Wednesday, December 23, 2009

From the land of sea to the land of water.

My first week here was a wonder of green, a wonder of water. Our training center sits on the edge of a lake (man-made but still watery), and down the hill in the villages, rice fields form a network of running water in every valley. With a bright sun, the world turns upside down, small green rice shoots growing out of sky and clouds.

Yesterday we went out to the rice fields and stepped into the mud. I stepped carefully between the rows of small rice plants and used a really awesome kind of rotary hoe to cultivate (weed) the rice, calf-deep in mud. We are learning a technique of planting rice that gives a much higher yield than the traditional method, in the hopes that people in the villages we are assigned to will want to learn. I was skeptical until I saw that it didn't involve any fancy chemical fertilizers or “improved” seeds, just some basic applied plant biology...spacing out the plants to give their roots room to develop, and managing the water so that you give the roots some air now and then rather than constant flooding. Simple, cost-free things that make a difference. It's a step closer to One-Straw Revolution's “natural farming” without being so drastic as to be impossible to convince anyone to try.

Our “site announcements” were made a few days ago. The village that will become my home for the next two years is a 9-kilometer bike ride from the main road where I can get a taxi-brousse (bush taxi) to a bigger market town (the Peace Corps will be giving me a bike to use!). It's a tiny village of only 180 people in a “hilly wooded area” that is “hot and humid” according to the info sheet. There is a women's group and a group formed to work with the national forest beside the village. In an effort to manage the national parks and forests more sustainably, the previous government began giving more control over the park management to local communities. I will be working with this forest management group and with farmers in the village and the surrounding area on projects relating to forestry, agro-forestry, gardens, improving rice harvests, environmental education, or whatever other agriculture/environment things that they are interested in.

My first months in the village will be spent improving my language skills and learning about the people's needs, desires, and expectations. I will not start any projects right away (except maybe my own garden!), until I have learned what sort of things would actually be useful. I've been reading Two Ears of Corn, a book about small-scale agricultural projects, and starting slowly and small seems to be the best approach. At the same time, I am eager to finish training and go jump in more rice fields. We've been in training for over two months now, and I think it is starting to wear on everyone. If we hadn't have left Niger, we would be finishing training this week and going to our assigned sites now. Instead, we have another month left, but the last three weeks will be spent living with host families in the surrounding villages, so that is something to look forward to. Plus, I can use as much training in the language as possible—our teachers here are excellent and I feel like I'm learning quickly. I've just got to be patient and hang in there for a few more weeks!

Almost daily, I go on a walk for about an hour and a half after classes in the afternoon, when it's not raining too much. I pass oxen carts painted in bright colors and patterns, little stores selling cookies and Malagasy bread (mofo), cassava growing on hillsides, unknown trees that have been coppiced many times, children calling out “Manahoana” (hello!) and then hiding behind their siblings, boys playing some sort of game involving rolling small balls in the road, a rushing stream that feeds the rice fields, egrets standing gracefully in those rice fields, wooden houses with shutters, mud brick houses with thatch roofs, young men that say things I can't understand and probably don't want to understand anyway, puppies looking bewildered at the world, chickens burrowing into the dirt at the side of the road...I could go on, but you get the idea!

Anyway, we are heading to a National Park to see some lemurs for the Christmas weekend. If I get internet access, I'll post this up. I hope all of you had a good Christmas! Our dining room is decorated with paper snowflakes and some of the trainees made little paper stockings with each of our names on them. Some of the stores in town have lights and decorations up. Everyone is excited about Secret Santas.

When I get to my village, I will be setting up a new mailing address, but for now, feel free to write to me at the address I emailed earlier. I have a new phone number too, which I can try and get to anyone who wants it. I'm not sure how frequent my internet access will be, but I'm guessing perhaps once a month. Hopefully I'll have more insight about the village next time I post! Overall, I am just trying to learn Malagasy and adjust to being here rather than in Niger. I definitely miss a lot of things about Niger, but now that I know my site assignment, it makes it easier to begin to focus on spending the next two years here. Keep in touch! I'll try to post pictures next time!

