month.

Things NOT to send: peanut butter, rice, elbow macaroni, anything made out of millet. No sunscreen (provided by PC)

Care packages are really really really appreciated by PC Niger volunteers. Thank you to those of you who have sent packages!!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Oh, the beans

Sampler from Harmony House Foods

I can't thank you enough for sending the delicious dried vegetables!! YUM! You went to town, and I am the lucky eater. So far I have tried and loved the spinach, peas, and cheese powder: Wow! It turns into an Alfredo-like sauce; need I say more? I'm really excited to try the meat substitutes; in an earlier packet you sent taco seasoning, so I'm going to use the "beefish" stuff to make TACOS. Oh. Man. It's so fun to watch the dried bits turn into delectable goodness...and the beans...oh, the beans...they'll be so good...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sunday mornings

I decided to designate Sunday mornings as my own time for observing the Spiritual Side of Things, so I have that time to myself without interruption. I gave it a test run last week; it was kind of hard, actually, because my normal mentality is that I should get out of my concession, but I think that having time free of social obligations will ultimately be very good. This week I used it to read Mary Oliver poems, write part of this letter, write my own poetry, and do my version of yoga. My villagers seem very happy that I do this; I wonder if they wondered when I pray.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fly repellent

The plastic baggie filled with water that I have hung over my door does seem to be WORKING! I think it's keeping flies out!! Oh my god! This could change everything!! Mom, you're a genius; please tell the fish and chips place that Africa will never be the same once this catches on.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Laughfest #3

Women pounding millet: batik cloth

The third full-belly happy-fest was also at my expense (they all are when it boils down to it, but I can deal...), and it was shared with N'arba and various other villagers. See, I decided to get some pounding equipment made: the traditional really heavy pounding stick and bowl (think of it as a giant mortar and pestle). The guy who chops them out of wood made one for me, and N'arba and I went to pick it up one afternoon. As we carried it back to my home (I held the stick and N'arba held the bowl on her head), inevitably we drew a lot of attention. Everyone bugs me about pounding millet, and it was exciting, I'm sure, to see that I had turned over a new leaf. So anyway, the question that was asked over and over was "What are you going to pound?" And my answer was never millet, because I'm probably not going to pound millet; it was one of a handful of other foods that one also pounds (hot peppers to make, duh, pepper for example). In particular I plan on pounding kulikuli, a hard brown ball of pure protein that I think is peanut resin (not sure). Anyway, something about the way I say kulikuli brought N'arba-and everyone else that we passed-to tears of laughter; or maybe it is the fact that kulikuli isn't really that hard, and may not need to be pounded... I shared the glee with her all the way home, a veritable trail of laughter leading right to my door. Priceless.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Laughtfest #2

The second big gale of funniness was with this old guy, whom I don't even know that well, and I don't know his name, but he reminds me of old Uncle Dick. He always makes me want to giggle. Part of it is because he looks kind of silly: he wears big sunglasses and a red-checkered turban, and he's always grinning all sneaky-like. Whenever he sees me he acts surprised and does a little jump, and asks me if I'm married yet. Last time I saw him I told him he was full of trickiness, and it sent him into a crippling fit of laughter, which was contagious.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Laughfest #1

I shared three very special and awesome-feeling laughter fests with people here this week. It felt like the first real, genuine, out-of-breath laughter that I'd had here. It was GREAT! One was in my hut with N'arba, over something simple regarding my Hausa. She and I just cracked up because I so clearly didn't know what I was saying; ironically the word really is real; it's in my dictionary and it's supposed to mean PEANUT BUTTER, but according to N'arba, that is not true. Instead, it is hysterical. So, I learned a different, less funny word for peanut butter. Which I can buy, freshly pounded, in Konni.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A tough week

This week, namely the last five days, has probably been the toughest so far. And truthfully it has not been that "bad" by any means. On the contrary. I've had so many more positive interactions and discoveries, and even some mini-achievements in Hausa. What do I mean when I say tough...maybe what I mean is that I am feeling a lot of things and when they're blended together they put me in uncharted emotional territory. Much (most?) of what I'm feeling I have never felt before, so upon reflection, it has been a "tough" week. Not like something rotten, but something really chewy, that you have to really gnaw on before you figure out exactly what it is you're tasting. There, that's it! Do you understand?

