Friday, February 26, 2010

Similarities= same continent...maybe

Merry Christmas! And soon to be Happy New Year!
Going from the last post, not too many connections can be made- life has performed a 180 swing! From endlessly flat to majestically rolling hills, dust clouds to mud-lined roads, millet fields to rice-patty groves, huts to houses, droughts to cyclones, dreaming of ocean to dreaming of dry, single-choice diets to options galore, a lake and a river to ones sprouting out of the ground wherever you look, two national parks to over fifty, the change has been dramatic and bountiful. After briskly leaving Niger in early December, making the most of a day layover in Paris en-route to Madagascar, and then landing in this curveball of a country the thirty-six of us have plunged into an accelerated and unforeseen six-week training course. On the plane ride over I checked out a 'Time' magazine which had done a study on AIDs prevelance in Africa- Madagascar wasen't even on the map! The mentality of that prevails within the island for even native Malagasy's will call people who travel here from Africa, 'African's.' However, ‘training’ should be used loosely in this context, for when you’re living in paradise it’s hard to believe you’re on the job as well!
Our training center is located on a gorgeous lake outside of the capital Antananarivo (coined as ‘Tana’- the long words go far beyond city names). At the training site a camp-like feel incorporates the entire experience with fireplaces lining each building, dorm housing, side activities including canoeing/biking/volleyball, delicious food, HOT WATER, I find myself needing to do a reality check from time to time. We are all still trying to digest that we just moved from one of the most barren and difficult countries in the world to the one which has the highest Peace Corps extension rate and lowest dropout rate. Today I met a previous volunteer stationed on the coast. He swam in the ocean at his leisure and lived in a beachfront house!
At the training center we are all now learning Malagasy- there are several different dialects throughout the country and I am learning the very exotically named dialect of ‘standard.’ My site placement has changed quite a bit from Niger. I will now be working in the education sector. I will be living in a large city of 30,000 working as an English teacher at a Lycee (high school). The classes will consist of 70 t0 75 students. I’ll be living at the school’s compound in a house with electricity, but not with any other teachers, however I understand the school’s cleaner as well as guard sleep nextdoor- add for some nightly chit-chat.
We are now in week three of training, plowing through the holiday season. It looks like around late January we will be sworn in as official volunteers. To help the time pass we’ve been putting on skits, exercising extensively (did a 40 kilometer loop last weekend- sunrise canoe rides), scouting out goods at markets (vastly more products than Niger- and RIDICULOUSLY cheap- long sleeve shirt: 50 cents, jeans: 1 dollar), and so on. Soon we will be moving into our Malagasy host families so that will help to preoccupy ourselves on learning the language.
Today we are heading to a national park hosting the largest lemur species in the world! On that note, a little fact: 80% of the species living in Madagascar are solely native to the country. Other than that all is going well. Christmas went great. We organized a little Secret Santa swap and decorated the training area with paper snowflakes, trees, stockings, and such. And now it’s about time to sign off. I wish you all the best for Christmas and New Years in your respective areas! Miss you all, but am loving the new home, be sure to keep in touch!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Kidnappings and Consolidation: Rerouted, Madagascar in the Sights

Quickly following our return from demyst all the Peace Corps workers within Niger were placed under something called ‘Consolidation.’ Consolidation is the second phase Peace Corps goes into when things get a little heated or unknown in the country. During this all Peace Corps workers are required to leave their posts and move directly into Peace Corps owned and protected sites (for us we moved into our training site just outside of the village were living in). Peace Corps Niger has been known to be a relatively safe country never having to evacuate once over the course of sixty-one years. However, kidnappings and terrorist activity have heavily increased in recent years forcing Peace Corps to evacuate different countries in the West Africa region.
This consolidation was sparked by an attempted kidnapping on five U.S. embassy officials in the Tahoua region. It was initiated by four armed individuals claiming to be linked to Al Qaeda. No one was hurt or kidnapped, but the perpetrators were not caught. Concerned that the kidnapping was specifically targeted towards Americans the Peace Corps ordered a country-wide consolidation. For the last three weeks my stage has been living on the Peace Corps compound, anxious to return back into Niger. Just last week we found out, to our dismay, that we are no longer able to serve with Niger. We leave for Madagascar within the week, starting staging all over again.
There are ups and downs to the situation, but all of us are quite sad to be leaving such an incredible and inspiring country. Soon we will have our lives completely flipped around for a second time in just over a month. For now it’s a twenty-eight hour layover in Paris and then a stroll into Madagascar (which was recently reopened after being closed for nine months due to a coup).

