Saturday, November 29, 2008

AIDS awareness

Enter AIDS education: there are many ways that volunteers work to promote AIDS awareness and education. They do radio shows, theater, classes, tours of villages, presentations, and clinics...there is an annual AIDS bikende in Niger, when volunteers ride through several villages, doing skits and shows along the way. Next month a friend of mine, JT, is organizing a similar tour of villages in my region. He and I and a few other volunteers are going to work with some CARE representatives to do day-long presentations at each site. We'll do a day in my village; and knowing how quickly a crowd gathers at the sight of another white person, I'm sure we'll have quite an audience. I'm really looking forward to helping out, whether it means acting in a skit, handing out condoms, or even just providing food for the CARE folks. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Exode and HIV/AIDS

85% of the village's men leave after the growing season to find work in other countries; most of them return in May. Meanwhile, women do much of the harvesting work, and stay behind with the children.

I'm sitting in the PC Medical Officer's presentation about HIV/AIDS in Niger; he's listing off a bunch of grave statistics about rates among nationals and volunteers. The official reported AIDS rate in Niger is 1.8%, but it is almost certainly higher...hard to know because it's taboo to talk about. I assume that many young men contract HIV during exode--the 3-9 months per year when they leave the villages to seek employment in wealthier countries. It's not even just young men; really it's anyone who sleeps with a prostitute during that long time away. Then the men come home and infect their wives.

Although I haven't heard any talk of HIV/AIDS in my village, I did recently have a pretty candid conversation about prostitution. Some male villagers and I were talking about the pros and cons of going on exode; I had asked a bunch of questions, like "Do men look forward to exode? Do they prefer to be away, or to be at home in the village? Why do some men stay away longer than others? What do people think of men who stay away for so long?" The guys I was talking with--Ibrahim, Idi, Issiah, and a few other older men--seemed pleased to talk about everything. They said that they enjoy exode because there are so many more amenities than in the village. Usually they are in big cities in Nigeria, Ghana, Bukina Faso, etc., so they have access to electricity (fans, refrigerators, good food). They laughed when I asked them if being away was more the "good life" than in the village: "Of course it is!" And at that, I took a little offense, "But what about leaving your family?" To which they said that yes, it's hard to be away from their wives and children, but that everyone likes to get $$ in the village, and it's only natural to leave once farming season ends and to return before it begins again the next year.

While they're away, they accept any kind of work: construction, cement, selling trinkets on the street. They send cash home with friends, and when they come back they also bring new clothes for everyone in their extended family. For many--if not most--families, this is the only source of monetary income: $ made by the men in the family while they are on exode. Guys from ages 18 to 40 or 50 seem to go; I'm told that by December, 85% of the men will have left my village, not to return till around May. Some men leave for much longer, a full year or two, depending on where they go, and whether there are other men who can help them farm their fields in their absence. When I asked about this, the opinion of men who leave home for so long, the topic of prostitution suddenly came up. Ibrahim explained that in some cases, men who haven't been able to make/and/or save much money on exode won't come home because they have nothing to show for their work. He then added that often, these men spend the money they made on prostitutes, and just never end up coming back. I was surprised to hear him bring that up; it wasn't a big deal, I guess, to mention. He emphasized that this behavior is Bad, and the other old guys agreed, although they did so jokingly, kind of in the same way that people joke about men who visit prostitutes in the states.

I don't really know how many of the 85% of men who leave my village for work this year will visit prostitutes. Or how many of them will use condoms, or how many of the prostitutes have HIV/AIDS, or how many of the men will contract HIV/AIDS. All of the possible numbers are frightening, but none of them upsets me more than the number of wives who could be infected as a result of their husbands' careless behavior. The thought of women, mothers, who work year-round in a hot, harsh, unforgiving climate, who take care of half a dozen kids all day, who get no break from the village life even once in their lifetimes, the thought of them being infected with HIV/AIDS and never knowing it, but eventually dying from it and seeing their children die from's a cruel, unjust, infuriating possibility.

I don't know who or how many people in my village have HIV/AIDS, but I assume it's present...and let me be clear...that even as I assume it is present, I also assume that the men who become infected do so ignorantly; this is not a story about evil husbands vs. angelic wives. It is about people engaging in risky behavior, of which the consequences are unknown, or distant, or misunderstood.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Not a rabbit

Five boys, about age 7, are over to look at books. (I got these in care packages...there are otherwise no picture books in the village.) The boys' names are Turjani, Malaru, Halilu, Ousman, and Alhassan. Their banter is just terrific. I gave them each a book to look at and here's what they are saying:

"That's a lion! It has 4 legs, but we can't see one of them." (Darn 2-dimension.)
"Pretty sure, but even if he's just got 3 legs, he looks pretty happy."

"That's a rat."


"That's a rat."
"That's also a rat."
[Can you tell what book he was looking at? (Your Friend the Rat)]

"That's not a bird, actually. It's kind of like a fish because it lives in the ocean! But it's also like a cow because it has breasts and feeds milk to its babies." (Glad I paid attention in science was a photo of a seal...)
The response: silence. Awe? Or disbelief?

