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.


Anonymous said...

great post. Though a different context and situation, I can say that it took me longer than it should have to reach the same conclusion during my time in Ecuador. It's a great (and hard) lesson to learn.

Marilyn said...

amazing that it all worked out! What a cool realization, thanks for sharing my love.