Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I have been putting off this last post for awhile, but I've been back in America for over a week now so I suppose I can't wait any longer!

My last few months in Niger were some of the busiest of my entire service. In July, I participated in organizing a girl's camp in our regional capital of Dosso. Nine volunteers worked together to bring twelve girls from small surrounding villages, some of who had never left the bush, to stay in a dormitory for the weekend and take classes.

The camp focused on teaching village girls about better hygiene, improved nutrition, family planning, and HIV/AIDS prevention. Of all the projects I have worked on during my two years of service, this is by far the one I am most proud of.

In addition to educating the girls about simple steps they can take to improve their lives and those of their families and villages, the camp also allowed girls to get out of their villages and see the world around them and meet other young women like themselves.

Thanks to the cooperation of all the participating Peace Corps volunteers, and the Nigeriens who volunteered to help, the camp went off with almost no problems. The only serious difficulty that we encountered involved a problem with the plumbing in the dormitory the girls were staying in. Most of the girls participating in the camp had never been outside of their small bush villages before and, not surprisingly, had no experience with indoor plumbing. The first night of the camp, I and another volunteer were awoken by some girls who were panicking and realized that the entire dorm had been flooded and we were standing in ankle deep water! We never figured out exactly what had happened, but we think that one of the girls must have gotten up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and forgotten to turn off the sink. Fortunately, the dormitory's manager was very understanding and had the mess quickly cleaned up so the girls could continue their classes.

In addition to classes on improving nutrition and environmental protection, we also provided some outlet for fun. Our hostel guard, Djibo, volunteered to teach a karate "self-defense" class for the girls which they loved! We had pants tailored for the girls (as seen in the pictures below) so they could move more easily and I think they enjoyed that as much as any of the activities. After we'd exhausted Djibo's patience, I agreed to teach a yoga class the second night of the camp and the girls seemed to enjoy that a lot as well - although they claimed it was more difficult than karate!

At the end of the camp, we quizzed the girls about what they had learned over the weekend. I was incredibly proud to watch them excitedly raise their hands to answer questions and argue amongst themselves about what the "exact" right answers were. We ended the camp by repeating what many of the Nigerien instructors who had volunteered had said, "Now you are the teachers. Share what you have learned in your village." I am happy to report that many of the volunteers who brought girls to the camp have seen them applying what they learned to their lives and sharing it with their families and villagers.

Most of the month of August was spent with my friends in the village. Moving out of my village and leaving behind all the friends I've made during these last 2 years was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I'm still trying to process and reconcile the fact that I may never see certain people again. Keeping in touch with Niger is incredibly difficult (as many of my friends and family can attest to!) There is no post office in my village and most of my village women don't have cell phones.

Fortunately, my village is getting replaced with a new volunteer who I was lucky enough to meet before I left. She seems like she will be an awesome volunteer and has agreed to pass messages along to my friends, with the added benefit that these messages will be attached to care packages with American goodies!

(Last radio show in Birni)

Trying to understand the last two years and write some sort of summary statement is next to impossible for me right now. I'm still processing all the experiences I've had and trying to make sense of them and I have no idea when or if I'll ever be able to come to some ultimate conclusion about my time in Niger.

Looking back at my first few blog posts, I can definitely see how naive I was and that's not too surprising. Everybody joins Peace Corps for different reasons but my desire to "save Africa" wasn't a unique one. Many volunteers come to Africa believing that, despite all the years and money spent there, they have some sort of special insight that will allow them to "solve" problems where others have failed. As I heard one savvy volunteer often repeat, "What are Americans if not professional problem solvers?"

Without trying to dissolve into sappiness, I can say with certainty that Niger doesn't need to be saved - and definitely not by a 22 year old with a liberal arts degree. This is not to say that I have succumbed to the bitterness too often seen in bored expats and burnt out aid workers; rather, I am convinced that Niger, even with all its troubles, is a wonderful place that has taught me more about the world and life than I could ever learn in school. It is insulting and offensive to look at a place this large and diverse and see nothing but poverty, disease, and conflict - the 3 words most commonly associated with Africa.

