Saturday, November 27, 2010

West Africa on a Friday Night

Nassirou and Sherifa are our names in Niger. We were given these names by our host family when we arrived in the village for our pre-service training. All Peace Corps volunteers have a Nigerien name which enhances the idea of immersing into a different culture. I actually like my name, Sherifa. Its meaning is unknown to me, however, it seems to be popular in my village. Nassirou means “lucky”. I hope that proves to be true.

Last Friday night after a day of language classes, visiting a new baby in a neighboring village, touring 2 local health huts, and planting a small vegetable garden, Nassirou and I just wanted to sit for a bit, relax or fulanzam(rest) and cool off before dinner. Nassirou’s lucky failed because 3 village children appeared immediately at our door saying “salum alakaim”, “salum alakaim”. We had to respond—“Amin Alakum salum”, I said, and in they came to our small space. One boy, Moumuni, reminds us of Jared, our grandson. The other 2 children tag along with him most nights. They long for attention from someone.
The children sit on the dirt floor, quiet, just watching us. Our language skills are still so lacking that we did the same—it did not seem to matter. The children just like to look at us. We don’t have anymore Peanut M&M’s to share, but they don’t seem to care.
Finally, not being able to stand the silence, I got our playing cards from inside our hut and began shuffling them for a game of Battle. Moumuni dealt them to Nassirou, Sherifa, and himself and did so quite aptly, I’d say. Even though this African bush child speaks his local language, Zarma, he is learning French and Arabic in school and knows his numbers in English. With limited ability to explain the game, we just started playing, laying our cards out face up with Moumuni doing the same. We’d then indicate the high card as the round’s winner. Moumuni and his friends who were, quickly caught on and began pointing to the winner of each hand. No verbal exchange was needed but plenty of laughter ensued as we sat with these children playing cards by flashlight and by starlight.
When Hamsu, one of our host family wives, brought our dinner, the children scattered and returned to their own fu (home). They were well trained. Hamsu had brought her sleeping baby with her. She said, “ay sinda bani” (meaning sick), pointing to the child and indicating I should touch him. I placed my hand on his small body—it was hot with fever and the child coughed as he began to stir on the Mother’s back where he rested. As Hamsu uncovered the bowl of rice and beans which was our dinner, I lost my appetite. I just couldn’t eat. Was it because I felt badly about not being able to help this sick baby or was I afraid of Nassirou and Sherifa getting sick? I asked Hamsu if she was planning to take the baby to the local health hut and she said, “suba” (tomorrow). I looked up words in our Zarma dictionary for sponge bath and tried to explain the comfort measure for the baby. It is difficult to speak with Hamsu since she knows no English, but I felt that she understood what I was trying to tell her. We walked Hamsu and her baby across the concession to her home.
After taking bucket baths by moonlight, Nassirou and Sherifa were in bed by 8:30 pm, protected by mosquito nets and overcome with exhaustion. It was too warm to immediately fall asleep so we lay quietly thinking about the busy day we’d had in West Africa and about all that was planned for the next day..
Nassirou’s name means lucky. We’ll find out if it’s good luck or bad luck as time goes by.
Post script: Nassirou experienced some bad luck soon after that Friday night. He caught an upper respiratory infection from one of the village children. Don’t worry though, he recovered quickly.

