Sunday, April 29, 2007


Corruption is frightening in it's pervasiveness. The media has us trained to think of it as primarily a problem in the upper echelons of society, a sin of the top dogs. Clearly, a simple cleaning of house and refurnishing with honest everyday folk will solve the problem. We then have the nerve to act shocked when our new everyman government, board, or committee behaves in the same manner. I now realize that this behavior is not restricted to the bourgeoisie but that, given the opportunity, even people on the bottom have come to see greed and "skimming off the top" to be acceptable practices.

On Wednesday I received a check from Rotary for my cereal bank project. On Thursday I cashed said check and met with my counterpart and his brother to go and purchase materials for roofing the building. We agreed that it would be best for me to wait in the car while he went and negotiated and that I would join them after the price had been settled. This was fine and is the best way for me to buy anything expensive here. Nigeriens see a white Anasara and immediately assume I am loaded and so they jack up the price to unreasonable heights. It's very frustrating due to the fact that compared to them, I do have quite a bit of money, but compared to most NGO workers I have nothing.

Now, I was thoroughly excited to have the funding and to be moving on the project again. It's nice to be doing work and I felt like I was finally showing my villagers that I was there to do something other than just sit around and play guitar. But my enthusiasm has already been nearly crushed and replaced with bitterness and frustration.

I am living many thousands of miles away from everything I know: my home, my family, my culture, my entire lifestyle. I am making enough to get by but I will bank nothing from this experience. I have waded through the swamp of bureaucratic red tape to get this money so that my village can have a renewable stockpile of FOOD! That most basic and immediate of human needs!

I have been constantly blown away by my villagers effort. They have amazed me by their desire to actually improve their lives. They have trusted me to deliver money with which to buy food and gone ahead and donated time, effort, and even a starting stock of food, all of which they can't really afford to do. They have been welcoming, encouraging, and supportive. I love my villagers.

But I cannot help but be disgusted by the fact that as soon as the money appears I am seeing the signs of this opportunistic mentality that breeds corruption in the wealthier classes. So far it has not been ridiculous, but everyone has their subtle way of asking for a handout. It may be asking for a reimbursement for gas or phone credit, or simpling upping their price, but it's there. It's come to my attention that some of the people I'm working with fully expect part of the money we've received to go to me as compensation for my effort. It is frightening and explains so much about the situation I see in this country.

I meant what I said when I said I love my villagers. I do. And I want to help them. I want to see this grain bank succeed. But it will not succeed if I simply control the money entirely and only control this skimming on my own. They have to figure out on their own that enterprises cannot work like this. The mentality here is that it doesn't matter what the situation is, if you put your hand in you deserve to be compensated. This is why they are baffled whenever I turn down compensation for a days labor for another project that has come through, or why I am eager to simply lend a helping hand carrying sacks of millet even when it's clear there is nothing in it for me.

I know that I sound bitter, but mostly I'm just annoyed. There is no concept of long term in this culture. If you have enough food for right now, you can spend all your money on a cell phone no problem. If asked what about buying food for next year the response is simply "God will bring the food." Thus, if more money than they can really comprehend comes to them, it's totally OK to skim off the top even if it means we won't have any money left at the end to buy millet. Unfortunately, this is a cultural thing, and not something that I am going to change in my two years. But hopefully, even if the grain bank does fail, I can help them to learn from the experience and see where they made the mistakes. Perhaps by doing this I can feel that the money, effort, and frustration were still worth it because it will make future projects that much more effective.

If just one person, even a child, learns from this experience, I will be happy.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Back From the Bush Again

Whew. That was a better stretch in the bush than I've had in a while. The last few months have just felt like I was always away from post for this reason or that with the odd two or three day break. It was definately nice to have some quiet time away from the hustle and bustle of Niamey. I find the times that I get most frustrated with being here is when I'm in Niamey. When I thought of all the challenges I would have to face in the Peace Corps, I never thought that the things that would make me want to go home would be the PC Bureau itself and other PCV's. Funny how life is never what you expect.

Unfortunatley, to do the kind of work PC seems to encourage us to do, we have to leave our posts to slog through the mire of beaurocracy. This frustration compounded by the local infrustructure's own eccentricities. It's seriously frustrating and it hurts to watch it destroy the moral of so many otherwise enthusiastic and happy PCV's. It doesn't help that there are also many PCV's who are definately not happy here and yet refuse to go home out of somekind of stubbornness. Instead they piss and moan and make things unpleasant for everyone else.