This is not to say that Niger doesn't face many challenges. It is almost impossible to travel around the capital and not see a sign for a foreign aid organization or a vehicle full of aid workers headed out to the bush to build a well. Many of these organizations are well-intentioned and do good work, but I cannot deny what I have observed from 26 months of service. Without more attention to accountability and project sustainability, many of these organizations are doing more harm than good. I am hesitant to type these words, because I fear that they could be twisted and taken to mean that no good can come from foreign aid, that financing development is a waste of time and resources.

Even in my most bitter and frustrated moments, I could never agree that foreign aid is a wasted effort. I have seen too much good come out of the desire to help Niger develop to ever be overwhelmed by the corruption and waste that tends to go along with it. Although I am probably too biased to make a fair assessment, I think Peace Corps is one of the best aid organizations in Niger.

I believe that Peace Corps' superiority as an aid organization doesn't come from its vast resources (we have next to none) or even its pie chart of successful projects. Peace Corps' emphasis on sustainability and capacity building are, in my opinion, far more beneficial to the long-term well being of the communities they serve than a blank check could ever be. Peace Corps volunteers provide human resources that will far outlast the West's patience and generosity to the developing world. I strongly believe that this development model, though not as flashy and instantly gratifying as many of the others currently in place, has the most potential for sustainable long-term success.

As this is my last post, I want to take the opportunity to fonda goy (thank) all the volunteers and Nigeriens I had the good fortune to meet and work with these last two years. All of you inspired and taught me more than you will ever know. As my villagers said to me the day I moved out of my hut:

Kala hanfo, Irkoy ma cabe cere.
(Until next time, may God show us to each other)

(Sunset over my village)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Well, it seems that my "kokari" (effort) has started to decline as my service draws to a close. I'm sorry it's been so long since my last post (2 months!) but, in my defense, I have been very busy! I went on my very last trip in West Africa from the end of April to the middle of May. It was incredible! I traveled from southern Niger to Benin, then to Togo, and Ghana before heading back to Niger through Burkina Faso. It was such an incredible opportunity to get to see more of West Africa. Although Niger is a very diverse place with multiple ethnicities and languages, but it couldn't compete with the variety of cultures found on the Coast.

Wli Falls, Ghana

Near the coffee/cacao plantations
Koma Kunda, Togo

It was incredibly shocking coming from Niger, which is a very arid and hot country, into the tropical rain forests of the Coast. I was also shocked by the plethora of development and foreign aid agencies that service the region. After living in Niger for almost 2 years, countries like Ghana and Benin looked incredibly developed and wealthy to me. At first, it was very difficult for me to see what kind of development work could be done in countries with such an abundance of natural resources.

Many of the Peace Corps volunteers I met on my trip worked with the tourism industry in the Coastal countries they serve. One volunteer worked with a woman's cooperative in the coffee growing region of Togo (picture above) to package and market their delicious shade grown coffee. There was also a business that Peace Corps volunteers helped develop called "Global Mamas" (with branches in Accra, Ghana and Cape Coast, Ghana) which sells fun souvenirs, such as handbags made out of recycled plastic bags.

After returning from vacation, I was eager to get back to my villagers and see if the rains had started and if my neighbors had begun planting yet. After a few weeks of impatiently staring up at the sky waiting for the rain which still hasn't arrived, I needed to come into the capital to go to the bank. Unfortunately, we've been having some fairly serious political problems in Niger that made this difficult.

The current president, Mamadou Tandja, has served two 5-year terms making him constitutionally ineligible to run for his office again in the coming December elections. Of course, like many leaders, he isn't quite ready to give up power and has been seeking ways to alter the constitution so that he can run again. Although the courts have ruled against him, he has dissolved the Nigerien National Assembly and people are getting very nervous that he may do something drastic to keep power. Many people are feeling frustrated and scared and have begun lashing out as a result.