Demystifying Demyst

The Niger Peace Corps has trainees go on something called a ‘demyst’ after being in country for three weeks. I got a chance to head south to the region of Gaya, on the border of Benin and Niger, right along the Niger River. This is easily the greenest area in all of Niger and it was refreshing to get away from the flat and monotonous desert-esk landscape where our staging takes place. The point of demyst is to give us a feeling about what a workers life is like after training is all finished. I visited a Health Volunteer (which is the same sector as me) who worked in a fairly large health hut for rural Niger.
His health hut consisted of three buildings, two with two rooms and one with five rooms. Two buildings were specifically meant for pregnant women and women in birth. The largest of the three conducted consultations, baby weighings, and distributed basic medicine. The health hut’s goals were oriented towards preventative treatment. It had burnt out solar panels (a common sight in Niger as the sun is too strong for the photonic-plates and has already damaged a few volunteers’ individual solar chargers) and two fridges, holding a variety of vaccines, which were powered by propane tanks. The facility was drastically less hygienic than the states, with a coat of dust covering most crevices, even though it was cleaned on a weekly basis. Thus far we have learned a small amount about the Nigerien health-system, but from my personal experience a couple days ago I saw a woman cut herself while preparing a freshly slaughtered sheep to cook and as a remedy she sprayed perfume on her cut and went right on with the preparation! Our training will focus on addressing very basic ways of preventing disease.
Apart from touring the health facility during demyst, I got a chance to explore a mesa- a plateau in the area offering some beautiful views of the surrounding GREEN landscape- try some different cuisine, see a couple different cities in Niger along with the border of Benin, and get a sampling of what the next twenty-four months will behold. In the city of Gaya crops were so much more rich and varied than what we saw at the training site. Food options, actually had options! More than just oranges and bananas could be discovered as far as fruit and we hit a protein jackpot of roasted chickens which we devoured for dinner! The four days of demyst quickly came to a close as all of us trainees reunited in Niamey to share our adventures scattered throughout different parts of Niger- each storey only making us more antsy to move into the next phase of the Peace Corps. From there it was back to staging and the life of a trainee, with only seven more weeks to go.

Settling in....

Week six and this is the first time my hands have graced the internet! A LOT has happened and changed over the last few weeks, enjoy!

From skipping off to Philly for a quick one-day pre-staging, to rambling into JFK, to cruising over into Paris, only to hop back on the plane with one last destination on the list: Niamey, Niger. The full two days of travel were filled with anxiousness and contemplation, analyzing the new land thirty-eight of us newly proclaimed Peace Corps Trainees had embarked towards. Excited chatter flitted about regarding the mystic Agadez region known for the Air Mountains National Park and annual Geerelow Festival, the capital Niamey and what it would behold (or, more accurately, ‘lack’), Park ‘W’ in the South and the herds of Giraffe it boasts as well as spectacular views, these anticipations, accompanied by slews of others, bounced through the cabin of the plane. Of course fears of what was awaiting us were on the tips of our tongues. Would the camel spiders, claimed to be as large as an outstretched hand and fast as a human, be a constant and nightmarish nuisance? Would the sweltering heat keep us immobile for an entire season (with temperatures from March to June having lows of 90F and frequent highs flirting into 130F)? In a landlocked country so sparse in resources be accommodating enough to allow us to adapt to the demands such a lifestyle calls for? Will the people be welcoming? Will we, as volunteers, have the means accessible to succeed whilst working in the country recently ranked lowest in the world on the United Nations Development Index?
As we stepped off the plane on October 23rd, 2009 these assortment of questions my fellow Stagers (the terms given to a group of Trainees all training at the same time for the same country) and I were mulling over for the past months would finally have a chance of being confronted. My initial reaction was “Yep, it’s true, it sure is hot,” I don’t think I stopped sweating for the better half of my first week in country. Despite my drenched state arriving to Niger in October is a logical way to ease a group into the country’s dynamic. Niger has a ‘mini-hot’ season centered on the months of September and October. As October drifts into November the cold season presents itself which extends into the month of February. ‘Cold,’ keep in mind, is a relative term with temperatures rising over 80F on a daily basis.
In order to give us some time to adjust and regain our footing we spent our first two days in Niger on a training site managed by the Peace Corps. We were introduced to the amazing staff as well as debriefed on the more sensitive cross-cultural issues (i.e. conservative dress code). Our trainee coordinator is Tondi who bellows the jolliest laugh you could imagine, proving to be incredibly contagious. Along with Tondi we are in contact with around twenty-five other staff members ranging from doctors, to guards, to language instructors, to sector coordinators (i.e. Health, Environment, Education). Almost the entire in-country staff consists of Nigeriens, excluding the country director and two doctors.
After two days of adjustment we hit the streets of Niger, well sort of. Peace Corps Niger, instead of conducting training on its own property, has the trainees move in with host families in the surrounding villages. This is to encourage trainees to more effectively acquire the language, adhere to and develop a better understanding of cultural differences, eat the local food, and get a feel of what life will be compiled of once training is finished. I have a roommate, Jackson, living with me. Jackson is a fellow stager who’s bounced around the world quite a bit, but has spent the last few years hunkered down in North Carolina. Fortunately, we seem to have been matched up with a great host family! The dad is a relaxed mathematics teacher at a secondary school, oddly enough he is not a language teacher as he can speak fluently Arabic, French, Hausa, and Zarma, plus a tidbit of English. The mother, whom I have yet to see without a smile on her face, is a nurse at the local ‘health hut.’ Jackson and I haven’t quite deciphered the rest of their family, but they have told us they have two children (relatively small for Nigerien standards) whom we have yet to meet. Our family is considered to be wealthy, as they own a concrete house (one story, about twelve feet by twelve feet), have electricity, and have a water pump within their concession (yard).
That basically constitutes the initial timeline, I’ll describe some sub-categories just to give an overall feel of what life’s like:

