Detour Ahead: Niger->Benin->Togo->Ghana——>USA

12 08 2009

[Two boys cross a footbridge between houses in Ganvie, Benin]

Notice: This is going to be a long blog entry and it’s also probably going to be the last real entry on this site.  For your listening enjoyment, I’ve included an interesting track of traditional music from Benin>.

Approximately two months ago Kristin and I headed out on our biggest adventure yet.  Just to give you a little background, Kristin and I have been on many adventures together.  We’ve hitched rides across Belgium and Switzerland, followed the Andes from Machu Picchu down to Lake Titicaca, and hiked along a crumbling portion of China‘s great wall.  So yeah, Africa = hardcore adventure…..

Kristin was my fourth visitor in-country so we decided that instead of spending most of our time in Niger, we would venture through Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Burkina Faso, making a loop back to Niger.  From the first day of our trip, things started to get interesting.  On the night following Kristin’s arrival we went to a nearby restaurant for Biere Niger and plantains.  A few minutes after our arrival everyone became completely silent as the president of Niger addressed the nation live on TV and radio. He announced that he would be ignoring the 2 term limit imposed by Niger’s constitution and continuing on as president.  During the weeks following that statement, he dissolved most of the legislative and judicial bodies and is presently ruling by decree.  Our first few days in Niamey, we purchased our combined Visas for Benin, Togo, and Burkina and waited for Kristin’s luggage to show up.

Friday night we got caught in a big dust storm as we headed across town to a restaurant overlooking the Niger River.  Rain followed the dust and then stopped just in time for us to enjoy dinner.  During our few days in Niamey we really didn’t see many signs of political or social unrest, but the parliament had been dissolved, the grand Marché caught on fire with significant damage and demonstrations were scheduled.  As a result, we were instructed to leave the capital no later than Sunday afternoon, regardless of if Kristin’s luggage had arrived or not. Saturday we stopped by a few markets and went to the airport at 4pm Sunday. A few minutes later we were by the road with all her bags waiting for a ride to Dosso.  Eventually we caught a ride on a bus with missing windows that stopped a couple times on the way for minor repairs.  We made it to my home by sunset!

Sunday night in Dosso, we began going through Kristin’s luggage (she brought a lot of stuff for me), had a nice dinner with my friend Brian, and munched on some of the cheese and chocolate that Kristin brought.  Monday we began packing for an afternoon departure.  At this point, I had been living in Niger for about 18 months and I had never experienced any form of social unrest and heard of only rare and isolated cases.  Less than 24 hours after Kristin’s arrival in Dosso, a government official’s car was burned, people were burning tires across the city and protesting in the streets, and police apparently dished out some tear gas.  I was very surprised that we were even allowed to leave, but just before sunset we completed the 5 hour trip to the border with Benin and crossed into Malanville.  We walked 30 minutes to the hotel where we knew our bus and driver would be staying for the night.  Our room was at the top of a three story building and had very poor ventilation.  We did not get much sleep that night, but a special surprise was waiting for for us just outside our room the following morning.

The bus that we took to Cotonou was perhaps the nicest bus in all of Africa.  It was new, clean, comfortable and air-conditioned!  The 12 hour trip was luxurious compared to any of the dozen other 12 hour bus rides that I had previously endured.  We stopped in Paracou for lunch and had a coke with fufu (pounded yam with spicy sauce) at a restaurant run by several Zarma speaking women.  They were delighted to have a Zarma speaking white person at their restaurant.

We also treated ourselves to a Fan Milk, a delicious frozen milkshake in a plastic bag, and continued further south.  The trip included one more interesting stop at a lively market before we arrived in Cotonou.

We got off the bus after dark and managed to eventually find a real taxi amidst the sea of motorcycle taxis called zemidjans.

We arrived at the Peace Corps office where we were refused a place to sleep.  We grabbed a couple motorcycle helmets and headed to a nearby hotel.  Motorcycles are virtually the only available means of transport in most of Benin, so volunteers are allowed to ride when wearing a helmet.  The hotel’s rooms without air-conditioning were all booked (luckily) so we got a good night sleep following dinner.

Wednesday morning we headed to the Ghanaian Embassy to apply for our visa and then headed to the beach. The beach was further than expected but after passing a massive shipping yard, we eventually stumbled upon Obama Beach. We grabbed a few bags of water (see Kristin’s hand) and then made the 30 minute trip outside the city to catch a boat to Ganvie.

Ganvie is probably the largest lake village in Africa with a population of about 20,000.  The Tofinu people established the village in Lake Nokoue during the late 16th century to escape the Fon warriors who were forbidden from entering bodies of water.  On the way to the docks we stopped by a local market selling a large selection of magical fetish and voodoo supplies made up mostly of dried, dead animal parts.  We also stopped by a music store blaring the same track that I posted at the beginning of this blog.  I told the owner that I wanted to buy the CD so he tried to sell me nearly every CD in his store except the one playing.  It turned out that the CD was just a burned copy of music recorded by a local group from the village of Ganvie.

Eventually he sold it to me for a very reasonable price. We continued on foot to the docks and eventually agreed to pay the fee for a boat and guide.  The trip into the village took about 30 minutes.  Our guide was young and friendly and he studied at the nearby university.  Before touring the village itself, we stopped at our hotel, Chez Raphael, and checked into our room at the far corner of the building.

Next we spent about 30 minutes touring the village, revealing a non-stop maze of colorful, stilted houses.  We frequently passed other boats, many of them doubling as storefronts selling simple goods like used clothes or fried snacks.

One of the only patches of land we saw during the tour was being used by local kids for soccer.  As the sun was setting we returned to the hotel and prepared for dinner.  As we waited, we enjoyed views of the village as small kerosene lamps began dotting the landscape and made plans for the following day.

We had a delicious rice dish for dinner but were disappointed to discover that only beer and coke were available to drink.  No water!  Luckily we had brought a liter with us.  I have got to say that staying at the hotel was cool but, at the same time, eerie.  After dinner most of the battery powered lights were turned off and the hotel became very quiet. Candle lit silouettes danced around the rooms of the hotel’s permanent residents.  Faint voices filtered in from nearby houses and from boats sometimes passing just beneath our window.  The hotel did not have running water so we both took bucket baths and then went to bed early to prepare for a very early wake up time.

Several villagers had told us about the early morning market.  Each morning around 5am or earlier everyone gathered in the large open area in front of the hotel with their boats for market.  After sunrise many villagers head towards Cotonou to sell their fish.Instead, of waking up to the sounds of a bustling market, we woke to lightning strikes just outside our window and deafening rain on the tin roof overhead.  I took advantage of the freshly cooled air and went back to sleep.  By sunrise, the market was still somewhat active.

 

We enjoyed breakfast outside, checked out the large souvenir shop and waited for our guide to arrive.  The day before, our guide had convinced us that instead of returning to the Ganvie docks, we should pay him to take us across the entire lake to Cotonou.  The trip lasted a couple hours and revealed various local fishing techniques. Luckily, we only got sprinkled on a few times.

The shores near Cotonou were a sanitary nightmare and we had to walk through several blocks of small alleys before we found an area where we could catch a ride.  We picked up our stuff from PC and headed immediately to the Ghanaian embassy to collect our passports.  We were told that we could pick them up at 2:30 and we arrived at 3pm.  Apparently she meant ONLY at 2:30 because the visa desk was already closed.  Instead of delaying our plans by an entire day and spending another night in overcrowded Cotonou, we continued our trip to Ouidah.  I decided to make the brief return trip to Cotonou the next morning.

Ouidah is the Voodoo capital of Benin.  They host a yearly Voodoo festival and provide tours of a sacred forest still used for special rituals.  The trip from Cotonou takes less than an hour if the traffic isn’t too bad.  We arrived and walked towards the coast and Le Retour de la Diaspora Hotel.  The rooms were cheap and a little sketchy, but the owners were very friendly.  We decided to forgo the Route des Esclaves and walk around the city.  We ended up having a drink on the roof of a hotel from which we could see the entire city until more rain arrived.  We ran into an older teacher from the US who enjoyed traveling on his own in Africa.  He reminded us a lot of our friend Noah.  Eventually we made it back to our hotel where we ate dinner.  A strong storm knocked out the power (and our ventilation) several times throughout the night but stopped in time for me to leave by early and catch a ride back to Cotonou.

Within a few minutes a car had found me roaming the streets of Ouidah and we were on our way in a little hatchback with four other passengers.  Within 3 hours I had picked up my visa and returned to Ouidah.  I paid a little kid to guide me to the sacred forest where I had made plans to meet Kristin.  The forest was a little like a miniature rain forest filled with giant millipedes and decorated with a variety of  voodoo spirit statues made of cement.  I was not too impressed by the statues or our guide’s stories but I did enjoy taking pictures of the insects and trees.  After the forest, we grabbed a tasty avocado sandwich and found a car that would take us all the way to Lome, Togo.

