Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Visiting home!

Grandpa and me, a few minutes after the surprise. We are soooo happy.

I came home for Christmas! I flew in a couple of weeks ago, all braided-and-hennaed up, and have a few days left before heading back to Niger. And what a trip this has been... my younger brother helped me buy a ticket in secret- we are so sneaky!- but I couldn't contain the secret for longer than a week, and I spilled the beans to my folks. We did, collectively, manage to keep the surprise for my grandpa, age 90, who also came out to Oregon for the holidays! Thank you, Bliss family, for coordinating all of this!

It's been wonderful to be home. Lots of walks and runs, lots of good food, lots of time with family and friends. It hasn't been strange or scary being back; it's been a warm, familiar reminder of what a strong and loving family I have backing me up. I guess next year it'll be harder, when I actually have to adjust to living here again. Before I left my village, I had a conversation with Narba about how excited we both were for me to see my other home, and how it was 100% positive because we all know that I'll be coming back to Niger for another year. We sobered up quite a bit to think about how, next December, my leaving will feel terrible. But for now- it's been a dream!

And...who could've IMAGINED...my dear and amazing cousin is coming out TOMORROW to see me! I still cannot believe it, but she says it's true so goshdarnit let's rock n' roll. To all of you secret keepers out there: you are so awesome.

Thank you again to everyone who helped me get home and who has been in touch through the last year. It means the world to me! Happy New Year- may this one bring you health and peace.

Back to the land of snow and cellphones.

On a walk with Mom, Christopher, Grandpa, and Eddy.
Not pictured: Dad (camera duty), Ben (Japan duty) and Reuben (smelly things duty)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Girls' education

Hadiza's primary school

As for my role as her sponsor PCV, I will visit Hadiza at least monthly, help arrange a tutor, bring her a stipend each month, and start a journal/semi-biography with her. I am so curious to know her and to know what she thinks and feels and needs...I think it may take months before she will be comfortable being totally open with me. Now she treats me like quite an authority figure and probably would say whatever she thinks I want to hear.

I know, I know, education is one of the first steps to self liberation, development, women's rights; I'm not about to make a case against educating anyone: knowledge is power. But consider and recognize that the process, the logistics, even, of becoming educated in this country, especially for a female, are very very formidable. Hadiza has to leave home, alone; she's the only girl to do so; all of her girlfriends will stay in the village and continue their lives as usual. She has to adjust to a new village, family, and school. She'd have to be pretty enlightened already to be content with this situation: who at 13 is happy to leave their peer group? So there is that. Then consider the Nigerien school system: a French system, with all courses taught in French (not the language used in homes or anywhere else in the villages), where memorization and recitation are all you do, and critical/independent thinking and creativity aren't fostered. Corporal punishment is the primary form of discipline, not just for misbehavior, but also as a means of academic correction.

Now consider the long term social implications for an educated female in this country, where most women marry as girls, at age 16-18. Hadiza, if she succeeds amidst the challenges mentioned above, will have to face the stigma that educated women are less desirable as wives--the assumption being that they are too independent (willful and also financially independent), too strong-minded/stubborn/assertive, and too old to marry: all unattractive qualities to many Nigerien men.

Even as there are national campaigns to promote girls' education, there is not a "place," a culturally and socially appropriate, desirable place, for educated adult women. That takes time. An educated, open-minded Nigerien male friend of mine told me that in a recent TV campaign for girls' ed, several female "role models" were presented as examples of what you can become if you, too, go to school:
1. A pop singer (who dresses like a westerner, and therefore looks totally unpresentable and slutty.)
2. A teacher (unmarried, living at home with parents)
3. A woman with a high-powered government job (divorced, living at home with her parents)
So, as much as the ad was supposed to show "successful" educated women, it actually just reinforced the stereotype that educated women are unmarriageable, inappropriate, burdensome drains on their parents. So. In Niger, marriage is a huge rite of passage, celebrated as much or more as any holiday, and 1/2 of the ultimate achievement a woman can possibly make: having lots of babies.