Thanksgiving Day 2010

Thanksgiving 2010
The walls are cracked. Paint chips are missing everywhere. The bathroom light fixture hangs by 1 screw but the light works because there is electricity, something not available in the bush of Africa. The bed has hand cranks to raise and lower the occupant and is covered with clean but stained sheets. A basic cabinet stands against a wall with a rectangular wooden table beside it. The cabinet is empty. There is nothing on the table. There are no towels or soap. Drinking water in a sealed bottle awaits the thirsty taker.
Large windows are open, facing the Niger River and a breeze is felt wafting in. There are cracks in one window panel and a small hole is visible in the screen. Wonder if any mosquitoes which frequent this country have found the hole. Through the window one can see a beautiful garden filled with lush plants, trees and grass. It is an oasis from the dry, hot, air of the bush. Birds can be heard singing and butterflies flit from flower to flower as the African sun begins to set. Beyond the garden lies an expanse of agricultural fields where vegetables are being grown—cabbage plants can be seen with others in the background. It is a large expanse and one man will spend his day irrigating the plants with 2 hand-watering cans. His source of water is the Niger River which is in its cleanest state during this season but still not drinkable.
This hospital in Niger’s capital city was built by the French in the late 50’s. It is where Dave was brought by the Peace Corps medical officer due to his raging fever, dehydration and gastrointestinal infection. I was allowed to accompany Dave to the hospital although my problem was less severe and easily treated without need for hospitalization.
It was in this stark place that Dave and Judy spent the 2 days prior to and part of Thanksgiving Day, 2010 as Peace Corps volunteers. How did this happen?
Two evenings before, what had been a pleasant evening at a seemingly good restaurant in Niamey, Niger, turned into Dave’s illness and hospitalization because we ordered and ate a salad with our meal. There is no conclusive proof, but since one other person who shared the salad with us also was violently sick and had to go to this hospital, the restaurant’s likelihood of being part of the causative factor is fairl y certain. We miss salads and fruits so much here. When our training group was taken out to dinner and salad appeared on the menu, all knowledge of the risks of eating fresh vegetables escaped our minds and we ordered the forbidden. Firm, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and shredded carrots and cabbage filled a generous salad plate for Dave and me. We shared with our fellow volunteer, not knowing we would also share illness and Thanksgiving in a foreign country’s hospital with her too.
Unfortunately, the 3 of us became ill because we mistakenly assumed that local restaurants who offered salads on their menus also took care to clean the vegetables of the disease-causing organisms so commonly found here. Broad assumptions can prove to be erroneous but this one was definitely wrong. It is a lesson we’ll take to heart. We’ll also share a lifelong bond with Carolyn, the young Peace Corps volunteer with whom we shared our salad and the Thanksgiving hospital stay.
Now on Thanksgiving morning, along with most other Americans, we give thanks --- for family and friends, for each other, for the opportunity to experience life in so many diverse ways. Most especially on this Thanksgiving Day, 2010, we give thanks for excellent medical care first by the Peace Corps medical staff, then by the medical staff at the hospital in Niger’s capital. Though the structure is old and run down, the staff is young, educated, well trained, and highly competent. With their excellent diagnosis and treatment Dave was ready for discharge l within forty- eight hours. It was indeed a Thanksgiving Day to remember.
Irikoy ma saabu tonton (Zarma language). May God increase your thankfulness. Judy and Dave

Sunday, November 21, 2010


I awaken early in our outdoor mosquito-netted bed. Dave is still asleep. Stars still shine above. A rooster crows—another answers, and the early morning conversation begins. Overhead , one bird is singing in the Neem tree near our hut. It seems to be the same bird every morning but I’ve never been able to see it. A cow moos, a sheep baas, and a donkey brays. The donkey does not say “hee-haw” as the books say, but he gives a series of high- pitched choking sounds followed by a loud outcry. There are a total of 5 donkeys in our small rural village and they, too, seem to talk to each other—especially at night and early in the morning.
A baby cries in the distance. The cry continues and mimics other cries heard during the previous night. What are these children crying about? Are they hungry, hurting, frightened, lonely? Sometimes the children in the village, scantily dressed and wandering around, also just cry. Why? Who will answer their cries? Their Mothers must be exhausted from the repeated , never ending days of hard physical labor which is expected of them. The fathers are often away from home, working in the fields or in the city. Who answers these cries?
I lie awake quietly listening to the sounds of our village in Niger as it awakens to another day. I hear the thump ,thump, thump rhythmic sounds of the women pounding millet for the morning’s breakfast. Soon the Islam Call to Prayer by the local Imam is heard. This means there will soon be more activity near us as the village women come to the well located behind our hut. They come with babies resting on their backs and leave with buckets of water added atop their heads. They are laughing, talking, smiling. Why is their countenance and behavior so positive when their lives are so harsh? Where do they get the strength to carry on? Do they answer the children’s cries, or do they even hear them?
When one Peace Corps activity involved listing the work of women in Niger, child care was not even on the list. Why??? The average number of children per Nigerien women is 8. And child care is not on the list of responsibilities they assume?? As we see toddlers wandering near our hut, now more comfortable with us ANASARAS , we are beginning to understand that the children take care of each other and that the work the mothers do actually does go towards their care, though indirectly. The children grow up to work and support their family. When they are young, they cry and are heard in the night. But no one answers. Maybe the baby is Niger. Judy

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Niger, Here We Come!