Last week, a group of protesters set fire to the Grand Marche in the capital city of Niamey. Since then, there has been extensive rioting in my regional capital of Dosso, with people setting cars on fire and fighting with the police.

Sitting in my little hut in the village, it was difficult to believe all this violence was happening and I couldn't help thinking that the Peace Corps was overreacting just a little bit when they instituted a travel ban to the capital, making my bank (and Internet) trip impossible. They finally relaxed the travel ban yesterday and I was able to make it to Niamey, but as my bush taxi drove away from Dosso, I couldn't help noticing all the military vehicles we passed, many with machine guns mounted on top.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few months. Although this is completely anecdotal, all the Nigeriens I've spoken with in my village and in the cities are incredibly frustrated and angry. Many of them feel that their still new and fragile democracy is being destroyed and they aren't sure what can be done to save it. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I am required to maintain strict impartiality with all political matters in my country of service, but I can't help sympathizing with my neighbors' feelings. I hope everything can be resolved, and with minimal violence.

I'm also a little concerned that continued violence might interfere with a project I am planning to have take place in Dosso this July. I am currently in the process of securing funding for a Young Girl's Workshop which would bring ten girls from small villages outside of Dosso into the city for a weekend to learn about good nutrition and hygiene. I will try to give some updates on what happens next month.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Wasalaam aleikum! (Peace be upon you) Mate gaygafaye? (How has our time apart been?) The big story of February was my mom coming to visit me here. It was wonderful! Below is a picture of me, her, and the bush taxi I convinced her to get on to travel to my village (yes, that is a Barack Obama sticker on the back of the car. He's very popular here... just like everywhere else!). She was a really good sport. She only stayed for a week, but I think that was enough for her.

In January I wrote that I was working on developing a monthly radio program interviewing successful Nigerien women. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to start recording interviews yet because our digital recorder is missing a cord and Peace Corps won't be getting a new shipment for awhile. I'm disappointed, but not giving up hope. Maybe by the end of Hot Season (around May/June) I'll be able to get it off the ground.

The first week of March I attended a workshop with a local NGO called "PRAHN" that works with disabled people in Niger. It was really eye-opening for me because I had always assumed that there wasn't much that could be done for the thousands of disabled people living here. Whenever you travel to larger cities and towns here it's impossible not to see the many people with disabilities begging for money. Many of them have to crawl on the ground or have children assist them because they can't afford the very expensive tricycles, wheelchairs, and braces that could improve their mobility.

PRAHN is a really wonderful organization. They offer many services to help people with disabilities find work other than begging. They also provide micro-loans for people who want to start small businesses, or help them buy sewing machines to become self employed tailors. They also help disabled people set up gardens so that they're able to provide food for themselves and their families.

The training session focused on how we can recognize and identify certain disabilities in our communities and direct people to PRAHN's services. We also learned that the majority of disabilities in Niger are preventable with better nutrition and good obstetric practices and medical care. This was how I came to identify a young man in my village who has spinal tuberculosis that has caused his bones to twist into a hunchback.

He's an awesome kid, although it's probably not appropriate to call him that. I originally thought he was between the ages of 8 and 12, but it turns out he's 19. In addition to causing malformation of the bones, spinal tb can also lead to stunted growth. Despite his disability, Hama is very well integrated into the community. He farms with his dad and brothers and hangs out drinking tea with other young men in the village. I was concerned that the spinal tb could continue to progress so I contacted our local PRAHN monitor in Birni and he's working with Hama now to get better medical care and possibly set him up with his own garden.

PRAHN also encouraged volunteers to work on destigmatizing people with disabilities. Life can be difficult for people with disabilities for many reasons, but one of the most challenging to overcome is the perception that the disabled are somehow responsible for causing their disability. In villages, particularly among people without education, disabilities are often seen as the result of sin or God's disfavor with a family or individual.