You can email Emily (my sister) at lilbikergirl (at) gmail (dot) com for my current address and phone number if you want it!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Here is a sampling of pictures from my time in Niger:

My trees in the nursery (moringa growing)

Camels eating by the lake

Me and Nikki under the tree - our hut is behind us, behind the low wall.

Kids in our concession by the cookfires

Tabaski feast food being prepared (no goat yet!)

The teenage boy got the kids to pose while we were drawing together - very cute kids!

The two greatest girls in our family drawing

Sunrise over our training town

My stick bed on the end of the row

Women pounding millet in the millet pounding area

The grandmother of our family pounding peppers - the teenage boy in our family took this picture!

Me by a very large milkweed type plant

Freshly made bricks drying by the lake

Watching the sun set on the last day in Niger

November 29

We spent this weekend with our host families for the feast of Tabaski, a very important Muslim feast where they slaughter a sheep in remembrance of Abraham. I did end up eating a lot of rather interesting goat parts. I spent the afternoon making a Go Fish set for the kids and showing them to play. It was so fun, I made pictures of things in their daily lives and put the words on the cards. They loved it.

It was so hard to say goodbye to the family. They walked out to the end of the road with me, telling me Sai Hankuri, and Sannu da Kokari, which means kind of like Have patience, and Blessings on your effort.

I stopped at the nursery and watered the trees. A group of little girls watched me, and we all greeted each other and told each other our names and they were so sweet. I am saying so many goodbyes, to the trees, the sunrises and sunsets that are so distinct here, the silly kids, the ox carts filled with millet, my own expectations of two years here, all the wonderful teachers and staff and families that have welcomed me and taught me more than I thought I could learn in six weeks.

November 20-25th

November 20, Friday

I went on a walk with three other trainees this evening. It felt so nice to get out of the training center. A breath of fresh air. An open sky, brown earth stretching so far. The enormous ball of sun sinking into the horizon. It was so beautiful. I really do want to make my life here for two years.

We were all talking about Peace Corps on our walk and whether or not it was useful or did any good, and I really came down to “It is what it is.” Is there a better “helping” organization out there? A worse one? Probably. It comes down to such an individual experience. What am I hoping for? A chance to learn about and practice agroforestry, trees, grafting, animals, water catchment strategies, food security in a difficult arid landscape. That is what I hope for.

November 25 Wednesday

What a day. The country director came to tell us that we will not be continuing training here and most of us will be sent to Madagascar. She felt that with the security situation not improving, while she could keep the program open with the volunteers that are already here, she didn't feel comfortable sending out new volunteers without experience in Niger right now. So we will all be leaving within the next 2 weeks.

It was such a sudden and unexpected announcement. I immediately felt so sad to be leaving Niger. Somehow, I ended up loving it here, the landscape, the people, the potential for all these dryland agroforestry 40 trees planted...

On my walk this evening, Julie (another volunteer) and I sat and listened to the call to prayer. I thought about how the call to prayer is a moment to be grateful and remember how good life is. Watching dusk come over an orange-brick village with the sound of pounding millet, goats bleating, the sun falling into the next day, I will miss this piece of Africa.

I am trying to keep an open mind and heart to what will come next, trying to be grateful for what I have been given here, taking this time to say goodbye to Niger. I don't want to think too much about beginning a new training in Madagascar, that is too much to absorb right now. I just want to sit and look at the patterns the gardeners raked into the dirt around my mosquito net. I want to sleep with the stars above my head and the sound of the crickets.

One good thing is that I did get so excited about being here. That gives me hope that I a bit closer to “finding”(?), “figuring out”(?) what I want to do, that I'm moving in the right direction. If Madagascar is that direction too, that's good. Patience. I do need patience. Sai hankuri...

November 13th - 18th

November 13 Friday

The goats are really noisy tonight, tied up under the shelter on the other side of my wall. Maybe they know what's coming to them...

