Sunday, November 26, 2006

Longest Week Ever - Part 3 - Camp Hamdy

So also last week, as I mentioned, I participated in Camp Hamdalleye as a group leader. Camp Hamdy is a 3 day program for young students at the American International School of Niamey. They are mostly kids of expats and wealthy prominant Nigeriens who are educated in English in the American style rather than through the French system they use throughout Niger. Most of the kids in the school do not see much if anything of Nigerien life outside of their family compount, let alone out of Niamey. This is there chance to learn something about Zarma culture.

Most of what the six PCV's (including myself) were responsible for was translating and discussing our own experiences with living in rural villages. Otherwise the teachers that came from the school kept the whole thing moving and organized the kids. Though sometimes we did have to fill a disciplinary role. Overall, once I got used to it again, it was a lot like working at Hazen's Notch again.

Part of the program was a week long activity that the kids broke into groups for. I chose to work with the group that was making a traditional violin called a Goje (sp?). I spent most of the sessions chatting with the old zarma guy and playing the violins he made. I picked them up pretty fast and was able to make some fun little runs. One of the cool thing about the violin (which has a single horse hair string like the bow) was that it appears to run completly on harmonics. You never touch the string to the neck. Just a little tidbit for you music nerds.

I have to say it was a crazy experience working with Americanized kids after 10 months in country. All of us agreed that it was weird and a little scary. It was like getting a little taste of the reverse culture shock we are in for when we return home. Many of the kids would argue about things like who had more ipods or who's dad has a more high powered job. It was more than a little disturbing after we've been living with the poorest of the poor.

Also, Hamdallye is not nearly enough of a real bush experience in my opinion. When we went to visit host families many of the groups had electricity in the homes they visited. Not really a good demonstration of traditional zarma life. Not to mention the busy American style schedule which was just go go go. We only had 45 minutes for lunch for example. Once we managed to swing a 2hr break while the kids had some free time and we all agreed it still wasn't enough. We need the 4hrs of stair of into space alone time. It was kind of entertaining how some of us felt more comfortable hanging out with the Nigeriens they brought up from the village to teach than with the kids and the staff.

We realized from this whole experience that we just aren't the same people anymore. We spend all this time in Niger trying to integrate with our villagers, but never quite fitting because we are foreigners. But then we go back to America, or atleast a group of American type people, and we don't fit in anymore because we've become so Nigerien. Oh well, kala suuru. Over all I had fun and it was a worthwhile experience.

By the way. I would like to point out that I have started to post some pictures that I steal from other people's digital cameras on my myspace account. Yes, I hate it but I still have an account. You can observe my hypocracy at

Once more with Feeling.

Once again I appear on the Djimi show. Check it out again. I cover such topics as killing chickens and teaching Nigerien VIPs about Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Longest Week Ever - Part 2

So after meeting the crew, we set off from Balleyara to begin our three day journey. Well, it was the final three day leg for the everyone but me and Cathy. The plan was to cover roughly 30km a day which would include staying in Hamdallye for the second night and enjoying a bed, showers, and good food at the peace corps training site.

For the most part the walking wasn't too bad. Luckily it is cold season and we had a cart to carry all of our gear. Two people could ride on the cart while the rest of us walked or rode the horse. I spent a great deal of time on the horse, frequently pulling out my backpacker guitar and playing as Lola (horse) followed the cart.

On the first day we stopped at a school and read "Ichi may falala" (sp?) which is "The Giving Tree" in Hausa. The school teachers translated from the Hausa to Zarma since the kinds did not hear Hausa. It was a lot of fun and the children seemed very excited to have us stop and visit them.

We didn't quite reach our planned destination the first night, so we stopped one town before as the sun had already set. The Maigari there hooked us up with water, food for the animals, and a place to sleep that even had posts perfect for tying mosquito nets. The next morning, Cathy and Kristen stayed behind to do a brief program on breast feeding as they were then going to hop a car to go into Niamey. Cathy was leaving for vacation and Kristen wanted to go to the COS party. So we lost two of our company.

The second day was quite random. Among some of the hi-lights were having a bush note dropped from a speeding truck (from Cathy and Kristen) and receiving a visit and candy and water from Laurent and Sangare (Bureau staffers). We also had the stay at Hamdy too look forward to. However, that was not to be, do to more randomness.

