Monday, March 30, 2009

What's up with environmental education

LinkMen's tree nursery

Environmental Education: In January, I started co-teaching enviro ed classes with the headmaster. We have a 1-2 hour lesson every other Wednesday afternoon with the 5th and 6th graders. So far it's been surprisingly kickass, because Chaibou does a great job of animating and legitimizing the material. We're using the Globe curriculum- it's used by schools worldwide to gather data on different aspects of the environment: atmosphere, soil, water, and trees.

So far we've done 2 soil lessons and 2 tree lessons, and when the students return from spring break we're going to start a small tree nursery so everyone can take some trees home with them. Ibrahim, my friend, Hausa teacher, and formal work counterpart, is jazzed to help with all of that.
Next: women's literacy

Friday, March 27, 2009

What's up with the grain bank

The next few posts will be updates on my 'official' work here. It's true, I am technically a 'Natural Resources Volunteer', but in real life the technicality of that expands generously to include all kinds of projects...basically, I can do, or can try to do, anything that my counterparts and friends in the village want to do.

Grain bank committee in front of the grain bank building

Grain Bank: Lots of news here! We opened the bank for general viewing last week; most of the women hadn't had a chance to see all of the grain yet. It was exciting- all 65 bags are there, in giant white stacks of blessed insurance against hunger. The women crowded inside the building and were reluctant to come out; everyone wanted to count them for themselves. We discovered that a few of the bags have bugs in them, which is both a bad and good thing: bad, obviously, because nobody wants bugs in their food. But good that we saw them, because now all of the women know and will bother the committee about it until the problem is fixed. So, that's cool. We won't open for business for a few months. There's actually quite a lot more that I've been learning about food security here, and I'll share it with you later.
(Next up: environmental educati0n)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dance...or whales?

Wide-eyed, on a bus for the first time
About the internet and Alvin AIley:
My mind went totally blank when I was trying to think of
what to show them. The first image of the Outer World.
Only two things came to mind, after literally a
whole minute of just sitting there. I thought: dance, or, whales.
And I decided on dance. Whew. The girls stared and were silent-- a
lot to take in.

The conference is going splendidly - actually, it is AMAZING. There is
no doubt that these girls are having the experience of a lifetime. I
have NEVER seen Hadiza smile this much. The other volunteers noticed
too- they keep commenting on how happy my girl looks.

There are 12 girls total. I'm
in charge of 5 of them- Hadiza, plus Chaffatou, Zalefa, Aminatou, and
Tahiratou. They've already opened up so much from day one-- at first
they were so quiet and timid, and now they're playing and asking
questions, laughing and teasing me about stuff. It's great. Yesterday
they spent most of the day on job shadows- I took Hadiza and Aminatou
to shadow a female doctor at the maternity clinic of the hospital,
Zalefa shadowed a female military officer, and Tahiratou went to
either the post office or a utilities company. In the mornings,
before sessions start, the girls have stayed busy with coloring books,
and in the evenings they stay up super late playing bingo. We also
played musical chairs, which was A HUGE SMASHING HIT that was
requested again the next night. I was too tired to play- how lame.
But maybe tonight. We're going to show them a movie! And tomorrow
we're having a party, and we're gonna eat lots of MEAT. Yeah!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Alvin Ailey in Konni

An email sent from the new internet cafe in Konni, March 17:

Made it in 4 1/2 hours this morning...not too bad, but about 1 1/2 hours longer than my record. Last time, this trip took me 6 hours...that was a long day! You just never know. The bush taxi drivers can go wherever they want and stay there for as long as they want. I'm getting better at just sitting tight and staring into space.