I went to the language teachers' house tonight to study and it was really nice to sit at an actual table and spread out all of my Hausa papers. I feel like I am beginning to grasp things, but I still feel so limited in my vocabulary that communicating is really awkward and stumbling. My mind works slowly, especially with my tiredness (anti-malaria medicine is giving me sleeping problems), and I need time to let it all sink in.

November 18 Wednesday

So, kidnapping attempts at American embassy workers in one of the regional capitals and four nights of insomnia have made this an interesting week so far...

All of us trainees have been moved up to the training center for now, this is called “consolidation.” The other volunteers have been moved into their regional centers and we are all waiting to find out what will happen next. People are certainly anxious. There's not much we can do but keep going with our training and hope that the program here stays open. Maybe I've been too tired to be upset, I just feel patient.

The medical staff gave me some medicine for my insomnia, so hopefully I will sleep now.

November 7-10th

We are visiting a volunteer in her village for “demystification” - a Peace Corps process in which we all go out to stay with “real” volunteers in their villages for several days to get a taste of what their lives are like, for all of our mystification to be solved. While the terminology is rather silly, the concept is nice, and I'm enjoying a break from our training town. We are staying with Nichole - her village is really nice, the people we have met have been so welcoming, just the whole practice of greeting in this country is a welcoming process.

It definitely feels very different here from the training town...much more remote and quiet, no electricity and LOTS of stars. We went to the fields with this ancient woman named Hankuri (which means patience) who is one of the most expressive people I have ever seen. When she greets you, she holds onto your hand for so long. We walked with her to a place where some non-profit once came and planted eucalyptus trees, which use so much water that they dried up all of the surrounding wells. There was a plant there that looked just like milkweed, except that it was taller than me!

In the heat of the day we sit in the shade. Then we go out visiting. We walked to the area where people go to pound millet. They don't pound it in their homes because of the chaff that it stirs up, and because of a belief that evil spirits stay in the place where the millet is pounded at night (something like that...). Where they pound is out on the edge of the village, on the top of a plateau, with a view going on for miles into the distance. All of the women out there working seemed so relaxed and beautiful and happy.

I guess what I love most about this time of day in the evening is when it's finally cooling down, the air becomes light again, and energy comes back. In the middle of the afternoon the thermometer read 120 degrees. I had a hard time believing it.

We walked to the school and I was so impressed by the teachers. They seemed so engaged in their work, and one especially was so enthusiastically talking to the kids sitting in a building made from woven millet stalks, with little seats and books. Only five girls in the whole group of younger students, and Nichole said that she thought perhaps only a third of the children in her village went to school at all. Being a teacher is so important.

Being here inspires me to focus hard on the Hausa learning so I can be as ready as possible for my village and working on projects. Partly I'm excited at the possibilities and partly I'm thinking to myself “how in the world would I even know where to start?”

November 5th, Thursday

November 5, Thursday

We started making our tree nursery today! Each NRM (Natural Resource Management) volunteer gets to plant 40 trees. It's amazing to me that a seed will grow in this sand. Humbling. How adapted things become, how little we really need, and also how much. In places of abundance we become accustomed to abundance, but in a desert, each tree, each millet stalk has grown from this sand and a bit of water.

Yes, the climate is harsh, the poverty more extreme than what I have ever seen before. It's hard to live here, whether you are a person or an acacia tree. I am glad to have two years to live here, to dig into it and find all the light places in the harshness, like finding all the color blooming in the desert during my bike trip.

October 31 - November 1st, 2009

I am an observer mainly. Learning the language is my task at hand, with a goal of communication. For now I am watching, listening t the sounds, following what movements and patterns I can find. Each day is new, I am humbled by many, many things.