One of the highlights of this week: Two of the school teachers and I have informally established a "Teach Jessica Hausa" meeting time in the afternoons, after the 4 PM prayer. We sit on chairs in the shade, and I ask them questions; they are so eager to help, it's really nice. Yesterday I was pooped though, and I got frustrated because I could not explain my question well enough, and we kept going in circles....AAAHHH...I could tell I was going to cry, so I had to leave...but I got it together (yay!) and went back a few minutes later. We never did figure out the answer to my question...but... c'est la vie.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Other afternoons

One of two friends named Rabi, holding a little cousin

Often I will hang out with some younger women at my home. This is one of the only times I have visitors, aside from N'arba, of course. Rabi and Rabi, who are probably around seventeen but not married yet, have been coming over, and I really enjoy and appreciate their company. They are curious and kind. It's nice to have time with females a little closer to my age. In many ways our lives are more similar than mine is to a 25 year old Nigerien woman, who most likely is married with three kids already. The Rabis and I have been looking at books and magazines together, braiding hair, making dolls, and talking.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008



At around two or three I have been joining a group of guys, the men on the corner by my home, to play cards. It's too hot to do much else, and most of the time I enjoy their company a lot. They are patient with my Hausa; they are more understanding than the women when it comes to speaking a second language (probably because they experience it themselves when they go on Exxode, and because more of them attended school and learned some French.) Women do not play cards here--Nigerien women--but as a foreigner I am party to both men's and women's worlds. It means that I assume a sort of asexual, borderline gender role, which I think is pretty cool, and a real advantage.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Packing list for new volunteers

Several of the volunteers in Jessica's stage are re-vamping the PC packing list. For readers of this blog who may be going to Niger in July, here is the new list, so far:

Clothing stuff:
Chaco flip flops (PCVs live in flip flops. Nigeriens live in flip flops. You can buy them everywhere here, but apparently Chaco ones are super popular items b/c they're sturdy. fyi: if you wait till you get your PCV ID card, you can send it home & get a discount from Chaco.)
Jeans (nice for cold season)
Running clothes (lightweight cotton pants! not shorts! never shorts! they lied on the packing list and said we could wear shorts for sports-- not true)
Jewelry (fine to wear here)
Long skirts, light weight, NOT white
Rain jacket
NOT hiking shoes
Sunglasses (the ones here are cheap & scratch easily)

Techno stuff:
Solio Charger (for phones, ipods etc) (Tip: pink one is cheaper)
Ipod speakers (battery powered)
ipod (as opposed to cd player)
Digital camera (this Olympus is practical for this climate, dust-proof)
Laptop (a few cities have wireless internet...i dunno if i'd bring one personally, but those who have them are very popular)

Toiletry stuff:
Contacts are FINE; but you should have glasses, too
Contact solution
Deodorant, toothpaste if you are picky
Conditioner! can't get it here apparently
Waxed floss if you floss
They have tampons, sunscreen, and bugspray here (we were led to believe they didn't)
Instead of using tampons/pads (remember: there's a waste problem), think about a divacup
Electric (battery) razor- one guy LOVES his
Ear plugs

Kitchen stuff:
Good knives
Knife sharpener
Can opener

Combination locks (2)
Bug tent: a nice option for when you are traveling, or have visitors; not crucial though
Pillow (the ones here are pretty bad)
Sleeping bag, definitely
Headlamp (extra batteries, too)
Pens (not the clicky kind! they jam with sand)
Snacks for during training
Battery-powered spray bottle fan (genius)
US stamps (to send letters home with friends who go on vacation)
Stationary is fun

Below is Tim & Jolene's list. If you google "Tim Jolene Packing List" you will also see a few paragraphs giving you some advice, the best being "there is no perfect packing list."
Anyway, this list will show you that a few items that have recently been removed from the official list; tank tops, for example cannot be worn in public, may want to pack one/two to wear in the confines of a hostel, or just to sleep in:

General Clothing
• Water- resistant windbreaker
• Ten or so pairs of cotton underwear
• Three to five cotton T-shirts or tank tops (white not recommended). PLEASE NOTE that tank tops have been removed from the packing list!
• Two or three dress shirts (but avoid white dress shirts)
• One or two pairs of shorts for sports (but note that shorts are not normally worn by men or women in public)
• Two or three pairs of lightweight, loose-fitting cotton pants (tailors can duplicate them), the darker the better
• Two or three skirts for women (short skirts are inappropriate so look for below knee length or longer, and pockets are handy)
• One sweater/sweatshirt (fleece)
• No more than three or four pairs of cotton socks and you can probably get away with only one pair (not white due to dust)
• One dressy outfits for official functions, e.g., good-looking dress or pants and a collared shirt (tie very optional); do not bring anything that needs dry cleaning
• Belts (for when your clothes no longer fit you as you’ll probably lose weight)
• One or two brimmed hats or baseball caps
• One pair of jeans
• Swimsuit (sometimes a pool may be available)

