Thursday, October 30, 2008

Best friend

Another bio:

I'd say that Fatchi is my best girlfriend in the village, the person whom I feel understands me the best, and with whom I feel really comfortable and natural. She's probably in her 50s, and lives with her husband and kids in a hut way out on the edge of town. I probably wouldn't have ever met her---or at least wouldn't have realized how amazing she is--if I hadn't made myself go out to her far-away hut during my first month. At the time I was determined to push myself and greet as many people as I could. It really paid off: I met Fatchi! From the beginning I felt really good around her; she has this great humor about her, and no matter what you say (no matter how unintelligible your Hausa is) she does her best to understand and make you feel spectacular. As soon as I step into her concession, she shouts out my name with a laugh, like it's the most wonderful, surprising, unlikely thing that I am here. And what I realized sets her apart from most other women is that she is bursting with questions and curiosity about the USA. Other women are definitely curious, but I think that perhaps they don't know where or how to start asking, and they don't want to reveal how little they know or don't know of the differences between here and there. ( And I recognize similarities in myself and other Americans: where do you even begin to start asking questions about the unknown? It's hard!) Fatchi, however, always has something to ask or say. I go over there every other day and usually hang out for an hour, sometimes two. It is always a laughter-filled time, with both of us discovering lots about each other.

Off the top of my head I can recall conversations with Fatchi about: washing machines, bridal showers, obesity, post offices, and of course millet, hunger, cows, marriage, and giving birth (popular topics among village women.) One question Fatchi asks me is "Samsiye, kasanku, da gaskiya baku sha hura?" "Samsiye, in your country, is it really true that you don't drink hura?" (Hura is the millet and milk drink, a staple food, kind of like bread in the states, but more central. Every meal, least in the village.) It's basically impossible to imagine a country surviving without hura. Another question that we've talked about a lot--and man, does it blow me away, and her, too, how different this is--is the question of how women give birth here vs. the US. Here, the women give birth alone, inside their huts, in total silence. No doctor, no family, no one--and no drugs, and absolutely no yelling. I can hardly believe it, but I know it is true. And she can hardly believe that many (most, right?) women in the US give birth in a hospital, with at least a doctor present, and often family, plus their husbands ( no way that would fly here), and they sometimes even yell.
Obviously Fatchi and I have a lot to learn from each other.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Lahadi, mixing up some hura (milk, millet, hot pepper)
Another bio:
Lahadi was married to Narba's husband's younger brother, so she lives in the same large extended family compound as Narba & company. (There were five brothers in all, two of whom are still alive.) A first I thought Lahadi was austere and imposing, but I've learned that she is anything but. She is probably around 50 years old, and she is a patient, graceful, respected, true "lady." Her children are adults, i.e. my age, but she doesn't have grandkids that I know: I'm sure they are somewhere! Lahadi is raising Ala, a two year old buster whose mother died giving birth to him and his twin brother, who is being raised in another village. I usually spend at least a half hour chillin' with Lahadi in the afternoon; she doesn't work as much as some other women because she has a bad hip. She's a fun teacher, too; and she loves it when I do anything that slightly resembles dancing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Narba's family

Zueria and her son Rahman

I was thinking it is time to give a few bios of people with whom I spend a lot of time, and are especially interesting. I know that I mention Narba often, which is partially because I hang out with her a lot, but also because you know who she is, sort of. But there are plenty of other people who deserve a shout-out, and who-if you visit-you will definitely meet. (Truthfully, you will meet every person in this village and you will be talked about for at least one, possibly two decades after the event.) We will re-cap the familiar figures, beginning with:

Narba Sama'ina: Good, precious, devious, everywhere-at-once, Narba. 70 years old-ish, the matriarch of a large family, all of whom I have come to know pretty well. Narba's family is the closest thing to family here. They include: her sons Sala, Shaibu, and Omarou, and their wives Zueria, Rasida, and Mariama, and their children. Of Narba's daughters'-in-law, I guess I know Mariama the best. She is close to my age, and very much loves to tell crazy stories about how she is going to sleep out in the bush, so would I mind watching Hairira (her daughter) for the night? Rasida is pretty young, maybe 17 or so, and she watches my garden when I leave the village. Zueria is married to Narba's eldest son, and they are the only married couple I know here that spends time together outside of their home: they joke and tease each other in the somewhat "public" shared space between the brothers' three houses (but certainly not in the village). Zueria is beautiful and loves to laugh. Her five children are also lovely and sweet. Rahman, the youngest, thinks I'm #1, and toddles over to be held as soon as he catches a glimpse of my white ankles. He calls me "Haba! Haba!"


