Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Salut aux amis

Salut aux family and friends:

Niamey, Niger
May 3, 2006

Don and Louise are back from five days “en brousse” on the front lines of American Foreign Policy. A 1200 KM round trip to east of Zinder, the old capital of Niger. Fantastic trip! Exotic…..images include camel caravans, burning dry heat, Sahelian scrub vegetation, jam packed markets, interesting, almost whimsical mud brick house and mosque architecture, goats-cows-camels-sheep-horses everywhere. Details, you say?

First, a bit about “the Sahel.” It’s a band of vegetation just south of what we learned in Montana geography class as the Sahara Desert that extends from Mauritania on West Africa’s bulge…thru Mali…Niger…Chad…into Sudan. My guess is that the vegetation band is 200-250 miles deep, north to south, from the Sahara southern boundary to the southern boundaries of the aforementioned nation states.

The vegetation band is dependent on the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone that yearly creeps north about this time and dumps torrential rains that are the life blood of this place. Bring them on!

Right now we are in the hot season. Sort of like Havre, Montana in mid to late August + maybe 10-15 degrees and just as dry. Plus the nighttime temperature doesn’t cool down as much here as in Montana.

For you foreign policy and development buffs who voraciously power thru letters such as these, some Niger stats are at the end of this epistle that show how tough Niger is.

So, we’re off to Emily’s village (Lira to her village). We’re east of Zinder, entering a small village off the goudroné (asphalt), and our driver Amadou gets out to engage the four wheel drive locks on our vehicle. And…voila…we’re tooling through the sand and scrub following barely discernable tire treads for about 10 Ks. The village of Mara is maybe 200 souls.

Lira is a delight to her villagers. She is fluent in the local language, Beri,Beri and has been there for over two years. Kids crowding around…friendly, loving Lira, eager, but very respectful. We go to audience with the maigerie (Chief) who’s sister has just died. A mat comes out; condolences; we chit chat; Lira comments on the good wife and the mean wife who both greet us. Food comes out. Millet mash with green sauce; and a sort of millet weak puree. Both surprisingly good, and, yes, confirmed by the volunteers, the grit in the millet mash is sand.

Lira is one of the sparkling young Americans in these parts. It gives you hope for Amerique. They pick up the local languages, mainly Haura and Zarma, in a heartbeat, to the astonishment and absolute pleasure of Nigerian officialdom.

For the most part, the volunteers live in villages clustered around a main town. For example, Dakoro (population 19,000) is the primate town in Dakoro Urban Commune, with 40 villages clustered around, for a total population of 80,000. Five, maybe six PCVs live in this commune. They need each other for support.

Carrie, a PCV who hears a language once and she owns it, is telling us about Timilde, I guess Hausa for slavery. It turns out that it’s quite prevalent throughout the country, but in particular amongst the Hausa Fulani. Best description we can think of is it’s like the indentured servitude you read about in your history books. One way for young females to “bust the bonds” is to deliver a male child. Then they’re free….

And all along we thought it was us Christians who had a corner on the slavery market…

We’re cruising thru Taqueta, a city with a road branching down to Northern Nigeria, and we see 20 ton capacity trucks…big muthas…loading up what? Onions. Turns out that Niger is the onion capital of West Africa, and these onions are heading everywhere….Mali, Ghana, Burkina, Togo, Benin, Senegal. We would be having French onion soup today, but Boniface, our house man and cook extraordinaire is out sick today.

Heat…does strange things. One of the first things you notice is all the sheep with no wool. Guess they don’t need it here unless they’re housed in air conditioned barns.

So, we’re tooling along, Louise asking penetrating questions about individual volunteers and support systems at the extremity of her empire, and Don thinking about Islamic fundamentalist fanaticism feeding on discontent engendered by dismal survival statistics. Because of the overwhelmingly Islamic nature of the country, the USG has launched a Trans Sahelian Counter Terrorism Initiative aimed at neutralizing the bad guys, and USAID is part of the action…and Don is focusing on the role that his little organization, the Office of Transition Iniiatives (OTI) might play.

The idea is to take deliberate steps to prevent destabilization of Niger that would make it susceptible to being taken over by Al Qaida type organizations.

Cause for concern exists. Two volunteers living close to the border with Nigeria told us about virulent anti-American rhetoric coming from people just over that national boundary. In Niger, support for America, the Peace Corps, the fond memory of USAID having a Mission here. In Nigeria, quite the opposite. Same people, same race, same religion, same ethnic group, same language. Go figure.