In an effort to combat this harmful attitude, I and several other volunteers wrote and performed a radio program dealing with various disabilities. The show focused on how to prevent certain disabilities as well as how to recognize when it's necessary to seek treatment. By discussing how people develop certain disabilities it helps others to take steps necessary to prevent them and also become more tolerant of those who weren't able to.

Next month I'll be going on the last vacation of my volunteer service! I will be traveling through West Africa for about 3 weeks, but I plan on returning by mid-May and will hopefully be able to post about my travels then.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Once again, it's been much longer between posts than I anticipated, but c'est la vie ici au Niger! Kala suuru!

As in America, December is a month devoted to the holidays in Niger. The Muslim festival "Tabaski" also called "Eid el-Adha" fell on the week of December 8th this year (it changes depending on the Islamic calendar) but almost every village decides when the celebrations will start and usually aren't in any hurry to end them! The result ends up being a week-plus long party.

Officially, the holiday celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son as a test of loyalty to God. Muslims celebrate by killing a male ram, female sheep, or goat depending on their income and what they can afford. Neighborhood children go around asking for "bon bon" (candy) from other villagers, particularly those they suspect have a lot of money. Peace Corps volunteers are at an obvious disadvantage here!

I have to admit that the holidays were very much welcome after having participated in the AIDS bike ride in Zinder. It was an incredible experience,but very exhausting. A group of about 30 Peace Corps volunteers and Nigeriens traveled about 140km from the border of Nigeria to the regional capital of Zinder stopping in 16 villages along the way to do sensibilations and skits related to HIV/AIDS awareness.

At the end of December, I started another Cold Season garden with seeds I brought from my visit to America last September. I had very high hopes for these seeds and my villagers seemed intrigued by my description of such exotic foods as “Crook Necked Squash” and “Broccoli.” Unfortunately, my spoiled American plants didn’t adapt well to Niger’s harsh climate and most of them failed to grow more than a few inches high before dying. I did manage to salvage some squash which my water girl, Rachida, made sauce with and said she really enjoyed. Gardening season still has another few months, so I’m going to have another try with locally bought seeds. I’ll be sure to keep everyone updated on how it develops!

The work I continue to be most proud of is my weekly radio program at the local station in Birni, Radio Marhaba. In the last two months we have done a few programs focused on educating the public about the goals of Peace Corps as a way to introduce some new volunteers starting their service in the region. We have also done several shows on the importance of hand washing and how to treat conjunctivitis and diarrhea as these are some of the most common illnesses encountered during Cold Season. This has been following our typical radio show pattern, focusing on cross cultural exchange and education, but we have recently begun planning a new monthly program.

In the interest of increasing the participation of girls and women in their communities and government, I am planning to create a monthly radio program dedicated to giving voice to women who are already fulfilling such roles. Using one of the very helpful digital recorders from our Peace Corps bureau, I will conduct monthly interviews in Zarma with Nigerien women who are doing vital work in their communities, particularly those not filling what would typically be defined as “traditional” roles. Among some of the women I look forward to interviewing are: teachers, mayors, police officers, and health agents.

It is my hope that besides inspiring young women to dream of different possibilities for their lives, this program will also serve to educate the general public about such possibilities. Women’s roles in Niger tend to be very strictly defined, but many women do manage to break free of the positions assigned to them and go on to have thriving careers and full lives. This should encourage, rather than threaten Nigeriens, as the ultimate success of a country depends on the contributions made by all of its citizens.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Last month I returned well-rested (and five pounds heavier) from my trip to America! It was so wonderful to see my family and friends again after spending over a year apart. Fortunately I didn’t suffer from too much of the dreaded “reverse culture shock.” I think this is mostly thanks to my earlier vacation to Paris in May, although I did get overwhelmed during a trip to the grocery store and had to sit down in the middle of the aisle to rest. You can probably imagine the strange looks I got!

