Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Habi gave me some really cool henna at the end of Ramadan.

There are several ways to experience the art of henna, and all of them involve a lot of sitting down and waiting. In rural villages, the leaves of the lale plant are picked, dried, and pounded into a fine powder, then mixed with a little water to make a soft paste. You spread the paste (or have someone help you) all over the bottoms of your feet; you can also stencil in designs using electric tape. That sounds confusing-- I will explain-- see, you peel off a bunch of tape, stick it to a metal bowl, and then use a razor to cut out the design you want. Then you stick the strip of tape along the side of your foot or on your hand, and put the henna paste on top of it. It's also typical to dye the tips of your fingers and the palm of your hand. Next, paste in place, you tie plastic bags over your hands and feet, to keep in the moisture. Then you sit and sit and sit, until your skin becomes a satisfactory orange. This takes an hour or two. If you have really thick callouses, the color shows up very well; I guess the dead skin can soak it up better. Next, you untie yourself, and wash off all of the leafy paste. You mix wood ash and ammonium salt with water, which makes a black, smelly paste. This gets smeared on the same places, you get tied up again, and then you sit some more. Eventually your henna will turn black! Very cool.

In cities, there are more modern ways to get henna done. I just tried one new kind, which turned out so beautifully...I wish it could last longer! In this technique, a very creative, steady-handed, Mysterious Woman squeezes black goo onto your hands and feet, making gorgeous designs of your choosing. In my case, I just pointed at other women around and asked for designs like theirs. After said Woman has finished, you sit for a long time. No plastic bags required, a bonus side to this type of henna. Then, you wash off all of the black goo (what IS that black goo?), and think "oh my God it didn't work" because the designs are so faint. But wait! Mysterious Woman has another trick up her sleeve. Now, you stick your arms into a giant clay jar, which has burning coals in the bottom. The mouth of the jar is stuffed closed with cloth, so that all of the smoke stays inside and swirls around your hands. After a few additions of more smoky coals, your henna turns dark, delicious black, and you are awestruck by your sudden beauty.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A scene on the airplane

The flight from Casablanca to Niamey: while we loaded the plane I was sitting in my seat observing everybody come on board. There was a whole crowd of 20 or 30 people who were on their way back from Mecca--mostly men, but several women, and a few kids. Most of them were dressed in giant floating white robes, and shawls, and many were carrying golden tea kettles and urns. It was quite a scene, all of these pristine white-gold beings filling in the aisles. The magic of it all, however, was then compromised because the seat-assignment regime on airlines is not familiar to people who are accustomed to clawing their way into any available space in the back of a truck. I could tell this was becoming an issue because they each sat in the first empty seat, and no one was looking at their tickets...and then it seemed that many of them were not literate, so they had no way of knowing their seat number anyway.

Everyone handled the whole situation really well--those of us who can read and who know how seating works, helped get people into the right places. It was pretty awesome--and frankly very entertaining--to see this crowd adjust to a completely foreign situation. I especially loved how the women were balancing their suitcases on their heads and still navigating the narrow, crowded aisles. Seeing that gives me courage. It's a reminder that it's fine to do what you know, to not let being different get in the way of doing what you want to do.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Konni hostel

Konni volunteers, at least some of them

Net-covered beds at the Konni hostel

Volunteers in my region come in to the Konni hostel once a month or so to pick up mail, write grants on the computer there, check Peace Corps email addresses, and of course, to catch up on one another. Sometimes there are workshops at the hostel. Hopefully, budget cuts won't eliminate the hostels...they are on the chopping block.

Contemplating the turkey, sadly, at the Konni hostel, Thanksgiving, 2008

Just a little later...big dinner prepared by PCVs on Thanksgiving, 2008, at the Konni hostel. There are a bunch of great new volunteers in the area.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Home cooking

I eat dinner with Narba's family three or four times a week. It's usually tuwo, sometimes wake (cowpeas), and a couple of times we've had dankali (sweet potatoes). Narba and I sit together, a bowl of food shared between us. The rest of the time, I cook for myself. I eat breakfast while sitting on the front stoop of my hut (usually oatmeal if the store in Konni is selling it). Lunch is usually couscous or noodles with available veggies. I buy couscous in Tahoua, noodles from Ibrahim or Ado, and vegetables from the Illela market if they've got any.

A meal of dehydrated potatoes & veggies, cooked over my propane stove

From May through August, I couldn't find any fresh veggies, and relied heavily on those that I dried previously and dehydrated veggies from home. Dinner is the same. Sometimes I have company for meals; anyone who comes over while I'm cooking is subject to it! They like a lot of what I make, but nothing tops

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What we eat and how it's made

In the couple of weeks that I've been home for Christmas, I've gotten a lot of questions about what I eat in Niger, and about what everybody else eats, on a normal day. The curiosity is mutual! People in my village are also keen to know what it is that we eat in the States, and I am asked about it all of the time. They guess that Americans eat a ton of meat, bread, and rice- a pretty accurate guess if you ask me! I'll try to shed some more light on the typical diet for rural Nigeriens, and also on mine.

So, first: as alluded to in previous letters, Nigeriens eat millet, every day. In my area, it is usually the only thing eaten. It comes in two main forms: as hura or as tuwo. Hura is a millet+milk=water porridge that is drunken from midmorning until night- basically, whenever you're hungry or thirsty, you take a few gulps of hura. Tuwo is a thicker millet meal that is hardier and more solid than hura; it's served with sauce made from any available ingredients (usually dried okra, dried tomato, garlic, and salt, plus any dried leaves gathered in the fields). Tuwo isn't made every day; it takes longer to prepare than hura.

The making of either
hura and tuwo for a family of 10 people takes anywhere between 3 and 4 hours when the labor is shared by two or three women. A really long time. In the example of hura, you have to: 1. Carry a bundle of millet stalks from your granary to the threshing area (threshing areas are communal spaces, usually on the edge of the village, where women work together with women from other families). (10-20 minutes) 2. Beat the stalks with a stick to separate the millet from the stalks. (20-30 mins) 3. Beat the millet chaff off of the seed using a large pounder or a long stick. (20-30 mins) 4. Separate the chaff from the seed by using the wind to blow away the chaff. (20-30 mins) 5. Take the seed from the threshing area to your home. (10-15 mins) 6. Pound the seed to remove the husk. (20-30 mins) 7. Wash the husk away in water, which is then given to the animals to drink. (15-20 mins) 8. Pound the husk-less seed (the germoplasm) into a course flour. (15-20 mins) 9. Roll the coarse flour into large balls and boil them to soften them up. (15-20 mins) 10. Pound the boiled flour balls with a little bit of water until they make a solid lump of dough. (10-15 min) 11. Mash the dough in a bowl of cow's milk, add water and hot pepper, and voila! It's ready.

The sound of millet being pounded is a constant one; I can hear it before the sun comes up every morning. I'm sure you wonder what it actually looks like, so here's some video of Zuera and Mariama .