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!




One response

10 03 2009

Great update on what you have been doing! Shoot, when we come this summer maybe we’ll just have you plan our trip. A little exhausting, but it all sounds great.

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