Monday, September 29, 2008


Narba and granddaughter Harira

In Niger, a typical woman has less than three years of education, and the life expectancy of a girl born today is only 45. Only four per cent of Nigerien women use modern contraception, and one child in four never reaches the age of 5. At this rate, every mother is likely to suffer the loss of a child during her lifetime. Source: CBC News

Lately I've really been appreciating the evenings. It's a time when more people are gathered at home, talking or sitting or eating (women with the kids, men separate, of course). I find myself staying out a little later each evening, picking up strands of conversation, contributing some, mostly listening, laughing at the kids, whose antics--in the dirt and ash and whatever they can roll their naked little bellies in--are often the focus of our attention. Children are so precious here. I don't know why I was surprised to see the tenderness with which Narba treats every one of her grandkids, great grandkids, and neighbors' kids. Maybe because there are SO MANY babies, kids, everywhere, 4,5,6,7,8 per woman, as many as 10,20,30 per husband if he has several wives; maybe I assumed that they were somehow less special, less treasured in the eyes of old women, who in their lives have held hundreds of babies. But it is not that way; it is the opposite, and it squashed my assumptions absolutely. To see Narba goyo (tie to her back) her daughter-in-law's baby, Harira, of 4 months, and carry her all over the village proudly, is seeing a happy woman doing what she has done since she was a girl herself.

I will often come upon Narba at her home, sitting on a mat in the sha
de, with a half dozen of her family's babes napping or crawling or playing around her--and Narba is totally into it, singing for them or clapping or chuckling. Last night Rabi had batteries for a radio, so we listened to some afro pop, and immediately a crowd of bouncing toddlers was gleefully stomping in the dust...Narba, delighted, rushed to get her flashlight to shine on them in the dark. Together we watched them, their brown legs and arms, pumping, kicking, bottoms falling into the sand, turning them a lighter brown. They were so funny. But mostly I watched Narba, who had eyes only for them; she clucked and sang and held that light over them, exclaiming "Toh! Gareka! Toh!" (Hey! Yo! You got it! Yeah!))

So, you see, these babies, all gazillion of them, they are beloved. And it's not just Narba, it's everyone, all of the women who dote on every baby, the men who hold friends' babies in the afternoon, and the kids, who as soon as they're big enough, hope to carry a baby around, too.

Me in my village, and kids in Hamdallaye

Monday, September 22, 2008


Chameleon in Konni
Well, a week has passed since the beginning of the Mosquito Wars. I am still peppered in itchy welts, but my attitude has improved. Plus, most of my new bites I got in a neighboring village, which somehow makes them easier to deal with. I had four really busy days in a row--lots of walking to and from new villages, lots of interactions with new people. Two months ago, any one of my recent escapades would have wiped me out completely, but now I see that I'm more able/adjusted. It no longer takes quite as much effort and concentration to make it through a day. Not to say that a day here was particularly grueling, but the sheer difference of this place left me physically and emotionally drained on a daily basis for the first several months. And today, sure, my legs are pretty tired, but I'm no worse for the wear...wait, is that how that saying goes...I don't even know! You get the picture.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A walk with Amu

So. OK. I went out with Amu to their fields, which were northwest of town along a path I hadn't been on yet. It climbed gently for awhile, and I got a good long gulp-of-a-view of the farms and villages spreading out south of us. Ahead and behind and on other paths in all directions were other women, chatting and laughing and hauling their loads--babies, food, water--towards their men and their fields. It was like being in a painting where everything is green except a wide stripe of blue at the top and bright dashes of red, yellow, pink, and brown all throughout.
When we reached our fields, the men came and sat with us, and we had a lively conversation about the delicacies of fried crickets. Amu's baby daughter, Saphara'u, played in the sand, the men drank hura, and I learned the word for "crunchy"(kamaskamas). Then, Amu and I returned to the village, a nice 40 minute walk, as colorful and chatty as the one out.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Rainy season routines

Photo by James

On Wednesday morning I accompanied my friend Amu out to the fields where her husband Habibu and his brothers Ayuba and Zabairu were working. Wait--I should explain what these rainy season days are like; it will give you an idea of how people spend their time now. The last few weeks I have awakened at 4AM to the sound of women pounding millet to make hura (millet, milk, and hot pepper drink) for their husbands and sons to drink before heading to the fields at 6. Once the men and boys all leave, the women continue pounding for the rest of the day's meals, plus they pull water and wash clothes as usual. At around 10:00 AM, one or two women from each household will carry (on her head, in a big round gourd the color of dry grass) more hura and tuwo (millet mush with sauce--think polenta, that's about the right consistency) to the fields for the guys to eat during breaks; this is what they'll have to eat until they come home. Depending on how many women and girls are in a family, sometimes the hura/tuwo carriers will stay out in the fields and work the rest of the day, until everyone comes in at about 4 or 5 PM. If there aren't many girls in a family, they'll have to come home right away to make food for dinner, gather firewood, pull more water, and take the cows and goats out to forage. (I finally figured out that at noon each day, women herd all their animals out of their concessions, through the streets, and to the giant puddle outside the village to drink, eat the new grass, and I guess, socialize. This explains the mooing ruckus that surprises me every day about 11:30: the animals are reminding us that they are ready and waiting! The animals stay out until around 6, when they seem to find their way back, or are rounded up by their people. It's cool to be out and watch the goats and sheep charge for home, each one knowing exactly where to turn off.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Peace Corps budget cuts have an effect

