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!