Last night my phone shown a pool of light at my feet,
walking through rainforest,
stopping to watch sleeping chameleons,
stars upside-down above me.
Today I push my gas tank
strapped awkwardly to my bike
slowly down a sandy road,
startling lizards at every step here,
a yellow crowd of butterflies there,
a red fody coming from the rice field, overhead.
So it's been a long time since I've written. I have a lot in my journal, but I didn't bring it with me to the capital, thinking I was only going to be here for two days. However, my toes have an unknown inflammation so I have to stay here for the weekend to wait for blood test results to come back. I've been thinking about how nice it is to have health care for the first time in about six years, and sitting in the Peace Corps clinic, I was grateful for a good doctor and all the treatment that I might need.
There are many things to be grateful for. In the last month, I have come to a new point in my thought process about being here. While I still think of Niger often, I am coming to accept where I am, and I want to make the two years work here, and I find myself overcome with gratefulness for the things that I have.
My village had a volunteer seven years ago, but since the Peace Corps program was different then and that was quite long ago, I am like a new volunteer, coming into a village where there is little understanding of what I should be doing. So my first six months have been, at times, quite difficult when it comes to having a good concept of “work” and what I can do in my community. While I enjoy living in the village and learning about life here, it has been hard to identify good work, and I've had moments of wondering whether I will actually be able to do anything meaningful where I am at.
But in the last month, as I've become more and more comfortable with language and with my life here, and as I've been thinking a lot about development work, and my place as an outsider, I've begun to have ideas about how I can start working with my community. I spent eight days at trainings for VOIs (the forest management groups) on project planning and design, led by a volunteer who had been here before and returned for a Peace Corps Response position with Conservation International. The trainings not only taught me more language, but I also learned a lot about working with the VOIs and with project development in general, and also saw how a volunteer can act as a facilitator, which gave me some idea of how to help VOIs and other groups with their projects.
When I returned from the trainings, I spent the next three weeks in my cold and rainy village. Sitting in my house trying to keep warm, I thought about how in the States it's summer time, and that means Summer Camps, so the idea came to me to have a kids' nature camp in my village. In a relatively quick period of time, I talked to the teachers and several people in the community, and they are all enthusiastic and want to do it! So I'm putting together lots of ideas and I came to the capital to look into a funding program that the embassy has for small projects. Unfortunately it sounds like it's not running until September and the camp is next month, so I may just fund the camp myself. I think it won't be much more than $15 to buy paper and pencils and some art supplies. Several other nearby volunteers want to come and help, too. Hopefully it will lead to the teachers wanting to do a year-long nature club or other environmental education projects with the kids.
I have also kept busy during the cold, wet days by putting together a survey on farming and household food security. Although people say there is plenty of land and things grow well where I live, they still talk about a “hungry season” during December, January, and February (at least), when they don't have enough rice to eat before the harvest comes in. So I put together a questionnaire asking about what they plant, what other income-generating activities they do, and questions about whether they have enough food for the year, and ideas they have for how to improve their food security. I'm also asking about what things they most like in the community and what things they would change if they could.
Starting next week, I will be going to each house to do the survey, then presenting their ideas to the community. At the very least, I will learn a lot about the community and about the hunger and farming issues that they face. I am hoping that it will lead to some projects to help address some of these issues.
What I have been realizing is that it is up to me to make something work with my community. They are happy to have me living there, but they don't understand what it is that I can do there, and even I don't really know either. But if anything is going to happen, I will need to take the first steps rather than sitting around thinking about how lazy and drunk people are and how no one wants to plant anything or use any cool soil conservation techniques! Thus, the survey. I am excited about it. I gave a little speech to the community to let them know about it, and people seem eager to participate, so already, I feel better about the potential within my community for doing something good.
So that's what I'm up to. That and taking care of my garden, learning Malagasy (always), and spending time with my friends in the village. One of my friends is planting a lot of Chinese cabbage to sell at her little store, and I went with her to clear out some of her fields and plant. It was really good to be “farming,” and to see how she goes about planting. We also dug up some mangahazo (cassava roots), and she gave me some cassava leaves to pound into a delicious loka (food you eat with rice).
June 26th was Independence Day here and my village was pretty much in party mode all week. The day before, in the evening, I heard people singing as they walked down the road. I looked out of my door and there was a group of people in a little procession. The kids were holding colorful paper lanterns with candles in them. I left my dinner behind and joined them on the road. Afterwords was a dance party at my friend's house, so I stayed up late (10:30!) dancing with my neighbor kids. In the afternoon the next day, the women did vakondrazana (folk dancing). I went to the commune-head village and watched more vakondrazana and a women's soccer match.
At one point last month, the poverty of my village suddenly struck me. Most of the time, I am just so used to my surroundings and although I know it's not the same as a “developed” country, I am so comfortable with living in a small village in Madagascar that it doesn't seem uncomfortably poor to me. However, one day last month when it was really cold, my neighbor kids came over, as they do pretty much everyday, and they didn't have long pants, shoes or socks, and weren't even wearing coats (which they have—old ones, discarded from the States, that lack zippers and have lots of holes). I felt so awful that they didn't have warm clothes to wear. On top of that, with the cold and wet weather none of them had bathed in a long time and their clothes were filthy and they smelled terrible. It is moments like that when I suddenly remember that I am in a poor country, in a small village, that has real needs.
It is also moments like that when what I want most is to focus on the children. I know partly that's my hormonal, motherly urge. But the kids here really work hard. They fetch the water, they pound rice (which tires ME out), they carry around the toddlers all day. Then I see them playing games made from all the trash and sticks and rocks around them, and having so much fun, and I remember that they are regular happy kids, too. They take care of each other, they share what they have with each other, they make something fun out of all the small things. I have a lot I can learn from them.
So that is my rather long update for the last few months. Hopefully I will be heading back to my village tomorrow with a pile of books on kids' activities and environmental education. If people have ideas, let me know! Thanks!