Shoe vendor in Konni

Hadiza came in with the three other young girls who are going to the Maradi conference this morning; they left from Tajae with the volunteer there. I met up with them and took them all around on a mini-tour of Konni. It's pretty cool when you realize this is their first time in the city, ever. They look, suddenly, really, really young and out of place. I'm going to have to be a good chaperone this week and make sure they're comfortable. I took them out to lunch; there's a lady on the corner who makes great rice and sauce. Then we walked down to the post office, which is towards the end of this very busy road, so the girls got an eyeful of vendors selling everything from oranges to bottles of gasoline, motorcycles galore, and as much pavement as they've ever seen. I am pretty confident that none of them had ever been in a car until today...can you imagine what this must all be like? At the post office, the three ladies working there chatted us up for a long time and helped put the girls at ease; when all of the bureaucratic stuff was over (you have to get all of these slips stamped and signed and then pay for it all to get packages), the girls were allowed to go in the back and help me pick up my mail. I have packages galore!!!! THANKS FAMILY!
Next, we headed to the new (and only) internet place in Konni, because I wanted to show them how that works. Not that I can explain it in English, but I had to try! I said it's basically like a really smart cellphone, which they know about, but bigger. So picture this: me and four sweet young girls sitting in a white room around an old gray PC, me trying to explain the Internet in my childish Hausa as the Google homepage loads... And what to show them?! I decided to look up a video of the Alvin Ailey Dance company. It was beautiful, even without the sound....and that's all we did; it occurred to me that with all the world at our fingertips, perhaps we should proceed with caution and deal with reality first.
So then we came back, and I let them pick which package to open together, and they chose Aunt Carol's. Young girls of Niger, meet Teddy Grahams! Thank you Carol!! We loved the photos (and yes you know EXACTLY which one is my favorite), and I devoured the letters later, by myself.

Tomorrow we'll get on a bus to Maradi, where for the next four days the girls will attend a conference for Young Girl Scholars. I saw the agenda- it looks good. Sessions are on a range of topics- everything from health to school to careers. The objective is to give these girls a look at what's out there, if one day they're able to and interested in making a life beyond the village.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


As I mentioned before, the intrusion of animals is a major deterrent to gardening. Goats, sheep, cattle, and donkeys have free range during most of the day, and it only takes one to break from the herd and destroy a whole plot in the space of a minute. This year chickens have been the main problem; a few came through and wiped out all of the newly sprouted crops that five other women had planted in an adjacent area to ours. Those women didn't replant. Traditional methods of keeping animals out are either covering plots with big thorny branches, or weaving fence out of grasses, sticks, and thorns. We did both of those; after seeding, we used a nasty tangle of thorns, and once things started growing we built a grass fence around the perimeter of our plots. We haven't had any problems except some unknown something who keeps nibbling my collard babies.

I've had two village meetings with the landowners around the pond to see how we could afford purchasing metal fencing to enclose garden areas. Everyone is in unanimous agreement that many, many more people would garden if there were some insurance that their plots would be safe, and there is continued interest in investing in a more permanent solution than thorny branches. The challenge is that not only is metal fencing (chain link) prohibitively expensive here, but also that there is not yet a communally owned piece of land that could be enclosed. As it is, we would be fencing in certain individuals' land, and not others', which gets political and a bit messy. To clarify- the women are gardening on land owned by a man named Adamou, who lets them use his land for free during cold season. Fencing this part of his land would be awesome for gardeners, but is problematic for the other 12 landowners who would also like to fence in their plots and garden. So...there's some work to be done. Moussa suggested that I push to get a landowner to sell his or her land to the village, so it'd belong to everyone and no one, and could then be fenced in without rubbing anyone the wrong way.

In the meantime, the six of us will keep up our morning and afternoon trips to the garden, to water our growing veggies and get away from the bustle of the village for awhile.

Habi watering greens

Habi and Balki at their lettuce plots , inside of El Hadji Shaibu's land

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cold season gardening in Niger

The growing season (May-August) is completely devoted to growing the staple crop of millet and there is zero time for anything else. But during the cold season (Dec-March) some folks try to grow veggies. "Cold" is a relative term. This week it was 111° F (43.8°C) in the shade.

I was thinking I should write up a little something for you about vegetable gardening, which is going on right now. Well, in case you're interested:

From December through March, when the temperatures are a little lower and there's not any farming to be done, many villagers plant vegetable gardens around the edges of seasonal ponds. By this time of year the ponds are dried up, but usually there are shallow wells nearby that have enough water to work with. In my village it's mostly women who do 'cold season vegetable gardening' ('noman rani', in Hausa), although there are several men who are using this time to transplant mangos, neem trees, and henna. In past years I hear that there were at least 30 women who gardened, but that number has dwindled to five because of frustrations with crops being ruined by errant grazers (and chickens). This year, it's Osuma, Narba, Hassana, Karima,

Most women plant the same things: tomatoes, hot peppers, cabbage, lettuce, and carrots. And, while they will take some of their wares home with them to eat, the majority of vegetables are grown with the intention to sell them either at the larger market in Illela or here in town. A nearby village, which has a great area fenced in for the gardeners, is already producing a ton of lettuce; on any given day I'll run into a young girl selling it out of a giant plastic bag on her head. It's cheap- 50 CFA (10 cents) for about 2 heads.

