Well, life’s been interesting recently. Mom just left a couple of weeks ago. It was a good visit. The loop was a great trip, if a bit too short. The good news is that, the way Peace Corps works, it may be to my advantage to leave from Accra rather than from Niamey when I head home, so I may get a chance to go back through the Loop a bit. I’ve set up a website, theloop.wikia.com, to help people get information on the places to go, or not, on the trip. Please, put any useful information there. I’ll get back to the trip in a second…
Having mom in my village was certainly neat; the villagers loved it and she got a first hand look at the insanity that is daily living here. She wore a complet and everything. It was awesome. We taught local women to bake bread and painted a mural on handwashing. Mostly, though, it was good to finally have someone from outside peace corps get a first hand look at what we’re dealing with, from the overall shittiness of the soil to the problems the culture throws in the way of development. Not that there weren’t good points, there were. We had a great time at the market, eating corn tuwo and sitting with the fabric lady. We also walked around and saw how well the millet was (or, at the time, wasn’t….) doing. Mom got to see how the trees were doing and eat delicious moringa crepes. It was a good time. Now that she’s left, however, it’s been incredibly frustrating. She had brought little gifts of soap for a few key women in my village, and tea for the men. Even while she was there the men were giving the tea away to people I didn’t want them to (but, hey, it was their tea to give away, right?) but then, after she left, I keep getting asked by men and women where their tea or soap is. I’ve made a big thing about not giving out gifts in my village for the past year and a half, and now I’m worried that all that’s been spoiled. Not mom’s fault – it makes sense to bring things to people that you’re going to meet and live with for a bit, host gifts etc. But the culture here is such that giving anything is a lesson in the benefits of becoming Scrooge. Plus, that she could come here has reopened the whole ‘take me to America’ can of worms. As in ‘hey, you’ll pay for me to go to America when you leave, right?’ And it’s not just as a joke, they really get annoyed when I say no. Finally, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m incredibly blunt – ‘No, I will not take you to America. Not only is it too expensive (I can’t even pay for the ticket, the government pays for mine) but once we get there you have no skills that will be useful. No, you can’t farm like you do here. No, you can’t herd like you do here. No, you can’t open a shago (small general goods store). We farm with tractors. We have feedlots. We have grocery stores bigger than the village (literally. You could fit a hamlet inside CostCo, easy). You would end up washing dishes or doing crappy manual labor somewhere. This would not be the American dream you see on TV. No, I will not take you to America’ Shikenan.
N.B. Take everything I say with several grains of salt. It’s probably not as depressing as I find it. I’m 3 months from COS and focused more on the next stage of my life than trying to wage Sisyphean battles against hunger, poverty, illiteracy, disease… Being here in Niger has taught me a LOT, albeit not what I had thought it would. I feel much more grounded in knowing what the problems are, and what the problems with the majority of the world’s solutions are. Knowing the actual solutions… um… not so much. It’s going to have to be a ground-up change adapted locally to individual situations and I just don’t know that any external force is going to be able to affect that. There are good programs out there, SIM’s agroforestry model among them, but even that model wouldn’t be adapted to a few hundred kilometers south. On the plus side, now that I know what the problems are, I’m even more motivated to try to solve them, pretty much guaranteeing that I’ll be involved in ag for years to come; yay for my education not entirely going to waste J
So, the future… hmmm… I’m of several minds on the matter:
1) Go to work in mainstream development
2) Go back to school for something along the lines of sustainable farming systems
3) Go off the beaten track and WWOOF and get into sustainable ag that way
4) Some otherwise nebulous future
Everything has its pros and cons…
In any case, I promised a bit more on the trip, so here you go
Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso): AMAZING!!! It’s a beautiful city with ice cream and cleaner streets, and my first taste of FanIce, which is so amazingly delicious I can’t describe it here. Think semifrozen cake batter, but better. We stayed at a lovely B&B – Karite Bleu – recommended to us by local PCVs while we waited for our visas to get processed and wandered around the artisanal centers.
Kumasi (Ghana): Not my favorite but a necessary stop to get a break after the horrendous drive from Ouaga. Met nice people who helped us out later on.
