Saturday, July 11, 2009

Six Months In, I'm Out

A couple of weeks ago I celebrated the six-month anniversary of my return to the US by hanging out at my sister's apartment in Milwaukee and taking stock of my situation.

The months since returning from Niger can be summed up in a few words, and I've listed these below, since I am not Mark Twain, and I am not succinct.

January - shock, one friend gets married, shivering, inability to drive, begin addiction to gym, panic.

February - relearn to drive, seasonal affective disorder-related haze, despair, restlessness, frustration, lots of sleeping, first game of volleyball in years, thinking about god/universe/everything.

March - happiness at not having to wear socks anymore, ease on my favorite coast, visiting friends in three-hour increments, falling out of the gym habit, exhaustion, another friend gets married and one gets engaged, The Brittany Show, tired of hearing myself talk about myself.

April - return to obsession with gym... begin to earn money, substitute teaching, but only when I feel like it... malaise.

May - finally begin to feel like myself the day it hits 81 degrees in Wisconsin and I can open the doors and windows in Mom and Dad's house. Gardening, traveling, happy to be home (WI/WI). Still bothered by the phrase "real world." Certainly it's not my real world.

June - business, guilt, euphoria, shame, stress, happiness, sense of usefulness.

July - move to Fiji.

I arrived in Suva, the capital of the Fiji Islands, yesterday morning. Check out my "Fijian Daydreamin'" blog at http://South-sPacifics.blogspot.com. But I must say, people do indeed drink Fiji bottled water here.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Going Back Laughing




Voila, my Christmas picture-postcard.

In a few hours, Danielle and I bid bye-bye to Mali and its horrendous buses, and in a day or so I'll have to start wearing closed-toed shoes again. That's all for now...

Monday, December 15, 2008

All done.

This is it, our COS date. On Wednesday, I moved out of Tamtala (again) and took my last bush taxi (in this country, anyway) into Niamey and started the bureaucratic part of finishing up my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Since then, it's been constant motion, parties, signatures, grant reporting, last-minute gifts and lunches with city friends, very little sleep, competing for space in the Tillaberi room, editing a certain movie, packing, plodding through sand, chasing down visas... and now it's all over.

In a few hours, Danielle and I will get on a bus and head to Ouaga, en route to Mali, on a trip that we've barely prepared for because of all the rest of our duties this week. And in a week and a day I'll be in Chicago again. Just like that.

I'm so glad I got to come back and finish up here, if for nothing else than the fantastic bon-voyage party Tamtala threw for me last weekend. In the midst of preparations for Tabaski, all the ladies in the village piled into my concession at midday last Saturday, saying it was time to braid my hair for the party. I surrendered myself to whatever might happen to me in their hands - a valuable skill I learned during those early days when I had crappy Zarma and no choice but to trust them. They brought out all the Bella wedding accoutrements, weaving coins into my hairdo, painting black lines down my nose, on my cheeks and chin, and rerouting my eyebrows. I was handed a huge lime-green shirt and an ancient indigo headscarf, and my "mom" Amina wrapped me in a wedding blanket. During all this, the ladies were chatting and Zeynabou, Maimouna's daughter, was calling for coins and dancing. She was hilarious. Each time someone came to the concession and dropped a few CFA (or a bowl of millet) at my feet, she picked up the money and yelled into my face: "You see this, Sakina?! So-and-so is thankful to you! S/he greets you on your patience and a job well done!" etc, etc, and then Zeynabou stomped around shaking her butt as the old ladies clapped and yelled.

Real brides are supposed to be demure and quiet during this part of the day, but, as usual, I got a free pass and was chatting and laughing along with the rest of them. My stalwart Kate and new friend Maria both came to Tamtala for the fete, and kept the ladies entertained and hydrated with a bucket of Crystal Light from the States. Poor Cat was scared - there had never been so many people in our concession - and she hid in the house. Zeynabou kicked dust up, the old, almost-toothless women grated kola nuts with improved tomato paste cans and stayed jacked up all afternoon.

