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…… 
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:
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!

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.


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..