• One pair of sturdy sandals (e.g., Tevas, Birkenstocks, Chacos)
• One pair of tennis shoes
• One pair of dress shoes for official functions (e.g., loafers or boat shoes for men and nice sandals for women); if your sandals are nice enough they will be fine in most official functions
Note: Sand, dust, rain, mud, and mildew are prevalent in Niger, so you may want to waterproof or otherwise protect much of your clothing and footwear.

Personal Hygiene and Toiletry Items
• Thin, lightweight towel
• Nail clippers and nail file
• Good pair of scissors (for hair cutting and other things)
• Two pairs of prescription glasses, if you wear them, and maybe one tinted pair with sturdy cases.
• Three-month supply of any prescription medication you take (including birth control pills)
• Facial astringent/Face wipes (only if you prefer a specific brand)
• Special soaps and hair conditioners
• Two-month supply of shampoo for training
• Earplugs
• Toothpaste (only if you want your favorite brand, as it can be purchased in Niger)
• Two pairs of dark sunglasses (locally available sunglasses may not have UV protection) with a sturdy case
• Razor and blades (if you are partial to a certain type—you can purchase Bic razors locally)
• Tampons (three-month supply), only if you prefer a certain brand (some but not all brands are available in Niger)

• Swiss army knife or Leatherman with can opener, bottle opener, blade, corkscrew (do NOT pack this in your carry on bag)
• Sturdy water bottles (e.g., Nalgene) or canteens; two quart size is ideal (small-mouth bottle easier to drink out of while traveling)
• Spices for cooking (e.g., cinnamon, oregano, basil, curry powder); most can be purchased in Niger
• Dry sauce mixes and instant drink mixes (a nice treat)
• Small and large plastic food storage (zip-lock) bags (there are lots of plastic bags in Niger but not many zip-lock ones)
• Hard candies (note that chocolate melts, except for peanut M&M’s)
• Plastic containers (to protect a camera, tapes, and food)
• Dried fruit/granola/energy bars
• Jerky and/or tuna in a pouch
• Pudding
Note that Peace Corps/Niger has a cookbook specific to cooking in Niger. Also almost any food you want can be sent from home.

• Sleeping bag (very light, highly compactable one is best)
• Pillow (optional)
• Combination lock (key locks available locally)
• Sturdy but inexpensive waterproof watch
• A sturdy day pack or fanny pack
• Batteries for anything electronic that you bring
• Solar battery recharger (note that it is usually easier to just buy new batteries and battery rechargers can burn out from the heat)
• Alarm clock
• Backpack—internal frame, well constructed (not too large)
• U.S. and world maps
• Paperbacks (there are many at the Peace Corps office, but recent releases make good additions)
• Games (e.g., deck of cards, chess, checkers, Othello, Frisbee, backgammon); many are available in the transit houses
• Photos of family, friends, and scenery (a great way to get to know people)
• Musical instruments
• Materials for hobbies and crafts (you will have more free time and fewer distractions)
• Calendars, holiday cards, thank-you notes, stationery, address book, good writing pens
• U.S. driver’s license (for travel outside Niger)
• Credit cards (for travel outside of Niger)
• Padded envelopes for sending items home (like film)
• Twelve to 20 ID photos (for visas and other forms; photo-booth quality is OK, though this can be done in Niger )
• Duct tape
• Cassette recorder,Walkman, iPod, or MP3 player
• Your favorite music and blank cassettes (CDs will get scratched)
• Shortwave radio (for BBC and Voice of America news broadcasts; inexpensive ones can be purchased in Niamey)
• Flashlight or headlamp and spare bulbs (also available in Niger)
• Self-adhesive U.S. stamps for mailing letters with people traveling to the United States
• Camera with a dustproof case (smaller is better as it is more inconspicuous), including digital equipment to download to a computer
• USB sticks (highly recommended since you will share computers and therefore run the risk of losing information stored directly on the shared computers)
• Your favorite movie on DVD or VHS (You will have access to a TV sometimes)