When I was good and ridiculous-looking (I mean ridiculously good-looking), Illiassou the school director came in with a video camer (what?) to film the procession to Ousemane's house, where a string-and-sticks fence had been erected to keep the crowds at bay during the presentations that were to follow (Nigerien crowd control can be somewhat disconcerting to foreigners, as it usually involves whipping the ground DirectlyInFrontOf the first line of spectators with millet stalks, stinging little toes. During tech trip the village had learned this lesson - hence the fence). Dignitaries had been invited from as far as Tillaberi and Niamey, but most were unable to make it, which left Amirou apologetic and shaking his head, and me quite relieved. There were several speeches and a precious poem presented by three boys from the CM2 class (about 6th grade). And then a line of girls sang a song and danced - all composed by them (well, by Illiassou, surely) and about me, extolling my myriad virtues and thanking me for my work in the village. Very, very humbling.

When all was finished, Kate and Maria stayed over, all of us sleeping inside my house because it's so cold! Kate and I recorded our farewell radio show using a handheld tape recorder and my mp3 player inside my house, having to stop and re-record a few times when goats wandered in and wanted to talk on the radio too. When she left, Salley cried. I nearly panicked and cried myself, but left that for Wednesday.

After the party was over and guests had gone, there was little to do in the village other than walk around saying goodbye. My stuff was packed already, the cereal bank is up and stocked (wahoo! Just in time!), the Moringas are recovering from their October blight, so I only needed to go and thank everyone who had shown me patience, indulgence, friendship and/or help during the last two years.

Monday was Tabaski (which lasted into Tuesday). I wrote about last year's in here, and it seems it's pretty standard year to year. I made popcorn and juice (no, I didn't kill a goat) and handed it out to friends, who in turn brought me red sauce on rice, rice and beans, and chunks of meat (which I re-gifted... most of the time). Like everyone in Tamtala, Cat loves this holiday. I do too, but not because of the meat. New Year's is my favorite. It's so hopeful. "Ka Yeesi," everyone says for Happy New Year, and everyone asks each other's pardon for offenses in the past year and says things like "May your feet that walk this year walk next year," and "I'll see you next year at this time." I especially like the pardoning part. We need it in Amerika.

Tuesday night Maimouna came over to spend the evening chatting, as happens often. The moon was incredibly bright. I wrote in my journal without a light (good thing, since I'd given mine away). We sat on mats in my concession, with Cat curled up at her feet, not mine ("Kitten knows," she said). We told stories and laughed until it was very late, and she went home.

Four o'clock in the morning I woke up, heart pounding, knowing I wouldn't be able to sleep again. I waited for prayer call, then went into our family concession wrapped in my blanket to watch the sunrise. As everyone else woke up (lots of hocking and spitting, it being cold season), I headed in, packed up, and called Amirou to call Djibo with his cow-cart. I'd been warned to leave really early, or everyone would be around to watch and cry and make a scene, so it was good that only a dozen or so of us were up in the first hour of daylight to "duum" (accompany) me to the path to Lossa, where Djibo was waiting. We took one more picture, and Amirou, Maimouna and I, with my backpack, climbed onto the cart for the ride to the paved road.

On the way, along with more final instructions for them - please have patience with Ali, he's new and just learning, please bring the barrels to the Moringa plantation, etc. - we told the story of my live-in, when they'd first duum'd me to Lossa, and we got a flat tire and nearly lost each other on the path on account of the wind. At Lossa, this time, a taxi was quick to come, unremarkable (I mean really, by this point I've seen it all... I hope), and got me to Niamey before 10am.

And that's about it. Kala Niamey, with (most of) the rest of Ag/NRM 2007: running around, saying goodbyes, crying, telling "remember-when" stories, making plans for our reunion (next year New Year's, Vegas), etc.

