Sunday, June 28, 2009

Eating when you're hungry

These boys have just had a successful hunt for a hedgehog and a rat.

While the vast majority of food consumed in the village is millet, people supplement their diets with other things as often as possible. "Often" isn't as often as anyone would like, but they make do with what they can, when they can. Some common diversions to the regular millet routine include sweet potatoes (purchased at markets in the city) from December-March, mangoes from April-June, ansa berries (green bean-like things that grow in the bush) in June-July, locusts (caught in the fields) and wild greens from July-September, and anything else that can be caught, hunted, or picked year-round.

So what do people hunt and catch around here? I see a lot of young guys, around age 15, heading out in the evenings to hunt rabbits, rats, mice, hedgehogs, lizards, and birds. They use slingshots to hit and stun all and any of the above, and finish the job with a rock or a stick. I've seen Fachi's son, Amadou, spend hours meticulously rigging up a trap to catch birds; he used rubber bands, cardboard, and string to fashion a sort of trapdoor/headbanger thing. It took me awhile to get used to seeing boys carrying home hedgehogs and rats to cook up, but I'm used to it now. The boys are invariably cheered by their bounty, so it's hard not to share in their excitement.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ol Cook Pot

Ibrahim spent a morning last week installing a screen door on my mud hut- a Peace Corps mandate, this screen door thing. Last year I coveted the screen doors of all my PCV neighbors (helps keep out flies and rats and such beasties), so when mine was dropped off I was pumped. But then I decided not to put it up, and it's been sitting inside my hut for a year. Occassionally I'd prop it up against the doorway and use it to keep dust and wind out during storms, and with the onset of the new rainy season I decided that a more permanent situation was in order. So, while Ibrahim mixed the cement and mud bricks to hold the door in place, I sat nearby and played music for him off of my Ipod.

I tried to pick music that he'd like and recognize. Ali Farka Toure- a Tuareg musician, was a big hit. Bob Marley- Ibrahim knows reggae from his days on work exxode. Sideways Portal- he hadn't heard this before, but got a kick out of knowing it's my Dad's group.

Then Narba joined me, and the two of us resumed watching Ibrahim work. I looked over my music, thinking of songs that Narba would relate to and enjoy. Right away I thought of a song by the Duhks that I like- 'Ol Cookpot- and I put it on and translated the lyrics to Hausa. 'Ol Cookpot is a rocking folksy soul song about a woman with five mouths to feed, no husband to help out, and a big empty cookpot that she's got to bargain with to provide just a little more food. Narba, if you can guess, now loves this song as much as I do. It totally translates- the words, the idea, the shittiness of the whole situation. Narba shook her head in sympathy for the lady and sang along with me. Later, I caught her explaining the song to her daughters-in-law and her nephew-- "This poor woman, she has nothing to put in the sauce, and she has five kids and her husband is off in prison or working or somewhere, and can you imagine? What is she supposed to do?"
There aren't a lot of things that translate so easily from English/the United States to Hausa/Niger. But some things, like working to feed your family, need no explanation.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pandemonium & reluctant acceptance of miracles (Part II)

Narba at the door of the grain bank

For those of you who know me, you know that I'm too sensitive for my own good, and that the sight of so many apparently furious women would really rock my boat. The first several such meetings (i.e. all of 2008), I would leave close to tears, convinced that everyone was pissed off, and that the project would never work, and that no one cared about it, and that I was a stupid, foolish, hypersensitive nincompoop. That still happens, actually, but it has gotten a little better. A little bit. What I learned is, there happen to be a lot of different ways of doing things. My friends- Gwallo, Narba, Lahadi, Fachi- have taken the time over the months to explain to me that, for better or worse, the women here have their way of making decisions. They laugh at themselves- "Muna kama tsuntsaye cikin itatua"-- "We are like a thousand birds in the trees"- and insist that no one is angry, even if they sound that way to me. Everyone, men and women alike, nods in agreement that "Samsiya, bata so yaya"- "Samsiya really doesn't like it when everyone talks at once." A few times, the ladies have done their best to restrain themselves, and have managed to put off the chaos for a few additional seconds. But it doesn't last. It's okay, I guess, as long as things work out in the end. Which is where this story is going--

Collectively (read between the lines and know that we had a half dozen squalls/meetings), the women decided that each bag of millet (100kg), would be sold to groups of four women- that is, four women per bag- for the small price of 2,000 CFA. At harvest time, each group will have to bring an additional 15,000 CFA worth of grain to restock the bank. So, each bag assumes 17,000 CFA. I purchased the grain at 14,000 CFA per bag last year, so we're making 3,000 CFA profit per bag (1,000 CFA in grain, 2,000 CFA in cash).

The day the committee opened the bank was, in my experience, a complete and total disaster. What I saw was: Some women came in groups, some came alone, some came with money and some without, and no one stood in line. Women were thrusting cash at each other and yelling names to be written down, and their sons were carrying precious sacks of grain off before accounts could be settled. The women in the committee were all over the place- Huri and Habsatou were alternately scribbling down names and stubbornly refusing to write a word, Karima was taking money and making me sit on the cash box, Salamu was barking orders at the boys carrying grain, Lahadi was standing there with an amused look on her face...On my precarious perch on the cash box, I was squashed by woman after woman, who would lunge forward to force coins into Karima's hands. Meanwhile Ana, Aisha, and Yashe repeatedly used my shoulders as a stool when the crowd of women would start to fall onto us.

