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..


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!

Bamako to Niamey: 1,680km and 8 days of Sahelian fun

27 11 2008

[Dogon Country: Morning stroll near Ende]

I’m back home in Dosso after a nice break from Niger.  Nearly two weeks ago, my friend Russell arrived in Niger.  It was his first trip to Africa and he was my first visitor since I arrived here in January.  The first night we didn’t do much.  I accepted a few gifts from the US: Cranberry sauce, canned pumpkin and corn bread (for thanksgiving) along with two bottles of wine, marshmallows, and some Lindt chocolate truffles.  Then we headed to dinner at a nice Lebanese restaurant for hummus, baba ghanoush, and lamb kebabs.

Although Wednesday was our departure day for Mali, our flight wasn’t until nearly 9pm, so we had plenty of time to visit Niamey.  We started the day by changing some Euros to CFA for an amazing rate of 650 CFA per Euro with no commission.  Next we checked out all of the locally available produce, meats, and grains at the Petite Marche and then walked through a portion of the maze-like Grande Marche.  After the markets and a refreshing lunch at Amadine’s, we headed into new territory- the artisanal center and the Grand Mosque.  Both destinations had received mixed reviews from some volunteers but I genuinely enjoyed them.  The Wadata artisanal center has a large two story boutique feature virtually all types of Nigerien crafts, all with fixed prices that are totally unreasonable.  Behind the boutique a large complex houses artisans and their   creations which are also for sale at negotiable prices.  A 15-minute walk from the center is the grand mosque.  As long as you are willing to contribute money to the mosque and the guard, you can get a complete tour including a climb up to the top of the minaret for great view of Niamey.  The inside of the building was beautiful, especially an intricately carved stairway at the front of the men’s prayer area.  After the tour we walked around the tree covered mosque grounds and headed to a restaurant just behind the olympic pool for a coke and a panoramic view of the Niger River just before sunset.  Our next stop was the Niamey Airport for our Air Senegal flight to Bamako.  The security for the flight was a little lax and I had set low expectations for the flight itself.  I was pleasantly surprised.  A shiny Boeing 737 was waiting for us at the gate, the flight left about 15 minutes early, and they served a full dinner with drinks to all passengers.  The flight was only 1.5 hours, but the wait for our luggage seemed nearly as long.  Finally our bags arrived and a shuttle took us to our hotel in the new ACI 2000 district of Bamako.  The hotel, which opened earlier this year, was a modern work of art for West Africa.  Stainless steel and glass stairs illuminated with color changing LEDs connected all the floors and the entire establishment was overflowing with modern furniture and decorations. 

The best part of the hotel experience was breakfast.  The first morning I enjoyed: coco krispies, scrambled eggs, a ham and cheddar sandwich on thick slices of fresh bread with lettuce, tomato, and mustard, bacon, smoked ham, 4 other types of cheese with croissants, sautéed potatoes, fresh fruit, a crepe with sugar, and strawberry yogurt with four glasses of fresh squeezed OJ, sparking water, and a latte.  It was a $20 breakfast buffet, but I definitely think I got my money’s worth.  Thursday was our only day in Bamako.  We stopped by the artisanal center, walked past the fetish market and the grand mosque, found a nice panoramic view from the top of a riverside hotel, and visited the national museum for a few good exhibits, a great performance by a local percussion band, and some delicious fried plantains.  For dinner, we went to a riverside hotel and then headed back to our hotel to prepare for an early departure the following morning.

The following morning we met our driver in the lobby and waited for our Dogon Guide we ended up picking up outside of the city.  He was unable to get to the hotel because of the traffic.  In the mornings traffic is stopped for miles waiting to enter the city. Bamako has a lively music scene and a decent museum, but beyond that it’s a busy, crowded and very polluted city, especially during dry season when clouds of dust and smog hang over the city on non-windy days.  Anyway, by about 9 we were out of the city and on our way to Djenne.  The village of Djenne is located in the inland-delta region of Mali and is still surrounded by water this time of year.  We crossed the water by way of a ferry and arrived at the mud mosque shortly before sunset.  The mosque in Djenne is the largest mud structure in the world.  Built in the late 13th century, it was used until the early 19th century and reconstructed in the early 20th century.  Supposedly a French fashion photographer filmed scantly clad models in the mosque a few decades ago, resulting in the current ban on non-Muslims coming into the mosque.  However, with a small “contribution” to the mosque, our guide was able get us in.  Once inside, the considerable size of the structure became apparent.  Exactly 100 large pillars supported the roof over the area where the men come to pray.  Since it wasn’t prayer time only a few people were there praying or just relaxing in the dark, cool, and very peaceful atmosphere.  From the mosque, we headed to Mopti for a hearty African meal and a good night’s sleep at the YAPasDeProblem Hotel.