I'll be in Lake Geneva for Christmas, Minneapolis for New Year's, and Seattle for Inauguration Day. Friends who I know and love in any of those places - give my parents' house a call.

This isn't the end of MeAndMySwissArmyKnife, incidentally. I'll take a few months off and start up again in Fiji in July. Because apparently multi-tools are useful for opening coconuts. Mmmmm.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Practice

I don't mean to be dramatic, but...

My worst fear since before I arrived in Niger came true. My grandma died while I was here. I found out that Thursday alone, in a tree, with my dad on the other end of the phone watching the slow orange sunrise in Chicago, and me with no one else to cry to in English for hours.

It was the worst afternoon I've ever had. As I hurried to regain my composure and tell my chief as soon as possible - I had to leave, I had to leave NOW, someone get me out of here RIGHT NOW, help, oh help, oh my poor mother, her mother, someone help me figure out what to do with all of this crap in my house, just take it, I don't want it, what am I doing dealing with all of this stuff anyway, I need to get to Niamey RIGHT NOW and get a flight home TODAY, please, thanks, a donkey cart would be great, thanks Djibo, you've always been a great friend. No, not going quite yet, but please get it ready, thank you. No, I can't go and come back. Peace Corps will pay for me to fly home. I can't pay for it. When I get a big person job in Amerika I can come back, but it will take a long time. I'm so sorry. Leaving like this is not sweet. No, it is not sweet.

Amirou sent for Maimouna to come over and closed my house off from visitors, knowing the whole village would come to wail as I shoved my things into my backpack to bring to the city, or into one of two trunks - one to try to ship home later, one to leave for my replacement. Maimouna came and sat on the floor, staring and saying nothing. I told her to take whatever she wanted. She didn't move. I babbled and cried and reminded the two of them, and Ousemane and Djibo, that anasaras cry sometimes, it doesn't mean we're crazy, but please don't let anyone else see me cry. Please don't tell them yet, I'm not ready to leave yet. A few more minutes. I'm not ready. Ugh, all this stuff!

Please, have the moringa committee meeting without me. Oh no, we didn't talk about the food for the tech trip all the trainees are going on in two weeks. Sorry, I can't. This pile is for Djamila. This is to be split between my women friends in the village. Ousemane, write your new number, and Amirou, yours too. I'll call you. I won't forget Zarma. Nadia and I will practice. These pictures aren't even mine - take them. The food - Maimouna, take what you want. Oh that one, well, you just open it here add some hot water and wait a few minutes and then you can eat it. Anasaras bring it when they go camping. That's when you pretend you live outside. Yes. Take what you want to your house - you know who my friends are - give them the rest. Be fair. Yes, of course, the stool, I know we've fixed yours twice and it still always falls. No, the stove and the water filter have to go back to Peace Corps. All this stuff here. They'll come pick them up when they bring the new person, or maybe when all the trainees come - can you guys show them around if I'm not here? Come on, please? Thanks. I know you can. Haoua will be here. And my cat? Kadi will take care of Kitten. She'll bring her a bit of howru, and she'll water the trees in my yard.

I barely said goodbye to everyone in my concession. It was a race to get to Niamey as soon as I was packed. My loyalties came into sharp focus as the rest of the world swam in my vision at odd angles. I climbed, shaking violently, onto the oxcart and thought about how Illou, Samira and Mardiya won't remember me. I should go see this old lady and that old lady, and Djamila and Mohammadou. No. I already missed seeing my grandma. I'm going NOW. I need to get to Niamey by 6, my dad's going to call to see how fast I can get home. They're waiting to have the burial for me. Yes, women in Amerika do that. We go.

We passed the school fast enough that the kids were blithely unaware of the circumstances and waved just as enthusiastically as they always do. The oxcart ride to the road whizzed by, with Amirou and Maimouna and I talking about cereal bank money, tech trip logistics and food, and what they shouldn't forget about how to treat my replacement. Before I knew it we were at the road, arranging ourselves under a tree for the excruciating wait for a bush taxi. We were desperate for one to come, and also for time to stop.