The trip to Lome provided some nice views of the ocean and took several hours.  We experienced a few delays at the Benin/Lome border crossing since we presented identification as opposed to bribes.  A large number of people in Africa do not have any official form of identification and are forced to bribe officials as they cross borders.  We arrived in Lome and tried to figure out how to get to our hotel, near the PC office, by foot.  No locals would/could provide us with any help but after about 30 minutes we ran into another PC volunteer serving in Togo with his visiting girlfriend.  They guided us to a good hotel and led us to the beach with several other volunteers.  We hung out on the beach for a while enjoying a few tasty brews from neighboring Ghana before heading into town for the best pizza in west Africa!

Saturday was another travel day.  We slept in late and headed north with the same couple that guided us through Lome.  They lived in a village not far from where we would cross the border into Ghana.  The drive was beautiful.  As we left Lome the scenery became greener and more mountainous.  The trip had taken longer than expected, since the driver stopped every 45 minutes to have long conversations with random people he encountered on the road.

We arrived at the bush taxi station and grabbed some pounded yam before locating our next bush taxi that would take us into Ghana.  After a brief wait, the vehicle was ready and we headed into the mountains.

The mountain vistas were breathtaking and the ride through the mountains was ever more so! Just imagine an over-crowded, 30 year-old van flying down the side of a mountain!  We arrived at the Benin side of the border and walked into Ghana.  As we passed through immigration we immediately noticed a difference.  Everything seemed more organized and efficient.  We arrived in Golokuati and a few minutes later another vehicle was taking us to the Tafi Atome monkey sanctuary.  In less than an hour we had made it to the sanctuary and someone was checking us into our clean, well-lit room.  We ate dinner at a small house in the village and then I took some pictures of cool moths, showered, and went to sleep.  We had arrived a little after dark, so we weren’t sure what would be waiting for us.  We woke up in a lush forest with monkeys literally hanging from the trees.  The sanctuary staff woke us up early to go feed the monkeys.  After we each feed them a couple bananas and I spent some time walking around in the forest.

We decided to visit the Kente cloth weaving village of Tafi Abuife, which not very active on a Sunday. Although they used only Chinese thread, the cloth they made was beautiful.

 

Only young men were operating the looms while we were visiting. We bought a few samples and took a car up to the nearby mountain village of Amedzofe from where we could hike to a secluded waterfall.

At 762 meters, the village of Amedzofe is one of the highest inhabited communities in Ghana.

The walk to the falls lasted a few hours and we passed by a variety of local crops including bananas, pineapples, cassava, and cacao.  Bananas and cacao seemed to be growing nearly everywhere in the mountainous region of Ghana.

The cacao tree was quite a surprise for me.  Fruit grew directly out of the trunk in many cases and the bright green exterior held a surprisingly refreshing sweet/tart white interior.  We ate several of the juicy seeds and continued down the mountain.  Along the hike we also saw a variety of bizarre insects including brightly colors grasshoppers, beetles, and even a small moth waving streamers behind it.  The falls were all that I hoped they would be.  The falls were not especially large, but they were remote and appeared to be in pristine condition.  The only people we saw on the entire hike were locals making palm wine and the only sounds you could hear were the breeze, insects and an occasional bird.

On our way back a few locals offered us palm wine, which we politely refused.  Back in the village we secured transport back down the mountain.  It was another death defying trip that I was very thankful to be walking away from.

Next, we headed north to the city of Hohoe to visit the more popular Wii waterfalls.  We arrived shortly before sunset and stayed at the Wii Falls Lodge.

All their rooms were full, but we were allowed to camp on the hotel grounds for a reasonable fee.  From the lodge we could see the top of the falls and enjoyed dinner beneath a large open gazebo.  The next morning we walked a few minutes to the Wii trail head and paid our tourist fees.

As we walked toward the falls the vegetation became more lush with butterflies and damselflies dancing in every corner.  I did manage to spot a few larger hornbills but most birds stayed hidden in the tops of massive Ficus trees.

The falls were an easy 30 minute walk down the trail and they were considerably larger than the ones at Amedzofe.  The heat of the day had yet to arrive so we took a very brief dip beneath the falls.

Afterwards, I took some time at the falls to photograph a few cool plants and insects before returning.  Prior to Ghana, I had never visited a tropical forest.  The forest was home to an striking number of diverse forms of life.  I would have been content to spend days simply walking around the forest!

We returned from Wii to Hohoe to catch a taxi to Kyabobo National Park, near Nkwanta, on our way to Tamale and the Mole National Park.  So far our stay in Ghana had really impressed me.  Vehicles and roads had been reasonably maintained and a basic tourist infrastructure existed in most areas.  All that was about to change!

The ancient bush taxi that we took from Hohoe had quite a few problems, especially with the tires. Before we had even left town, the driver picked up one repaired tire and then switched tires out at the edge of town.  Just north of town the road became a sea of potholes resulting in a blowout that completely destroyed both the tire and rim.  They changed the tire and we were eventually on the road again.  During the next 45 minutes the driver and his assistant constant looked at the “new” tire apparently waiting for it to explode.  A few minutes later it exploded and this time the vehicle was at a much higher speed.  The passengers erupted into a chorus of “please Lord Jesus” which thankfully transitioned to “thank you Lord Jesus”; the vehicle could have easily flipped.  At this point, there were no more spare tires and sunset would soon be approaching.  The driver took the same rim and tire that had nearly caused an accident to a nearby intersection, Ahamasu Junction, for repair.  An hour later there was still no sign of a repaired tire and it would soon be dark.  We decided to play it safe and travel to the nearest village to sleep instead of riding the bush taxi at night. For shorter distances motorcycle taxis are the only way to get around so we took them to the Ahamasu guest house.  First, however, we had to visit the village chief to request permission to stay.  The chief was a very old man who was fond of America and welcomed us, although his customs apparently forbade him from recognizing Kristin (she’s a girl!).  Before grabbing dinner, I left Kristin with the chief while I checked out the guest house and dropped off our bags.  The room was nice enough and I headed back towards Kristin with my same motorcycle driver.  We took the same path back that we had come on, but this time the driver hit a patch of mud and partially lost control.  As he regained control, he strayed off the main path and side-swiped a tree, knocking off his mirror and hitting my leg.  Neither he nor I had a scratch on our bodies, but the angle and force of the impact on my leg crushed the top of my tibial plateau.  I sat on the ground and determined that I could not possibly ride a motorcycle any further and one driver went back to the chief’s house to search for Kristin.  From that point, the long process of getting back to the US began.  Here’s a quick overview of the time line starting from the time of accident:

+1: Villagers located a car to take us to an area with cell coverage and a hospital

+2: Arrived at a church where Kristin climbed stairs to get cell coverage and contacted PC in Niger

+3: Found hospital and Kristin hiked 10 minutes to find cell coverage and contact PC in Ghana

+11: Paid for Ambulance to take me back to Hohoe

+14: Peace Corps vehicle finally arrives to take me to Accra

+19: X-rays allow precise diagnosis

+24: Leg is finally splinted

+36: Attempt to enter airport but no wheel chair is available to accommodate my 50-lb plastered leg

+37: We rent an ambulance at a nearby hospital to load me onto the plane via tarmac

+38: First class takeoff

+48: Arrive at JFK

+49: Someone figures out how to transport me within the airport

+50: Peace Corps can’t figure out how to get me to Washington DC (the plane is too small for my leg)

+51: Delta comes to the rescue and offers me free ground transport

+52: Stop by the driver’s home so his cousin can program the GPS to get to DC

+55: Stop for coffee because our driver is about to fall asleep at the wheel

+56: We arrive at the airport in DC

+57: I sit on the sidewalk while Kristin finds a wheel chair and a taxi

+58: I arrive at my hotel with my parents waiting

+65: Orthopedist schedules me for surgery the following day

 

So that was by far the short version of the story.  The experience with transportation from accident site to DC was frustrating, but Peace Corps said that the difficulties I experienced were not typical.  I can say that I know a lot of volunteers who have received excellent treatment in Niger.

So here’s the part you’ve all been waiting for!  My tibial plateau was crushed into at least half a dozen pieces that had to be fixed back into place with a plate and three pins.  So here are the before, with the break (which isn’t very easy to see), and the after shots with my new hardware.  Pretty cool ey?