I think maybe I've made my point...just that getting girls in school is tough, keeping them there is tough, and showing them that it is going to improve their lives is tough--and in the view of many, not even true.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hadiza and high school


Anyway--I had a great conversation with Hadiza's parents, Mano, and A'i, whose willingness and open mindedness about girls' education is a progressive and impressive change for such a small remote village. A'i said "We're just glad our daughter is going to see more of the world." Awesome. Mano was already scheming about who would be willing to house Hadiza, and the headmaster, Shaibu, is working on submitting a transfer for her. Until last week we still didn't know for sure if Hadiza would be sponsored by YGSP or not, but either way I was determined to find a way to make high school happen...and now we know for sure: she is funded!

I picked up all sorts of goodies for her in NIamey. The YGSP assembled backpacks full of books, notebooks, pens, pencils for all of the girls. I'll get to take it back to her when I get home next week: I can't wait to see her face when she sees all of her new, shiny school supplies. I know that I got pumped to have new school stuff every year; even through college the sight of unused crayons was enough to get my adrenaline going. Imagine never having such stuff in your life!

And so you may wonder: what does Hadiza think of all of this? To be honest, I don't really know. She is a quiet, respectful girl whom I see at the well every afternoon, and who becomes giggly, animated, and goofy when she is with her friends. She was among the group of girls who came to my house every afternoon to sew sock dolls back in April; I knew she was one of only two there who were enrolled in school, and who could read. I didn't know what was at stake with the big test she must have been preparing for. I know that the challenge of moving to a new village and stepping into an unfamiliar social circle will be tough, especially for a 13-year old girl. I don't know what her greatest fears or apprehensions are, or even, honestly, if she wants to make this change. It appears that it's not exactly her decision to make; whether or not to go is mostly up to her parents...so I hope it is what she wants, or at least she can see that there is opportunity within her reach. She is young and bright, with a big year ahead of her.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hadiza's success

Hadiza and family

The Young Girls' Scholarship Program is funded mostly by Friends of Niger, an organization of former PCVs/family/people who have lived or worked or care about Niger. Girls ages 13-to 18 who are enrolled in school are eligible for sponsorship through the YSGP, meaning they receive monetary support, books, uniform, and support of a PCV. This year I think there are around 20 girls being sponsored by the YSGP in Niger. Back in July I filled out a YSGP application with the headmaster in my village for a girl named Hadiza, who is 13 years old and was the first and only girl to pass the exam that all 6th graders must pass to be eligible for secondary school. It was a big deal that she passed; her teachers, the headmaster, and especially her parents are super proud!

The way it works here is students have a first chance to take this test; if they fail they can do 6th grade over and try again; if they fail a second time, that's the end of school for them. If they pass, they have the option of starting high school, which in most cases requires them to move to a larger village or city. Our village has no secondary school, so any students who pass and are able (ie allowed/encouraged/made) to continue their education must move to either Tajae or Illela. Even for students who pass, it's not a sure thing they'll move on to high school. For one, their labor at home is valuable, and it can be hard on a family to "lose" a child to school in another village; also moving requires parents to find a family willing to house and care for and feed their kid while he/she is living in the new village.

Because girls play an extremely important and constant role in household work--carrying water, caring for babies, cleaning, pounding millet, cooking--there are significantly more barriers to their ability to continue school than for boys. (In fact these barriers are usually enough to prevent girls from ever starting school--and from performing well or having time to study. However it is becoming more common and accepted for them to go to primary school.) So you can see why the event of (1) a girl passing the exam to begin high school and (2) being encouraged and supported by her community to actually GO to high school, is pretty cool.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Where Narba was

You might have noticed that Narba's name wasn't on the list of the women who came to the training, although she is one of the grain bank committee's presidents. The reason she couldn't be there was because her granddaughter died that week. And the reason that her granddaughter died was, to my eyes and my understanding, because of severe dehydration and starvation. It's difficult for me to write about this, and so I haven't written about it to anyone. I haven't written a single letter to anyone for this whole month, because I'm unsure of what words to use to describe what is going on in Faloa and Niger right now. I hate not telling you about it, because it's been part of every day of my life for weeks now. But I also hate telling you about it, because I don't think you will understand. That's not fair of me, so I'm going to try.