Home Sweet Home:
It’s hard to describe the dramatic difference in terms of living arrangements. Jackson’s and my house is placed in the middle of our host family’s concession (a concession is basically a yard, but instead of grass and swing-sets, it’s full of animals and people lounging in the shade to escape the heat). The concession is surrounded by a concrete fence, but this varies from concession to concession. We both share a circular hut about 3 yards in diameter where we store all of our belongings. The hut is constructed entirely of straw and wire with a concrete base. Attached to the hut is an open-air sleeping area about 5 yards in lengths and 3 yards in width. It is surrounded by a fence made out of straw about five feet tall. The fenced-in area is where Jackson and I have our beds- yes indeed we do sleep under the stars year round (minus that annoying rainy season: July-August)!
You may think sleeping outside is cumbersome or causes an annoyance, but it is definitely one of my favorite aspects of this new home (along with many other trainees). Gazing upon the stars as I read, listen to music, write home, ponder, or startle awake in the middle of the night makes me love this place. Along with the dazzling sky comes relief from the sweat-drenched days. When it comes to sanitary measures, we have a pit latrine and also take bucket showers- mastered to using only about 6-8 cups per sudsing. As a trainee I live in accommodation somewhat dwarfed to what we will be given upon placement (where I end up living for the two years of service), but a wide range of possible accommodation conditions exist making amenities vary from one volunteer to another. We also have no direct access to electricity or water during training, a condition extremely likely upon placement around Niger.
Living with a host family brings its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, we don’t have to cook for ourselves, on the minus side- we HAVE to eat what they cook for us. The menu varies from rice and sauce to rice and beans to tuo and then back again, with a pasta pizzazz mixed in every once in a while. On top of such delectable cuisine is the host parents continually chattering “Ci, ci, ci!” (Eat, eat ,eat!) as if downing half a kilo of rice per lunch and dinner isn’t enough to scrounge off of. Thus, we’ve learned to finish before were entirely full and then satisfy their request by squeezing in a few more bites. To be honest though, hunger is never a concern here with how full I walk away from each meal. Thankfully breakfast is left to our discretion so I buy a 6oz bag of sulani (yogurt drink)- 25 cents- which easily tides me till lunch.

The Schedule of a Trainee:
As trainees our days are fairly regulated. I usually rouse myself around 6:30a.m. and head out for a jog on ‘the road’- the only paved one in the area (dead goats and other animals are found in the ditch at times, often being flung from the roofs of cars they are tied to the top of). From there it’s a bag of sulani and then off to class at 8:30a.m. Between 8:30 and 4:15p.m. we have various activities going on. Most of our time is spent in language class. I was assigned to learn Hausa- spoken mostly in Eastern Niger- if I was not learning Hausa the other language option was Zarma, spoken more around the capital, Niamey, and near the border of Benin. The language classes have an outstanding ratio of 3 students to 1 Nigerien teacher. Other class activities include cross-cultural awareness (i.e. Islamic Traditions), health information (mostly focused on preventative approaches), basic skills (i.e. gardening), safety and security, and general information. Training lasts for the first 10 weeks we are in the country, meaning we will become official Peace Corps Volunteers and the end of December. After spending three months out at our sight we all rendezvous for another session called ‘In-service Training’ to hone up on our specific assignment (Health, Environment, Education). Training seems to be very beneficial, but can be seen as an annoyance as many of us are anxious to head out and move into our post.