I’m still in a non-weight-bearing status, which means I can’t put any weight on my right leg.  I’m currently going to physical therapy 2 times a week, mostly to work on regaining range of motion in my knee.  In about another 4 or 5 weeks I should be able to at least halfway walk.

So what does all this mean for my Peace Corps Service?  Well, PC has fairly strict health requirements to serve in Niger.  My leg will take more than a year to heal fully so there is little chance that I will be returning to Niger a PC volunteer.  Luckily this accident happened towards the end of my service.  I experienced 18 incredible months in Niger and West Africa.  I worked with some remarkable people, both Nigerien and American.  I unfortunately did not get to say goodbye to them in person, but am keeping in touch on a regular basis.  I firmly believe that Niger is a beautifully unique country unlike any other in Africa or the world.  Niger’s proximity to the Sahara Desert forces its residents to endure extremely harsh conditions. In addition they have very limited access to clean water, education, and health care. Despite these hardships Nigeriens are some of the most friendly, happy, and peaceful people I know.  I had the privilege of working with them daily on a variety of projects including computer and technology education, health education programs, and natural resource awareness.  I will continue to work with many of my Nigerien friends as they carry on with some of their own, self-initiated projects.  Because of my unique role in Niger as both a Natural Resource Management Volunteer and an Information and Communication Technology (radio) volunteer, I had many opportunities to visit other regions of the country as well as special cultural events like Guerewol in Abalak and a Fulani herder festival near Gaya.  I hosted many friends during my service, allowing me to share the magic of Africa in person while also visiting some of West Africa’s most incredible and remote landmarks, such as Lake Chad, the Tal Desert of Niger, and Dogon country in Mali.  My experience in Niger almost always exceeded my expectations. It was an exceptionally enlightening and fulfilling experience for which I would not trade all the tea in China, the mate in Peru, the wine in France or the millet in Niger!

I hope you have enjoyed this blog and gained some insight about life in Niger and Africa.  Peace Corps is really all about cultural exchange. Peace Corps provides volunteers and the millions of other Americans their lives touch with a unique insight to very different cultures and ways of life from the most remote and undeveloped corners of our planet.  At the same time, the diverse peoples of world learn more about America by bringing volunteers into their homes and embracing them as part of their community.

If you have any questions about my experiences don’t hesitate to shoot me a comment.  I’ll also be happy to share my experiences with groups.

Also, if you are interested in reviewing a copy of my itinerary for this trip minus the medical evacuation, check it out.

Spending a significant amount of time in Niger or just about any other under-developed country has the potential to provoke change in a person.  I for one cannot go back to my life as it was before Peace Corps, as an IT engineer.  I have had more than a year to think about it and I have decided to return to school.  The world seems to have an overwhelming number of serious problems right now.  In my opinion, the most pressing of these is the destruction of the environment.  If the people of the world don’t unite and respond quickly and forcefully, future generations may not have much to look forward to.  Since virtually all natural resources are used by only a few developed nations, and the world’s wealth is held by even fewer, the billions of people living in under-developed nations have little or no say in the future of their planet.  I do have a say and want to be sure that I can be heard.  I’ve re-enrolled in school and am taking undergraduate biology courses.  I should be prepared to continue my studies as a conservation ecology graduate student in 1-2 years.  Since I am only just getting my feet wet, I’m not certain what work I hope to ultimately pursue. Regardless of whether I’m conducting research, working for a non-profit or teaching youth, I will hopefully be working towards a better tomorrow.

While I will undoubtedly have less free time as a full time student, I still hope to keep on blogging.  Here’s the address of my next virtual home: http://eco9.wordpress.com. End Post from August 13, 2009.

Update October 13, 2010:  All is well.  My time back at school taking undergraduate-level ecology courses is winding down.  In 2011 a new adventure begins in Honduras(research) and at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (graduate studies).  My eco9 blog never took off, but visit http://www.brett-bailey.com for my current site.

Peace! Kala Tonton!





The Nigerien Sweat Lodge

20 05 2009
[Fulani herders lead their livestock to be judged at a local cultural event]

I can’t seem to find the time to finish up a blog entry.  Niger has been keeping me unbelievably busy.  Let’s see if I can get this up today…… 
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5/7/2009:
Many Native American peoples used sweat lodges as an important spiritual tool for ceremonies and rituals.  Stones are heated and placed in the center of an enclosed structure creating a very hot, sweat producing environment.  During April and early May, this same sensation can be experienced at any and all moments throughout the country of Niger.  No fires or other special preparations are necessary; the sun will take care of everything.  In addition, hot water is available from all faucets 24×7.  Ahh, the magic of hot season!

Seriously, it’s hot!  Yesterday I think I sweated continuously for 24 hours.  Luckily the rains are on their way.  It has rained lightly a couple times during the last few weeks.  Once the rains come, the temperatures cool down considerably.  Of course I don’t have it nearly as bad as many volunteers.  I have access to electricity and refrigerated water, which helps a lot!

Hot season is one reason for so many weeks of blog silence.  The heat saps my energy and doesn’t leave me with a lot of interesting things to write about.  In addition food becomes more expensive this time of year, putting more stress on Nigeriens.  The heat and dust of hot season also cause more food-borne illness.  Bottom line: Avoid Niger during the peak of hot season!

The heat does bring one really good thing to Niger; Mangos!  All the mangos you can eat!  For about 50 US cents you can get a mango the size of your head or a whole bag of really small sweet ones.  Only the smallest mangos will grow here naturally, but those trees can be grafted to produce much larger fruit.  This morning I enjoyed a three mango smoothie (the Peace Corps house has a blender).

Despite the heat, I have been doing some work.  I’ve been planning projects for my last 7 months here, studying for the GRE, trying to find my way though the maze to grad school, and planning for the arrival of my friend Kristin!

As I mentioned back in March, the first stage of my educational mural project got off to a good start.  Unfortunately it has seen some set backs, mainly in the form of vandalism.  Local kids have decided that it’s cool to scrape off whole sections of the art work.  The artist I’m working with has agreed to fix them, but it will undoubtedly happen again.  I still want to educate the public on a variety of important topics, and I still want it to include some murals.  So I’ve come up with a new project.  The main difference will be that everything will be done inside the stadium where the walls are protected.  If I can drum up enough money and local support, I’m hoping to organize a month long series of sports competitions.  Each day of competition will have an educational theme with skits, talks, demonstrations, and performances.  Each theme will reach not only those present at the competitions, but also a large radio audience through a series of broadcasts on each topic.  I’m currently working on the proposal and also trying to find used soccer equipment.  This month also concludes an art competition that I organized for local students.  More than a dozen submissions have been made by local students on a variety of important themes such as aids and the environment.  Hopefully I’ll be able to post the winning entries online.

My preparation for the GRE and grad school is going well.  I feel prepared for the math section and am currently focusing on vocabulary.  While preparing for the GRE is straightforward, determining the best path to grad school has not been.  I’ve been thinking about it for close to a year now, and I’m fairly confident that I want to go back to school and study conservation, more precisely conservation biology/ecology.  Biology is a significant change from electrical engineering and will require some prerequisite work.  After communicating with close to a dozen different universities it seems like my best option is to complete at least a few semesters of prerequisite work prior to applying to grad school.  That means that as soon as I return home next January, I’ll be returning back to school.

My final vacation is coming up in just a few weeks.  My friend Kristin is coming to Niger.  We going to spend a little time here and then head to the coast. We’ll be making stops in Benin and Togo before spending a little over a week in Ghana.

It is hard to believe that I got back from Geneva over a month ago.  That whole trip seems a little like a dream.  In fact a never did finish sharing the details of that great trip.  Before I jump all the way back to Geneva, I want to share my experience at a Nigerien cultural festival just two days after I returned.

My counterpart here in Dosso works with various groups of traditional herders and pastoralists.  Most Nigeriens that herd large groups of livestock are Fulani.  The day after I returned home to Dosso, I headed deep into the bush to a small village on near the Niger river called Bangaga.  The festival was basically a celebration of all things Fulani.  I arrived during a female beauty and singing contest.  Next several politicians gave speeches.  During the final speech a large herd of cows came running just behind the politician. A few minutes later the same thing happened.  Dozens of cows came running by not more than a few meters from the crowds.  I initially expected the crowds to move away from the cows and their long pointed horns, but they showed little concern.  Apparently this was the herders’ way of showing off their livestock.  During much of the event large groups of cows and other livestock would run by, led by their headers which carried only a stick to keep the animals in check.  The event also included older Fulani women showing off their calabashes with straw woven covers and even camel races. I left early in order to return to Dosso with the caravan of media and government representatives.  Otherwise, it would have been a very long and bumpy bush taxi ride back to Dosso.