The big picture, which is easy to explain: By this time of year, people-- farmers, meaning villagers, meaning my people-- have been working their bodies, hard, for six months straight. They have used their bodies and nothing more than a few handmade hand tools to turn sand into fields of millet, sorghum, and beans; they have battled acres of weeds with their backs bent over in 120° heat, they have spent weeks harvesting giant bundles of heavy stalks of grain, they have clocked hundreds of miles on their feet that are either barefoot or in crappy flipflops, and for a month of this- all September- they did it without food or water, for Ramadan. As the doctors at four of the clinics and hospitals that I have visited in the last month have explained to me, by this time of year, nursing mothers' bodies are exhausted and broken, and they stop producing milk. Babies who weren't weaned yet get weaned abruptly, and babies who weren't ready to be weaned yet get weaned anyway. They are given more water than they would normally drink, which results in higher incidences of diarrhea. And that, for a baby, or a kid even, in this country, is close to a death sentence. I wouldn't have, couldn't have, believed it before coming here. But it's real, and it's been happening all around me this month, and I have never felt more helpless, devastated, or furious.

Narba's granddaughter, Foziya, was about 16 months old. When I left the village in early October to help with Peace Corps training, she had a fever and I put a damp cloth on her hot little body. When I returned at the end of the month, I didn't recognize her, except as a child that I could've seen on the news in a report about famine or war. By then I think she was not entirely conscious. She was just bones in a small, rigid shape on her mother's lap. I sat with her mom, Dela, and Narba, and the other women in the family in their hut- I knew they were there because that's what you do when you are waiting for a person to die. It was confusing and shocking and upsetting, and I didn't know what to do, or if I should do something, or if I could. I told Narba, please let me take her to the doctor, but Narba said that it was in God's hands. Foziya died in the evening, and the wake lasted for the next three days.

So that is why Narba couldn't come to the training. I sat at the wake in the mornings and all evening after the training was over each day. I am a part of this family, and I felt like it, and my presence was never questioned.

I'm not sure what else to tell you about, because Foziya's story is the first in what has become way too many children who have died in this village. I can't just list off these names like that's all they are, names. I don't want to do that. They're a lot more than names, they're babies that I am used to holding and carrying around when their moms are pulling water, they're babies that were learning to sit and walk and talk. It's so messed up, it's not fair, it's the cruelest thing in the world that this is true. My friend Mariama, who is lovely and clever and whose daughter Harira was born the week I moved here, is now walking around without her baby on her back, with her breasts leaking milk. Mariama is healthy- she wasn't weaning Harira and didn't have to, she had plenty of milk- but Harira got diarrhea, and even though Mariama took her to the clinic-- three different clinics, all hours of walking away- they couldn't help her. They didn't help her, and her beautiful baby, whose picture I've taken a hundred times, died in less than a week.

As this has all been happening, I've been struggling to understand it and working to find out what the options are for mothers- where can they take their babies, and what help can they expect to get? The two closest clinics have one person on staff at best, who's not usually there, and who just hands out oral rehydration salts like that's going to fix everything. The clinic in Tajae is better, but gets absolutely flooded with people. I've been there a lot lately-- I've started going with women, because they like it when I come, and I think it makes it easier for them to go. I started going a few days after Foziya died, because one of the kids who is closest to my heart started really going downhill. I know I've told you about him before-- Rahman, Zuera and Salla's son, another grandson of Narba's. He's the kid who always toddles up to me yelling 'habba!' and who squeals when I lift him high in the air.

Rahman is 18 months old, and was still nursing until October, when Zuera's milk dried up. Rahman started getting diarrhea, and throwing up, and he started to refuse to eat or drink. He'd been like this before I got back, and was losing weight and acting listless, limp. Zuera and I went to Tajae, where they gave him antibiotics, but he didn't get better. He lost his baby cheeks, his eyes started sinking farther and farther in his head, and the skin on his legs hung like paper. He just got worse and worse, so we went back. We went on a Wednesday, which is when an Irish NGO called Concern sets up at the clinic and administers a whole lot of help- all for malnourished kids. I'd never seen them in action before, and I was overwhelmed and grateful to the point of tears. I mean, you walk into this big cement building and it's full of hundreds of women holding on to their skinny babies, waiting in lines to have them weighed and measured, and then to get a week's supply of high calorie super-nutrient life-saving food. It takes courage to take your kid, you know? They want, like every mother, their child to be healthy. But it's still hard to get the guts to take them, because everyone sees you and sees your sick baby.