It was already dark and Kate and Nathalie had walked ahead of me and Alkazoum and Douwe and the animals. We thought we were only about 3k from Hamdy. But one of the cart's tires kept loosing air. The three of us with the cart refilled it about three times before Kate and Nathalie came back saying they could see the cell tower in Hamdy, but that we were actually another 7k. Well the cart just wasn't going to make it and it was too dark to patch the tire. So we had to figure out an alternative.

This was where I was finally really useful as a Zarma translater (everyone else only spoke Hausa). We decided that Kate, Douwe, the cart, and I would stay in the random village we found ourselves at at the time, while Nathalie, Alkazoum, and the horse would push on to Hamdy and tell them what was up and that in the morning they would come back with someone from the training site and help us fix the tire. So I went into the village and explained our situation to the Maigari and said that we needed a place to sleep that was safe and some water. Well, not only did he give us matresses, and unlock the pump, and bring us dinner, he also kicked somone out of their hut so we could have a place to put our stuff. It was awsome.

In the morning some PC folks showed up, fixed our tire, and sent the cart with Alkazoum and Douwe while we got a ride back to the site for the breakfast they had set up for us. Alkazoum and Douwe caught up with us there and also got some breakfast and a break. After breakfast, I set off with the Nigeriens and the animals while Nathalie and Kate went and greeted the Chef de Canton and read "The Giving Tree" for some kids.

The rest of the last day was pretty much just a push for home. All the animals were tired, we were tired, and we were so close, yet we still had about 32km to walk. We only took two breaks that day. One was for the nice lunch that Chris and Mary (more staffers) brought us, containing cokes, cheese, and M&M's. The other was when we stopped and took a nap while some random villagers fixed our tire for us again. Other than that it was a straight push.

When we finally reached the outskirts of Niamey, about 8:30PM, I felt like I was dead on my feet. My whole body ached as I had not been on the road as long and my body had not gotten used to the rigors of the road. The last hour and half walking through Niamey is a blur of dodging traffic and the others asking "is that the bureau?" But at 10PM we finally made it to Chris Burns' house and got some Gazpacho and were greeted by numerous PCV's there to watch the Michigan vs Ohio State game.

The next day I woke up and I felt like I was hungover. I think it was just pure exhaustion, but it was still lame. Especially since I knew later that day I was going to be leaving to go help out at Camp Hamdallye, a 3 day program for kids from the American Internatinal School of Niamey where they learn about Zarma culture. I still don't know how I got signed up for it, but it meant there was no resting for me. Just Go Go Go.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The longest week ever - Part 1

Well it's been over 10 months in country now, nearly 8 months at post, and I think I'm finally really comfortable here. The last time I was in my village I actually was reluctant to leave after 10 days. It's like some sort of switch was flipped and now all of a sudden I don't just sit in my house all the time but actually go and wander around and chat with folks, and explore other markets, and eat with my villagers much more frequently. But I'm also coming due for another round of crazy so we'll see how that goes. I have optomistic feelings.

As I mentioned, however, I did have to leave my post, despite the bureaus attempts to chastize me for doing so more often than they felt was appropriate. Anyway, that was about a week and a half ago and I have been going going going ever since, right up until Turkey Day. I'm definately ready to go back to post and crash for about a week. But before I do I should probably fill you all in what I've been doing. So...On with the story!

A long long time ago in a place far far away (Actually it was only about 7 months ago in Konni) a volunteer from my stage bought a horse. While sweet and even tempered, the horse was a burden. It would eat everything and anything. Feeding it got to be too expensive. And it was so sweet, you couldn't even push her into a trot (unless you are a magical Tuareg as we will see later). So it was decided that the horse must go.

Many months later at the GAD auction fund raiser (the same one where two novice musicians were getting their first taste of performing on stage) the volunteer auctioned her horse to the highest bidder to raise money for Gender and Developement projects. Part and parcel of the purchase was that the horse would be delivered to the buyer's door. In addition, as the horse and transporters travelled (by foot, horse, and donkey cart) they would stop in villages along the way to do sensibilizations on a range of topics from SIDA (french for AIDS) and family planning to gardening and fruit tree grafting. Truly a noble endeavor.

Well the buyer happened to be the wife of one of our staff members here in Niamey. Feel free to go check a map real quick. Konni to Niamey. On foot with a horse and donkey cart. They are not close. Natalie (the volunteer who purchased the horse) and Kate from Konni, along with Alkazoum the magical Tuareg and Douwe the donkey cart maestro, actually made the entire journey. It took them about 17 days I believe. Kristen, also from Konni and the same village as Douwe, got as far as the last two days and then bailed for a party in Niamey. Lame.

