Sunday, May 27, 2007

Wake up.

In America we are all about ideals. Everyone should be treated equally. Teenagers should practice abstinence. Every country should have a shot at democratic government. This is fine, without ideals like this, where would we find the drive to change things, to improve. Visions of how we think things should be drive progress. It can be dangerous, however, when one becomes so focused on ideals and how things should be that you become unable to function in reality.

One of the many reasons I think people join Peace Corps is to see the real world. It's a chance to get a taste of how things are outside of the US. When we leave for our respective host countries we have to accept that while it's important to hold to our ideals...we will be disappointed, again and again and again. Nothing out here is the way it should be, according to my western values. Even aside from the big things like human rights, or corruption, there are many simple concepts of business or communication that just aren't here and make life more inconvenient.

One such problem is that of change. No body here ever has any change. More than once I have gotten out of a taxi and tried to pay my 200 fcfa fair with a 1000 bill or even just a 500 coin and the cab driver simply has no change. This is not his problem. It is my problem. If I want change back, I have to now wander up to random vendors (if there are any nearby) and get change, or else just eat the difference. Some taxi drivers will accept the loss of 50 fcfa or something if you don't have enough small change, but most will make you break a large bill.

This would not fly in America. But that's the way it is here and so I accept it. I don't like it, but I move on. On the other hand, I observe people who are too locked into the mindset of how things should be. Most of the time their ideas are perfectly logical and reasonable, such as having enough change before your start your day as a cab driver. But when it doesn't work that way it just drives them up a wall. And little things like this add up until they just break down and can't deal with anything anymore.

This is just one example of not seeing the way things really are for being hung up on ideals. Another prime example i think is our president, George W. Bush. He is so focused on his mission of establishing democracy in Iraq (because democracy is the ideal government and so everyone should want and have it), that he blinds himself to the real situation. He doesn't want to hear about another list of casualties, or another platoon forced to retreat, let alone the idea that maybe the people don't want our form of government. Inconceivable!

It's the same thing with the restrictions on sex ed. Yes we should preach abstinence, but we should also be aware of how the world is and what teens are doing and address that as well. My point is that while it is good to have an idea of how things should work, you still have to work within the structure of how things really are. You cannot change the system by ignoring it. You cannot win a game by completely ignoring the rules. If you do that you are no longer playing the game and thus cannot affect it's results. Your just playing with yourself.

Always hope for the best but be prepared for the worst. Dream of an ideal world, but still live in the real world.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Been in Benin

Wow, I definitely needed that vacation. Benin was amazing. I have a whole bunch of pictures I will try and get up at some point along with pics from Pangea. I don't really have the energy to do so right now (the bureau computers limits us to using the web up loader on Picasa so I can only upload 5 pics at a time).

First of all I have to say that since joining the Peace corps I feel like I have been constantly doing things that really prove to me my own Independence. In this case, because Jimmie, Alison, and Rachel went down a week ahead, I was setting out by bus, to visit the far side of a completely foreign country, where they don't speak any language I have more than a rudimentary grasp of. Somehow I had to the guts to do this and meet the others on the beach in Grand Popo. It was quite amazing to really show myself that I really can do anything that I want.

On the language note, no body in Benin speaks Zarma. Or at least, it's not widespread. In the North, they speak Dendi, which is similar, and there are lots of Zarmas in Cotanu and other places as they all travel there on exode in search of money. But basically I had to completely rely on my french. Which is shitty. That said, I was actually quite surprised at how fast it started coming back, and how far I could actually get with it. Very exciting.

To go into complete detail of my vacation would take a while, so I'll just give you guys a brief rundown of some of the things I did:

  • Drumming with Rastas on the beach.
  • Playing in the waves in the ocean (it was too rough to really swim).
  • Had the most delicious sole (and possibly fish in general) I have ever had.
  • Visited a voodoo python temple in Ouidha.
  • Went to a Jazz bar in Cotanu (they actually have live music there...unlike in Niamey).
  • Went to a Bob Marley Day festival in Dassa with Benin volunteers.
  • Hiking in Dassa (they actually have real hills and lush forests)
  • Went to an entire market in Parakou dedicated to millet beer.

All in all the whole trip was wonderful and much needed. Lots of wonderful new experiences and a new found sense of my Independence. But now I'm getting surprisingly sleepy so I'll sign off and promise to write more in a day or two and get some pictures up.