[Djenne Mosque: shadows on the inner courtyard]

[Mosque at Kani Kombole]

Saturday morning we headed out towards Dogon Country, first stopping in Bandiagara to visit our guide’s family and buy some kola nuts as gifts to village elders.  Despite having a car, I figured we would still be hiking for the most part.  However, almost all of Dogon country is accessible by 4×4.  Our first stop was Djiguibombo, where we stopped for a brief tour and Russell’s first taste of real African food.  We tried a very thick pounded millet dish with baobab leaf sauce and drank some tea.  Our guide, Num, pointed out the different grain/vegetable storage huts for men and women along with the meeting areas for elders.  From Djiguibombo, we drove down the escarpment in a steep winding road that was in surprisingly good condition.  We made a brief stop in Kani Kombole to look at the mosque.  We got out of the car near the Teli waterfall, which was nearly completely dry, and continued on foot to Teli.  In the village, we took a long lunch overlooking a panorama of Tellum and Dogon cliff dwellings (see below).  The Tellum people were the original inhabitants of the area prior to the 14th or 15th century.  They were hunters, built their houses very high in the cliffs where they produced some of the oldest cloth and wooden objects ever found in sub-Saharan Africa.  The Dogon people were cultivators who cleared the land for agriculture which eventually forced the Tellum out of the region.  According to our guide, the descendants of the Tellum now live in eastern/southern Africa and sometimes return to the area to perform rituals.  The Dogon people also have a rich history and culture in which sacred rituals and masks play a pivotal role.  After lunch, we climbed up to some of the lower Dogon and Tellum cliff dwellings and then headed to Ende where we had dinner and slept on the roof at one of the campements.

Sunday, there was some indecision about our itinerary for the day that ended up being related to the presence of sand dunes between us and our destination, Dourou.  We began by climbing the escarpment to Begnemato.  It was a beautiful hike that passed by a stream, and unique rock formations while providing.  We entered the village as music flowed from the local church and continued to the edge of the cliffs where we were greeted by clear views of the valley and the plain beyond.  The villages on top of the escarpment share more animist beliefs than those below, but Begnemato was divided into three distinct areas for Christians, Muslims, and Animists.  Nearly every village we visited had a church, making Christianity much more prevalent than in Niger.  Islam is still the principle religion with a following of about 80% of the population.  After we climbed back down from Begnemato, our carefree stay in Dogon Country slowly came to a close.  We had made the decision to go back up the escarpment via Djiguibombo and come back down via Sanga to avoid the perilous sand dunes.  However, at the last minute we ran into another guide and some villagers who insisted that another sand free route existed.  So we headed into the grassy plain with one of the villagers guiding us through the bush for a good 30 minutes only to arrive at a sea of sand dunes.  We got out to assess the situation while our driver decided to just go for it.  He doesn’t make it far and after more than an hour trying to get the car out with wood, rocks, and pottery shards, we head to the village with our guide to search for assistance and some water.  We gave our guide 20,000CFA to pay the villagers with and while they’re working on the car, we continue to walk to a small village a few km from Nombori.  Long story short: the car shows up with the guide asking for 10,000CFA more and my wallet missing from the car.  Not knowing who to trust, we returned to Sevare instead of heading into Gao directly, ditched our driver and refused to pay our guide the extra 10,000CFA.  The drive back out of the valley and up the escarpment the following morning was great.  We passed through nearly a dozen villages and saw hundreds of cliff dwellings along the way.  Last fall I saw a variety of cliff dwellings in Arizona.  The dwellings of Canyon de Chelly reminded me a little of those in Dogon.  However, I was especially impressed by the large number of cliff dwellings found in Dogon Country which can be seen almost constantly along the more than 200km of cliffs.  I only saw about half that.

[Dogon and Tellum(top) Cliff Dwellings in Teli]

Monday afternoon our driver left us at the bus station where we purchased spot ticket on a Toure bus to make the 500km trip to Gao.  The 1pm bus left closer to 3pm which may have been a blessing in disguise, since we missed the hottest part of the day.  The bus did not have a ventilation system or windows that could be opened.  Even after the sun set, it was like riding in a sauna on wheels.  The trip lasted 12 hours.  Luckily I had my fully charged iPod, so we pretended that we dancing at the club instead of slowly crawling across Africa in an overcrowded sauna bus.  The road to Gao is lined by some of Mali’s most impressive rock formations.  Even on a moonless night, you could appreciate their grandeur against a backdrop of countless stars.   Eventually we arrived at Gao where our passports were taken by the police.  We decided not to worry about it and took a taxi to the local Peace Corps house where we slept for a few hours on the roof.