Peace Corps Headquarters has required all offices worldwide to take a 15% budget cut. Peace Corps Niger is having to make cuts in many areas to meet this percentage; below are some of the most important decisions they've had to make. It really sucks, for everybody- staff, volunteers...personally I'll notice it most in the cut to regional shuttles; I have really appreciated having a monthly opportunity to get mail and supplies delivered to my village, as well as the help of Moussa, the driver. His ability to support the work I do will be diminished considerably.

Dare I speculate that the cost of war is severely affecting this program's ability to do effective, peaceful development work?

- Education Program Training Assistant position cut (this person runs all the training for a specific sector -in this case, education- during your first 9 weeks in country.)
- Programming and Training staff travel cut by 35%
- Close of Service Conference for volunteers exiting this year to be held in Hamdallaye instead of Park W.
- Fuel consumption for staff travel cut by 35%.
- Fuel for regional shuttles cut by 40% (this is the shuttle that used to come to my village once a month to bring mail or other supplies, and the time when Moussa would be available to facilitate meetings and conversations).
- Funds for PCV travel in country reduced by 25%
- Mid Service Training has been eliminated (this is a 3 day conference formerly held at the 1 year mark, for volunteers to receive additional training and to share work progress/questions/plans with each other.)
- Day-to-day medical supplies reduced (sunscreen, bug repellent etc)

Yup. I will send more info if I get it.*

*Hostels are under review for being cut.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Current food situation in Niger: the official word

The map below (from AID sources) illustrates some of the text beneath it (info recently sent to Peace Corps volunteers). 700,000 people may need food aid this year (see #7), which makes it a good year; last year the figure was 2.9 million people in need of aid.
Points #4, #9, #10, and #11 seem especially worrisome.

Estimated food security conditions, 3rd Quarter 2008 (July-September)
US AID /Famine Early Warning Systems
Green: Generally Food Secure
Yellow: Moderately Food Insecure
Orange Highly Food Insecure
Red: Extremely Food Insecure
Black: Famine
Gray: No Data


1. Summary. All signs indicate that Niger will have a bumper annual harvest of major food staples in September-October 2008,representing an unprecedented fourth consecutive good annual harvest for Niger. Pasture conditions are excellent and no major outbreaks of crop pests have been reported. Crop conditions in Nigeria and other countries in the sub-region also appear to be favorable; therefore, added pressures on Niger food stocks will be minimal.
Niger will not need any emergency food aid over the coming year, but will need help to reconstitute its national food reserves and to continue programs to address food needs of vulnerable groups and chronic child malnutrition. There will also be a need to address the problem of insufficient imported rice for urban consumers.

2. The rainy season has generally been exceptional and, even if rains stopped now, there is enough moisture in the soil in most areas to permit a good harvest of the major food staples (millet, sorghum and cowpeas). If like last year the rains cease in mid-September, the harvest will still be better than the good 2007 harvest. If like in 2006 the rains continue into early October, Niger could have a record harvest. On the other hand, too much rain and continued heavy rainfall will make it difficult to harvest. Already the harvest of millet and sorghum is occurring in a number of places across Niger.

3. Flooding in some areas has caused some crop damage and, as of the end August 2008, the loss of shelter for almost 40,000 people. Pasture conditions throughout Niger are reported as excellent without any major outbreak of crop pests. Niger appears to be on the path to a fourth consecutive good annual harvest. This may be the first time in modern history that Niger has enjoyed four good annual harvests in a row. These good harvests and livestock conditions will make life better for rural inhabitants (85 percent of the population), contribute positively to Niger's GDP growth, and reduce budgetary and political stress on the Government of Niger (GON). Furthermore, full household granaries are the best insurance for the maintenance of peace and stability in the rural zones.

4. The food situation of urban inhabitants, who depend heavily on the consumption of imported rice, is, however, worrisome. The cost of imported rice on the open market is at a record high and stocks of rice are at an all-time low. The GON tried to procure on the international market 10,000 megatons (MT) of rice but was only able to obtain 3,000 MT, which it is selling at a subsidized price (35 percent less than market price) during the holy month of Ramadan that began September 1. Given that Niger consumes about 20,000 MT of rice per month, this is a relatively small quantity of rice. It is an open and troublesome question as to how Niger will obtain enough rice in the coming months to feed its urban population.