A very small wait produced a relatively comfortable van, and after terrible goodbyes with my brother and my best friend, I took a deep breath and re-explained to the wide-eyed group of Nigeriens in the car that sometimes anasaras cry, it doesn't mean we are crazy... It was a textbook bush taxi ride, including a detour into Sansane Haussa to pick up a guy and his cow, and me telling the guys on the roof of the van to arrange the cow so it won't pee on my backpack, because they won't let me into Amerika with cow poop on my bag. Frantic text messages with bureau staff and friends - some of whom just didn't seem to get it - made the rest of the ride pass quickly, and I got into a city taxi in Niamey in enough time for Haoua to call me and start crying, which made me cry again, at the prospect of never seeing each other again, because Allah only knows.

In the meantime (as I found out much later), after I left Tamtala, the entire village gathered in the chief's concession to do the alfatiyah for several hours. They prayed for the soul of "our" grandmother, that Allah would bring heaven to earth for her, that she would have a smooth transition, that Allah would bring patience to our family to relieve our suffering.

At the Niamey hostel, hugged well and handed a glass of wine by Drew and Kate, I got ahold of Chris, who was acting Country Director. He informed me that yes, there is a flight out Friday night, but that means Friday at 12:10am, not Friday-I-have-all-day-tomorrow-to-prepare. Friday 12:10am is in six hours.

Presently dad called and changed my plans: "Boo - of course we'll fly you home. We want you to be able to finish properly."

Oh. Meaning I CAN go and come. I DON'T have to join the 17 in my stage who've left early for one reason or another. I don't have to leave us with a weak 19 remaining in country. I didn't have to say goodbye forever to my village (I called & let them know - to everyone's relief and an audible sigh). But I DO have to get a ticket NOW. Kate and I run to the bureau to try the internet. No luck. Can't buy Air France from Niger within three days of the flight. I ask Issaka, the most helpful person in the world, to do his thing. He calls a friend at the airport: "Really, I'm sorry, the flight is so full," he reports. Oh crap. Dad calls. I have a reservation? A ticket? A reservation. Can it be? Pat, our admin person, happens to be in her office. I can take vacation days. Well, great. Issaka and Pat are on my list of people that need presents from Amerika when I come back. Issaka jumps in a car to take me to the airport, which allows me 10 minutes at the hostel to pack a bag. Needless to say, I pack nothing that will do me any good, and my baggage allowance is wasted. Issaka calls his wife on the way and I apologize to her in the background. He talks our way into the airport. I am checked in, Air France staff in the only air-conditioned room in the building, speaking not only proper French but English, thinking I'm crazy having had three people confirm my reservation on my behalf (unbeknownst to me) in the last half hour. I check in. I am safe. I am so lucky.

Breathing, for a moment, I realize I've had no water all day. At the darkened airport bar, Paul from Bolgatanga, who made it to his own home just in time to see his father die years ago, was doubtful that I would be able to drink the airport tap water. On the flight, Compaore ("like the president") from Burkina was on his way to Japan for a teacher training but had to stop for his visa in Paris. He'd worked as a language trainer for Peace Corps/Burkina. During my six-hour, 3-degrees-Celsius layover in Paris, I experienced my first full-length mirror in half a year (traumatizing me through my daze) and stared at all the white people going by, thinking I saw my dad. Wondering if I can still walk in heels like all the women clicking past me. On flight number two I watched "Forgetting Sara Marshall" and made lists of Niger work to follow up on, gifts to bring back, food to eat and people to call. I landed and didn't have to yell at anyone at customs. I was smellier than I ever have been, hugging my expanding family with a Boo Basket - it was, after all, Halloween.