Monday, October 20, 2008

A smoky mess

Haoua: "See? It's easy!'

It was a few days before anyone noticed that I was cooking "like them." I confess to feeling very inferior and pathetic in my fire-building skills despite my years as an explorer scout, backpacker, and--gasp--firefighter--but yesterday Narba discovered me huffing and puffing over a smoky mess. (It spoke very much of her fine manners that she didn't fall over in laughter.) Instead of showing a speck of condescension, she got down on her knees and within 5 seconds--I swear--she had a blaze going. How the??
So, humbled and exposed, I once again am under Narba's tutorial care. This morning, to my delight, I boiled a big pot o' water by burning another section of my fallen shade hangar. Satisfaction! It's strange how I always considered myself fairly capable in matters like this, but that here, my state of knowledge about living in the bush was exhausted by day two. A word to the wise: surrender your silly pride and ask for help when you need it. Your water will boil faster.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Out of propane

Haoua, frying millet pancakes (masa) over a typical cooking fire

I ran out of propane for my little stove, so for a week now I've been cooking over a "fire," which has been entirely enjoyable and amusing, if also frustrating at times. Frankly, the privilege/ease/and also expense of cooking with propane eliminates a significant job that all other women slave over daily, and by not sharing in their labor, I have missed out on a very accessible means of exchange. So, although I have lamented the loss of such a sweat-free cooking apparatus, it has felt right and valuable to spend this week considering things that the other women have to consider all the time: do I have enough wood, is it dry enough, why the heck isn't the fire starting, and how the hell can it not be dry enough in the hottest country on the planet?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A sigh of relief, and current food security in Niger

Estimated food security conditions, 4th Quarter 2008 (October-December)
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

(My village is in the "yellow zone" on this map)

8/19/08 What "moderately insecure" actually feels like:

IT RAINED! Finally! After three long weeks of not-a-drop, after which the millet had gone brittle and yellow and slouchy in the fields, the sky finally filled with cloudy water balloons that popped above us. Mun gode Allah! Thank god! Sunday morning at 4 AM--wait it was Monday-- wind and splatter drops woke me and brought me indoors, where I sat and listened to the downpour begin. It is fabulous news, the best thing for farmers far and wide--everyone is talking about it, and praising God and smiling skywards. We got a good soaking! And then, not two hours later, another storm came through. So there is a sigh of relief shared by the thousand or so of us in town.
My roof is a little more waterproof since Ayuba and Shaibu fixed it up, but it still leaks in several spots, so I'm getting good at timing when I need to move and/or empty water buckets, pots, and cups that I rotate from drop to drop. One way you can gauge how hard it rained is by the number of household articles set out to dry in the sun the next day: clothes, mats, mattresses. This morning all of the contents of Narba's little hut were strewn about her concession! And yet no one complains because the blessing of rain for the harvest trumps all, even the caving in of mud walls and huts that I saw this afternoon.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A session with Ibrahim

Ibrahim: sometimes he sets up a table and sells assorted things

I had another "decipher the proverb" session with Ibrahim, and as always, it was revealing and silly. Most importantly, he explained one of the proverbs about dwarfs (there are several); Durkusa ma wa'da ba gajiyawa ba ne. In ka dirkusa mishi sai ka tashi da tsawonka. The translation given is: "Kneeling down for a dwarf is not sufficient. If you kneel down for him, you can then stand up to your height." Doesn't make much sense, does it? What it really says is: "Kneeling down for a dwarf is not going to exhaust you, and when you kneel down, you will realize your full height." So, take the time to acknowledge everyone, and you will see how great you really can be. (Too bad they use a dwarf as an example of an inferior being, otherwise it's a nice proverb.)

I also learned a new favorite: Shimhidar huska ya hi ta tabarma: "A welcoming face is even better than a welcoming mat." Ibrahim did a kickass job of acting this one out; he set up two scenarios to show that a person may roll a mat out for you when you arrive, but if they then turn their back on you and ignore you, what's so nice about the mat? Whereas if you show up and are greeted warmly and with smiles, it doesn't matter if there's a mat or not, because you're happy. Isn't that nice?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Nuances of joy in this hot, harsh place

I am on the left, Meaghan on the right; her village is nearby; I sewed the dress I'm wearing!