"That's a rabbit!"

"Yeah, it is! Why isn't it a rabbit?"
"Because it's STANDING UP, and everybody KNOWS rabbits run on the ground!"
"Well, yeah...but it's supposed to be a rabbit."

"But it's wearing PANTS! IT'S NOT A RABBIT!"
"OK, then what is it?"

"I dunno."
(This was a Richard Scarry book.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fund the Peace Corps

Peace Corps programs around the world have had to cut their budgets by 15% this fall. Peace Corps trainees and volunteers in Niger are feeling the pinch; training sessions and services have been cut. The Nigerien training staff is now doing double duty, teaching both language and tech skills. Volunteers are doing without programs and services that they had 6 months ago. Staff has been reduced.

Peace Corps has been hands-down the most cost-effective foreign aid program that the US has had for over four decades. Recent budget cuts have hurt. If you have a friend or relative in the Peace Corps, they will be negatively affected. Through the website Fund Peace Corps (set up by PC volunteers in Mongolia) you can easily send a message to your congressmen and women: please restore funding to the Peace Corps.

If you go to the above link you will see that it is set up to generate letters to mail to your senators and representatives. For the simplest case all you have to do is enter your zip, then at the end copy and paste a bit. Or you can get fancier... It looks up info on the representatives and adds references to their Peace Corps service (if they served) or their ability to change the budget (if they’re on the Appropriations Committee). So please check it out.

Oh, by the way:
To put the Peace Corps budget into some perspective:
Peace Corps proposed 2009 Budget: $343.5 million
2009 Enacted supplemental Global War on Terror Funding (pg 22 of this document ): $68 billion

Peace Corps 2009 budget= .005% of 2009 Global War on Terror budget
In 3.65 days the Global War will spend as much supplemental/emergency funding as the whole Peace Corps budget for the year. Gee, couldn't we round it up to 4 full days?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Millet harvest

Millet that I planted in my concession
I'm trying to remember what the last season was that I described to you; I think it must've been when things started to turn lush green. Oh, and then I wrote about the dry spell when things turned yellow. Let me catch you up. The hasi (millet) is now several feet over my head, and it has started to lean and bend in tall green curves from the weight of its seeds. In most fields, the millet heads are filled out and still slightly green, though some are dried out and ready to harvest. Last week people started to harvest some of the green heads; they can be grilled over coals and eaten like that, or set out to dry in the sun and then pounded as usual. To help you imagine, millet plants resemble corn plants, and the heads are a similar shape and size, but they aren't covered by husks. The seeds are much smaller, and round (just take a peek at your birdseed mix). The heads are harvested ki
nd of the same way as corn--well, not exactly--you cut the stalk close to the base of the seed head. It is the hungriest families who harvest the green millet; they do so because their personal stores have run out.

Harvesting my own millet:
The knife was a piece of scrap metal; Narba finally just took it from me, and I was glad.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The 16-mile walk

The other day Narba and I walked a total of 16 miles to visit a woman who fell off her motorbike near our village. It was a pleasant walk; both of us were in good spirits, and the weather was nice. Narba carried a bowl with nine eggs in it to give to the lady, and I sneakily videotaped her walking through the sand. We walked the two hours there, stayed for 45 minutes, then walked back. Most of the walk home we debated the merits of getting a horse or a camel: a very fun conversation to have with Narba. The verdict was that most likely I will not be getting either, but IF I did, Narba recommends a camel, because they are easier to take care of. We'll see about that. Camels are really expensive.

Camel market, Badigishiri

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Petition to Obama regarding the Peace Corps

The election of Barack Obama opens a door of opportunity to elevate the possibilities and the promise of the Peace Corps. If you would like to sign the following petition (you do not have to be a returned Peace Corps volunteer), go here.

To: President-elect Obama

We congratulate you on your election victory.

We are inspired by your call to U.S. citizens to serve the nation, and are especially excited by your often repeated pledge to double the Peace Corps by the 50th anniversary in 2011.

We sign this petition to express our strong support for a bigger, better and bolder Peace Corps. The Peace Corps can and should be at the foundation of your administration's renewed commitment to reach out to other nations in the very best traditions of the American people - cooperation, friendship, cross-cultural understanding and positive engagement designed to improve the human condition for millions of individuals around the world.

We look forward to working with you in achieving your goals for the Peace Corps.


The Undersigned

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Split pea mush

Pasta (and some tuna from a care package)
I have gotten into the habit of photographing meals that I have cooked that are particularly delicious. For instance, today I made a split pea stew/mush with peas you sent, potatoes, onions, and cabbage that I dried last April, and BACON BITS from an ingeniously engineered care package. (Thanks, mom! The peas cook in under 15 minutes.) Dee-licious. But don't tell my neighbors that I'm eating pig, especially now that it is Ramadan.

Peas, beans, etc.