Thursday, July 31, 2008

A cabbage, and more

On Tuesday I left the village at 6:30AM on my new stallion, a brand spanking new red and white Trek bicycle. We handled the 22K to Illela in style; it took two hours! Lots of bumps, a few sandy patches, and thankfully, no close calls with trucks overflowing with people en route to market. John joined me where the road passes his village; we arrived in high style, and spent the day rehydrating, eating street food, and buying "groceries" for the week. For me: a cabbage, two mangoes, carrots, dates, two eggplants, and a little pile of sweet potatoes. I didn't expect to have so many veggies this time of year; it was such a relief. I strapped my wares on the back of my bike and bumped my way back home over the hills. I arrived in my village just before sunset to a crowd of kids. "Samsiye, you came back!" So happy.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A comfort

Photo of Orion by M. Williams
Permission granted

Man, using the "Beefish Bits," black beans, and taco seasoning that you sent, I celebrated Cinco de Mayo in Niger. I even put on some Buena Vista Social Club to add more Latin flavor. And right now I am enjoying some limeade, courtesy of a small, perfect lime I bought at the market, and a spoonful of sugar.
It's really a beautiful day today; the sky was so clear last night, no dusty shield between us and the stars. I have been tracking Orion's progress as he dips closer to the western horizon. It was a comfort to find familiar constellations here. And now that I see so much of the sky, maybe I'll learn some new ones.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Enough water

Village women pulling water

Drip...drip...drrrip...that's the sound of my sweat falling--after a long and languorous slide from my brow to my cheek--from my chin to my chest. Music to my ears. It means I'm drinking enough water!

So many families are repairing their homes with newly mixed clay that the well I pull my water from is emptying out! When someone's house is getting re-done, girls line up to carry water from the well to the house, where the men mix up the clay by walking--squelch squelch--around on big mounds of millet chaff/water/mud/manure/sand. The wells get noticeably lower after a mud-mixing party, and my water-pulling device ( a rubber bucket tied to the end of a long strap of webbing) can't reach the water. So. Gotta get up a little earlier. No problem.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Home Repair

So, after hearing the name Malika, I spent all morning helping cut potatoes and onions next to a hot fire in the sun, making a heaping pot of sheep-meat soup. I left periodically to come ooze gratitude for the crowd of young men who spent the morning repairing/preparing my mud house for rainy season. They were on the roof and all over, smacking glops of new mud, which will hopefully keep out any leaks once the downpours start. They did a hero's job; I took their photos, and gave them candies, and mixed up jugs of Kool Aid (which was spectacularly popular!) I tried to help them throw mud, but they pretty much really didn't want me to get I just popped in every hour to thankthankthank them.
By 1 PM, when the food at Aisha's was done and served, I returned home to a very-ready-for-rain house. Aisha sent me home with a huge pot of food, way more than I could eat today, so I filled up and gave the rest to Rabi. She just darted home, and gave what she couldn't eat to her family...a little goes a long way. Thank you Mr. Sheep. And thank you, young men of the village.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Boys and men at the suna; a goat has just been slaughtered behind the boys

Women preparing food at the suna

Today has been a busy day. This morning I got up at 6, rushed through a bowl of oatmeal, and dashed outside so as not to miss the baby naming ceremony of the daughter of the school headmaster, Shaibu, and his first wife, Aisha. Baby naming ceremonies (sunas from here on out) range from being a big deal to being a really big deal. Because this one was the headmaster's family, it ranked as a Really Big Deal, and there was no school today. There are lots of babies born here...lots of sunas...the rituals that they all share make them fairly predictable programs, and everyone in the village shows up at some point. They go like this: baby is born on day one; momma of baby stays at home with baby for 7 days. On the 7th day, early in the morning, lots and lots of men crowd into the family's courtyard, sit and wait. Someone brings in a sheep or goat, which is slaughtered there in front of the men (they cut its throat). Then, the town prayer man leads everyone in a long prayer-type thing (in Arabic--I don't know what he says!). At the end of this he announces the new baby's name (which was previously chosen, I think, by the father, but maybe not always). Then most of the men get up and return home/to work, while the women of the house begin preparing food, lots of food, to feed everyone who comes by that day. The 7th day after birth is also when the barber comes and shaves the baby's head, and he'll also do any ritual facial scarring that the family wants: sometimes two lines on the cheeks or by the edges of the mouth. A lot of adults in the village have these scars, but so far I haven't seen it on any babies.