5. Related to this rice shortage problem was the receipt on July 21 of an official request from the GON for 60,000 MT of rice and 15,000 MT of wheat over a three-year period, beginning this year. This request was made within the framework of the USDA's Food for Progress program. This request follows the signing of an agreement in September 2006 for the same kind of program. Under this previous Food for Progress program, 12,000 MT of sorghum and 5,000 MT of rice (for monetization) were provided. The 12,000 MT of sorghum was used over the past few months for free distribution to the most vulnerable groups. The 5,000 MT of rice was sold to private traders over a year ago and the proceeds generated are being used for food security activities. Concerned GON authorities will need to satisfy some outstanding reporting and accountability requirements for USDA before tackling another USDA program.

6. It was planned that some rice be provided by the end of the year under three new PL 480, Title II Multi-Year Assistance Programs (MYAPs) that USAID signed in August 2008 with participating U.S. non-governmental organizations. These three- to five-year MYAPs have an estimated value of over US$70 million and cover all regions
of Niger. The main commodity to be monetized under the MYAPs is rice and 7,000 to 9,000 MT of rice were to be shipped to Niger by December, but the first effort to procure rice was has not been successful as not enough rice could be sourced. It is still uncertain when rice will be available for these MYAPs and, when sourced, how much can be procured with existing budgets. Higher rice prices will mean lower quantities of rice for the MYAP programs and it may be some time before FY 2009 funding is available for these programs.

7. Notwithstanding the favorable prospects for good annual harvest in Niger, there remain pockets of low rainfall in Niger and agricultural production growth has difficulty keeping up with Niger's fast annual population growth rate of 3.4 percent (or about 400,000 additional people per year to feed). Niger is reaching the limits of the quantity of food it can produce and in the future, even in a good rainfall year, it will not be able to produce enough to feed its population. Current projections show that up to 700,000 Nigeriens (about 5 percent of Niger's 14 million people) will need food aid to one degree or another over the coming year because of poor harvests in some geographic areas. Nevertheless, this is a huge improvement over last year when 2.9 million people were estimated to be in need of food aid.

8. As of August 27, 2008, Niger's national food reserves contained about 40,000 MT of cereals (down from 77,000 MT last February). If current reserve utilization plans are adhered to, this total stock level will fall to about 3,000 MT by the end of September. In the July to September period, 15,000 MT has been utilized by the GON, with donor concurrence, for free distribution to food vulnerable groups and 15,000 for sale at subsidized prices to those in need. The GON goal is to have 100,000 MT in stock in case of poor annual harvest and, thus, its plan is to begin local purchases of cereals
in October following the harvest to reconstitute its food reserves. It plans to buy on the local market 20,000 MT to 30,000 MT of millet and sorghum in the October 2008 to March 2009 period. Currently, the GON does not have sufficient funds to make these purchases and it will be calling for donor contributions for as much as US$12 million in additional funding for these purchases. These reserves are small compared to Niger's cereals consumption rate of 220,000 MT per month.

9. Niger's child malnutrition levels remains among the worst in the world in spite of four good annual harvests in a row. Niger’s low child nutrition levels are not unrelated to a persistent high poverty levels and a consistent rank among the lowest five countries on the UNDP human development index (HDI). Child feeding practices, including breast-feeding, and dietary diversification need much improvement. A challenge to progress in these areas is low female literacy rate of less than 15 percent.

10. Other sobering development statistics for Niger include facts such as 40 percent of its children are stunted and almost 70 percent of the population is less than 25 years of age. The youthful structure of Niger's population and its fast population growth rate represent daunting development challenges. The population growth rate is out-stripping advances in economic and development growth and will not change unless the high average fertility rate of 7.4 children per woman of child-bearing age is substantially lowered.

11. Nutritional surveys led by UNICEF in the June-July period indicate some slight improvements in child nutrition levels among children under five years of age, but global acute malnutrition (GAM) remains alarmingly high by international standards and in this recent survey the overall average GAM reported was 10.7 percent (versus 11.2 percent a year ago). Extrapolation of survey data indicates that over 260,000 children of this age group suffer from much higher levels of malnutrition. Most alarming are survey results for the Region of Zinder that show an emergency level GAM rate of 15.7 percent. The survey also reports GAM rates much higher for children under three years of age. Also, in the regions of Diffa and Zinder the child mortality rate was over the emergency rate of 2 deaths per 10,000 children per day. This survey also reported that only 4.4 percent of mothers are exclusively breast-feeding their babies during the first six months.