I planted a bunch of collards, zucchinis, and cucumbers. The collards and zucchinis weren't familiar to my fellow gardeners, but they've had cucumbers before. It'll be cool if everything makes it, although I'm skeptical about the collards' heartiness in such hot weather. I'll let you know how it goes.

We are washing lettuce in the hostel in Konni, and it is verrry dirty. Ate it anyway.

That's it for now...but more about gardening later.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A difference in the landscape

Tree growing in a demi-lune
Photo credit: ICISAT (New Agriculturist)

It has been cool, and encouraging, to see the difference that the demi-lunes have made in our landscape. During a walk through them last week, Ibrahim pointed out how most of the trees planted are still alive, and how each crescent grew a healthy bunch of green grass this year, which has long since dried up and is now golden tangles of hay. Ultimately, the entire area will be used for grazing and the harvesting of fodder for the region's animals.

I'd originally thought that the ultimate goal would be to use the space for farmland, but that is not the case: in our region at least, the crescents are used specifically to bring back the long-lost savannah landscape that makes the free-roaming herding lifestyle of the region possible. The addition of Gum Arabic trees to the landscape seems to me a bit of a wild card; the intention there is part reforestation, part income generation (the gum produced by the trees can be sold). Goats, sheep, and cattle aren't allowed to enter the area yet- and won't be for another couple of years, until the trees are big enough to survive being grazed on themselves. But eventually, what was once just an enormous flat disc of hardpan will produce a ton of gorgeous green fodder.

Wow who knew there was so much to say about demilunes....

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Demi-lunes and land reclamation

These photos show the digging of banquettes at the edge of town. Banquettes serve the same function as demi-lunes: to make the hardpan soils usable. Last photo is a demi-lune.

As you can imagine, Niger's climate, topography, and heavy land-use (grazing) provide a perfect situation for the formation of hardpan, and there are miles upon miles of it throughout the country. One method of land reclamation--i.e. turning unproductive land into something greener-- is the building of demi-lunes: the digging out of large, 5-meter long, 1-foot deep crescent shaped holes in the hardpan's hard shell. A sapling- usually Gum Arabic- then gets planted in the space. Typically, hundreds to thousands of demi-lunes are dug at a time, in the interest of improving large swaths of land. The crescents are aligned to catch rainwater that would otherwise race off, giving it a place to soak in and hang out for awhile. In time, seeds of grasses and shrubs also get caught in the crescents, take root, and spread. The effect is impressive; you can look out on acres upon acres of the demi-lunes and see bright green, lush crescents standing out against the otherwise rusty beige color of hardpacked earth.

We have over 9,000 demi-lunes in my immediate area; all of them were dug in the last 3 years by the men, women, and kids of my village and a couple of surrounding villages. It's back-breaking work- imagine chopping at a parking lot for a few hours in the sun. Blah. When I arrived last year, people were in the midst of a big demi-lune project, and I joined in to dig three big pits of my own. Each one took me about 2 hours, I think, and I had to wait a week between each of them for my patheticallly soft, blistered hands to heal enough for me to go back. The project was paid for by an Italian NGO, COSPE, which paid 250CFA per demi-lune (about 50 cents).

Monday, March 2, 2009


At the edge of town

The combination of strong wind, lack of vegetation, baking heat, and overgrazing have the unfortunate effect of turning what may have once been tillable soil into a solid, impenetrable surface called hardpan. You can't do much with hardpan- it's as hard and smooth as a parking lot, and extremely difficult to transform into something arable. Wind blows away any seeds or sediments that could potentially rehabilitate the soil, and heavy rains in the summer run off the polished surface, sometimes carving out big gouges in the landscape but never soaking in.