So this past week and a half have been very nice. I got back into the swing of reading and playing guitar. I think it also helped just to reaffirm with my villagers that I am, in fact, there. It was also nice to have alone reflection time again. The chance to just be, not do anything but just exist and contemplate that existance, is one of the things about peace corps that I think has most changed me. And it's something I had not had much opportunity for lately. So, I've started walking down to the river every evening to watch the sunset. I've also been writing a lot lately, particularly poetry. Getting that part of my brain back into gear has been a difficulty my friends have heard all about.

Mostly though, nearly two weeks without having to report to anyone at the bureau, or wrestle with poorly planned office hours, or just the challenge of getting people to do the things they said they'd do, was very nice. It made me happy to be in Niger again. Well, if not happy than atleast not actively wanting to go home. That's been hard for a lot of us lately, it seems.

Sometimes, when I'm just chatting with my friends here, it's hard not to get sucked into the "what the hell are we doing here?" thought process. From there, you start to think of reasons why you should stay vs go home. Here is the trap that I have found. If you start counting all the things you miss and enjoy about home, or that are just convenient and pleasent, then you will never run out of reasons and you will go home. I've decided that I'm only going to ET not because I have things I would rather be doing, but if there are things that bother me so much here that they make me want to not be a part of Peace Corps anymore. Some days that's actually not so hard, but most of the time, when I think about it like that, I feel pretty good.

On the bright side, I have been told that I will get money for my cereal bank in the next few days. It really couldn't have been more in the nick of time as rainy season is just around the corner, and I need to get a roof on that building. Hopefully this post doesn't jinx that, as I don't actively have the check in my hands yet. But, it should happen... in ch'allah.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Another Quickie

Wow, I have to say this has probably been one of, if not the, best week I've had in Peace Corps. It makes me a little bit sad to note that none of it was spent in my village. But between the Kirtachi trip and spending Easter in Gotheye I have not had a more rewarding, challenging, or restful experience here. Kirtachi was great because it was a challenge that I actually enjoyed, instead of a challenge that just pissed me off. Gotheye was great because it felt like the first real "weekend" I've had in ages.

As a PCV, I am more or less on the job 24/7. Even when I'm at a bar in Niamey, for example, I don't stop being a PCV. I still get into random discussions with random Nigeriens about Niger, or America, or whatever. I could plan to go out for a nice meal and end up teaching someone about AIDS. You just can't turn that shit off. So it was very nice to spend Easter weekend with all of my closest friends in country, and actually not have to be a PCV for a while. We basically sat around the hostel, with just enough clothes to be decent (by American standards), and didn't leave for the entire day of Easter. The only Zarma I had to speak was to the guardian. In addition to being a good refresher to reawaken me to what all I do do here, aside from projects that require funding, I also felt more connected to some of my fellow pcv's than I had in a good long while.

Suffice it to say, it has been a good week and I am in a very happy place as I return to my village. Also, I have uploaded some pics to my photo albums from Easter. Not many, but their fun. You can find them in the PC Niger Album. I've also gone through an added captions to all the pictures I uploaded last week of both the trip to Kirtachi and My Village. Enjoy!

Friday, April 06, 2007

More Audio

Just a brief note that there are now two new audio blogs on Djimi's blog that include yours truly. So listen and enjoy.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Well, what now?

As I mentioned last time, I was planning on traveling down to Kirtachi again to bring materials to our Young Girl Scholarship student. It was supposed to be May and I, plus I was trying to convince Jimmie or Kurt to come with us. Well, Kurt and Jimmie are lame, and May got sick. So it was just me, all alone, to get the job done.

Let me start by saying that I feel that this trip has been my quintessential Peace Corps experience. You'll see why in a bit, but I really don't feel like I've done anything, or will do anything, that better matches what I was expecting when I signed on, or feels more like the pinnacle of my personal independance. It was an awsome, challenging, wonderfully rewarding trip.

In a nutshell, I rode a bush taxi 60km, then took a boat another 40k down the Niger river (5hours with no shelter from the sun), and walked another 3k on foot, just to deliver schoolbooks to a young girl in the African Bush. I have a hard time imagining how I'm going to top that.