I spent a week there in the States, close to my mother. Everyone back here asked "how was it?" - which is what I'm supposed to write about here - but why? It was terribly sad. It was a neverending wake followed by a funeral. I was furious that I was just hours away from having gotten to talk to her again (she'd been in the hospital for three days), but had no one to blame for that. It was lonely. It was painful to watch the six siblings have to deal with all the technical stuff one faces after a loved one's death. It was cool that so many of us wore pink to the funeral. I will never forget Shannon telling me the story about the sunrise, which made everything that much more okay. I got to go to Goodwill (Amerika's Dead Mans' Market) with Bridget, the chain's best customer. I got to meet Shannon's Ryan and talk African politics with him over Land Shark beers. Mom and I had two lovely dinners at Bridget and Ty's (one with Shannon too, and desserts she'd made as a new pastry chef). I got to feel out of place in the Well Spa at the Pfister, where Bridget works. I plowed through ten episodes of "Men In Trees" in the full-to-bursting living room of a house hardly resembling the one I'd left six months ago. I'm glad I got a glimpse into what I'll be walking into in a month. I'm glad our cousin Paul, the priest who gave the funeral sermon, was able to say at church that the entire family had made it together. Mostly, I'm glad I was there for my mom.

The silver lining of all of this, for the Catholics in and among us, is that Gramma is finally with her husband, who died on the 11th of November 21 years ago. I flew back into Niamey on that anniversary, and was lucky enough to get myself and my bottle of Kahlua, padded with two bags of marshmallows, back in without a problem. My two bags consisted of 90 pounds of food, having been emptied of the random junk I'd stuffed into them in my two hasty stages of packing the week before. Upon walking back into the oven that is my beloved host country, the chocolate in my backpack melted, I started sweating again... but I knew how to get a taxi. I was still genuinely charmed, like any naive first-time-visitor to the developing world, by the half-dressed kids kicking a crappy soccer ball through the red sand among the yawning, putrid gutters in Niamey.

After a day and a half of jet lag - up from 1am on the roof of the hostel, watching the bright bright moon edge across the sky and the stars swing round after it - I went to Tamtala for an hour or so with Haoua, scouting for Tech Trip and letting them all know that yeah, I'm back! Believe it! Um, can I have my blankets back please? Just for a couple of weeks? And my water bucket? Thanks guys. I'm okay without the rest. I was surprised they left my maps on the walls.

Then we headed to Hamdallaye, where those clean and shiny Americans I watched get off the plane in October are getting browner and sandier by the day. These guys are badass - community-based training from the very beginning, and most of them biking 14-22 kilometers at least twice a week in this heat (oh but the heat has decreased in the last two weeks! oh it is so very nice and cool! oh how I went to bed with wet hair and got a cold! oh how this morning I wore a sweatshirt until 10am!).

My first day with the trainees was site announcements - the day Peace Corps tells you which village they've chosen for you and the next two years of your life. The trainees had tons of questions - about their specific villages, about Niger in general. I realized how normal life here has become for me. I spent hundreds of CFA text messaging my stagemates across the country, most of whom are being replaced by people in this group and were anxious to know the fate of their villages. Obviously this was a big day for me, too, since I was there to see who would take my spot in Tamtala. I was happy for Tamtala. Their new guy's name is name is Ali (in Niger), he reminds me of my cousin Billy, and he'll do great.

Ali and 12 of his stagemates - all the environment-sector (NRM) volunteers - were lucky enough to see OUR village this week on Tech Trip, a whirlwind 36 hours in three villages where NRM trainees get to see real NRM projects in action. In addition to checking out the Moringa plantation, the healthy millet grinder, the under-construction cereal bank and the Gum Arabic plantation, and planting trees at the school, we spent the night in Tamtala after an evening of drumming and dancing. Though this is REALLY uncommon, the village pulled out the stops for the visitors. Maybe Americans think that every African dances to drums all the time, and we wanted to deliver that fantasy - I don't know. Regardless, the women hauled out the water tubs, calabashes and sticks only used for "karyan" at the end of Ramadan and at Tabaski, and everyone gathered near Ousemane's house to watch the spectacle. The trainees provided much of the entertainment to the villagers, and vice versa. Amirou's mom Leitchi (who lives in Tillaberi and is part of a singing group that has performed across Europe) was the headliner and sang a bit before the big dancing began. Old ladies shook their stuff, village conflicts that had recently been resolved were re-enacted in a kind of theater, and Ali, Tamtala's new American, made himself loved and famous by joining in much of the dancing, along with the rest of the trainees. Good job guys.