For all of us taxpayers, we do have a dog in this hunt. Whereas before it was more or less doing good works, both humanitarian and development, and therefore relatively lackluster, now the U.S. foreign policy is paying increased attention.

And all those images of camel trains, Marco Polo, oases, and Arabs on white horses! They’re true. We saw a 15 camel nomadic salt caravan “heading north,” probably to “the big oasis” at Agadez…and thought about the days before cars when these convoys of “desert ships” would be comprised of thousands of camels.

Market day is a no nonsense day. Were north of Zinder, in the Bankareta market looking for PCV John, a 6’5” 230 pounder who demonstrates the sculpted physique of a 7-year competitive rower. Out of the surrounding villages come these gorgeously dressed men and women or an occasional man galloping by on a black stallion…his robes flowing. Whole lotta hustlin’ goin’ on.

Gaston Kaba, a Nigerian Health APCD traveling with us, is muttering about desert encroachment, the drying up of oases along the route that he knew as a boy and young professional, the spot infusion of sand dunes in what used to be fertile agricultural land. Gaston is in his 60’s, and is worried about Niger’s future.

And then we’re off road again, this time 4 wheeling it to a village that PCV Charlie has asked us to check out as a future work site. In truth, we’re sort of lost…tooling across fields…asking everyone we see for directions. It finally works. Louise and Gaston check out the school, meets with the town fathers, look at the health dispensary. Don checks out the village well.

Water is life. I fuss around at the wellhead, peer down, converse in my flawless Hausa, play around with the kids…all the while watching the water extraction process. A big bladder goes down into the well…is charged with much hauling and releasing….and when full, a rope is tied to a cow ridden by a young boy. The cow walks off some 60-70 yards…three quarters of a football field…two guys manhandle about 10 gallons of water, which goes into a barrel, and they start all over again. No well, no village. This goes on all day.

On the subject of water is life, last year the rains were spotty and insufficient, and this brought on a significant famine. Some three million people were at risk. The Western response was sufficient in terms of quantity, but some NGOs were dumping free food and depressing local markets. This has been going on for 40 years; we never seem to get it, says Don wearing his disaster hat.

That’s about it for this installment. We’re doing it right…living “in the moment” as they say…trying to not think about the return, but…also thinking about the return.

Oh, and those stats…

Niger is a tough place with impossibly difficult statistics that make it #177 of 177 on the UNDP Human Development Index, including:
· a population that is predicted to double by 2020 from its current 14 million
· Seventy percent of the current population is under 25; 40 percent is under 15
· The illiteracy rate is 85%
· School attendance rate zip, less for girls
· 60% of people living on $1 dollar per day
· The Sahel is rapidly encroaching on cultivatable land
· Rural to urban migration is swelling Niger’s cities, bringing all the makings for gangs
· 90% of livelihoods are rural, farming and herding
· Health statistics in all categories are desperate

Another reminder to your reporters that Americans for the most part have it pretty good….

A bientot… Don

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Niamey Updates

April 9, 2006

Greetings all on the day before Mouloud, Mohammed’s birthday. The Peace Corps office will be closed tomorrow to honor the national holiday. It seems that in the past Niger only celebrated French holidays, which included Easter Monday, Christmas Day, and All Saints Day. Then Mohmmar Quadaffi came on a visit from Libya and reminded Nigérians that they were a 90% Muslim nation. So now we celebrate Mohammed’s birthday.

It’s noon in Niamey; the temperature has hit 110 degrees; and dust is blowing off the hot desert. What better place to be than in my air-conditioned office. Mark took my first messages from Niamey and created his mother’s first blog. The notion of writing a blog has paralyzed me ever since. But Don will be here in five days and our correspondence will improve.

In short, I’m having a great time. Lots of work, lots of challenges, but lots of rewards with some great Volunteers and good staff! I’ve managed two-day trips to visit Volunteer sites, which are not for the faint of heart. I’ll send photos soon. Just to say that every Volunteer lives in a mud brick house. Some are tiny; some are a big bigger. But they’re all mud brick.

For me, I live in the Country Director’s big house. I have a great Togolese cook and a covered swimming pool. Peace Corps regulations state that no staff can have a swimming pool, so mine is covered with metal roofing material.

The Country Director residence is located on “Mali Béro Boulevard”, en face du Skyéyee,” in other words, Mali Béro Boulevard across from the Skyeyee gas station. Mali Béro is a true boulevard with a strip of scrubby bushes dividing the four busy lanes of traffic. Each morning a watering truck bumps down the road dousing the occasional bushes with a badly needed drink of water. By 2:00 pm the temperature reaches 112 F. They say it will reach 120 F during the “hot season.”

