Friday, July 31, 2009

A generous gesture

The story behind this photo is what I like. This is a Tuareg man from a nearby village, who brought his dog to the site where dozens of guys were hacking at the solid ground in another land reclamation project. The man is pouring water into his dog's mouth, a generous gesture in this parched place where most people don't like to be anywhere near dogs.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lunch in the field

July 14, 2009

Yesterday I walked out with Mariama to take hura and beans to the guys in the fields- I think you can see them at the top of the field, weeding away.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

FEWS Maps and the hunger season

Nationwide, almost one million people in Niger were considered to be living in “severe food insecurity” with another 1.9 million in “moderate food insecurity”, based on the government’s 2008-2009 assistance plan... In 2008, 39.3 percent of the population was estimated to be chronically malnourished, according to the government. (Source: IRIN News)

It's that time again: hunger season in the Sahel. The maps below indicate food security for the second quarter of 2009, in countries monitored by the USAID/USGS FEWS NETprogram. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, set up in response to the starvation of close to 1 million Africans in 1985, attempts to analyze and predict climate conditions and food security in 17 sub-Saharan countries, as well as Afghanistan and a handful of countries in central America.

The most vulnerable time will appear on their next set of maps, due soon. "Hunger season" is that time when food supplies have run out and the new season's crops are not ready to harvest, and it can represent the slow onset of famine.

Green: Generally Food Secure
Yellow: Moderately Food Insecure
Orange Highly Food Insecure
Red: Extremely Food Insecure
Black: Famine
Gray: No Data

Faloa lies on the edge between green and yellow. As we approach August, the yellow and orange areas are likely to expand; green areas will shrink.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Community classroom update: We've got walls!

I left Foloa on Thursday to start the trek to Niamey to meet --gasp!!-- my PARENTS, and took a picture on the way out. I think by the time we get back, there may even be a roof.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

For the curious and concerned parents of Peace Corps trainees in Niger!

First of all, your daughters/sons/friends are fine, albeit probably exhausted by everything that's happened in the weeks since training started. Right now, they are busybusybusy in their 2nd week of learning how to live and work in Niger. They probably miss home, but are so distracted by the difference of Here from There that they don't have any brain space to worry about it as much as you might think. Instead, they're wishing they could tell you all about it, and are writing letters to you by lamplight, letters that probably won't get to you for awhile... I'll try to fill that gap, the month-long gap between when they left home and when you'll hear from them again, by telling you about what they're doing. I hope it helps to put your minds at ease!

Training takes place for ten weeks in and around the town of Hamdallaye, which is about an hour's drive north of Niamey, Niger's capital city. All of the trainees-- they're not considered volunteers until they complete all of their training-- spent their first 2 nights in Niger at the central training center in Hamdallaye, a comfortable hilltop compound equipped with electricity, running water, and a whole staff of cooks, laundry men, gardeners, and official trainers. The entire staff is marvelously competent-- energetic, understanding, patient, and eager to help Americans find their way in Niger. I have never worked with such a compassionate and effective leader as Tondi, who manages all of the training activities.

On their 3rd day here, each of the trainees went home with a host family, where they will live for the next two months. You'll hear a lot about this from the trainees themselves, so I won't insert too much of my own picture in this, aside from saying that this was a good, strong shock to my system. During the day, trainees attend language, cross-culture, health, and technical training sessions. In the evening they are home, playing with kids, practicing their French/Hausa/Zarma, and eating whatever it is that their host mothers have cooked up that day.

At some point in the next month, the trainees will be able to call home (yay!!), an event that everyone here looks forward to SO much. You'll get an email from the PC office in Niamey giving you more details on this! By the time of the phone call, your trainee should know where in Niger she'll be posted, and she'll be close to starting her service as a volunteer.

I'm sure it's hard for you all at home, being out of the loop and not knowing what the heck happened to your people. But rest assured, they're in great hands. There's no place most of us would rather be right now than Niger.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Classroom update: the foundation

July 14, 2009

I left for Tahoua on my bike today, and snapped this picture on my way out. In the background you can see the cement bricks that were made by a crew last week. We have been sprinkling them with water ever since, while they cure in the hot sun.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Here is the headmaster, Shaibou, giving a lecture on dental hygiene to a primary school class. We handed out toothbrushes, courtesy of my generous dentist in Corvallis, to over 200 village students.

Shaibou insisted that the students raise their new brushes into the air for the photo-hence the salute. We salute you, Dr. Kendall Wood! Thank you!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Classroom construction update: hauling sand

June 20, 2009

Well, the work is starting!

This young man and his donkey just brought a load of sand to the construction site. The new classroom will be in the space you see to the left. Next step: we will mix cement and create bricks.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Now that planting is mostly over, we are moving on to weeding. In some ways I think this work, while back-breaking, is also a blessing. It means that the rain was enough to get the millet to grow, and likewise the weeds are popping up. It's not like weeding at home, where you sit or crouch and pull on stems (which is also hard work, absolutely!) It's done with another hoe-like tool, which has a more curved end. You tackle the rows head on, and hack and chop madly through the dirt, uncovering everything except what you planted, which gets to stand proudly, all tufty and green. It's quite a show- muscular, sweaty, full-of-motion men and women bent over and pushing their way through the greengreengreen.