So anyway, the trip itself. It started off fairly uninterestingly, like anything trip back to post or wherever. May and I woke early Tuesday morning, packed everything up, and headed to the Say Tessum (bush taxi station) to get a car. It didn't take too long for the car to fill up, so that was easy. And the hour or so ride was fairly uneventful, I was even somewhat comfortable. Mostly in bush taxis these days, I just kind of pass out once I'm suitably wedged in. It's quite easy when you don't actually have to support any part of your body. It's like being back in the womb.

In Say, we went to the inspection (the headquarters for the school district basically) and inquired about Fati, the scholarship recipient who had transfered to Say. We had told her to meet us there that day so we could give her the books and money and set up tutors and all that. But May was sick so we didn't stay long before we went back to her house. The school teachers also told me about the boats that left for Kirtachi and said I should go down to the river around noon, so I wasn't able to make sure Fati got her books.

I wandered down to the river front at the appropriate time, and was dissappointed to see that the boats, while the moto kind, did not have a canopy. Luckily, the dust is so rediculous right now that the sun was not actually too bad. Though rather than wait in the boat under the sun, I was told to go and wait under a mango tree until it was time to leave.

There were a bunch of men under the tree and they all knew about the Peace Corps and started talking about all the old Kirtachi region volunteers. Apparently many of them used to go through Say to go to the hostel in Kirtachi. It was actually a lot of fun hanging out with them. One of them was a guardian or something for the hostel and he seemed to know all the old volunteers and knew all the PC drivers and such.

Anyway, the boat finally left about 1pm...more or less the hottest part of the day. Once we were underway, however, there was a decent breeze since we were on the river. Promptly after setting off, I heard some commotion in the back and when I turned around...there was a sheep in the middle of the river swimming toward the shore. Apparently it had not been tied up and so jumped out of the moving boat, forcing us to loop around again and fish it out.

The river was absolutely glorious...for about the first 2 hours. I took several pictures (all uploaded to a new album in picasa) of the passing landscape. Some of the river side villages looked awsome. Part of me wished I had been posted there. There was actually grass, and lots of trees, and also, of course, the river.

After a while though, I got sick of sitting on a 4x4 bench in the sun and I started to suffer. This was eased somewhat by the fact that there was a guy selling hari yeno(cold water) and kossams (yogurt in a bag) in the boat. Also people were really good about sharing any food and stuff. The boat was overall a pleasant journey, especially once I shifted to sit on some sacks of millet instead of the bench.

After the 5hr boat ride, it was only a short walk to Kirtachi itself. I still find it kind of an amazing accomplishment that I, all on my own, was able to travel down an African river, to a village I had only been to once before, where no one speeks any English, alteast 40km from another American, with no cellphone service, and have them provide me with a bed, food, and water to drink and bathe. On top of this I was able to, in a local language which I have barely been speaking a year, carryout a meeting where I negotiated an arrangement for tutors for a young school girl and manage all the financial decisions involved. Like I said before, I really don't see myself having a more stereotypical Peace Corps experience than this.

Kirtachi itself was also awsome. It is gorgeous down there, as you can see from some of the pictures I've posted. It's green. There are trees. There's water. There's sandy beaches. I wish I could have been posted down there. The people were also amazingly nice and thankful. They seemed to actually understand Peace Corps and why we were there. Part of me likes to attribute that to the fact that they are so far from all the NGO/AID work that happens closer to the big cities.

After the meeting I had Wednesday morning with the school teacher getting everything set up, I went and hung out in the market for a while. Mostly I just hung out under a shade hangar until there was a car ready to go. This is the truck I took back. I was riding in the front, squished in with two fat alhajia's (large bitchy women). For the 80km of the laterite road, this was not a pleasant ride. The road was such we had to slowly maneuver around dips and bumps and trees and such. It took us about 5 hours to finally get to Niamey. While I was able to get back to Niamey in one day, I think in the future I will opt to take the boat in the evening after market and just spend the night in Say.

Part of me looks at this experience and how thankful the people were and I am reminded that Peace Corps can do good things. I feel good and want to do more small scale helpful things. On the other hand, part of me feels like anything else I do is going to be frustrating and discouraging and not do any good anyway and I should just walk away with this one highlight awsome experience.

I would say most of us have probably hit a similar mid service hump. I'll just have to seek out more of these fulfilling experiences.

BTW, there's some more pictures posted in my picasa albums.