Cape Coast (Ghana): We got there right after Obama did, and it was packed with Obama goodies. Obamamania may have subsided in the States, but it certainly is still going full force there. We actually stayed here twice – coming and going from Green Turtle. Both times we stayed in the Mighty Victory. A great hotel, but they need to nuke their neighbors – an EXTREMELY loud church that had a wake going on one of the nights we were there. I was NOT happy. The city itself was a little empty – probably packed in slightly warmer times. We had a great tour of the castle and then indulged in Guinesses at the nearby restaurant watching the waves break on the beach. Later on we tried a bit more ‘native’ food – Chic Heb’s – run by Henrietta, an incredibly effusive warm woman with really good chicken. She even drove us back to the hotel when the area started looking too sketchy after dark. Near CC is Kakum National Park. They have a canopy walk. I chickened out after the second bridge (out of 7); even repeating the Bene Gesserit Mantra Against Fear (yes, I did. I really am that sad) couldn’t get me out on the third one. I had thought they’d be more… Wide? That the nets would be higher? Somehow I’d thought they’d feel sturdier. But, I’m a coward. At least I got two, right? The views were lovely and then we went on a neat nature walk with a guide telling us the native uses/myths about the various trees. Fun fun.
Green Turtle (Ghana): Situated on one of the worst roads I’ve ever been on, GT is paradise. Jesus loves cocktails. Had a great time vegetating with mom on the beach, drinking more STAR than I should have, and meeting a bunch of nice people. Mostly, though, it was just good to have some 100% down time with mom to shoot the breeze.
Accra (Ghana): we went back through Cape Coast and then headed further east to Accra, which was an ok city. The Christian mission type guesthouses were all full (and really unfriendly!!) and we ended up staying in what looked like a totally scary hotel but turned out to be really nice – Beverly Hills something. Plus we ate at the Orangerie – AMAZING! I had smoked salmon pasta. So delicious and western and clean and… It was a good stop.
Kpalime (Togo): After one night in Accra it was up to Ho in a crammed taxi, then from Ho to Kpalime in an incredibly sketchy taxi on an awful road eclipsed only by the one that’s on the way to Green Turtle. It was torture. But then we ended up at Chez Fanny, which is this beautiful hotel/restaurant in Kpalime run by a French/Togolaise couple. The food was to die for. Shrimp flambéed in whisky. Avocados everywhere. Local coffee (the owner was kind enough to sell me some…) From Kpalime we went on a nature hike and the guide drew a butterfly on my arm with local plant dyes (don’t worry, it washed off). The area is known for its butterflies and even though we went after peak season it was still lovely. Lots of cocoa and banana plantations and lovely GREEN everything. And avocados. Cheap. Bigger than my head for a quarter. Mom mocked me for hauling them around but they were soooo worth it. Yum. Kpalime also has a lovely artisanal center; I got a beautiful batik of a woman pouring water off her head. Yes, you can get batiks in Niamey, but nowhere near this quality and detail.
Lome (Togo): In Kpalime we decided to make a run for Niamey so that we could squeeze a full week in my village. Lome was interesting for a night, we stayed in a good hotel and walked on the beach (scary undertow!) and slept and ate fondue. Yum. Plus knowing Hausa helped me get a bus that was leaving later… not that that turned out to be much of a great bonus
The Bus: So, we picked this bus as it was supposed to be faster, skipping Cotonou and all. It was ~36 hours of hell. The road was awful, they tried to turn the music on to the threshold of pain. I’m not ashamed to admit that I used tears to get the music shut off. I’d already put up with that nonsense on the bus from Niamey to Ouaga, and that at least was a nice bus. This was a shitty bus. I wasn’t about to tolerate headache inducing music on a shitty bus. Nope. Then it stopped for 6 hours at Parakou, and they really couldn’t figure out why we didn’t want to get off the bus and sleep in the heavily lit, extremely noisy concrete floored sleeping area when the bus at least had cushions of some sort. And it was nice and quiet and dark… Africa… Then there was some sort of insane line of transport cars lined up for miles at the Benin-Niger border. Our driver and his helper got us navigated through that, but then wanted to make up time by leaving the Americans at the border to get the visas sorted and have us take a motorcycle to catch up. A universe of no. Tears again. Embarrassing but effective. They rushed us through and we were back on our (long) way, with pauses for prayer of course. Then, once we got to Niamey and were on our way to the hotel (Terminus. It’s lovely.) our stupid taxi driver tried to make us wait while he went and had a conversation with his friend, after I’d already explained how tired we were… ‘You Americans lack patience’. Yes, but that’s why our country works – we don’t put up with this nonsense. **sigh**
We stayed at the Terminus a couple of nights to get sorted and settled and rested, then it was onto the bus again out to Maradi and a week in the village.