Salla and Shaibou on the first day of weeding; Narba is going out to greet them

It will take a month to weed one of Narba's fields- maybe that gives you an idea of how big the fields are, and how slow the work goes. We'll be more split up for this work- we may be at different fields, or in far apart sections of the same ones. But some days we'll be together. Salla, Shaibou, and Badaru will head out before sunrise, and Mariama, Rasida, Sadiya and I will follow with food mid-morning. Zuera will stay at home with her new baby, Minaya. The little kids- Kadir, Oweli, Rahman, and Rabi- will chase each other around in the shade and step on thorns, then holler for one of us to come pick them out. Narba will go where she pleases, and when she comes near me she will insist that I rest, which I will refuse to do.

Working with everyone in the fields has been a strong reminder of how much I have learned in the last year. To understand how and when and why people do the work that they do- I am getting there! I am learning what is necessary, what is extra, what isn't quite enough to live.

Last year, I couldn't quite follow the beat- I felt like a pale little rock in a dark stream of very busy, beautiful, moving people. This year, I have a family and a place. Now, I guess you could say that the current has lifted me up. Sometimes I fight it, but I live for the moments when I realize I'm moving with it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


We got our first big rains two weeks ago, signifying a sudden shift in the daily rhythm that had been more or less constant since last fall. Everything changes with the rain. Once a big enough storm has passed- meaning the ground is soaked enough that a hole dug with your foot is damp at the bottom- men, women, kids, everybody, vacate the village for the fields.

Issa, Lahadi's son, with a sari (planting tool)

The strongest ones have the job of "sari": walking out ahead with a long, heavy hoe-type tool that they strike into the ground with every step, creating holes with small mounds of dug-out sand next to them. They make row upon row of these holes, which from a distance look like expansive, linear colonies of molehills.

Mariama, planting in the distance

Following behind the Mai saris (those who do the "sari" job) come the Masu taki (those who plant). These guys- usually women and kids- hold a bowl or calabash of millet seeds in the crook of their left arm, and walk along the rows, using their right hand to drop seeds into the holes, and their right foot to push sand back over the seeds. The best, quickest planters move so smoothly that you don't even notice they are planting; they simply look like they are strolling through the field, waving their hand over the dips in the earth. It looks and feels like dancing.

There is a rush to do as much planting as possible before the soil dries out, so families spend all day every day out in the fields, working hard to get all of their millet, sorghum, beans, sesame, and peanuts in the ground. Millet is the priority; once an entire field is planted in millet, people will go back and plant the other crops in the spaces between.

We got in four full days of planting after our last good rain, enough to plant all of Narba's family's fields with millet and one of them with beans and sorghum as well. When it rains again, we'll plant the rest. It's hard work, but I really like it. I like how it brings women and men together, and how it gives everyone a common purpose in a common space. There's an etiquette to it, too- you plant in pairs if you can, so you always have a companion planting the row next to yours. Even though I was slower at first, Mariama and Rasida always, always waited for me. They'd either slow down, or double back and plant the rest of my row for me, meeting me in the middle. We talked and sang songs, and time was irrelevant.

Monday, July 6, 2009


A word about our chief:
Every village has a traditional chief, and the larger villages have multiple ones for their different neighborhoods. Being chief ("Hakimi" or "Maigari" in Hausa), is a responsibility usually passed down between men in a family- from father to son, or brother to brother. I think that the job of the Hakimi may vary to some degree depending on the village, but in general he serves as an important representative of the village to local and regional government officials, settles village disputes, and is almost always around for people to ask questions and get advice.
Our Hakimi's name is Mohammed, but we all call him Hakimi. He's a quiet, friendly, soft-spoken older man who really doesn't stick his nose in any body's business but always seems to be in the know. He doesn't talk alot, but he's always sitting out in the shade near our mosque in his white boubou. Often there's a little girl playing on the mat next to him- I think she's his granddaughter, but could possibly be his daughter. When I first got here that's how I knew who he was- by the little girl hiding behind his knees- because I couldn't keep track of everybody by face yet.

I visit the Hakimi every day and exchange greetings, and I keep him informed of any work that I have going on. It would be considered unacceptable to do anything- a meeting, a project- without his knowing. He's been helpful to me in planning village meetings by telling me when and where I'll get the most people, who I should tell, what I should make sure to say. I also give him a few days of heads up before I travel or have visitors, so he always knows where I am. When I do get visitors, one of the first things I do is take them to the Hakimi so he can meet them; such visitors unfailingly comment on how twinkly his eyes are. It's true!

The Hakimi farms just like everybody else, despite his age and relative frailty. People are constantly bugging him during farming season to 'go home and rest!!' but he doesn't really listen. He and his wife live in a small hut and as far as I know don't receive any special privileges for his position. After the yearly harvest, you can find the Hakimi weaving large, thick mats out of straw, which are used for making walls and roofs for shade. He is the only one in our village who knows how to do this work. It's beautiful to watch.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Blessed Moment of Competence

Detail of Sandro Botticelli's "Madonna of the Pomegranate" (circa 1487)

It's been a year and a half and I still have days when I speak like a 3-year old, make the mistakes of a stranger, and have to ask how to do the simplest of things. But sometimes I do things right. And, rare as it is, sometimes I do things spectacularly well. Two weeks ago I went to Tahoua, and came back with a pomegranate. I gave the pomegranate to Narba. At that moment, I was called away-- a crying child, a passing camel, someone at my door-- I don't recall what it was that interrupted the pomegranate exchange. But later that night, after the last prayer call, Narba came over to ask me a question. "What is this thing, and can we eat it?" Aha- I immediately swelled with the knowledge that I alone possessed the information and experience needed to share a pomegranate. I joined her, eight of her grandkids, and two of her grown children on the mat in her courtyard, and proceeded to deftly and gracefully open the beautiful fruit. My audience was overcome.
Thank you very much, blessed moment of competence, for saving my self confidence.