So I had a practice day for leaving my village. Practice for my last bush taxi ride (as if I needed that). Practice reentering American society. Practice going to a grocery store and not hyperventilating. Practice answering unanswerable questions about Niger. Practice using English to talk about all the work I've done here. It's all coming up for real in a month... wish me luck.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Moringa Money Call!

Greetings again from Niamey!

Having sufficiently recovered from that nutty trip to the Gerewol, I am set to head back to the bush tomorrow with a brick of cash for the cereal bank... don't tell anyone on the bush taxi with me. They're all convinced my bags are stuffed with cash anyway. Markets here don't take plastic, so I have to bring the cash back, in small bills, on my person. I've done this before. Not my favorite thing.

I've been out of the village for what seems like forever now (trainer training, Gerewol trip, now this!). Last night I called Maimouna and asked her to pass on congratulations to my neighbor Saouda, who gave birth to a baby boy last week. I'm so upset I missed the naming ceremony yesterday. I got so antsy to go back to my mud house and my friends that I'm downright panicked anticipating what I'm going to feel like leaving them for good in a couple short months. Yikes... sad... not going to think about it.

But hey! Good news! We know how YOU fine people can donate to the Moringa project, meant to improve the nutrition of thousands of children in southern Niger. Thanks to the generous efforts of the South Whidbey Rotary Club, along with several other clubs in Rotary District 5050, and, of course, our local club here, we have a fundraising goal of $4,000 by Thanksgiving. This should allow Peace Corps Volunteers in at least four villages to get big plantations started in March 2009.

So - for anyone who missed donating to the cereal bank, or to the milllet grinder, or to both - this is your last chance to donate to one of my projects (because I'm coming back soon!). Here's how:

- Make out a check to the "South Whidbey Rotary Club Foundation" with "Moringa Project" in the Memo line
- Mail to:
Catherine Scherer
2280 Whidbey Shores Rd.
Langley, WA 98260

Donations are tax-deductible and Cathy will be keeping track of all the accounting. You'll be sent a letter before tax time attesting to your contribution. Checks should have your name and current address printed on them or included in a cover letter.

Phew!

Tomorrow Kate and I will record two shows in Tillaberi, along with new volunteer Aisha (her name since Amerika - her parents were PCVs in Chad and Burkina - Tamtalans were pretty excited about that). Kate and I, after more than 50 radio shows, are looking forward to NOT writing a script every week! In Tillaberi I'll buy Saouda's little boy a little boy outfit wrapped in crappy Nigerian plastic, and I'll get her some soap, because that's what you do.

Wednesday I finally get to be home, isha'allah. I finished my bean harvest before I left, making edamame three nights in a row: delicious! The women in my concession were very impressed that I could cook something Nigerien right on the first try. But all my millet and all my sorghum is still in the ground, waiting to be "killed," as we say in Zarma. Luckily I'll have "demysters" this weekend, two or three current trainees in my village to see how a volunteer spends her time in the bush. Maybe they'll want to help...

Yes, that's right - 26 new people showed up two Thursdays ago, all bright and shiny, pale and clean, coming off the plane. Because I'll be a trainer in a couple weeks, I got to go with the group to the airport and welcome them with warm bottles of water and much enthusiasm. They seemed excited, dazed, hot... like looking at myself two years ago. It's strange to think that among these people is one that will inherit my village, my house, my friends, my cat.