I think it's safe to say that I've entered a new stage in my time here, socially, emotionally, and work-wise. And in a very "aren't we all connected" way, this shift has lined up quite naturally with the change of seasons. It's hard to put a finger on it exactly; it's much bigger than a finger! But I can try to explain it. My first six months here were spent starry-eyed, taking-it-all-in, bombarded by the newness and the impossibility of it all. Now, gradually, I am accepting the realities, the possibilities. And with that acceptance, the realization that this is my life-- not a movie, not an article out of National Geographic, not a vacation,or a foreign exchange program done for credit--come so many little knots to untangle. Life is complicated! Life is astounding! It is more than being perpetually high on adventure. As if one could ever forget. I was so dizzy with the high of being here that I had nearly forgotten what it was like to have a bad day. Such luck!

But let me stay on track--back to this shift, this process of realization--I feel more grounded now, more human I guess you would say, with a wider range of emotions. More real. I do have bad days, and they suck, but I see how important that is. I'm at a point where my relationships here are more complex than they were three months ago. My language skills are catching up, and inevitably this double-whammy reveals a whole new array of possibilities: conversations, disagreements, confusions, questions, expressions...whereas before, these things were simpler, and although it was frustrating, it was not so complicated.

Now. Knowing people better and understanding more of what is going on, I am suddenly aware of the bizarre and involved politics and dramas of my village. No more parading around, blissfully ignorant, riding the high of an adventurer in a new and exciting land! No! Now, I can listen and whisper, I can step on thorns both real and figurative, I can appreciate the nuances of joy that decorate the lives of people making it in this hot, harsh place. Do you see what I am trying to describe? Things have changed and it is hard, but it's the right thing; it's good.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Aloe, and a tree by the lake

The Aloe is endemic to Africa

It felt really good to survey my work and be commended for it by women whom I respect. After they had seen it all, they had a bunch of questions about an aloe plant that I brought back from Hamdallaye. I explained it is good for burns, and I'll give them some clippings when it's bigger.

I gave Karima a little sapling of a tree I planted--not sure of its name in English--but it's called sa miya in Hausa (literally "put in your sauce"). I guess its leaves are edible, but I have no place for it. Hopefully she will plant it by the lake; she said she wanted it for that reason.

Meaghan, Claudia, John, and Jessica in a photo taken by Char H. In Tahoua

Char said this about the trees planted at the lake's edge:
"Babaye is a lake, in the rainy season, that used to be surrounded by trees. The trees were so plentiful that when the colonists came to Tahoua, the villagers ran to the lake and sought cover by climbing the trees. They survived while others did not. You can see by the photo that the trees are now gone, but the the City of Tahoua is now planting trees in the hope of using it as a historic attraction in the future. John gave a wonderful impression of a tree ."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Millet, moringa, neem, baobab, veggie starts

Baobab seedling
For several weeks now--months, even--I've been prepping areas around my hut for gardens. It's really gratifying to see what was just solid, heat-baked clay and sand be transformed into something that more closely resembles soil! After chopping at the slate-like plots with every tool available (village-made hoe/ax and big sticks), I mixed in manure that my neighbors gave me. They watched with great amusement as I shoveled their goats', cows', sheep's, and donkeys' poop into my big "I Love Africa" bucket. Since then I have been adding water and millet chaff. And now: I have four garden beds! With plantable soil! Well wait, "plantable soil" does not make sense , but you get it, right? And in the meantime, the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and collards that I seeded are close to ready for planting.

I should clarify what I wrote about my neighbors: while at first they were just amused about my garden project, they quickly saw I was earnest about it and helped me collect and carry everything home! Ibrahim asks about it every day, and my women neighbors Lahadi, Abu, and A'i are ever-curious. This morning I was hacking away at a new bed when Karima, an influential village lady who sells odds and ends and goro (kola nut) from her home, and Aoma'u came by with Narba. Narba was so funny. She led them all around my concession, showing off all of the work I've done: my two meager rows of millet (now almost as tall as me!), the moringa, neem, and baobab trees, the beds I've dug, and the little veggie starts. I was dripping with sweat and covered in sand and goat poop, and even goat fur, but I stood there proudly as Narba clucked away.

Mature baobab tree
Photo by Brett