Tuesday, we experienced Gao.  I met some of the Peace Corps volunteers in the region who recommended a few activities.  I also exchanged radio scripts with one of them since Malians speak Zarma in the easternmost part of the country.   We began our outing with a visit to the Police station where our passports were waiting for us.  The region has occasionally has seen some conflict between the government and Tuareg rebels so security heightened.  While Peace Corps Volunteers generally get to keep their passports, it is not uncommon for the police to hold tourist passports while they are visiting.  We continued our tour of Gao with a walk along the river and a visit to the daily market.  The market was a good representation of those found throughout the region selling a variety of food, fabrics, and household goods.  Afterwards we ate an egg sandwich, took a nap and then visited the Tomb of the Askias.  The tomb was built in 1495 by the first Askia Emperor and according to our guide was originally constructed uniquely from mud and wood brought from Mecca.  I climb to the top of the tomb, which at one point requires crawling on your hands and knees, affords great views of Gao and the 60 meter sand dune across the Niger river.  La dune rose, was our next stop.  Earlier that morning we had arranged a boat ride with a friendly guide named Ousmane who we met up with a few hours before sunset.  We bought some loose tea and mint for the trip and located his boat.  The trip across the river took longer than I had imagined – about two hours.  We saw lots of birds, especially yellow-crowned bishops and Goliath Herons.  The sun set as we crossed ad we ended up climbing the dune in the dark.  The ride back to Gao was with the current so it took about half as long.  Away from the lights of the city, we could enjoy the night sky once again made more brilliant by the moon’s absence.

Wednesday, we headed out before dawn to catch the 7am bus to Niamey, which probably left closer to 9.  The trip to Niamey lasted about 8 hours and included 3 passport checks.  Luckily the bus had windows that opened!  Back in Niamey, we had a very nice dinner at Restaurant Tabakaday and enjoyed a real, hot shower.

Thursday, we headed to Dosso, first stopping in Koure to see West Africa’s last heard of Giraffe.  We happened to arrive at almost the same time as the new group of Peace Corps volunteers that were still in training.  I introduced Russell to my advisor, Haoua, and she introduced me to all the new volunteers.  It was a great day for giraffes.  Within a few minutes we saw nearly a 10th of the total population of about 150 giraffes.  A 4×4 had brought us from Niamey to see them, but we continued our journey by bush taxi.  After about another hour we arrived safely in Dosso.  For dinner I was inspired by the evening’s previous French dinner to make Ratatouille.  We went to the market to collect ingredients and stopped by the radio station to meet some of my co-workers and distribute leftover Kola nuts from Dogon Country.  Dinner turned out well and I also enjoyed a big hunk of the sharp cheddar cheese Russell brought from the US – mmmmmmm  cheese. 


Friday, we headed back to Niamey on the bus.  We picked up a few gifts at the artisanal center, visited the Peace Corps bureau where I got my flu shot and then headed to the national museum.  While I had already been to the museum several times, this visit was especially enjoyable since my PCV friend Rose gave us a tour of all the animals.  She is a volunteer there and knows all the animals personally.  At the snake exhibit, there was a guy with a couple pythons out.  I asked if there were any Cobras in the exhibit and he said, yes, there is one in the bag next to your arm.  I immediately moved several meters back as he proceeded to take it out and play with it for a while.  He insisted that he and he alone was protected by traditional medicine from any bite he might receive.  I left the Museum with visions of Cobras dancing in my head and enjoyed a farewell pizza with Russell before I accompanied him to his late night flight.

Now I’m back in Dosso getting ready for Thanksgiving and the arrival of my dad next week.  For Thanksgiving Day I won’t be eating turkey, but I am planning to enjoy Guinea Fowl, cornbread dressing, squash soup, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie!  I let you know how it turns out.  I hope all of you out there have a great thanksgiving.

On the road again…….

