Sunday, August 31, 2008

Grain for the bank

Autumn harvest time will bring the cheapest grain prices
Photo by Ulf Lieden

You might ask- what about the GRAIN? Right. That's important. This piece of the puzzle came out in a most providential way! I did a lot of asking around- to other PCVS and a bunch of the staff in Niamey during a marathon day of phone calling from Konni. And, wonderfully, I received SO much support, encouragement, and info about where to look for funding that I have nothing but positive things to say about the PC bureau from this experience. There are a handful of ways that volunteers use to get $ for projects-- through PC funded programs, other US government programs, private donors, and community organizations. After debating back and forth and getting input from folks in the bureau, I decided to write up a proposal and budget to submit to the Rotary Club, to cover the cost of grain, grain transport, pallets, and cement to repair the building (Important detail-- we have a weatherproof building in the village built for this purpose but empty-- we just had to fix it up a bit. Usually this is a main expense-the building itself- but we got lucky with it). I didn't expect to know for weeks, even months, but the director of the PC Health sector, Gaston, has strong ties to Rotary in the states, and the good man made it all happen overnight! Seriously! Awesome! Gaston, who I have never met but hope to soon, is a rock star.

So: the money to buy the grain is here, and this project WILL get off the ground. We won't buy any grain until we've had our training- that would be risky and foolish I think, and plus, grain is still expensive right now. I want more than ever to help people fill their bellies-- they are getting hungrier, I know. I also know that running into a big thing like this with no idea how to keep it straight could be a total disaster, and would blur the lines between charity (not why I'm here) and sustainable development (closer to the truth).

So for now, we're trying to be patient. I fronted money for the cement and we've fixed the cracks in the floor of the GB building- I was touched by how thrilled the women were with this small accomplishment. We had a meeting a few days ago where I updated them on the ADD news, certificate, and overall progress of the proposal, and afterwards we unlocked the building so everyone could go inside and see it. Oh they were so proud! They got as giddy as little girls to see all of this fresh, smooth cement-- no one has cement in their homes here, it's too expensive. (An endearing detail- as stubborn as the women have been about involving men in the GB, they had to bite their tongues and let men cement the floor, as that is not '"women's work.") A group of the women started dancing in a circle, rejoicing about this fancy new room of theirs. Their claps and foot-stomps echoed in the empty space, and their beaming faces made me blush in the realization that I had done something really good. All that's missing, they laughed, is millet!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Planning a grain bank

Road near Tajae
Obviously from reading this you know that I know zip about grain bank management. I asked around and learned from a neighboring PCV that CARE international has a project of some sort called ADD (sorry, not sure what the acronym stands for, ha) in Tajae, a village just south of here. So a few weeks ago I rode my fancy-pants bike down there and set up a meeting, returned the next day for the meeting, and am excited/nervous/hopeful that the ADD folks are on board to come to my village and train us up.
Their office was full of young, enthusiastic, educated, confident Nigeriens- it was REALLY cool to talk with highly competent city folks who respect villagers and village life enough to move out here and work with them. I think it's typical for the wealthier, urban upper class of Niger to look down to the rural class, and it's certainly unusual for them to choose to live in a village, even if it's just for part of the year. Also, there is a level of suspicion and distrust of the wealthy felt by villagers; I have high hopes that when the ADD women come they will be well received and respectful in turn (the village women were also adamant that they wanted ONLY FEMALE trainers).
I'll go back to Tajae in the beginning of September to formalize and plan the training with ADD...timing is going to be key, as Ramadan is about to start, and I would be asking for trouble if we planned a meeting when everyone is hungry and tired.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Beginning a project: women's grain bank

Photo by Andy, the HoboTraveler

Following a series of meetings in May and July, the village women decided that a grain bank is their hearts' desire, and they asked me to make it happen.* SO: slowly but surely, I've been figuring out what a grain bank is, how it works, and how to procure all the bits and pieces to make it successful. I still have more questions than answers, but I'm hopeful that eventually everything will fall into place. The basics of a GB look like this: an entity of people (in this case, 212 women) obtain a whole bunch of grain (in this case millet), either through their own purchasing power, donated grain or money, or a combo of both (in this case, it'll be a combo). The grain is ideally purchased right after harvest time, when prices are lowest, and then it's stored for much of the year until people's personal stores run out. At that time, the grain is sold out at a higher price than its original purchase, but lower than the current market price (which is often twice the price than that after harvest, so lots of room for profit). The aim of the whole thing is twofold:
1. To increase food security by selling grain at lower costs during the hunger season.
2. To turn a profit for the bank and its members. Profits can be divided among the original investors (the women), or put towards a communally beneficial project (our neighboring village used last year's profits to fund women's literacy classes for 4 months). Or, along with the rest of the sales money, it can be used to re-stock the bank when grain prices are low again.