The reason you need to know all this is that for the first half of my busy week I joined these brave adventurers in Balleyara. Last Tuesday I went from my village to ICRISAT- Sadore, the neighboring village/agriculture research center, to collect some Pomme de Sahel twigs (called scions) for grafting demonstrations . From there I went the next day to Niamey and straight on to Balleyara to meet our intrepid heroes. You would think that stopping at the neighboring village to pick up some twigs and then traveling to another town about a 2hr car ride away would be an errand completable in a single day. But such is travel in Niger (a combination of 7k walks on laterite roads and bush taxi rides on the paved ones) that such activities must be well planned and done well in advance of any deadlines. Kala Suuru.

Well after waiting in the tessum in Niamey for 3 hours to leave for Balleyara I arrived with scions intact. I got caught up on some of the adventures and met the team over dinner. Though I mentioned them in passing already, the team consisted of:

Lola - A lovely young mare who was weary and foot sore but managed to push on and make it all the way to her new home.

Natalie - The former owner of Lola and dedicated PCV from Konni region.

Kate - Another volunteer from Konni and battling a case of Giardia at the time of my arrival. It later cleared up miraculously.

Kristen - A health volunteer from Konni and friends with Douwe and Alkazoum. Also keeper of "the Numbers" and performer of many a breast feeding sensibilization.

Douwe - A fifteen yr old? Hausa boy from Kristen's village. He was responsible for driving the cart for us.

Alkazoum - The magical Tuareg. Also from Kristen's village, except when he is walking to Agadez and back. Addicted to tea and related to every Tuareg between Balleyara and Niamey, he was the only one capeable of getting Lola to move at anything other than a brisk walk.

White Chocolate - An Albino donkey who doesn't like people and had never pulled a cart before. Known to collapse on speed bumps.

Mike Tyson aka Beckham aka Donkey - A mean ass. He bucks, he kicks, he does not want to be your friend. But with Douwe at the helm he can pull a cart, so he replaced White Chocalate.

Come back next time as our merry band sets off.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Listen to the sound of my voice.

Go check out Djimi's blog at to listen to little audio blog segment we just recorded here in the IRC. Also, I'll be posting updates on my most recent activities (of which there are many) in the coming days. I'll be in Niamey for Turkey Day and staying until Sunday.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

They're Watching Me...

I've always been rather dissappointed that my house in Vermont is actually too remote to be viewed on Google Maps. Dissappointed... comforted, it's all the same. Thus you can imagine my surprise when I found this:

(click for larger image)

That's right, you are looking at a satelite image of my village in Niger. How do you know you live in the middle of nowhere? When Niger is better mapped than your neighborhood. But I digress.

My entire village is actually much larger than this area, but I have focused in on the main area where I spend most of my time. I have indicated a few points of interest for you all:

1. This is my Maigari's (village chief's) family concession. All the huts and houses in this circle belong to him or his sons or his sons in law. The hut at 12 o'clock is where my house now stands (this picture is somewhat out of date). The maigari's two wives live in the double mud house at 1 o'clock.

2. This is the well where I pull my water. Looking at the scale I now realize that I walk almost a kilometer a day in my two trips to the well and back to get water. Man indoor plumbing was a cool idea.

3. My school teacher lives here. Sometimes I hang out with him and drink tea and talk about being bitter about Niger.

4. This is the old school house with two additional shade hangar classrooms on the sides. It is now being used as office and storage space for the new school house that was just recently finished.

5. This is the old mosque. It's not used for anything anymore.

6. If a sat image was taken today, this would be where you would find the new school buildings. Two cement buildings were just finished this past month and there are two additional grass hangar classrooms as well. School is starting this coming week.

7. This is where the new mosque sits. It's all white washed with a turqoise minaret and is much nicer than the old mosque. Villagers come from the farther parts of the village to pray here on Friday afternoons. Then they hang out at the maigari's house and talk loudly to make it hard for me to take a nap.

I have also highlighted two more family concessions just North of my usual area. There are many such family clusters scattered over the 32 sqkm of my town.

So there you have the quick and dirty arial tour of my small farming/herding community here in Niger. I hope you have enjoyed the excursion.