12. Comment. Nothing can be better for Niger and its people than a good harvest, but a good harvest alone does not eliminate hunger and malnutrition nor develop over the long term a country. Much investment is needed in Niger's rural infrastructure and agricultural sector to achieve the food production and household income increases Niger needs to feed its people and to improve its rank on the UNDP HDI list. Investment in irrigation schemes that make Niger more drought proof and less dependent on rainfed agriculture is essential. At the same time more diversified ways of creating wealth need to be found to benefit a much larger segment of the population. As long as the vast majority of Nigeriens remain dependent on subsistence agriculture, sustainable development advances will remain elusive. The main
development aims should target less hunger and higher incomes. High levels of good governance, technical competency, managerial capacity and stability are needed to achieve those aims. ##

Niamey, September 3, 2008

For an update on this post, go here.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Anti-mosquito arsenal

My net-covered bed

I debated whether or not to send the mosquito-rant that you just read, and decided it has merit because it is true. Additionally, it gives me a platform from which to describe what I am calling my Arsenal of Anti-Mosquito Devices and Tactics. I was able, eventually, to channel my fuming resentment of said insects into what may be the most powerful battlefront I have ever waged. It brings me great pleasure to list the Arsenal:

1. Mosquito Net, of course, is at the foremost and always has been. But--and I implore you not to get too excited here--the net's effectiveness is now 700x what it once was because of:

2. Highly Toxic Insecticide Solution, which comes in little pouches, one of which I discovered in my PC medical kit, and in which I soaked implement #1 for two-plus minutes, as directed. The World Health Organization warns that this poison is "slightly hazardous," which freaked me out, so I tried not to breathe while soaking the net. But then I got light-headed and thought "Is it that I'm not breathing? Or is it the poison?" And then I thought about how this is probably the most toxic thing I've ever knowingly used, which made me feel extremely self-conscious and hypocritical (all my years of eating organically, smeared in irony!). And THEN I thought about how I was going to be sleeping inside of the poison-soaked net for 1 1/2 years, starting that night, approximately 9 hours from the time of soakage. According to the package, the poison "kills mosquitoes upon contact." Wow! So, like, what's it going to do to me? Maybe give me a rash, which had better not itch more than my 70+ mosquito bites. At that point, I had to stop thinking about such things, or my Arsenal would have lost its deadliest component. Continuing on:

3. This is hilarious: I also find in my med kit, an All Natural Plant-Based Mosquito Repellent. I slathered that on too, on faith that in addition to repelling insects, it will also balance out the negative karma accumulated by item #2.

4. Hydro Cortisone Cream, 2 types: there's the petroleum-based one that comes in a tube and does little more than make my skin look shiny, and there's a whiter, chalkier paste that comes in tiny tiny individually sealed packets in portions that are enough to cover 2-4 mosquito bites. But I think that kind works.

5. My neighbor's sage advice: cover flashlight/headlamp with a bandanna while reading/writing at night; the bugs do not see it! This seems to work, and is ingenious. Is it that the bugs have poor eyesight and dim light doesn't register? Or are they thinking something along the lines of "Obviously that girl has superhuman powers to be able to read in such dim light, thus we should not mess with her?" Does anybody know?

So, that's pretty much it for my Arsenal. Well, there is also this other kind of repellent, but you have to apply it like it's a stinky glue-stick all over your body. So, that's kind of weird, and I am not officially listing it in my Arsenal.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A cranky whiner without an audience


SO****I'm actually a bit of a cranky whiner today, although I have no audience at the moment. Except this paper, and, eventually, you. Which do you think is worse: being around a grumpy person, or getting a letter from one? I mean, by the time you get this, my mood will hopefully have improved.
After careful thought and deliberation I have identified the source of my angst, the cause of my pitiful attitude, the root of my raging anger: the mosquito, or some stupid insect that bites/stings is causing me to extract less enjoyment and fulfillment of life than I am accustomed to. I would estimate that this welt-inducing six-legged creature is responsible for deceasing my overall happiness by approximately10-15% today, possibly even more. And the irony? I haven't even seen a mosquito yet, but they are attacking me in my sleep, as I lay unawares, dreaming of lollipops, kittens, high-speed internet, and cheese. Bastards! And seriously: if it is this bad already, imagine how itchy and furious I'm going to be in a month when the little jerks come out in teams. I shudder at the thought. There is something sick and cruel about waking up to an otherwise beautiful morning with big uncomfortable bites to inform you that the protective barrier of your mosquito net failed miserably in the night. OOOO, I AM PISSED! I could go on and on! I will! Do you know how many bites I have on my right arm, shoulder area included? Twenty eight! Two of which are huge! *#@!% I am a disgusting and cranky monster. I am going to stop writing now because my frustration is increasing rapidly!