Zuera and I were told that Rahman was "broken", and that if he refused to eat the special food at that instant, they would write him a referral to the Concern Hospital in Tahoua. He wouldn't eat anything, and so Zuera and I returned home with him to ask for Salla's permission to take him to Tahoua that afternoon. And you know, this was really strange and disorienting for me, because I don't have authority over this child, or his parents, and if Salla didn't agree, Rahman wouldn't be going to the hospital. It was painful for Salla to decide- he was surrounded by all of the women in his family, yelling and watching, and there I am, terrified he's going to say no, and then he does, he says no. He said no, because he heard that if your child dies there, the hospital doesn't give you your child's body back. I was devastated, and Zuera started crying (people don't cry here), and the women went crazy...I told him, okay, let me call them and ask them if that is true, because if it is true, I understand. But he really didn't want me to call them, and he excused himself and consulted with some other men, and then he gave us permission.


Zuera, Rahman, and Narba ended up spending nine days at the Concern Hospital in Tahoua. The doctors showed them how to force feed him highly nutrified milk, and they were kept on a strict feeding schedule every hour. I visited them there twice, and got to see Rahman get better and better. Everyone in Foloa knew he was there, and constantly asked me if I had any news. When they finally got released, Rahman had his chubby cheeks back and even started smiling every once in a while. He'd been back for four days before I left to come in to Konni for Thanksgiving, and he seemed better each day. He still qualifies for the supplements given out in Tajae every Wednesday, so he and Zuera and I will keep going, along with the other five or so women from Foloa who have started going. Last week, a new mom joined us, Tahira, with her son Aziz. Going with them, and helping to connect them with doctors who can and will help them, makes me feel less helpless. I feel like I finally know where to go, and I'm getting to know the doctors. Best of all, women who felt helpless can see Rahman and how much better he is. And that is what really matters.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Getting the grain

And- drumroll- we got our grain! Serendipitously, our grain got delivered the next week! I had placed an order in Konni at the house of one of Moussa's friends, but wasn't sure of a delivery date. I just crossed my fingers it would be here before the end of November. What happened was comical in retrospect, but at the time I was pretty flustered. See, I'd gone to bed and fallen asleep, and an hour later (10:30?) Salla (Narba's eldest son) is banging at the door to my courtyard, saying "Samsiya? The car is here. You know, the one with the grain!" And then he disappeared, so I was left in this tangle in my mosquito net trying to figure out if that actually happened. I wrapped my sheet around my waist and went out looking like a very loose woman-- tank top! head uncovered! Yikes. And there you go, there's a big truck full of giant white sacks of millet, parked next to the grain bank building, and a whole crowd of teenage guys swarming around excitedly. I was kind of out of it, but managed to pull some Hausa out of my sleepy head, and we eventually got the building open and started the long process of unloading the sacks (60, 70 lbs a piece?). In the dark. The guys had a ball, laughing and joking and helping each other, as I took photos and grinned about the fact that this was finally happening. None of the women were there- everyone was asleep- so it felt like a big secret. I had a hard time getting back to sleep.

The committee is getting ready to have a huge meeting to show everyone the bank- they want to make it a big deal and open up the bank for all to see. It hasn't happened yet, for a few serious and sad reasons that are entirely unrelated to the grain bank or the committee (more on that in a while, I guess, if I can find the words). It will be exciting, more than exciting, when it happens.

We just might have to dance.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Grain bank update

Narba in front of the grain bank building

Grain Bank Update: We got our training! The twelve women on the grain bank committee, plus myself, were trained in (almost) All Things Grain-Bank-Management-Esque. For the last three days of October, we sat on mats on the new cement floor of a vacant classroom and learned about our new jobs and responsibilities. It's been just a month since then, but it feels like forever...I'll try to recall more of it in detail, because it was a pretty big event, both for the village women and for me.