A few weeks later was Easter.  After seeing non-stop window displays of giant chocolate bunny rabbits in Geneva, I was very disappointed to find out that the Easter Bunny apparently does not come to Niger.  I woke up Easter Sunday morning to an empty basket!  Luckily another volunteer had received an egg dying kit.  We had an incredibly challenging Easter egg hunt and then enjoyed the deliciousness of boiled eggs.

OK, so back to Geneva and Morocco. Here’s an unfinished entry from early april:
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I’m typing this at the airport in Geneva waiting for my flight to Casablanca.  My week here has been incredible.  It was wonderful to see my family, get some cool, fresh air and eat lots of rich delicious foods.

Here’s a brief recap of the week since my last blog.  The best way to experience the adventure is to check all my photos.  Unfortunately I had problems getting the last couple days online.

Day 2: Lausanne

Lausanne was beautiful.  We visited one of the churches and caught an organ concert rehearsal that was to be performed that same evening.  We grabbed a kebab for lunch and headed up into wine country by train to Chexbres.  We walked about half way back to Lausanne through countless vineyards overlooking Lake Genva with the Swiss alps in the distance. We stopped for a wine tasting in Epesses and ended in Cully where the first day of a Jazz festival was coming to a close.  We returned to Geneva and walked into the old city center for some Raclette.  Cheese was definitely one of the themes of the trip.

I almost certainly have never eaten so much cheese in a single week.  Appenzeller, Roquefort, Beaufort, Brie, Brie de Meau, Guyere, Parmesan, St. Marcellin, and Emmental.  I have a massive Brie sandwich waiting for me in my bag along with an apple and a clementine!

Day 3: Chocolate
Saturday was the chocolate festival is Versoix.  We woke up early so we could be first in line for the Favarger chocolate factory tour. We actually ended up being 2nd in line behind a British guy and his young son.  They had come the year before and knew to come early to beat the line. The time came for the doors to open but instead of open doors, a small sign appeared saying that they would not be opening due to more strict ISO requirements.  Our disappointment soon melted away as we sampled dozens of chocolates, some bad but most delicious!

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We only spent about half a day in Versoix and headed back to Geneva to walk along the lake, play with the swans, and enjoy a relaxing dinner.

Day 4: The breakfast
We started our day with an incredible and very filling brunch at Le Pain Quotidien.  It included several courses beginning with croissants, various breads and a bowl of coffee. We took advantage of their large selection of organic honeys and jams and continued with a large plate of meats, cheeses and salad.

After brunch we headed to the old city center to visit the archeological site below the Cathedral St. Pierre.  The underground, self-guided tour was very interesting and lasted more than an hour.

That evening I met up with a woman who used to work for Peace Corps Niger to deliver some dried meat and then to Victoria Hall for a concert.  Pianist David Greilsammer directed several of Mozart’s early Piano Concertos with the Geneva Chamber Orchestra.  Victoria hall is beautiful and it was wonderful to hear some classical music again.
 
Day 5: Montreux

Monday I left Geneva by train to visit Montreux and the Chateau de Chillon.  The chateau was in perfect condition and took a couple hours to successfully navigate.  After visiting the Chateau it was time to take a cog wheel train up a mountain to Rochers-de-Naye and the marmot paradise.  Rochers-de-Naye was described as an alpine paradise, great for hiking and viewing Marmots.  While the ride provided stunning views, after about 30 minutes, it was clear that there would not be much waiting for us at the top of the mountain. Snow covered everything in sight and in some areas it was piled higher than the train itself.  The train arrived, we were greeted by a live reindeer and we stepped out into a world of white.  Visibility wasn’t much more than 10 feet and if you walked far from the welcome center you risked getting hit by novice skiers. We spent a few minutes enjoying the cool, clean air, toured the marmot museum, and had a coffee.  Just as we were about to leave, we located the live marmot exhibit and got a glimpse of one of the oversized hamster-like creatures.  We returned to Montreux on the same train which was now packed with very young, noisy, ski students.  We returned and visit a few of the many cuckoo clock filled shops and scoped out a special place for dinner. No trip to Switzerland would be complete without giant pot of melted cheese, mmmmm fondue. We ate every bit of cheese in the pot including, what our server called, la religieuse (the burnt layer on the bottom).  As we left the restaurant we caught a beautiful sunset and returned to Geneva with very happy tummies. 

Day 6: More Geneva

Tuesday was our last full day in Geneva.  We set off in the morning after our typical breakfast of fruit, yogurt, bread and/or jelly roll, milk, orange juice, and Nespresso.  Brooke and Nathan decided to go on the UN tour while I went down the street with mom to the botanical gardens.  The gardens were filled with beautiful trees, plants, flowers and interesting birds.  We spent a few hours there and then headed across the lake by boat.  On the way back to our apartment we walk through another beautiful park filled with towering evergreens and ate a croque monsieur for lunch.  We spent the afternoon shopping, mostly at a giant department/grocery store called Manor.  I picked up a few gifts and spent some time staring at their very impressive selection of cheeses.  That evening, we enjoyed yet another delicious dinner together at the apartment before backing up our belongings. 

Day 7: Goodbyes :(
We woke up early and had breakfast before I escorted everyone to the train station.  My flight didn’t leave for several more hours so I picked up a couple more items from the grocery store and headed back to the apartment.  Before leaving I was forced to consume all of the left over items in the fridge, made a giant brie sandwich for the road, and drank one final Nespresso with a tasty chocolate. Getting to the airport was easy and my flight to Casablanca left on time.

Morocco!

A few months before my trip to Geneva, Royal Air Maroc changed my flight to Niger giving me a 24+ hour layover in Morocco.  Normally a layover would be a royal pain, but with Air Maroc it was a pleasure. Well, it was a pleasure once I got my free hotel and food vouchers.  I arrived at the airport and headed to Air Maroc’s customer service office.  They gave me the run around for about an hour as a moved from one office to the next.  It was clear that their workers were somewhat overwhelmed.  Eventually I found a nice guy to help me and he provided me with a comfortable room and 3 meals a days at a nearby hotel.  A shuttle picked me up and I was checked into the hotel a few minutes later.  I dropped of my belongings and returned to the airport to catch the next train to Casablanca.  The trip into town lasted a little more than 30 minutes and by the time I arrived in Casa, I only had a few hours of daylight left. I found a nearby book store, grabbed a map of Casa and got directions to the nearest grocery store. The store was bigger than many in the US and the prices were far cheaper than in Europe.  I stocked up on a few staples to take back to Niger and returned to the train station. With nearly an hour to waste before the next train, I took a seat at a nearby bar for a local beer accompanied by a free plate of fried fish. Dinner at the hotel was reasonably good.  I especially enjoyed the orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon (try it at home).

    The next morning I grabbed breakfast and an espresso before heading back to Casablanca. I left the hotel a little disappointed as I noticed black clouds rolling in from the coast.  I grabbed some more money from the airport ATM and caught the train with plans to see the Mosque Hassan II and Old Medina.  I grabbed a taxi with a very friendly driver and headed towards the mosque.  It began to rain a little and when I asked my driver if it would rain all day, he reassured me that it was going to be a very beautiful day. Not more than 30 minutes later there was barely a cloud in the sky!
    
The Hassane II mosque, now the third largest in the world, was amazing.  While the exterior of the building alone is worth a visit, a guide is required to visit the interior.  I got a 50% discount on the tour using my PC ID and was guided by a very friendly woman through the entire building.  Prior to entering the mosque, we removed our shoes and toted them around with us in a plastic bag.  The interior is adorned with incredibly detailed mosaics and beautifully carved wood and marble.  The entire building was constructed uniquely from materials found in Morocco with the exception of the chandeliers made from Murano glass.  For more details on the Mosque check wikipedia or another online reference.  I spent a few hours taking pictures and then started walking to old medina.
    Before entering the old city, I stopped and finished eating my Brie sandwich from Geneva.  Old medina is a winding maze of narrow streets and alleys lined with old multi-story buildings. Many of the streets dead-end into small private courtyards, so you never know where you will end up.  There is virtually no traffic and very few tourists in old medina, making it a peaceful place to explore and experience part of Casa seemingly untouched by  decades of modern development. 
 