That is my very rudimentary understanding of the mechanics-- it seems rather straightforward, but I can't help but wonder if there's a lot of room for confusion. I have a few (actually a lot) of questions: mainly, what is the best way for a group of illiterate women to keep accurate records of sales/investments/purchase/profit? I believe it can be done, but I don't know how. There are a couple of literate women in the group, but I am not sure what their actual level of literacy is. The village women are vehemently opposed to admitting any men into the deal, and I wouldn't dream of arguing this point. It is very important to them! They say that the men will 'cinye' all of their money (eat it up!). I suspect that one of the village men (most of whom have at least a few years of schooling and can read at a basic level) might really benefit the accounting/record-keeping aspect of the bank, but I am willing to suspend any doubt and trust the women to give it a run sans-man. Certainly this has been done before, right? Somewhere? I know that grain banks are a common project that PCVs work on in many countries, but I've been surprised at how little information I can find that explains strategies for making them really great. Perhaps it is my American perspective that places so much value on organization and transparent record keeping, and maybe that's simply not the most important thing here. But I worry about the longer-term sustainability of the bank if, for example, not enough money is reinvested to restock it, or if profits aren't distributed evenly, etc.

I hope that a lot of my questions will be addressed, and with luck answered,'s why...upon informing Moussa (the PC Konni region project manager/driver/heaven-sent development agent who gives me little bags of frozen tamarind juice when I visit his family in Konni) about the bank project, he laid out a few steps for me to follow. First, hold a few more meetings with the women to choose 12 representatives to make up the official 'board' of the bank. Then, take those names (and some cash) to the commune's mayor's office (kind of like the governor of an area the size of your average county in the US), to obtain an official Certificate for the bank. Having a board and a certificate somehow legitimizes the bank and puts it on the map (although honestly we did nothing to merit 'Certification' besides gather on a Friday afternoon and shout out the names of the 12 oldest and most influential ladies in town.) The board thing makes sense, of course, even if the picking of the women seemed more political than practical. Next step- organize and hold a training on grain bank management-- YES! So true! Sooo important! And this is the step that we're on right now.

*Do you want an update on this grain bank project?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Growing things

Morning time. Let's see. What might you want to hear about? There's so much more to say now that I am back in my village. Yesterday I spent the morning chopping up the hard
sand and clay in my concession to start some garden beds. I bought a kwassa at the Konni market: a hoe-like tool that can handle this solid, cement-like surface. Ibrahim came over--my village counterpart, the wonderful old guy who explains proverbs, and traps rats. He was delighted and amused by my work. He brought over a couple of buckets of manure from his home, which we used to mulch the moringa trees I outplanted. And--this is exciting--he also supported my idea to plant some millet in my concession as well. I have so much space, and it is fun to fill it with growing things. So we planted 2 short rows of millet, and now that I know how they do it, I might plant some more. Cool, man. Didn't plan on doing millet, but once I realized I had plenty of room, why not? Plus, now when folks tease me about not having a field, I will have a way to save face.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wednesday night at the movies

I take Lariam, my anti-malarial pill ,on Wednesdays; the main side effect seems to be extremely vivid dreams. The dreams aren't necessarily bad, just vivid and realistic. A friend of mine referred to Lariam-night as "Wednesday Night at the Movies," and it's true! So here is what happened in my dream:

There is a huge rat standing upright. He is the size of a human adult, and we can look each other in the eye. He is dressed in a suit! Remember that book by William Steig? Mr. Rat looks a lot like Doctor De Soto, and wh
en I approach him with a bowl in my hands, I say: "Here. Please take this bowl of food and don't come back!" He takes the food, and I wake up.