I was saved from calamity by a phone call from my mother, and was able to extract myself from the pandemonium for the haven of her support and patience. I didn't return to the grain bank; even if I hadn't been talking with her I don't think I would've made it back there. But about a half hour into our conversation, here comes Narba, beckoning me over. And this is where this whole mess started to make a little more sense. The women had all gone home, except for the committee, who were now all sitting on mats in my own courtyard. "We've been waiting for you!!", they said. They wanted to count all of the money, and I needed to be present. So that's what we did, and instead of finding that they were missing a zillion dollars and that they'd only managed to write down ten names, we found that all but an inconsequential amount of money was there and that all the names were recorded. They even knew exactly who hadn't paid, and how much she owed, and had a plan for collecting the missing money.

So, count me utterly bamboozled. I don't understand their system, and I don't like being caught up in its volume and tussle, but I can now attest that it does, in fact, work. A part of me is nearly indignant, that such turmoil cuts it. But that's the American part of me, which admires order and calm. But I am in Niger, after all, and I suppose I'm learning a little humility at last.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Pandemonium & reluctant acceptance of miracles (Part I)

The time came to open the grain bank, an event that I had been anxious about from the beginning. There's just so much to keep track of, and so many different ways to do things, and then for the committee to be new at it's a big responsibility, and I wasn't sure of the best way to run it. Which is fine, since I'm not supposed to run it anyway, but I couldn't help stressing about it. It was hard for me to figure out a respectful balance between giving constructive advice and sticking my nose into their business. It is theirs, after all. And, as they kept telling me, the women'll run it the way they want to, when it comes down to it. So I kept my mouth shut most of the time, opening it only to say:

1. The grain is for selling, not for giving away.
2. The bank had better be full with grain again after the harvest.

Another reason that I was anxious about the grain bank opening was because I have come to dread, and indeed avoid, womens' meetings that involve more than 20 people. The way womens' business is carried out here- loudly, chaotically, everyone-shouting-at-each-other-at-the-same-time- makes me want to disappear. I won't pretend that I like it. I despise it. I think my difficultly with it is born out of major culture differences in the way groups of people make decisions. In the States, I was taught to present articulate, well-prepared arguments in as calm and dignified way as possible. I was taught that one person speaks at a time, and that other people listen, and that if someone gets loud and agitated it means that they feel very strongly about something, and that probably they're angry or disagree with what that was said. Groups of loud people mean that people are fighting, and that something bad is happening, etc etc etc.

Here, though, it's different. Things happen like this: two hundred women sit under a tree, one woman starts talking, then another woman stands up and starts yelling, and within 15 seconds (I timed it), every woman is standing, half of them are yelling, and no one is listening because you can't hear anything except noise. It's hard to imagine, I think, because it's unusual at home. But try: you're in this crowd, fists are in the air, voices are raised, people are up in your face and shouting things that you can't understand, and this goes on and on beyond the point where you think that people should really chill out.

At home, I believe the word for this is Riot.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Movie time: Early morning bush taxi ride

Let me make sure this is clear: I hate riding in bush taxis. They are dangerous and they are uncomfortable. However, we don't have other choices, most of the time. So here's a video from the back of one. Don't be misled by the seeming lack of people in the back of this truck- I have never, ever seen such an empty truck here! Chalk it up to the early hour and the direction we were going-- away from a market town. The road was pretty clear, and we felt relatively safe, so I relaxed and enjoyed the wind. And so did Meaghan.

OK, this is a more sedate ride; actually we're still loading up:

Monday, June 8, 2009


Traditional fencing is made of thorny brush that is gathered and piled in a row. It can be effective, but needs a lot of rebuilding.

The fencing that we got from a previous volunteer's village has a new future: instead of going up around our gum arabic plantation, we're going to use it for the school gardens and community tree nursery. I talked about it with the school director and the Tree Guys, as I think of them, and we decided more people would benefit by using the fencing this way. We still haven't put it up, but it'll happen. Probably soon!

Measuring for a new fence

Thursday, June 4, 2009


So happy!


The Community Classroom Project was fully funded as of today, June 4. As work progresses on this project I will give you updates!

Back from exode

The men are all back from
exode (months away from Niger, working to bring home cash), and waiting for planting season (i.e. RAIN). The village is full of life and activity. When I returned from my weeks away, I saw that they had brought in a pile of gravel for the community classroom; remember, they agreed to provide 33% of the cost and that's part of it. But it was a tiny pile of gravel! I worried that once the rains start we wouldn't get the gravel and sand, but they assured me "No, no, Samsiye, we know how much is needed!" And sure enough, the very next day I saw donkey cart after donkey cart bringing in loads of gravel and sand; they're getting this stuff from way out in the bush somewhere.

So the men have some time on their hands right now, and have asked for English lessons. Why not? There is a group of 25 or so who come to my compound every evening for a 45 minute English class, hoping to pick up some English for when they next go on exode to Nigeria. It's fun, and they are good students.