I wondered around old Medina for a while and eventually came out at a different entrance where a small market was being held.  I took a seat at a small cafe for a 50 cent espresso and enjoyed the aromas of local foods being prepared nearby.  Experiencing more of the local cuisine would have undoubtedly been very enjoyable.  I continued on to a nearby artisan co-op where I honestly wanted to buy everything in sight.  Morocco is home to some very talented artisans. I ended up purchasing a few inlayed wooden boxes made from local cedar and lemon wood.  From the co-op I ended up walking across the rest of the city that lay between me and the train station.  The walk was easily more than 5 miles and on the way I passed several beautiful parks, stepped inside a creepy abandoned cathedral, and almost got busted taking pictures of the king’s palace.  I made back to the train station exhausted but very satisfied by my visit.  I was not expecting Casablanca to be much of a tourist destination since most people head directly to Medina or Fez.  However, I found it to be a very friendly and safe introduction to Morocco and its vibrant culture.

OK, finally a blog entry.  I’ll add some more photos to it tomorrow.  Next week I’m headed to Niamey for some work and to prepare for Kristin’s arrival on Friday.  I have a feeling it might rain tonight..





mmmm……..

27 03 2009

[Overlooking Lake Geneva from Observation Park]

Geneva Day 1:

Menu(Arrival Day through Day1):
Quiche Lorraine
Totelini Soup
Brie
Appenzeller (Cheese)
Home made fondant drop cookies
Baguettes
Stawberries
Mandarine Oranges
Madelines
Baguette w/ raspberry jelly
Espresso
Croque Monsieur
Pear
Gueyere
Sloppy Joes
Baked Potato

OK, so there’s no doubt I’ve been enjoying the food…  Really the entire experience has been incredible so far.  We’re staying in a beautiful apartment in the heart of Geneva.  It has modern electronics (large flat screen tv), hardwood floors, a fully stocked kitchen, and a massive bath tub!  Surprisingly, the apartment is incredibly quiet as well.  At night, I hear absolutely nothing: goats, babies, even cars and appliances – silence.  The first night I slept for 10 hours non-stop.  That’s perhaps the first time I’ve done that in more than 15 months. 

The first full day we enjoyed breakfast and then headed on foot to the Natural History Museum.  The museum is large with 5 floors and one of the largest bird collections in the world.  I saw many species from Niger as well as the extinct Ivory-billed woodpecker from the states.  They also have Lucy on display.  The Blashka glass jelly fish exhibit was also very interesting.  It was a wonderful museum and like most museums in Geneva, free!  After the museum, we continued our adventure on foot passing through the oldest part of the city, visiting the cathedral and doing a little shopping along the lake. 

As you may be able to tell from the pictures, I got a new camera.  I took over 100 photos  yesterday and I was very impressed with the result.  I can’t wait to start using it in Niger.

So far the adjustment to a more hurried, technologically advanced way of life hasn’t been too difficult.  The grocery store is a little overwhelming and the price of everything seems unbeliveably high. 

Today we’re heading to Lausanne. 





Niger meets Switzerland!

25 03 2009

13h30, GMT+1:
I made it off the African continent!  I’ve got about an hour before my mom, sister, and brother in law arrive so I’m going to jot down a few notes on the trip so far.  The trip from Niamey to Ouagadougou to Casablanca was fairly painless.  One of my carry on bags got stuck in the xray machine cracking some of my calabash art. Then there was a moment while we were stopped in Ouaga when I really needed to use the bathroom. The sassy Air Maroc people refused to allow it.  I got mildly aggravated and sought out a nicer member of the flight crew.

We actually arrived in Casablanca early! I had time to check out the very modern airport, check out a large selection of restaurants that had yet to open and send a few emails for free.  On each flight they served a nice breakfast.  Eggs, yogurt, fruit, quiche, bread, cheese, croissants, butter, jelly, potatoes, and apple juice.  I’ve yet to find any food in the airport that really grabs my eye.  For some reason I decided to get a coke, almost $5, ouch!

The developed world isn’t much different than the way I remember it.  Everything is incredibly clean and pleasant to the eye compared to Niger.  I can imagine that it would all be quite overwhelming for someone who had never left Africa.  Nearly every inch of wall from the arrival gate to customs is covered with massive advertisements, art, and neon lights.

I’ve been walking around everywhere wearing a large straw Woodabee hat that I picked up from a Nigerien friend of mine.  I’ve gotten lots of weird looks, several laughs and a few nice comments.  A security guy at the gate in Casablanca really liked it.

I’m sitting about 50 feet from the airport entrance and the cold weather waiting outside is slowly starting to get to me.  Right now just my toes and fingers are cold.

Once the rest of my family gets here we’ll head off to our apartment.  I don’t think there’s much on the agenda for today.  I’m just looking to hang out and maybe eat some cheese.  I’m still keeping my fingers crossed for a little snow. It looks like it could start falling at any moment!  





Mango Rains

22 03 2009

[AIDS education event in Dosso]

A couple nights ago it rained for the first time in about 6 months.  It was what Nigeriens call Mango rain.  Mango rains are actually just very brief and light showers that supposedly help sweeten the mangos that are rapidly coming into season.  I believe these light showers are created by the last drops of moisture being evaporated by the extreme heat that precedes rainy season.    The daily high temperature now exceeds 40C (105F).  I’ve been forced to move my bed back outside since, even at night, the temperature in my house never drops below 90F.

The first phase of my mural project has been successfully completed.  After two weeks of painting, I worked with my friend/artist Roger to organize an event for youth throughout the city.  Rap artists, dancers, and youth groups participated to help educate the public about AIDS.  A local primary school organized an impressive 10 minute skit that presented all of the most important information about the disease that plagues much of sub-Saharan Africa.  Luckily, Niger has one of the lowest infection rates of all African countries.  Just yesterday I attended a community discussion about AIDS that included education, health, religious, and communication officials from the region of Dosso.  One of the most significant problems mentioned was Nigeriens’ perception of AIDS as being mostly a problem affecting females.  In two local languages, Zarma and Hausa, AIDS translates as woman’s sickness.  Men, especially married men, are often unwilling to get tested and in some cases refuse to give their wives permission to get tested.  Since men can have as many as four wives, getting tested for AIDS is of high importance.


[Ostrich parts and other oddities sold as traditional medicine]

About two weeks ago I went to the city of Kiota for Moloud, the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.  Kiota is the home of one of West Africa’s most famous Shieks.  The city is only about an hour away from Dosso, so I went with a few other volunteers to check out the festivities.  Hundreds of vendors were present amidst many thousands of attendees from across the region.  We even met one woman from Ghana.  The night of Muhammad’s birthday, everyone stays up all night praying at the central mosque.  Just a few weeks prior, I got to meet the the Shiek during the installation of a new volunteer.  He’s a very nice guy.

My cat, Sam, is no longer pregnant.  She leads a secret life away from my house, spending only a few hours there each day.  I followed her around the school grounds where I live and discovered that she has many hideaways.  I even tracked her to an abandoned dormitory.  I got a key and checked out the entire building, but no kittens.  Hopefully they’ll show up soon.  I already have lots of requests for a kitty.

Since December, I’ve been surprisingly busy.  In addition to the mural project, I’ve been holding computer classes, determining equipment needs for other PC  projects, and preparing to take over as PC regional representative on a part-time basis.  During the last few weeks I’ve been to Niamey three times for a variety of different Peace Corps meetings.  I also conducted another ICT training for new volunteers at the PC Niger training center.  There’s no doubt I need a vacation!  Thankfully there’s one just around the corner.  In about 72 hours, I’ll be freezing my butt off in Geneva!  I’m meeting up with my Mom, Sister, and Brother-in-law for a week of cheese, chocolate and catching up!  It will also be my first time off the African continent in 15 months!  I really have no idea what it’s going to feel like to be dropped back into the developed world for a week.  In any case, I can’t wait!  The day I arrive there’s a chance of snow and a windchill of -2C!





Snow in Niger!

3 03 2009

[Dusty day along the stadium wall in Dosso]

Just kidding…  There’s no snow here.  Just 105 degree temperatures and lots of dust being blown in by the Harmattan winds.  My sister, on the other hand, is getting snow days off from work in Athens, GA!


[My sister, frosty, and brother in-law in Athens, GA]

Unpleasant weather aside, everything is going well here.  I’ve begun harvesting veggies from my garden.  It is producing some monster radishes, turnips, and squash! This week I’ll probably go ahead and harvest all of the radishes and most of the turnips.  I just need to figure out what I’m going to do with them.

 

My mural projet got off to a great start yesterday!  Six sections of the stadium wall were repaired and repainted.  Roger, the artist I’m working with, did a great job assisting the youth with painting in the morning.  In the afternoon he brought his drum.  What started as a small drum circle, turned into a large group of perhaps 200 students.  Roger took the opportunity to talk to the group about AIDS in both Zarma and French while mixing in musical performances.  The day worked out exceptionally well.  So far the project has taken more paint that expected.  That means I’m going to have to find more funding.  For now I have most of what I need to complete the first few murals.  Today I’m busy teaching computer classes, but work on the actual AIDS murals should have begun this morning.