A good trip.
So, life in the village now:
Gardening: our community garden is caput – people stole everything the second it got ripe so the owners stopped watering. I still have my little garden; it’s full of eggplant and, now that I dumped Miracle grow and other fertilizers on it, I think the tomatoes may start producing. I also am now up to 15 moringa trees. Yum.
Murals: The total’s up to three now – nutrition, conjunctivitis, and now hand-washing. I’m waiting for World Vision to finish the pump skirt so I can put another one on it on not feeding your infant dirty water – milk only until they’re 6 months. Yes, that means no hura, either, in case you were wondering…
Water: I’ve got some hope for the pumps ever getting fixed/installed. Last week WV came through and started cementing the area around the pump – a sure sign of progress.
The Women: the two women’s groups are going strong – they’re much better organized and motivated than the men. I taught the women’s leader of my village how to bake bread – she says she’ll give a demo later. I hope so. It’s an easy income generating activity.
The rest of it: well, it’s Ramadan, which means no food or drink from dawn until dusk, which in turn means that everyone is asleep and really cranky. I’m not doing it this year (I did one day and was dead sick) and so that’s an issue for the village. For all that this is supposed to be cultural ‘exchange’ they’re convinced that, having seen their wonderful religion/culture I’ll want to adopt it myself. Oh. Hell. No. So, I get this long conversation frequently on why I’m not a muslim and how there’s no way I’ll cover my head in America. I’ve explained that I have every intention of wearing shorts and tank tops and talking to boys and not living with my parents and driving a car and… they’re horrified. It’s great fun. I feel like I was too polite the first year and a half. Now I’m telling the truth and it’s very liberating. Here’s real American culture – I don’t have to listen to you just because you are male. In fact, it decreases the likelihood of me listening to you. Bwa ha ha ha. Having mom come, again, really helped – a married woman traveling by herself on her own money, and explaining that dad is not, in fact, the ‘mai gida’ (owner of the house) but that they share it jointly. A couple of my fellow volunteers are all ‘we should respect their culture and outlook’ – my response: ‘if we respect it too much we run the risk of this being it for them – there will be no progress here if nothing changes.’ Harsh. Cruel. True.
It helps, too, that I talked with an NGO worker whose NGO used to work in my village 10 years ago. They ran into the same problems I do and eventually quit working there – the villagers were only interested in using the NGO cars as transport into Maradi, not in the health work they were doing at the time. The NGO also works with trees and agro forestry - ten years later there are maybe 10 of the trees they planted still growing. I asked the villagers why they didn’t have the trees any more. ‘They died.’ And it didn’t occur to them to replant them without being paid to do so. And yet, Peace Corps felt this was a good village to post a volunteer in. **sigh** I gave the NGO worker my women’s leader’s number – she at least has the kokari to get things done. The men… even Issaka, my host dad… I’ve lost all hope for them. They’ve been ruined by the culture of NGO handouts. There’s no drive to improve the village themselves – the NGO/Government/Allah will fix it, or bring it, or do whatever it is needs to be done. There is no ownership concept because so much has been given to them in the past. Honestly, I think that most aid programs need to be pulled, with only programs that don’t give money, rely on villager motivation, and generally are sustainable, should be let back in. Yes, villages will suffer, but at some point, it is no longer the west’s water to support these people.
Again, I’ve been here probably too long and have become too jaded and negative. There are programs and people that work. My village just isn’t inclined to be one of them. The women have hope but until they’re fully free of male domination there won’t be enough freedom for them to progress. Right now my host mothers aren’t even allowed to go to the market – and these are full grown women who, in the west, would be in charge of all the marketing and running of the household. But, because of Islam and a culture of shame and patriarchy, they can’t do the simplest tasks without risking Issaka’s stern disapproval. It’s not a pretty picture. And yet there’s still smiling and laughter and good times to be had. Drinking tea or playing around. It’s not all bad. It’s just, now that I’m looking more to the future, it’s certainly far from good.