11 11 2008

[On the road near GidanMuni]

Demyst, Halloween, the election, random visitors from the US, soccer, the inner workings of Nigerien commerce……….the last several weeks have been busy.  Almost immediately after I returned from my trip out east, it was time for the newest volunteer trainees to leave the training villages and experience life with a PCV for a few days (demystification).  I was in charge of delivering about 10 trainees to villages scattered across the region.  As part of the trip I rode down the notorious Falmey road.  The road must be one of the worst in country since it is covered with pot holes from start to finish.  The trip took about 5 hours.  With a little luck, I’ll never have to make the trip again.  Eventually I made it back to Dosso with my demyster from North Carolina.  During his brief stay we visited the market, ate good food and took a walk to see an old Baobab tree.  Since he will be working with an artisanal center, we visited the one in Dosso.  We spoke with several artisans making jewelry, shoes, and other goods.  To my surprise, the Dosso Museum was also open.  An artisan was there who makes traditional textiles with an old loom.  He gave us a brief tour of the museum’s small collection of statues, textiles, and other artifacts.  Overall, demyst was a great success.  Dosso had a great group of trainees that will undoubtedly prove to be an excellent resource for Niger over the next two years.

Immediately after Demyst, I headed to Niamey to get my visa for Mali and run a few other errands.  Unfortunately the visa process was complicated.  A taxi took me to the location of the Malian Embassy, the building was empty.  The embassy had moved and none of the taxi drivers knew the new location.  I asked random people on the street and eventually found my way by foot to their new location, across the street from the US Embassy.  It was a beautiful, newly constructed building which I helped for pay for by paying a new, higher visa price of 50,000CFA (ouch).  Just a few weeks prior, volunteers were paying only 20000CFA.  I got my visa and headed back to Dosso in time for Halloween and the Dosso team meeting.

Nearly everyone on the team was there and everyone dressed up.  The evening’s guests included Peter Pan, a lion, an elephant, a sailor, and Woodabe dancer (me).  I enjoyed a large bag of Reece’s Pieces from the US and visited a few Nigerien friends in town from some cross-cultural exchange.  I made the entire costume myself with the exception of some of the jewelry which I got from the Woodabee festival a few weeks before.  A few people actually thought I had purchased my sorry excuse for a Woodabe robe. (Check out the side-by-side comparison below) It was a good night, enjoyed by all.

The next day I had a few unexpected, but welcomed visitors.  My friend Jill, a volunteer near Zinder brought her mom over.  She had arrived in Niger a few days prior for a three month stay with her daughter.  I invited a few other volunteers in town over for an American 5-cheese pasta dinner and sent them off with pancakes the following morning.  Since my stage has been here for nearly a year now, friends and family are starting to visit.  About 5 other volunteers currently have guests from the US and my first visitor is arriving in just a few hours!  We’re about to set off on a week long trip across Mali; Bamako to Gao.  Three weeks later my dad arrives.

So the election was awesome…  I wrote about that a few days ago.  The days following the election everyone expressed their congratulations.  Over here practically everyone was happy about the result.

Since the election I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with some of my Nigerien friends.  I spent a day working with my friend Harouna who owns a shop down the street.  I spent the days selling veggies, oil, spices and other essentials.  Most people come to buy things in quantities costing 5 to 25 cents.  Although he gets a lot of business it is a lot of work to measure out small quantities things like oil and tomato paste and then arguing with customers over how many tiny onions they should get for their 25CFA.  After several hours, I was worn out.  It’s a tough job, and people’s buying habits really illustrated how little money most people have. Some people also pay by trade.  For example 25CFA of peanut butter for 25CFA of onions. One lady, who I previously considered a friend, took the opportunity to walk away with 2000CFA worth of food. 

I also spent a little time with a Soccer team that one of my co-workers, Hassan, coaches.  Every day that he isn’t working, he volunteers to hold practice with his team of about 25 youth 14-18 years old.  I’ve already managed to find them some free soccer balls to practice with.  If anyone out there wants to sponsor a soccer team in Niger, just let me know.  For a larger city, Dosso has a serious lack of sports opportunities available.  Hassan’s team is the only one with a coach in the entire city.  They have a great stadium, but many of them can’t afford anything but flip flops to play in.  I hoping to find some funding to create educational murals on the stadium and find some funding for the team as well.  I went to a game on Sunday.  They played excellently and won 6 to 1. 

The school year is now in full swing.  Yesterday I helped my neighbor with his English home work.  He had 10 sentences to translate from French to English.  The sentences were difficult, using many different tenses and structures.  My neighbor speaks Zarma and very little French.  It was a nearly impossible task to complete the assignment.  He had problems translating even the most simple words, like Je – I.  A complete overhaul of the education system may be what Niger needs most.  Classes generally consists of copying pages of a book that are written on the board by the teacher, and then copied by the student with little or no comprehension.  While completing the exercise we made a vocabulary list and a couple verb conjugation tables to study.  Hopefully we’re going to have more study time once I return to Dosso next week.