Yesterday I was also invited to join representatives from the Helen Keller Institute to visit and evaluate radio stations they had installed several years ago.  Unfortunately I had too much going on today to participate.  People working in Niger have a knack for notifying you about upcoming events at the very last minute.  Hopefully I’ll have other opportunities to work with the ONG.  One of the most significant problems facing community radio stations in Niger is a lack of funds necessary to sustain reliable operations after the initial station has been built. Without outside funding and with no product advertisement it is difficult for stations to raise enough money to pay the electricity bill yet alone repair equipment as it fails.  This is a common problem related too all sectors in the developing world.  Non-profit organizations provide funding to create infrastructure like radio stations or water pumps, but they do not provide ways for the community to effectively maintain it.  It’s all about sustainability!<!–[if !mso]>

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Happy 2009 – Year #2 in Niger

26 02 2009

[Me and my dad in the Tal Desert near N'guigimi, Niger]

February 6, 2009, 23h40 GMT+1: Hello World.  So I have less than two hours before my next adventure begins.  I’m going to try to summarize the last two months in about that much time.  Let’s begin with what I started to write a couple weeks ago.

Happy New Year!  This coming weekend will mark the end of my first year in Niger.  It’s really hard to believe.  No matter where you’re at or how you’re living, time passes quickly if you keep yourself busy.  If the last three months are any indication, 2009 will undoubtedly pass by more quickly than ’08.  Since my last blog entry, my dad came for a great visit, I celebrated Christmas and New Years, and helped create a world map mural out in the bush.  At the same time I’ve been serving as the temporary regional PC leader and planning out projects for 2009.  Where to begin…..?

While many Americans have some difficulty identifying countries on a map, most Nigeriens can’t even identify a world map.  Peace Corps volunteers often have a hard time finding funding for projects, but the World Map Project is one that can be easily completed.  My friend Kaylee has a new school in her small village of about 800 people so she decided to paint the mural on the outside wall of the building.  The first couple of days she worked with a few other volunteers to paint the wall blue, draw a grid, and outline the countries.  I headed to her village on January 1st via an open-back truck loaded with at least 25 people. The short 16km trip seemed to last for hours, but I eventually arrived at the drop off point 3km from her village.  We arrived after sunset so we walked along the path guided only by the moon and the occasional shooting star.  We arrived at her hut and enjoyed some millet hawru with baobab leaf sauce prepared by her neighbors.  The next morning her neighbors woke us with another bowl of hawru in hand.  We made french toast instead and headed to the school.  I had arrived just in time for the fun part, painting the countries!

OK, now time for the summarizing.  The World Map Project went very well. I was surprised how many people thought that it was a map of Niger.  I spent about 3 days in the village.  The Saturday I spend there was market day for a larger, nearby village so I checked out the array of livestock and unique sauce ingredients available.  I ended up buying a random sauce ingredient from a few ladies that enjoyed talking with me and brought it back for Kaylee’s host family.  They weren’t familiar with it but were very thankful and promised to use it for an upcoming meal. That night I experienced my best bush meal ever, Hawru with Gisimo sauce (a salty sauce made from Hibiscus flowers). I unfortunately missed the unveiling of the long awaited Majid (my name in country) sauce a few days later.  It was apparently the worst thing Kaylee had tasted in country.  Lesson learned: Buy random sauce ingredients if you want to have a sauce named after you, but don’t stick around long enough to actually eat it.

Alright, so let’s rewind back to the beginning of December and the day my Dad arrived.  The flight was due to arrive at 2am. We actually ended up getting back to the Peace Corps house closer to 4am, the perfect time to load up on some delicious homemade Macaroons made by my sister.  I knew something sweet was coming so I was ready with a large glass of ice cold milk.  I shared one with my dad and consumed the rest.  Delicious!

I woke up early the next morning to run a few errands and let my dad get a little more sleep.  That same afternoon we got on a bus and headed 3 hours to Dosso.  We didn’t have time to do much in Dosso that day besides unpack. Of course that was lot of fun since most of what he brought was for me. Normally we would have rested for a few days before heading further east.  However, I  had promised my Nigerien friends in Dosso that I would be back for the Islamic feast of sacrifice, called Tabaski in this part of West Africa.  At 7am the next morning, we headed back to the bus station to begin the 10+ hour trip to Zinder.  We had a hard time finding a cab so we were only minutes from missing the once daily bus.  Luckily everything worked out.  We stopped briefly in Konni to pickup my friend Crystal who would be acting as our Hausa translator and we arrived in Zinder after dark.  We met up with my best friend from Dosso, Aziz, for dinner.  He’s currently working in Zinder on a temporary work assignment.  After dinner we went to sleep so that we could get up at 5am to catch the bus to Diffa.  At this point my dad had already been traveling well more than 24 hours since his departure from the US.  The trip to Diffa was about another 9 hours.  As we drove further east the landscape became more barren and sandy.  We arrived in Diffa a little after 2pm.

Our ultimate destination was N’guigimi, a little more than 100km from Diffa.  We headed to the transit station and found a small, 4×4 open back truck that would supposedly be leaving soon.  So we paid our fare and waited.  We waited and waited until the truck was loaded with goods to the point that all passengers would be sitting on top of the cabin and the highest supports.  Instead of leaving at the estimated time of 3pm, we left less than an hour before sunset.  Of course we still weren’t too concerned since our destination wasn’t far.  Well……If you remove very large sections of pavement from the road and add several police stops, a 1-2 hour trip becomes a 6 hour trip.  We arrived very late!  Our host for the night was asleep and unavailable by phone!  Random people were inviting us into their homes while my friend back in Zinder was insisting that we search out his Gendarme friend.  Exhausted and a little frustrated we eventually ended up sleeping in an old building at the Gendarmerie full of light seeking birds that repeatedly tried to dive bomb us.

The next morning we woke up, splashed off our faces, and sat down with a few officers for a military style interrogation about who we were, where we had come from and most importantly why we had come to N’guigimi.  Why would any one travel more than 24 hours from Niamey to N’guigimi?  Despite four full days of travel and a challenging arrival in N’guigimi, my dad wasn’t ready to turn back!  He’s hardcore!  Eventually we met our failed host who had temporarily switched his cell sim card and located our tour guide.  With our limited time and budget we could either take camels into the Tal Desert or visit both the desert and Lake Chad.  We choose the more convenient option with the expectation of riding camels once we arrived at the dunes.

We ate some breakfast, drank some tea, and got into a truck just like the once we had been in the day before.  This time, however, it was empty and provided more secure and comparatively comfortable seating.  A little more than 20 years earlier the city of N’guigimi sat on the edge of Lake Chad.  Today it is more than 40km away and is little more than a large puddle within the Nigerien border.  The trip took another few hours as went through dense thickets and crossed large open areas of sand covered with thousands of snail shells.  At one point I even caught a glimpse of a small deer.  Before reaching the lake, we stopped in the village of Dooru and walked around for a few minutes.  The first thing we noticed was a different mix of ethnic groups.  While most of Niger is dominated by the Hausa, Zarma, Tuareg & Fulani ethnic groups, the Kanuri & Beri-Beri peoples make up the majority in the areas near Lake Chad.  For the most part kids just stared at us and then hid any time I revealed my camera.

Eventually we made it to the lake.  Like I said earlier, it wasn’t much more than a puddle.  With depths hardly sufficient for a small canoe, locals make their living from a plentiful supply of tiny fish.  From the water’s edge, the scene provided some dramatic contrasts.  Apparently the water level was previously even lower which allowed trees to grow for a few years.  Once the water returned, the trees died, leaving only their sun-bleached skeletons.  Glossy Ibis, herons, and even seagulls perched on the dead branches while local fishermen floated through the water on giant gourds to collect fish.  Small gardens dotten the shore providing a splash of vibrant color.

We made the return trip to N’guigimi, ate lunch and then head into the Tal desert as the sun began to set.  Tourist information is very limited for undeveloped countries like Niger.  My small Niger guidebook only mentioned the sand dunes of the Tal Desert in one small paragraph and I had been unable to find any pictures.  We really had no idea what to expect.  After riding for about 15 minutes a beautiful group of large white dunes appeared to the south.  A few minutes later fishingsmthe landscape became an endless sea of pristine white dunes.  As soon as we stopped I ran to the top of one of the highest dunes and enjoyed the final few minutes of sunlight.  We made a great journey and had found what we were seeking.  We decided to forgo sleeping on level ground and setup our tent atop one of the highest dunes.  Later we joined our guides at the base of the dunes for a campfire pasta dinner before returning to the dunes for stargazing and some sleep.