To start- I spent the better half of October in Hamdallaye, helping to ease the newest group of volunteers into life here. As soon as that ended I zoomed back to my village, because I only had a day to get things ready and-- most importantly-- remind all of the ladies that yes, indeed, we had two fancy city ladies coming to set us straight. Much of that week feels like a buzz of constant motion: Riding to Tajae to double check with the trainers, walking around to all parts of the village to confirm the days with people, buying food to feed everyone and finding people to help cook and carrying mats and chairs and water back and forth...and, most interesting of all, finding the women on the committee and trying to explain "10 o'clock in the morning". A funny, funny concept. No clocks, no watches. Some young guys have cell phones, but their grandmas (ie the ladies on the committee) do not keep track of hours. So, I tried a few approaches. There's a word for late-morning-ish (hantsi), and it's around then that girls are done hauling water, and there's also a big piece of metal that the headmaster bangs against another piece of metal to signify the 10am school break. So I tried dropping all of those clues, and crossed my fingers that the twelve women would make their way to the classroom by twelve. Hadiza and Gembi, our two trainers, were totally in tune with village time (THANK YOU), so they understood the delays...

Brief review of our training:
Day One: Hadiza and Gembi arrive at 10, village ladies (Salamu, Ana, Habsou, another Salamu, Mariama, Huri, Yashe, Aisha, and another Mariama) trickle in by 12. Just as expected- no worries. Hadiza is young, loud, intense, commanding, fierce almost, and does most of the talking. Gembi is quieter, doesn't demand our attention the same way, but is friendlier. We learn about the purpose of a Grain Bank (first: food in the village! second: make money! Not the other way around, which is what the ladies argue for a long time, to the delight and amusement of the trainers. But we figure it out eventually); we learn about the difference between the committee and the 'big group'-- the other 200 women who've invested in the project, and we learn that we really like it when Hadiza asks Samsiya (me) if she understands, because she usually doesn't, which makes everyone laugh. And then a village woman explains it to Samsiya, slowly, which she appreciates immensely.

Day Two: Hadiza and Gembi arrive at 10:15, village ladies make it by 11. Progress! We spend lots of time reviewing what we learned yesterday- trainers ask us over and over "what is the purpose of a grain bank???" Good. We learn how and where and when to buy grain, and how and when and where to sell it, and for how much. We learn when to give loans and how to get paid back. A long day, butts sore from sitting so much, but we're learning good stuff. Decide to (try to) meet earlier tomorrow. I am skeptical. But, let's try, right?

Day Three: Get this-- village women show up at 8:30, Hadiza and Gembi at 9am. Take that! Yeah, we rock. Sneaky village ladies accurately observe that "Samsiya's probaby tired of having to send little boys after us when we don't show up on time". True that, ladies. We go over every woman's specific responsibility-- we have two presidents, two secretaries (the only two literate women, and the only two under the age of 40), two sellers/buyers, one groundskeeper, two money storers, and three key holders. Trainers make us repeat back over and over what we each have to do-- awesome. I also have a job-- self-assigned, sort of. Train our two secretaries in record keeping, and keep a spare key. I also got assigned a few random tasks- help the presidents open a bank account (VERY VERY TABOO), get a small safe made with three different locks, and make identification cards for everybody.

So: It couldn't have been better. Really. I hadn't dared to hope for it to go as well as it did. Hadiza and Gembi were great- sharp and snappy, which is exactly what you need to be to impress a bunch of village ladies. Narba's daughter, Tchimo, made delicious food for us every day, which was carried to us on the heads of a line of little kids. We got to sit in the brand new classroom, because the headmaster was very generous. Most importantly, the women came, they participated, they asked questions and talked, and they seem like they got a lot out of it. And that is dreamy, so I am very pleased and proud. In the last few weeks, I've overheard them talking about what they learned and explaining things to other women. My faith in these women just continues to grow.