Today I sat with women in the house where I do my language class; during our break I pulled the petals off the hibiscus (ware) plants, and the leaves, which were spread out behind their hut to dry. They make a sauce with the leaves, and juice with the petals, just like the rosa de jamaica in Guatemala. I was thinking about Rabinal and the women I cleaned hibiscus with there last fall. Having something to do with my hands for a little while as nice.

I went walking around the lake with another volunteer, and we found women gardening, digging small holes and planting some kind of squash-looking plants. Their gardens are surrounded by dead branches forming a fence - it impresses me that it can keep the goats out. They speak Zarma in the village, so our attempts at conversing were humorous and very limited, but the women so kind and welcoming.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Some bits from my first weeks in Niger

Ignore the date that it says above---I'm updating this from the hotel in Paris and just putting in little bits from my journal over the past 6 weeks. I'll put the date above the entry when I wrote it, and try to figure out a better system later!

October 24th, Saturday

There are so many noises, new ones. It's like passing through an unknown village in Mexico on my bike trip. All this activity happening that you can only imagine. Soon enough I will be part of it all. Starting from zero with the language (Hausa) is difficult; it's like when I was in Guatemala and my family would be speaking Kakci'kil and I'd just be sitting there smiling, playing with a kitten or a child. There is a comfort to the voice of an old woman.

October 25th, Sunday

Our first day spent with our host family. I am roommates with Nikki, aka Hadiza. The grandmother in our family gave us Nigerien names, mine is Aisha, or Aishatu, though there was quite some confusion on that matter for a while, during which time we thought that Aishatu meant "Hey you!" or "Look here!"

We walked to the seasonal lake on the edge of the village. There were green and blue birds with long tails, and white birds in a flock. It was a moment at which I suddenly had this wave of feeling that I am in Africa. It is a place different from anywhere else that I have been.

Our house is a round mud hut with a thatch roof right in the middle of the family's house, a concession made of a mud brick wall and several small houses for each part of the family. The family is big, lots of kids, adults, I don't know who belongs to who yet, and it doesn't seem to matter. We have our own latrine and bathing area, a bucket for our bath water, a stool to sit on while bathing, cups to pour water over ourselves. Mostly I feel very comfortable and easy here. We are so much taken care of, no thinking about our food, our schedule, even our laundry...I feel too priveledged. I keep thinking that so much will hit me when I finally get to my post. Training is a good, but strange, lifestyle.

Our little host brother told me today about learning Hausa "if you can catch it in your head, it's not difficult!" I'm trying to keep my mind open like a net, ready to catch it all, but it seems to take me a bit more work than that!!


October 22nd, Thursday

I have arrived. It is more amazing than I have been able to imagine. Soaking in all the donkeys pulling carts on the way to the training center, the animals all over the place, the beautiful orange sand and scrubby trees, the wide wide sky and clouds. Women watched our vans go by, smiling, the colors of their clothes shine. Brown stalks of dry, harvested millet stood in the fields. The clouds are the only thing against the flat horizon, they are the mountains of this desert.

I have a bed outside on the edge of a row, each with it's own yellow mosquito net. From here I can hear music and radios from down the hill in the town, voices and crickets, children. I look out from my mosquito net and see 14 lights in the town below. Many many stars above.

I almost feel so blessed by all of this that I could cry. Here I am! Okay, I need to sleep, let all of these new things sink in, and be ready for tomorrow.

A Journal

I have decided to share bits of my journal with you, my friends. Right now I am on the edge of a new transition, just as I was six weeks ago, when I left for Niger as an Agroforesty Extension Agent with the Peace Corps.

After six weeks there, our training class is being transferred to Madagascar due to security concerns in the region. This journal will tell about my time in Niger, and hopefully I will be able to update it periodically in Madagascar, though I don't know how often that will be. I will be working in the Environment program there, hopefully also with Agro-forestry or another agriculture-related project.

Some of you have followed my bicycle trip journals. This may be a bit different, as there are no daily milestones (or kilometer-stones) to measure myself by, no map to trace my progress, and an end-point that is 24 months from now, and definitely less frequent internet access, but we'll see how this goes.