Saturday, May 05, 2007

Where Religion Breaks Down

When you are a subsistence farmer in one of the harshest environments a person can live in, a certain amount of fatalism is almost crucial. There are simply too many elements beyond your control that deeply affect your life: amount of rain, timing of rain, pests, family members dying and being born, market prices. With all these challenges it’s not surprising that the people here in Niger very much count on God to bring them everything they need, or to take things as they see fit.

This way of thinking works fine for them and is a powerful coping mechanism for the hardships they face. If a child dies, they simply say it was God’s will and move on. If they don’t have enough food for the year, they still maintain a positive attitude as they simply say that God will bring them food. On the other hand, this mindset can be very frustrating for volunteers as it’s our job to try and teach them to help themselves. Trying to persuade them that some of these things are in fact within their control, or at least their influence, is really a constant battle for us.

I have nothing against faith. In fact, in a discussion with another volunteer, I realized that I do in fact have faith, just not in any particular religious beliefs (but that’s a discussion for another time). Faith keeps us going. However, at a certain point, this fatalistic approach to faith simply breaks down. Simply counting on God or another power to “make it better” will only get you so far. In some ways, I really fear that it breeds laziness.

The other day I had a meeting with my villagers about the cereal bank. Now, before the money arrived, my villagers donated their time, energy, and any resources available to build the basic structure for the magazine and even to provide an initial fifteen sacks of millet. This was all part of what they agreed to contribute for the requisite 25% village contribution we needed to get funding. This is a huge amount for a poor village, but they did it willingly because they seemed to understand the concept that they had to put something in to get something out. “Irikoy ne tun, Ay ma ni ga.”(God said get up so I can help you).

Meanwhile, I’ve been running back and forth to Niamey, thus incurring scorn for not staying at post and spending my own money on bush taxi fair and also cell phone credit calling various counterparts. Not to mention battling with the festering, tangled swamp that is bureaucracy trying to get the funding. The problem is that none of this happened in sight of my villagers, nor can they really comprehend it as hard work if I explain it to them.

So I suddenly show up with money. Irikoy bere! (God is big!) It seems to me that in most of their minds, god brought this money with which to buy food. And since we have money now, there is no need for them to donate time, labor, and resources. Now they can get paid for their efforts. They can also afford to just agree to the mason’s outrageous price. If the money runs out before we buy food, well then God will bring more. Through me. Clearly God brought me to the village to bring them this grain bank. It certainly hasn’t come about through anyone’s efforts, not even their own.

This is where they start to shoot themselves in their own foot with their religion. Because they praise God as having brought this, then they can’t take ownership of it, which is necessary to keep it going. But even more frustrating is fact that right after the meeting where I explained how I worked to bring this money and now we can continue to work on it, a depressingly large number of villagers approached me and asked me for money to buy food, or cigarettes, or cola nuts.

It’s depressing and frustrating to see the villagers disregard all the work that we, not just I, have done and simply turn around and start looking for the next hand out. We’re not even finished with this project. It makes me pessimistic about how much they can really help themselves without some deeper mental and cultural shift taking place first, and I don’t see that happening until they have a successful project and actually take credit for it. It’s difficult situation.

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Music, Music, Music!

Wow, it's been one hell of an awsome week. I would say this has probably been one of the best weeks of my entire service (I seem to be saying things like that a lot lately).

Basically, the Pangea music program has been amazing. I've heard, seen, done so many new and awsome things. I met lots of really cool people, including just about every big name music artist in Niger. Also it was a whole week hanging out with some awsome fellow volunteers.

One of the things that happened everymorning was that Sheena would lead a yoga class. Now, I've never been particularly enticed by yoga, especially all the "harnessing your energy" type of mumbo jumbo. So the first day I just drank my coffee and watched. But the second morning I figured, what the hell. Wow. I tell ya what wow! I can't remember the last time I gave my body such a beating. It felt amazing. I'm sold. My body hurts all over and I love it.

Though yoga's definately not the only reason for my soreness. Just about every night, some kids from the local schools would come to hear some of the artists we invited to come play. Now, concerts here are not just to sit and watch, they are participatory. You are expected to get out there and dance. And so we did. Kurt and I were out there everynight learning new dances from the kids and trying to keep up. It was freaking exhausting. But it was awsome to feel so included by the kids. They were so thrilled to have us out there with them and they showered us with praise for our efforts after the concerts. I'll try to post some pictures later.