The walk to the office takes twenty minutes at a slow pace; variety means walking at a slow pace (during the cool mornings) and walking at a slower pace (during the heat of the afternoon).

The walk way is wide; at least the width of the road. At each intersection, women have set up their stoves and their stools and cook fried dough or spoon out sauce on long loaves of French bread. Young boys- I see few girls- tumble down the street on their way to school. Each has a tin bowl slung over his shoulder with a piece of rope. They smile, ask for a cadeau and then wander on smiling. The man at the “Jams Pressing” boutique next door always invites me to inspect his facility and return with my dirty wrinkled clothes. At a construction site, bricks are being made on the spot, or rather on the walkway. I calculated over a thousand bricks this week. Not sure what magic number will signal the start of construction.

Trucks, taxis, cars, and bicycles share the roadway with donkey carts laden with firewood. Pedestrians share the walkway with goats and camels, also laden with firewood and straw.

Mali Béro runs east west. I walk into the sun in the cooler morning hours; I walk into the sun in the late afternoon scorching hours. I move like a slow lizard, clinging to the walls, sliding under trees, searching for shade.

During my first two weeks I read 6 books, watched 4 Netflicks, completed 10 crossword puzzles, and finished one full season of Curb Your Enthusiasm DVDs. Realizing that my entertainment stash would never last for 14 weeks, I had a friend take me into the bowels of the Grand Marché where I purchased a satellite dish and receiver for $280. A technician and his 3 helpers installed the dish for $20. Since time is too short to hook into any expensive subscription services, the technician aimed my dish at the sky and hooked me into free channels originating out of Dubai. I now can fill my free time watching 80 different stations, all but 4 of them in Arabic. There are Arabic diet and exercise channels, Arabic cooking channels, Arabic cartoon channels, Arabic MSNBC channels, Arabic American News channels, as well as live broadcasts from mosques across the Arab world. I stick to French TV5, BBC World, a movie channel (with subtitles in Arabic) and a variety channel that includes Oprah, Survivor, and more.
Life’s good.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Checking in from Niamey

Sunday morning finds me closeted in my new Peace Corps office where a high speed Internet connection provides access to the world beyond. One might say, "Ah, West Africa! It's all the same!" But Niger is a very special place.

The handover from Director Jim Bullington took place Tuesday evening following my 24-hour trip. I arrived at 5:00 PM on the twice-weekly Air France flight from Paris. Jim left on the midnight return. The plane flies from Niamey to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso to deliver and pick up passengers and returns to Niamey for the midnight departure to Paris. Having two flights in and out a week makes some aspects of life simpler.

Thursday I traveled to Hamdalayye, the training site for 22 Peace Corps Volunteers. While Niamey definitely has more paved roads than Lome- a key indicator of development- the vast deserted desert appears instantly on the edge of town. The trainees, who were completing 9 weeks of language and cross-cultural training, had been living in the most simple of mud huts. Classrooms in the training center were also of mud and thatch. The center was perched on a tiny hill, which offered an endless view of the surrounding scrubby desert. The training site is described as a "half way station" to the isolation of their posts.

The Friday evening swearing in ceremony took place in the elegant surrounding of the residence of the U.S. Ambassador. Green grass, a swimming pool, tennis courts all overlooked the mighty Niger River. The trainees had been transported from Hamdalaye in their colorful West African clothing. But their training experience carried over to the new setting when one Trainee/ Volunteer asked me. "Do you know where the Ambassador's latrine might be?"

At the ceremony I awarded a special certificate on one Volunteer who had just completed his third year of service. His arm was bandaged. He worked with the Niamey Zoo, and a young frisky lion had nipped him during his last day on the job.

Following my speech during the ceremony, the handsome Nigerian Health Director for UNICEF, Dr Maoude Hamissou, approached me. "Don't you remember me?" he asked, "I was your student at Georgetown in 1989." And the Peace Corps Associate Director for Health piped in, "Yes, I was working at USAID/ Niger at the time and was responsible for sending him to you." If you ever want to "drop off the face of the earth," don't try it in Niger.

The Chargé at the Embassy had just returned from the north where U.S. military troops have been conducting training operations with the Nigérian army. The U.S. troops observed that 1) the Nigérian army was much better trained than that of Iraq and 2) the children in nearby villages weren't hiding improvised explosive devices.

My favorite time of day remains the early morning, when the air is cool and the calls to prayer, which drift across the city, sound like the cries of wild animals.