Right now I’m in Niamey just waiting for my friend’s plane to arrive.  He’s bringing some extra supplies for thanksgiving and a block of cheddar cheese!  After spending a little time in Niamey we’ll head to Bamako, visit the mud mosque in Djenne, hike in Dogon Country, and stop in Gao before heading back to Niamey by bus.  They just recently repaved the road from Gao to Niamey, so what used to be a 24 hour trip with now be over in less than 6.

Fo Fo, Fo Fo a Nigerien’s Life for me!

24 10 2008

[Date Palms of Gidan Muni]

I made it back to Dosso!  It’s hard to believe that I left a little more than two weeks ago.  It feels like was gone more like a month.  Overall, the trip was a successful one.  I worked with a few people at the national radio station and talked with other volunteers about their radio experiences.  Zinder is a very large city filled with mostly Hausa speakers.  It was actually the first place that I’ve visited where I felt like a total outsider.  Virtually no one spoke Zarma and I found very few people able/willing to speak French.  As a result I didn’t go out in the city too much.  I did explore the large outdoor market for a while and also checked out the artisanal center. The area surrounding Zinder is very hilly and the landscape is dotted with large boulders.  That was probably the most unique feature of the area. 

I also met up with my best friend from Dosso. He’s currently working on a project in Zinder.  We visited his cousin and enjoyed a meal of pounded sorghum with meat sauce.  We also borrowed his motorcycle for a night tour of the city.  Typically we’re not allowed to ride “cabu cabu” but no other transport is available in the city.  No worries, I was wearing a brand new helmet from the US.  We drove past the sultan’s residence (a more modern, miniature version of the castle from Aladdin).  We also rode through some of the old town.  Even at low speeds, cruising down the narrow alleys was exhilarating.  I’ll probably be re-visiting these sites during the day when my Dad visits in December.

There were a couple of other interesting things about my stay in Zinder.  Saturday marked the end of the first month at post for the newest group of volunteers.  To celebrate, Zinder had a pirate party.  I gathered a few articles for my costume as I stopped in the different regional capitals.  While there were no official judges, my representation of a pirate wench of sorts, got rave reviews.  Maybe I’ll post it at the very end of this blog. 
I also got an opportunity to watch about 40 minutes of Cameroonian television.  I was surprised to discover that virtually the entire 40 minute period was about Barack Obama.  A series of comedy skits joked about Obama fan clubs, easy access to visas after his election, and close family ties with Obama.  Following the show there were two serious music videos all about Obama.  The videos had the common elements of many African videos: men singing and dancing in western clothing with a sprinkling of booty shaking from the women. In addition to these familiar sites were photos and video of Obama.  It was a bit of a shock.  I had no idea that Obama had become such an international celebrity.  It turns out that musicians around the world are lining up to sing about him. Here are a few examples. BTW, I voted!  I did not receive my official Ballot in time, but I was able to send in the generic overseas absentee ballot for president!

Before I left Zinder I headed 3+ hours (60km, the road was very bad and the car broke down for about 45 minutes) further east to visit a radio station in Guidan Muni. I arrived just after sunset, ate and found a nice place to sit beneath a clear, moonless sky.  It was the peak of the Orionids meteor show so I caught a few impressive shooting stars.  The next morning I realized that the village was unlike most of the region. It was a beautiful area dotted with date palms and baobab trees with large mesas to the north.  The village has a large area of spring fed gardens that provide a wealth of vegetables year-round.   I took a long walk through the gardens and around a crocodile filled lake (I didn’t see any).  While the 4 hour walk was pleasing to the eyes, it was quite painful.  The fields were filled with sand burrs and some of the walk was through deep, scorching sand.  After removing hundreds of burrs and rehydrating, I headed back to Zinder with a dozen baby bannanas in hand.   I started the 12 journey back to Dosso the following morning. The journey started out with a guy puking in the middle of the bus, but luckily no breakdowns or delays!

Since I arrived back in Dosso I’ve been preparing for the arrival of the newest demysters.  A new AG/NRM stage arrived a few weeks ago and this will be their first time out of the training area to discover for themselves what volunteers really do.  This time I’ll just have one PCV.  However, I’ve also been put in charge of escorting several of the other demysters to their host villages. It will involve more car time but I’ll get to see a little more of the Dosso region.
Besides that I’ve been eating caramel cubes, soft gingerbread men and watching the movie Sahara (my mom sent me a package).  While Sahara wasn’t a brilliant film, it was filmed almost entirely in Mali.  It was a great preview of what I’ll be seeing in just three weeks on my first trip outside of Niger!