The next morning I woke up at dusk and trekked around the dunes for a few hours. With minimal winds blowing during the previous weeks, the dunes revealed an abundance of activity.  Bird, bug, and even snack tracks were easily visible.  While I was roaming my dad took a brief camel ride.  I probably could have roamed around the dunes for days given sufficient water, but our guides were ready to get on with their day.

We returned to N’guigimi and then continued our trip back to Diffa.  Despite having poor luck with transportation during many of my previous trips, we had not experienced a single breakdown since leaving Niamey.  We were overdue for some car problems…. During the first 5km of the trip back, our ancient land rover broke down or got stuck at least a dozen times.  Eventually after making several adjustments under the hood with small pieces of cloth, we had a relatively uninterrupted trip.  We stopped in a small village having their market, picked up some Kanuri knifes, got a great photo of a couple Fulani women and eventually arrived in Diffa.

OK, the summarizing that I tried to accomplish on February 6th was unsuccessful…  It is now February 25th and I feel like I’m no closer to catching up.  Maybe today…..  Back to Diffa.  We found a free place to stay thanks to the national radio station and woke up early the next morning to continue towards Zinder.  We arrived at a reasonable hour, walked to the transit house and toured the old town.  The old quarter is filled with traditional houses that are painted white and feature brightly painted symbols on the outer walls.  The Zinder Sultan’s palace is also located there.  Just before sunset we climbed an area covered with large boulders for a nice view of the city.  Unfortunately the area was also covered with poop so we really had to watch our step.  We met up with my friend Aziz for dinner. He introduced us to a sweet local specialty, Alcaki.  A few days later he sent a gift of dozens of the cookies to Niamey for my dad to take back to the USA.

The next morning we once again woke up prior to sunrise to catch the bus, this time, back home to Dosso!  The trip was mostly uneventful.  We dropped off Crystal in Konni and arrived in Dosso prior to sunset.

There was no doubt that we needed a day of relaxation after so much travel.  Unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards for us.  Monday was the first day of Tabaski, the Islamic feast of sacrifice.  Virtually every family sacrificed an animal and many families sacrificed one or more sheep. The most prized animal for sacrifice is a completely white male sheep. We wore traditional clothing and spent the morning and early afternoon visiting the families of Aziz and a few people from the radio station.  Aziz’s family sacrificed several sheep.  One was sacrificed for the father, another for the eldest son, and a third for the rest of the family’s members. The skinned and cleaned animals were mounted on a few sharpened sticks and slowly cooked next to a large fire.  The organ parts are typically the first to be ready so the first day we consumed very little meat.  Of course other foods were served, including pounded millet with sauce.  My dad enjoyed almost all of the food.  Although we had plenty of people to visit during the afternoon, we ended up sleeping instead.

The first day of the feast is a quiet one spent with family at home.  The second day, however, requires that the cooked meat be shared with your friends, neighbors and those who do cannot afford to purchase an animal.  Throughout the day I received a few meat deliveries and again visited a few families.  Much of the meat was cut into small pieces and deep fried for conservation.

Wednesday was our first real day which afforded some serious down time.  We visited the market and walked around the city a little.  Thursday we headed to Niamey to attend the Peace Corps BBQ for the newest group of volunteers.  A couple months prior a group of more than 20 new natural resource management and agriculture volunteers arrived in country. This was the week that they would be sworn-in as volunteers. The previous days filled with eating random pieces of meat had made my stomach unhappy, but my dad enjoyed the potluck dinner.  That night we watched one of the volunteers perform an impressive fire dance and then we headed to the training center in Hamdallaye with the new volunteers.

Friday morning we woke up early to visit the family that had hosted me during my training.  The entire family was happy to see us.  They shared their left over Tabaski meat and even sent some back to Niamey with us.  My host father was especially honored by the visit.  After a brief stay we set off to find transport back to Niamey with my host brother Souleyman.  He had never seen the Giraffes of Niger so we brought him with us.  It took us a while to find transport back to Niamey.  We eventually made it back and then rented a taxi to take us into the bush for Giraffe viewing.

We picked up our guide in Koure and drove for at least another 30 minutes before finding a nice group.  Smithsonian magazine published an incredible article on these amazing creatures just a few months ago.  Take a look.  After the Giraffes, we headed back to Niamey to prepare for the new volunteer swear-in ceremony.

The swear-in event was held at the US ambassador’s house so we decided to wear our traditional clothing again.  The ceremony included a few speeches from the new volunteers, the PC country director and the US ambassador.  Some of the event was also filmed by the national TV station which later aired a few shots of my dad and me attending the event.  Following the ceremony I visited with a few volunteers and my dad talked with the US Ambassador.  She had also recently been out east to Diffa but had no luck finding an area of Lake Chad that still had water.
Saturday we completed our tour of Niamey.  We visited the museum, shopped for gifts and attended the dinner for COSing volunteers.  Volunteers reach their Close of Service after they have successfully completed two years of service in Niger.  Dinner was delicious.  We had enchiladas and several types of homemade fruit sorbet.  Later that night I left my dad to relax while I spent some time with some of my friends who would soon be leaving.
Sunday was the last day of my dad’s visit.  We woke up late.  My dad reluctantly tried some millet porridge, one or the few things he did not like.  We finalized our gift shopping and ate a nice pizza dinner before returning to the airport a few hours later.  The trip was a great success.  We got to spend some quality time together and my dad remained healthy and enthusiastic despite travelling nearly 2000 miles on rough roads and under poor conditions.
About a week after my dad’s departure, I decided to throw a cross-cultural Christmas party for both my American and Nigerien friends and co-workers.  My dad had brought Christmas decorations and several family members had sent holiday foods that supplied everything needed for an authentic holiday event.  I spent days preparing the food.  The menu included an array of different foods including fondant drop cookies, ginger bread cookies, pigs and cows in a blanket, soft pretzels, popcorn, peanuts, dates, mini candy canes, Hershey’s miniatures, red hibiscus punch (Bissap), and hot chocolate.  We did a gift exchange for less than $1 per person and also had door prizes. We listened to Christmas music throughout the night. Around 30 people attended the event and nearly everyone participated in the gift exchange.  Most people also cut out snowflakes for the mobile I created.  One of my friends performed a rap song and told story.  I’m still amazed at how well everything worked out and at the high level of participation and enthusiasm from everyone who attended.
I spent Christmas day with many of my American PC friends.  I woke up and opened up a few gifts from my mom and sister.  A copy of WALL-E, new Chaco sandals, some cool Origami paper, a nice metal bookmark, Discover Magazine and an Obama t-shirt!  The t-shirt was the envy of all my friends.  That day we did a lot of cooking.  I enjoyed a variety of goodies prepared by myself and other volunteers.  Much of the food was prepared using ingredients shipped from the US by loving parents and grandparents.  We watched Christmas movies throughout the day and talked to friends and family by phone.  It was a good day but at the same time it was the moment when I missed my friends and family back home the most.  I just realized that Thanksgiving never made into a blog either…  Another very food filled day.  I made cornbread dressing which most volunteers had never had. We all talked about what we were thankful for and ate until we were stuffed!
A few days later it was New Years…  It was probably one of the quietest new year’s eve parties ever as there were only about 3 of us celebrating here in Dosso.  Basically we just hung out, ate, and listened to some music.  At midnight we went to the street and threw a few handfuls of metallic confetti in the air.  Despite being low key, it was a special night!
After Christmas, I also started on my garden which took about two weeks of on and off work.  The only available place to put the garden was inside the concession of the radio station.  Preparing the ground was actually much more work than I had expected.  Probably about a third of the soil is actually rock, so hoeing it was very difficult.  I started one area but realized that it would be a little too difficult.  I ended up moving to the opposite side of the concession which was also closer to the water spigot.  The work would have taken weeks if my co-worker had not helped out.  Hassane brought the youth soccer team that he coaches.  After about a day the work was done and I had one 50 square meter garden ready for planting.  Many of the youth brought some manure over the next few days and I mixed in some sand to balance out the clay filled soil.  Once the soil was ready I planted a variety of seeds from the US: turnip, beet, radish, corn, carrot, tomato, squash, zucchini, peas, bell pepper, melon, and cucumber.  The veggies are ordered by their success rate.  The turnips grew amazingly well while the melon and cucumber didn’t make a single appearance.  This week I just tried my first turnips and squash.  Most of the veggies I’ve planted are not available here so people are curious.  This is actually my very first garden.  If I have the space for a garden in the US I intend to plant one.