Between yoga and dancing, there was lots of music to be played. We would jam with the random people floating around all the time. It was great when we'd get upwards of five musicians all sitting around jamming on drums, guitars, banjo, and traditional instruments too boot. We also taught some classes on western instruments (compared to traditional counterparts) and American styles of music. At one point at the end of Kelli's pop music class, she put on Metallica - Enter Sandman and Kurt, Kelli, and I demonstrated head banging and moshing. They aren't acquainted with metal here in Niger, so it was a trip for them. Afterward one of the locals asked me if it was a traditional sacred dance in America. To them it probably looked like one of there spirit dances where people get posessed. So I tried to explain white middle class teen angst to them. I don't think they got it.

I also got to watch a guy rock out to Metallica on his Goge (traditional one string violin) during my class comparing it to modern violin. And it sounded good. It was crazy.

I can't even begin to explain all the awsome things about this week. I'm exhausted and ready for a rest, but I definately plan to spend more time hanging out at the CFPM when I'm in Niamey. I'll try and upload some pictures from this week at some point.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


It's been an amazing week already, and it's only Tuesday! This week I have been participating in the Pangea music program that Peace Corps put together in conjunction with the CFPM (Centre some french words Music). It's called Pangea because it's the idea that we're bringing the continents back together through the universal languages of music and dance. Kind of cheesy, I know. Don't ask me, I'm just helping.

For the most part the idea of music for entertainment isn't really widespread in Niger. Most of the traditional musics are based in spiritual rites and any given rhythm or melody is supposed to summon a specific spirit. Well, when Islam came they kind of snuffed out Animism and much of the music. There are still many musicians but making it as a professional musician in Niger is very hard. Especially trying to introduce other influences such as blues, jazz, or reggae.

The CFPM is the main music centre in Niamey. They have a recording studio and basically just provide a place for musicians to hang out and play and share. It's facilities are fairly modest but it is still one of the most amazing places I've ever been. It's great to watch random people who all love music, just sit down and start jamming with instruments both modern and traditional. The atmosphere is one of inclusion and sharing. I have learned so much just from hanging out there with my guitar.

So I'm staying there all week to help out with Pangaea, really the brainchild of Ginger, one of our volunteers. We've scheduled many classes being taught by both PCV's and Nigeriens. I myself am doing sessions comparing the Goje (traditional one stringed viol) and molo (one or two stringed lute) to the modern violin and guitar respectively. Kurt and I are also doing a session later in the week on American folk music. Mostly, so far, we've just been hanging out and learning reggae and blues from real Rastas. It's awesome.

Last night, several of the schools brought their students and we were going to have a Gormantche dance group come and teach us some dances. But they didn't show up so instead we ended up with some of the local musicians playing calabash, drum, and flute and all the kids taught us how to dance, Africa style. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The kids were totally encouraging. The one who took me under his wing was even named Ali (my Nigerien name). Some of those kids can really move.

There's this one guy who, every time Kurt and I have our instruments out, gets us started playing the same 4 chord reggae sequence. Initially it's just the three of us playing that, until he starts adding a little intro part. Once Kurt and I know what we're doing, and are well on the road to killing our hands, he'll start to improvise over our chords. Gradually more and more musicians will come by until we've got a full on jam session. Today, one of the main guitarists there basically took me under his wing and starting showing me things. Eventually (cause he was only speaking French and mine is not great) I realized he was showing me the A minor pentatonic scale. Well I know of it and knew it's shape, but hadn't really been practicing. But he showed me some licks to play over the reggae chords and it was like something clicked. I finally started to understand some of the basics of guitar solos. Despite not really speaking each other's languages he taught me a ton, and I learned even more just from connections I made to stuff I already knew. I love music!

It's events like these that make me love it here. Last night with the dancing...that's what I imagined Peace Corps to be like. I've heard that "as hard as your first year in PC is, that's how awesome your second will be." So far I would say that's the case. All of my top Peace Corps experiences have been in the past couple of months: the trip to Kirtachi, Easter in Gotheye,
live-in with one of the newbies in Gotheye, Pangaea, even just the last few months at post. I feel like I've finally gotten to see the real Peace Corps experience. Yes I have my frustrations with the way things are run and the difficulties they cause, but I'm also starting to really have fun here, when I'm not dying of the heat.

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