I haven't actually seen the Giant Rat since. He is still around (those tracks...), but now I wear earplugs at night so that I won't hear him lapping up water when he stops by for a drink.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


In the mornings I have noticed tracks in the dust inside my concession, not dog tracks, and not the right shape or size to be a cat, so I asked Ibrahim to come have a look. He told me what it was, and that he would bring a trap over to catch it. I didn't know the word he had used for the animal, so I looked it up in my Hausa dictionary...OK, deep breath...translation: "giant rat." Not what I wanted to hear.

Anyway, Ibrahim brought over his contraption and set it up; however the Giant Rat has yet to set foot in it. Too smart. One night in the moonlight I saw Mr. Rat: he was sitting upright at my water bucket, forefeet on the rim, drinking water. He is about the size of a raccoon, and I could hear him lapping up the water. In the morning I found his tracks under my bed.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Archaeological discoveries

These amazing archaeological findings have been in the news today. Due to the current level of unrest in the Tenere desert region (the site of this discovery), Peace Corps volunteers may not visit the area.

Inside a well

The nature adventure continues. Walking back from the lake, I stopped at a few of the wells near the lake, curious to see how much further up/down the water table was there compared to the well by my house. And you know what was inside one of the wells? It was FULL of FROGS!! Big frogs! The water's surface was just about 20 feet down, and you could hardly see it because frogs frogs frogs were packed in there all shiny and floaty and froggy. They also covered the parts of the inside of the well where they wouldn't slide in: little ledges with piles of frogs on them. Can you imagine being a frog in Niger? Now that has got to be tough. I do not envy desert-dwelling amphibians.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Proof of rain

Intermediate Egret, Niger
Photo by Ulf Liedén

Yesterday I walked out to see the lake--from afar it even looked blueish--and there were dozens of white egrets on the far shore. Up close the water is clouded and brown, and its shores are gouged out in pockets where men have cut out clay to make bricks, but it is a lake nonetheless. Small, oddly-shaped, but proof that rain came. I approached the edge and caught a quick glimpse of a turtle(!) who plopped into the mud, safe. That was COOL. I haven't seen any turtles. Maybe he is the only one. Where has he been since last year when the rains stopped?

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Geese flying over Nigeria, not far from the Konni region of Niger
Photo by P. Taylor

Other signs that the rains have come: birds! Small flocks of little red and brown finch-like songbirds flush out of my pigeons' house when I pass; they are in there drinking water and being merry. There are also flocks of geese-like birds that fly overhead: in vees! I can hear their wings, whoosh, whoosh, and I love to look up at them. The sky here is so bright and searingly light that I don't look up that often. But I do for the birds.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Since the rains came

Kournaka Laterite, originally uploaded by
More Altitude
My village has changed since the rains came. I am sad to have missed those first big rains. It was enough to fill the seasonal lake east of the village, and everyone has planted their fields! The millet is already several inches tall. I don't know how much water it needs to make it to harvest, but I am sure it can't hurt to hope for more rain. Last year the rains came early, everyone planted, and then it was so long before the next rain that some of the crops died and people had to plant again. It wasn't disastrous, but I hope it doesn't happen that way this year. In some places, something akin to grass is even growing. I am reminded of how normal it is for the ground to be green at home, and how special it is here. For five months, all my feet have touched is sand.

Click on the photo, taken on a road near Maradi in August, 2005, originally uploaded by More Altitude. Read the description of the food crisis at that time.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hot as Sahel

"Remember that sunset and dawn are the back and front of the same phenomenon: when we are looking at the sunset, the people over there are looking at the dawn." ~Bruno Munari

One thing is for sure: my definition of HOT is forever changed. Even though I am sweating profusely, drinking my 5th liter of water in 6 hours, and observing prickly heat rash spread across my stomach and chest, today doesn't feel too hot. Inside my house it still feels cool, although I prefer to be outside in the shade. It is a few degrees warmer outside in the shade, but there is a breeze, which makes all the difference. Want to know the temperature? Well inside, where it is shady and cool-feeling, it is exactly 100° (37.7°C). Outside in the sun, the thermometer maxes out at 120°
(48.8°C). Outside in the shade I am estimating about 105°(40.5°C). Wow. Still, when the breeze passes through, it is sometimes enough to chill the sweat on my skin and make me shiver.

"Hot as Sahel" was the text on the tee shirt designed and worn by Jessica's stage.