This morning, Aisha's baby girl was named Malika; she's a tiny little thing with waving fists and a big baby wail. She is her mother's 8th child.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Home alone

4/28/30 (Later in the afternoon)

I have been spending more and more time out with people as I become accustomed to life here. It would be cool to have
charted the actual hours spent at home alone from when I arrived to would look like this:

It's easier to be out and about when you know the people you are with, when you understand what they're saying, when you know what's expected of you, and when you know you can go home and rest and nobody will be mad.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

No time to scratch

Well, that was fun. Ibrahim and Suleil had a ball explaining proverb after proverb...they are very expressive and love to act out examples that demonstrate the morals. I asked about the one that says "Dislike your child and the world will love him." Turns out the translation is just bad; what it is supposed to mean is "Don't waste energy hating a person; it might make the rest of the world like him more." (Which, presumably, is not what you want.) Aha. Sometimes even if the proverb's translation is clear, I still like to ask Ibrahim to explain it: we always end up laughing at his antics and at my amused "enlightenment." Lots of the time it turns out that the message isn't exactly what I thought. My favorite from yesterday was: "Ba a game gudu da susar duwayya." (You can't run and scratch your bottom at the same time.) I read it and said "What? That's not true! I can run and scratch my bottom at the same time!" Ibrahim looked at me and said "Aha! But, Samsiye, IF I were to lift this stick and start beating you with it (picture him pretending to do so), you would dash off home, fast fast fast, and then would you have time to scratch your bottom? You'd be scared, going so time to scratch, no time!" So: the proverb is true. Assuming one is running because of fear, not for exercise, there's no time for anything but escape. Thank you Ibrahim.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Luck is like a turban

The time is ripe to send you your second installment of Nigerien proverbs; they are long overdue, I know. So let's get to the point (the only problem being--where to start? There are so many, and they are all so GOOD!)
  • Ran wanka ba a b'oye cibiya. On the day you wash your body, your navel will not be concealed.
  • Rabo rawani ne inda ya kare sai a soke. Luck is like a turban; when it finishes, you tuck it in.
  • Ko giwa ta fad'i, ta hi k'arfin tukunya. Even though the elephant has fallen, it is still too big for the pot.
  • Kada ganin hadari ya saku wanka da kashi. Just because you see rain clouds doesn't mean you should bathe in poop.
  • Ki naka, duniya ta sonshi. Dislike your child, and the world will love him. (What?)
  • Haihuwa d'aya horon gindi. One birth is training to the vagina. (What??)
  • Gwano bashi jin warin jikinshi. An ant doesn't smell his own body odor. (Do ants even have b.o.?)
Well, that's enough for now. I am going to take my proverb list out to the men and see what they make of it.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Food crisis: Part III

Moringa oleifera

So that brings us back to the pagivolte. There are things that I think could certainly help improve the food security of villagers here, and possibly also of city dwellers. We gave the following suggestions:
1. Try saving-or just not spending- a small amount of money (the equivalent of 50 US cents) each week, so that you can cover the increased price of food. Or try joining a money-saving cooperative; lots of villagers do this: everyone puts in a small bit of money each week, and every few weeks one family gets all of it.
2. Plant moringa in gardens. This is a small tree whose leaves grow fast and are packed with vitamins. It tastes a lot like spinach.
3. Plant vegetables. (Again, not a lot of people do this, but a few do. We'll see.)
4. If you can afford a baby sheep or goat, buy it now to sell for profit later. It's true: livestock here is like banks in America. You invest your money in a sheep and then sell it after Ramadan when people are celebrating the end of their fasts.

Yep. That was what our pagivolte was about. The women were pretty funny--they thought we were very entertaining. They may have taken something to heart; I'm not sure. Deep down, I don't see why they would. We don't know what they go through every year; surely they have strategies for feeding their families. They're here! They've always been here! But then why don't more of them do those things on the list? What do they know that they don't tell us, that they conceal behind their laughter and amusement with us? That's the real question; the facts are that they know about living here, that I don't, and that whatever they do to curb hunger and malnutrition is just enough to make it, even if it means relying on a few bags of millet brought by foreign aid which will not be coming this year. It is infuriating; it is amazing; it is frightening; it is risky; it is brave; it is trusting...and if it means that another 20% of the babies in the country die before their 5th birthday this year, then there is a lot of work to do.

I don't know what my role is in all of this, but I'm here, and I tell you what, I will do what I start, when I get to my village tomorrow, I'm going to plant my moringa saplings in my concession, and start mixing some cow poop into the sand to grow a garden. Yeah! TAKE THAT, FOOD CRISIS!