A few days after New Years marked the Anniversary of my arrival here in Niger.  I was with my stage mate that also lives in the region of Dosso attending a very large wedding in Niamey. Traditionally brides pick out a fabric pattern for their wedding and anyone attending then have clothes made from it. Like most fabrics in Africa, this one was very bright!  After the wedding we went out for dinner and considered all that had happened during the past year and how quickly the time passed by.  I still can’t believe I’ve now been here nearly 14 months.  I’ll be leaving in less than 10 months.
The next big event of January was of course the inauguration of Obama.  A few days before the election I organized a bike tourney with my friend Kaylee.  We called it the “Bike for Obama Moringa Tour” or something like that.  Basically we biked from Kaylee’s village to the city of Dosso, about 40-50km.  Along the way we stopped in villages to talk about the benefits of planting Morniga and distributed some seeds.  I wore my Obama t-shirt and decorated our bikes with Obama signs which attracted some attention and questions from villagers.  They were all happy about America’s new president.
I happened to be back in Niamey the day of the inauguration to lead a day of radio training for the volunteers that arrived last summer.  Despite being provided with limited resources and logistical support the training was a success.  We talked about the structure of radio stations in Niger, techniques for creating radio programming using both analog and digital equipment and produced a sample radio program.  Late in the afternoon we all headed to the American cultural center to watch the inauguration live.  Free snacks and drinks were served to a full house of mostly Nigerians.  Everyone cheered when he officially became president.  It is truly great to have a respectable person leading my America and making decisions that I can often agree with.

In February I had more visitors from the US/Europe.  My good friend Noah came with his mom for about 10 days searching for the ultimate Peace Corps experience.  We took it easy in Niamey for a few days.  We attended a great Fulani/Tuareg concert and a horse race that was part of a 2 week sports competition funded by the government of Libya.  We also visited a market and enjoyed a few nice meals.  Monday we went to go see the giraffes.  As the region becomes drier the Giraffes gather farther from areas easily accessible by car.  As a result, despite nearly two hours of searching, we only saw a few Giraffes.  We decided to continue on to Dosso via bush taxi.  It was very difficult to get a ride back to Dosso.  Virtually all of the cars that passed were completely full.  We ended up sitting next to the road waiting for several hours, but eventually arrived in Dosso.
Tuesday we woke up early to catch the bus to Gaya a few hours south.  On the way I watched a movie, Doubt, on Noah’s iphone.  Gaya was surprisingly crowed with people and motorcycles when we arrived.  I was unaware that Tuesday was market day!  Navigating the city was a little overwhelming with two guests, but eventually we found a quite bar to have a coke at while I made arrangements for the next leg of our trip.  I walked about 20 minutes to find the bush taxi that would eventually take us to Sia from where we would walk another 8km to my friend’s village.  Either a small car or open back truck was available, but I was promised 3 spots in the small hatch back.  I had been on the overcrowded truck before and it was no fun.  The car would not depart for several hours so I grabbed an interesting lunch of pounded yams with sauce.  The consistency of the food resembled that of pizza dough. My guests did not approve, but the guy that I found to repair my broken shoes gladly ate the leftovers.  On the way to the bush taxi we spoke with a guy selling traditional medicine.  Some of the medication was surprisingly expensive.  The cost to cure Noah’s spirit processed mom(she wasn’t really possessed): at least 1000CFA.  Medicine for hemorrhoids was only 100CFA.
When we got to the car we waited for a while but still didn’t have enough people to leave at the standard price.  We ended up paying just a little more, got the car to ourselves and ended up only needing to walk about 2km to my friend’s village.  This was the same village that I had visited last August.  A lot had changed.  My friend Kim had returned to the US and had been replaced by my new friend Ely.  The landscape that was once lush and covered with crops had become as barren as the areas surrounding the city of Dosso.  I reintroduced myself to the village and enjoyed some koko.  In fact three different people brought over large containers of the millet porridge.  Yummy!  I asked a group of kids to take us to Kim’s old field where I knew we would find a beautiful old baobab.  We took a moment to take some great pictures.

The next morning I enjoyed more Koko and we headed to Albarkaize to see the large groups of birds that had migrated here for the winter.  We met the village chief and

a kid took us all out on his boat.  Albarkaize is the site of a bird sanctuary along the Niger river.  From a distance we saw hundreds of birds but I wasn’t sure of the species.  Eventually I determined that they were White Faced Whistling Ducks.  Occasionally we were able to get close enough to take some good pictures.  I also saw a multitude of colorful dragonflies.  We returned to Ely’s village for lunch and then headed to the road to catch a car further north to Boumba.  Just as I expected, we waited several hours for a ride.  Several motorcycles offered us a ride to the nearby city of Una.  Since it was market day there we could undoubtedly get a ride further north.  Eventually a car came and ended up taking us all the way to Boumba for a reasonable price.  We stopped by the lively Fulan filled market at Una and continued our voyage.  We arrived in Boumba late but without incident.

[Left to right, clockwise: African Jacana, Rose-Ringed Parakeet, Western-Grey Plantain Eater, Pied Kingfisher]
The next morning we woke up and took a small boat up the Niger river and then into Parc W via a tributary that flows along the Benin/Niger Border.  As we entered Parc W the variety of bird species multiplied and after a few minutes we saw a large monkey.  The day was surprisingly cool which drastically reduced our chances of seeing elephants.  We did see lots of elephant poop though.  The highlight of the trip, which lasted several hours, was seeing a single tree filled with more than a dozen baboons.  We got out of the boat once to climb a small mesa.  At one point a monkey crossed my path just a few meters ahead of me.  Other wildlife that can be seen in Parc W includes water buffalo, impala, warthogs, hyenas, and even lions!  Our guide actually refused to let us go on land in one area because he was concerned about lions.
That night we went to the wedding of a young local girl.  It was the first time I had participated in the evening wedding activities of the bride.  First we ate some delicious millet hawru with sauce and were then taken into a hot, dark room with women singing.  On the night a bride is given to her husband she is wrapped in a blanket and traditionally the bride cries.  This bride, who couldn’t have been more than 15 years old, cried almost the entire time while female friends and family sang or shouted out blessings.  It was an intense ceremony and Noah got a great audio recording of it.  The next morning we relaxed while we waiting for the PC vehicle that would carry us back to Dosso.  While waiting I read the first 100 pages of, “2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl”, a crazy book that suggests that something very big is going to happen in 2012.  2012 marks the end of an important 5,125 year cycle on the Mayan calendar.

Anyway, we returned to Dosso for an early Birthday pizza dinner. The pizza made for me was covered with 2 different types of real mozzarella cheese.  I swear it was the best pizza I’ve had in over a year!  My friends also made me a cake!

February 14th I woke up and opened my birthday cards. Yes, I waited as my sister requested….  I spent the day with Noah and Mieke (his mom). We visited the artisanal center and Mieke went off on her own to with my neighbor in search of soccer balls.  I spent the evening out on the town with even more people.  To celebrate the occasion a chicken was sacrificed the local pet crocodile.  He was very hungry. I also broke out a slab of Gouda cheese imported from Holland and a few days later I enjoyed some fresh parmesan imported directly from Italy by my friend Kaylee. Over all it was a great birthday / Valentine’s day.  In addition to Friday and Saturday, I enjoyed two more dinners marking the special occasion.  Sunday we returned to Niamey, finished up our shopping and set off to the airport late that night.
Last week I participated in an AIDS related training with organized by a local NGO.  About 10 PCVs will be working with Nigerien counterparts to form radio listening groups throughout the region.  The groups will listen to skits each week on a variety of different topics ranging from AIDS to women’s education.  At the end of each skit I and/or my counterpart will lead discussion.  Hopefully it will be a great way to interact more with the community and improve my language skills. The radios skits will start airing in about a month.
Right now I’m in the middle of making the final preparations for my first funded project here in Dosso. Next week I’ll be working with a local artist and a group of 20 at-risk youth to create a series of murals on the stadium wall near my house.  Once the murals are completed we’ll conduct a series of educational sessions and competitions to help teach young people about AIDS.  During my final 10 months here I hope to assist with the creation of as many as 49 murals which together will create one massive continuous mural highlighting a variety of education themes.  If you would like to help sponsor this project please let me know, I need much more funding!

Hot season is back!  Today it is nearly 40C.  Compared to last year, this cold season was very short, almost non-existant.  In less than a month I’ll be enjoying the cold life in Geneva with my mom, sister, and brother in-law!

Guess What?  I think I’m done for today! I just finished watering my garden and now I think I’ll go grab an egg sandwich prior to picking out some photos for this record length blog entry!








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