Even though it was difficult to leave my family for a second time, I was ready to get back to my village and finish my last year of service. I ended up spending the majority of October in the bush working on reintegrating back into my community and remembering how to speak Zarma everyday. It hasn’t been too difficult and I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with my friends and finding out what I missed during the three weeks I was away.

I recently just took a break from village life to come into our regional hostel in Dosso to follow the U.S. Presidential election with some fellow volunteers. What an exciting night it was! Since we don’t have cable television, one of my friends brought over a satellite radio and we stayed up all night listening to the results come in on the BBC and NPR. Since the four of us are pretty ardent Obama supporters, we were not disappointed by the outcome.

While it would have been fun to watch Obama’s acceptance speech on cable television in America, I have to admit that there has been a special charm to experiencing this historic election in Africa. Even in this small, largely unknown corner of the Sahel, all the Nigeriens I spoke to were incredibly interested in this election. There was a pretty firm (and not surprising) bias for Barack Obama, who everyone knows has a father from Kenya. In my area, some special prayers were said at a few local mosques in support of Obama’s success. Like many Americans, they believe he will be able to bring a positive change to the White House and the world at large. I have a great deal of hope that the America I return to next September will be greatly changed for the better than the one I left in July 2007.

Until then, I have a number of projects I’m working on keeping me busy. One of the ones I am most excited about is the AIDS Bike Ride coming up at the beginning of December. This is an annual event in which volunteers spend a week biking to a number of villages in a region, stopping along the way to do skits in local language educating villagers about the danger of contracting HIV and how to prevent it. This year the bike ride is taking part in the eastern part of the country, Zinder. Since I don’t speak the local language of that region (Hausa) I will be helping out with French translation.

I can’t overemphasize how important AIDS education is in Niger. Although Niger suffers from many problems which make development difficult, unlike many other African nations, HIV/AIDS infections are not one of the biggest contributing factors. Low HIV infection rates are an enormous advantage for Niger and a trend that must be supported.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Once again, I have to begin by apologizing for a long absence! This time it had less to do with technology difficulties than health ones. I spent most of July in and out of the infirmary with various health problems which are all thankfully resolved now, but it left little time for posting my blog!

In my June post, I wrote about going to Maradi for a tofu training workshop. I returned from it at the beginning of July and am happy to report it was a great success! A group of volunteers from all regions of the country (Tillaberi, Tahoua, Maradi, Dosso, Zinder) gathered in Maradi with their "counterparts" (Nigerien co-workers) to learn about growing soy, making tofu, and marketing and selling it. Although most of the training was done in Hausa, some of the volunteers from Hausaland were very helpful in translating for the Zarma speakers and we were able to learn a lot.

Since rainy season planting has ended and the harvest is about to begin in a couple months, it is too late to implement the soy planting techniques we learned at the training in our local villages. However, a group of Zarma volunteers (myself included) are in the process of planning another tofu training for Zarma speaking volunteers and their counterparts in the Falmey sub-region this coming Cold Season (Oct. - Dec.)

Rainy season has been both a blessing and a curse in my village. The rains have turned the whole country green and the crops are doing fairly well, which is very exciting, especially for many of my neighbors that haven't had a full meal in months. Unfortunately, the rain has also allowed the mosquitoes to breed and flourish, and with them, malaria.

Malaria is a health crisis in Niger as it is in many other West African countries, one that I've been trying to help combat in my region, but with little impact. I began in June by encouraging my neighbors to buy mosquito nets, which are available in our local market. As often happens, I was met with shrugs and sighs of "There's no money to buy that." I tried to reason that a mosquito net (which costs about $2-$3) is much cheaper than buying medicine to treat malaria, but most of my villagers just laughed. To many of them, getting malaria is a yearly health battle, rather like winter flu oubtbreaks in America. Unfortunately, it is a yearly health crisis that many don't survive, particularly children and the elderly.