Hi, to all blog readers:
Sorry for the lapse in posts but this is the first time we’ve had internet access since departing the US on October 22.
The energy of the group was palpable—44 new Peace Corps trainees arriving in a foreign land’s airport. Niamey, Niger. After a 12 hour total flight from Philadelphia to Paris to Niamey on October 22 , our flight e We amade its approach from the sky with views of desert, patches of green and the muddy Niger River. And the sun was beaming down producing heat of around 100 degrees. The rainy season in Niger just finished andnow the temperatures are more moderate—mini hot—to be followed by the cold season and then the hot season. We arrived at the best time to acclimate to a new climate and place to live.
Meeting us at the airport was Tondi, a tall, smiling, friendly and bold voiced Nigerien who is the Training Manager for the Peace Corps training site in Niger. He ushered all 44 of us through baggage claim ( NO lost bags—unbelievable!), security, and customs and then into 2 waiting vans. Each van would have 4 layers of luggage roped to the top as we all piled inside, hot, exhausted but elated at finally being in our new country. Off we went, 44 official Peace Corps trainees all with the hope of meeting the tough standards required for being sworn in as official volunteers on December 30. Most of the trainees are in their 20’s, Dave and I are the oldest .One other couple from India is our age. So far everyone is congenial as the honeymoon season is still in effect. One girl left 3 days after arriving in Niger for unannounced reasons. Language instruction 6 hours per day mixed with technical, cultural, safety and health training was ahead. Niger is a country with many health and safety challenges so these topics are carefully addressed with us. Understanding and adapting to a totally new culture is on-going as we are all immersed in small villages near the training center. Dave and my family includes a husband , 2 wives (1 pregnant) ,and 6 children. There is a large extended family also. We don’t know yet exactly what all the relationships are. Our village is without electricity or running water. Well water is available and we’ve learned to treat our water with chlorine to assure safety for drinking. We also installed a hand washing device invented by Jock Brandis at the Full Belly Project in Wilmington, NC so that we can wash our hands frequently and easily. We will soon run out of hand sanitizer and hand wipes. Hopefully, others in our village will try this idea, wash their hands more often and have fewer diseases caused by hand to mouth contamination.
We eat dinner and some lunches with our family. Rice is served at both meals. Fruits and vegetables are almost non-existent as are calcium containing foods. Peace Corps provides multi-vitamins and calcium tablets. We all try to find fruit at village stands but oranges and bananas are about all we can find and not every day. Due to the heat , drinking plenty of water is crucial. Never having been a water drinker, this has been a challenge but with temperatures in the upper 90’s and lower 100’s, it is not hard to change bad habits and drink a lot of water.
Dave and I and many of the Peace Corps trainees have discovered a small street store near the training site where we can buy orange soft drinks that are actually COLD. That is our daily treat after our classes and other activities. It has replaced a daily glass of wine which, strangely, we have not really missed.
How are Dave and Judy doing? We are fine or “bani samay walla” in the Zarma language we are studying and struggling to learn. We aim to pass the language test at the end of the training period. We have a forty minute walk to the Peace Corps training site, warm in the morning and hot in the evening. Bucket baths are amazingly refreshing but do not come close to the luxury of a good shower.
What brightens a hot day as we return to our mud hut , our heads filled with new materials and languages, are the beautiful smiles on the faces of the Nigerien people as we walk through the trash strewn streets. There is no such thing as recycling or garbage pick-up so people just throw their trash in the street In the small villages.
We feel as if we’ve ducked into a rabbit hole and emerged in the Middle Ages. We’ll keep you, our dear family and friends posted on what happens next, whenever we have computer access. We wish you well. "Alhamdulilahi” or Thanks be to God, in any language and in any culture. Judy

Niger Here We Come!

We deplane in the capital, Niamey, the heat is intense –over 100 degrees F and this is the beginning of the cold season. The sunlight is searing, but nothing compared to the overwhelming sight of sewage and garbage in the streets. People have lived continuously in this area for over ten thousand years and no one seems to care for the land. Erosion, overgrazing , exploding population , water shortage, food scarcity, and a milieu of universal complacency. Niger is a story where I can see only one possible ending. The unknown is the rate of decline. Am I surprised? I expected to be without running water, electricity, plumbing, or refrigeration and to have a hut with dirt floors and walls. I didn’t expect the bright smiles, children who sing while playing , the enormous amount of physical labor energy that are required for a subsistence living. The long hours of hard work that every woman puts in every single day of her life just to accomplish even the most mundane of tasks is daunting. Just gathering fire wood, grinding millet, and cooking is an hours-long process. When we landed in Niamey we landed in the Middle Ages. Peace Corps volunteers who come here for a forty year reunion said the country has regressed since their service. ( Interesting health statistic: for every one hundred Peace Corps volunteers in Niger, each year there are one hundred and fifty cases of acute diarrhea.)
Do I see an upside to this? Absolutely, it would take a miniscule change: a well, a pump, a fence, a garden, and a life would change. It is unlikely there is any place in the world where such a small input would yield such dramatic results. It’s also unlikely there’s any place in the world that takes so such effort to make the smallest difference. Can I do this—we’ll see. Right now my challenge is the language test. If either Judy or I don’t pass, we’re sent home. Stay tuned. Dave