Wow, well I got pretty intense just then. And now I'm sweating even more, and the sun found me again, and bleached out my shade. So it's time to move on.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Food crisis: Part II

Millet field (photo from FAO)

I guess you have to realize that here people live hand to mouth, and even in the most optimistic of years, that fragile method doesn't change much. Think about my village: it's hot, there's no electricity: how could you possibly even store food for any period of time? It rots. I've had cabbages spoil in a day. So, to a certain extent, it is not as if you can stock up. Canned food, even boxed food is prohibitively expensive; to think that a family could afford even one meal of packaged food is unrealistic. That leaves you with whatever grain (millet, sorghum) or bean, or vegetable, that you can grow on your field, and whatever milk or meat you can get from your cows, goats, and sheep. And whatever food aid comes from abroad. I've only seen "my" villagers eat vegetables once, at a huge birth/naming celebration put on by the headmaster of the school; he has much more money than most. With the exception of onions and the occasional powdered tomato and okra that they put in sauces, people don't eat many veggies. (This might change here: working on it!)

Can you imagine doing one giant shopping trip to feed your whole family for a year? Now try changing that from a shopping trip to the planting of a millet field. That is what the villagers are working on right now. They are praying for rain, so they can plant millet in their fields, so that in three months they can hopefully harvest enough to pull their families through until next year's harvest. If that's not thinking ahead, what is?

Let's hope that people at least get a good harvest this year. Learning about the politics/environmental setting of all of this helps me to understand why it is that some farmers may seem "stubborn" to try out new methods: why make an already risky situation even more so?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Food crisis: a pagivolte

One of the letters you sent, mom, was written on the back of some text you'd printed off of a PCV's blog-I think her name is Brittany-about the current food crisis. She's an excellent writer, and what she said is exactly what I've heard. She's been here longer, though, and I think she knows a lot more about it than I do.
We talked about it a little bit at training last week, and along with three friends I designed a pagivolte presentation for it...I think that's a French word. It means that you use large drawings or photographs to illustrate/educate/raise awareness about a given topic. It's a fun way to share information with anyone, and it works well with non-literate groups. Peace Corps uses them a lot in Niger, as do several other aid/development agencies. I've seen pagivoltes on the importance of handwashing, breastfeeding, how to how to build an improved cook stove, why/how to plant trees in your field. Usually they're the size of a big kid's book, with 6-12 different pages, and big, easily interpreted images. I love pagivoltes; it's fun to present them, which you basically do by asking your audience lots of questions about what they see. Often they create stories about the "characters" giving them all names and personalities.
So anyway, Jacob, Chrystal, John, and I presented a pagivolte we created about the upcoming/current food crisis while we were in Hamdallay. We did it for John's host family: there are three wives and a bunch of neighbor women there often, so it was an enthusiastic audience. We tried to accomplish two things:
1. To explain how this year's food shortage is different from most years (keep in mind, ye of the land of milk and honey, that Nigeriens have food shortages on a yearly basis, and in fact, nonchalantly refer to that time of year as Hunger Season; it is that much a part of their lives)
2. To make a few suggestions on ways to lesson the impact (acknowledging full well that Nigeriens already have a great ability and know-how as to how to do this)

I will share as much as I know about what is going on, globally and in NIger; please excuse any errors, and please correct me if you know the greater details. Basically, my understanding is that:
A. Rice consumption in China and India is at an all-time high.
B. More corn is being directed to the production of biofuel.
C. Oil prices are, of course, rising and rising and rising.
These things combined mean the following things for NIger:
1. Food is REALLY expensive right now, and will continue to go up in price, due partially to the increased price of transportation, and partially because of the high global demand for rice/corn/cereals (especially in China, India, and because of biofuels processors.)
2. The world aid organizations that routinely come to NIger to distribute emergency food bags (usually rice and millet) will not be able to come this year; I presume because they can't afford/find the food, either.
3. SO, even if this year's harvest is spectacular, many Nigeriens will be hungry.

We have heard that it will be in urban areas that food shortages will be felt first. This makes sense; urban residents buy more of their foodstuffs, whereas rural residents grow more of their own. Still I Angie's village, a very small rural community of just a few hundred folks, people are already "skipping" meals to make their food last. One PCV told me about how a year ago she was astonished when a kid, her friend, revealed that "today we won't eat but tomorrow we will." Skipping a day of eating, not out of a desire to be stick thin, not as a spiritual cleansing practice...but because there's only X amount of food, and it's got to last until harvest time. It's hard to wrap my head around that, and I am here, so I can't imagine how you would begin to understand it from home.