The first case I witnessed was the little sister of one of my village friends. One day a few weeks ago I saw her lying under a blanket shivering in the middle of the day. "Is Shemsia ok?" I asked her mother. She told me she had a fever and didn't want to get up. "Is it malaria???" I asked. "Maybe" her mother said, but didn't seemed overly concerned. I told her to take her to the health clinic right away, but she just looked away and said, "If it get's really bad I'll take her to the doctor."

Sure enough, Shemsia was running around and laughing the next day, but this is frequently the case with malaria. Symptoms tend to flucuate and parents often wait until the child is in a fevered coma before seeking medical treatment. At this stage, it's often too late to do anything. So far Shemsia is doing okay, as are all of my other close friends, but there are many who are suffering.

A few days ago,I stumbled upon a group of women crying in a village concession. It's very rare to see Nigeriens crying, so I was immediately panicked and asked someone standing by what had happened. "Someone died" he said. I was surprised because I hadn't seen this kind of extreme grief for a village elder that had died three months before. "Who was it?" I asked. "A child" he said softly. "Mohai Nye's son." He was eight years old.

This is the hardest part of being a volunteer here. As much as we want to help, we are constantly aware that any difference we make in our communities is pitifully small compared to the need. I have often thought about trying to go out and buy mosquito nets for all my villagers, or at least my friends. This is the kind of development many NGOs favor. Buy them the nets. Spoon feed the malaria medication. Short-term, feel good development. Unfortunately, I have seen the consequences of this in my village. Failed projects and the dangerous mentality that NGOs will always be around to help. Fortunately, I have also seen small but bright spots of hope in the efforts my community puts forth. Small changes in attitude and behavior that make me truly believe that what I'm doing is worthwhile.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Wallahi! It's been a long time since I've posted. It's taken me a lot longer to readjust to Niger since returning from my trip to Paris and I've neglected my blog. It was amazing to see my family and go an entire week without breaking a sweat. Although I was sad to leave them again, I was excited about getting back to work on some of the projects I'd started.

One of the ones I was most anxious to get finished was the World Map project I'd started in April, mostly because the rains were starting and I didn't want the paint to wash off the wall before it had a chance to dry! As you can probably tell from the picture, we had some difficulties working on a stucco wall, but the completed map looks much better now. Unfortunately, my camera died while I was out in the bush before I could get a chance to take a picture of the finished map, but I'll try to get that posted as soon as possible. I'm very proud of the work I did with the help of my villagers and a neighboring volunteer and am confident it will help educate people about the world.

(World Map in Progress)

In addition to finishing my World Map Project, I've also continued to work at the local radio station with other Dosso volunteers. The volunteer who pioneered Peace Corps involvement at the Birni radio station moved to Niamey to work with an NGO for her third year extension so it's been challenging to work without her experienced hand to guide us. Fortunately, all the volunteers who come to work on the radio shows have a lot of effort and the Nigerien staff at the radio station are incredibly supportive of our work.

(Radio booth at the Birni station)

Right now, I'm trying to create more radio scripts involving the role of decentralization in the country, but it's proving difficult to translate a lot of the ideas involved into national language (Zarma). The Secretary General of my mayor's office is being very helpful with this and I'm planning on broadcasting a recorded interview with him discussing how decentralization works and what role it can play in the lives of Nigerien citizens.

Next week, I'm planning on heading to Maradi for a women's tofu-making workshop. As of now, cooking and selling tofu is practiced more in the Eastern (ethnically Hausa) region of the country. I'm very excited at having the opportunity to learn more about the process and share that with my village women. Besides being a good source of protein (in a land where meat is difficult and expensive to get) it's also a really good way for women to generate more household revenue.

Even though I'll be traveling a lot in the next month, I promise to try and get another post up sometime in July. A new Internet cafe has opened in Dosso and all the volunteers in the region have high hopes that it stays open, but as always, this is Africa, so "Hin suruu!" (Be patient!) if it takes awhile.