Surrounding Environment:
The city we live in easily has more animals than people. Each family seems to own a couple chickens or a few goats or a donkey- or all of the above. Every morning I am woken by roosters around 5a.m. and then the closely followed by the call to prayer at 5:30a.m. Our staging is located in an average size village of about 5,000 people. Paths are rudimentary and simply consist of pounded sand and natural rock. There is one gravel road bisecting the village coming out of Niamey. Piles of garbage line the paths, kids constantly shout “Fou, fou” (‘Hi in Zarma) or “Comment t’appelle tu?” (a phrase they often don’t know how to respond to themselves) to the foreigners until you acknowledge them, herders frequently meander from one watering hole to the other, yet this place mysteriously.
Perhaps four or five concrete stores with electricity exist in the village, selling refreshingly chilled drinks along with other items. A few villagers have set up stalls selling anything from hatsi (millet) pancakes to peanuts to soap. Options are limited and necessities plus some are available. Behind the village lies a seasonal ‘pond’ providing a nice place to escape to. The village has a much appreciated millet-pounder (cutting time and energy down dramatically on farmers by skipping the most manually taxing part of preparing millet), dozens of wells and water spikets are scattered throughout, and an animal slaughtering and prep area exists on the outskirts of town. Most houses are half concrete and half straw/millet stalk, with fences almost always being made from an organic material. Since it is close to Niamey the village does have access to a wide range of resources along with a large market day once a week bringing in thousands of people in the surrounding area. Come market day literally hundreds of donkey carts line the paths, slews of meat men are seen roasting cows, and well over fifty rudimentary stalls are set up over night. Niger has really proven to be a fascinating place.

Time on our Hands:
Life as a trainee doesn’t only involve hard work and days packed plum-full with classes. The Peace Corps weakens their grip from time to time allowing us time to decompress. We pass our free time with an unexpected wide range of activities. From heading down to the pond in the back of the village, to playing cards/cribbage/board games, to watching a movie, to just hanging out, to a Nigerien themed fashion show/olympics, to dance parties- we still attempt to keep life fairly upbeat here. Initially coming here I was afraid of the void long evenings would bring, but thus far they have proven to be void-less. After being in Niger for the first few initial weeks our stage seems to be coming together and are looking forward to spending the next two years working together.

Overall all those fears and anxieties that were building up prior to departure have been made obsolete, over shadowed, or seem much more tolerable after arriving and settling into the Nigerien lifestyle. The people are extraordinarily welcoming, the food is unsubstantial but malleable, the weather is drastic but brings relief come sunset, the pros seem to far outweigh the cons in always smiling Niger.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

So the voyage begins!

Am now all packed and ready to jet out of the Midwest. Organizing myself was a bit more hectic than preferred, but has panned out well in the end. I now head over to Philadelphia for a couple days of orientation and then jet off to Niger.

My duty while in the Peace Corps consists of working within the Community Health Education sector, addressing basic health concerns in rural Niger. For the first two months while in Niger the Peace Corps conducts training emphasizing the teaching of local language and culture. Once finishing those two months I will move into a small rural village consisting of no more than 2,500 people, where I will be living for the next two years. Other than that much is still unbeknownest to me.

While immersed abroad it is always fantastic to hear from you 'non-Nigerian residents,' so keep the letters flowing! My address whilst in Niger for the first two months (as it will change once training is finished) is:

(My Name)
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 10537
Niamey, Niger

Here's a few tips to sending them:
1.Write “air mail” or “par avion” on letters and packages. They should take anywhere from two to six weeks to get to me.
2.Number letters so I’ll know if one goes astray.
3.Write the address in red ink; people are superstitious about it and will be less likely to open it or steal it.
4.Tape the corners of the packages so they will endure the trip. Also, putting tape or stickers on the inside of the flaps will make it easier to tell if someone tried to open it (and it may deter people from doing so in the first place).
5.Use padded envelopes whenever possible, as they are cheaper for both you and me. I may have to pay a tax on boxes, especially if it’s big or its contents are expensive. So don’t declare the items as expensive; keep it under $20.
6.When declaring the contents, keep it vague. Write “educational materials”, “personal hygiene items”, or “nutritional items” (for food), etc. If it doesn’t sound exciting, people will be less likely to open it. If you are sending me batteries, you have to “forget” that you packed them, as the U.S. won’t ship them overseas.

Thanks to all those who I saw for making it a memorable three weeks home after coming back from East Africa! Time to go catch a flight, next post I'll be scratching the sand from my eyes and being scorched from the pelting sun (well from what I hear at least).