I'm off now, then, to work on letting go.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Gerewol

Editor’s Note: Ms. Gallagher was set to write a post today, as she has recently returned from the famous Gerewol festival (what, you don’t know about it?). She wanted to talk all about it, but only got as far as posting the pictures. The adventure, which she undertook with four fellow PCVs and a Nigerien “guide” (who turned out to be not so much a guide as a paid-friend-of-a-friend) included four days during which there was no bathing due to lack of water, lots of dancing men in makeup, no silverware save a single fork, one two-person tent that filled with sand during a ten-hour dust storm, gorgeous, haunting chanting and drums at night, biting flying ants, grand grand boubous, one scorpion the not-guide adroitly squashed, bouts of embarassment and fury (of both the acute and the slow-burn variety), amazement, lots of turbans and makeup, an enormous and very public “toilet,” Lulu’s authentic pouf hairdo and resulting suitors, joy, a ride in the back of a pickup with the stinkiest armpit in Niger (causing not one but two pukes-in-the-mouth, we had to say it, sorry, it was really gross), descent into hilarity, 3litersH2O/6people/12 hrs bush taxi = thirsty, and half a dozen thoughts that “ahh, THIS is what I expected Africa to be like.”
So, maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Pagan Wrestler

First, about the Moringa project - I ask you to put it aside for today, and just enjoy the new post. I'm still working on the details. And thanks for your patience!

I just picked up the expedited check for Tamtala's cereal bank - yippee! The turnaround time for this project has been faster than expected, and I'm very pleased with my good luck. As soon as Ramadan and harvest are over we'll be able to spend all that money on stomach-filling grains for the coming year.

Rainy season is taking its last gasping, pathetic breaths, after a season very much the same. Niamey has been consistently soaked every three days or so all summer. Tamtala, however - not the same. This season we had three periods of two weeks with no rain, and once we went without for 21 days. When your rainy season is less than four months long as it is... you growl at Allah. Thankfully, this is not the case in most of the country, where harvest this year will be better than last. In my village, though, we're looking at "below average" at best. A perfect time for a cereal bank, if ever there was one.

Literacy class is going well, with six women consistently showing every night for an hour and a half of reading and writing (9:30 - 11pm, you'd better believe I'm not getting up at dawn anymore). The seventh, Fati, came for the first couple of nights and then stopped. Her husband had refused to let her attend anymore. Needless to say, I'm angry. All the rest of the women in class agree that he's "bad" and "dangerous" - but no one can talk sense into him. A husband has final word as to where his wife goes, what she does, and when (this is part of the reason why Maimouna is such a powerhouse in the village: her husband isn't around). Fati's husband is a jerk anyway, and I can imagine why he wouldn't let her attend: she should be cooking for him, watching the kids, she should be kept ignorant so she can't stand on her own and has to depend on him, etc. Hell hath no fury... I will spare you all the diatribe on gender relations in Niger until a later date. Suffice to say when Save the Children ranked this country dead last (another bottom-of-the-barrel ranking?!) on their list of "Best Places to Be a Mother or a Child" study, relased in May of this year, I was not too surprised. I'm sure there are countries where things are worse in some places - countries currently at war, countries where women can't vote or drive - but I haven't been there (yet).

There's the debate as to whether Islam is to blame. I've read on the topic and have come to the conclusion that it isn't at fault any more than the other major religions, most of which, at some point in history, have been pointed to in order to justify the unequal treatment of women (or of other groups in a society). It's not the religion that's the problem: it's the people pointing to it, using it, twisting teachers' and prophets' words to support their own goals of subjugating parts of the population.

Dismount soapbox, continue.

Ramadan will be over in a couple of weeks. Last year I fasted for two days, to mixed reactions. It was hard - if I haven't mentioned this, it's really hot, and dehydration is a problem. I did another two days where I didn't eat during daylight hours, but I drank water - and my villagers' prevailing opinion was that I might as well be eating. With that in mind, and it being hotter this year, I'm not keen to fast. But people are constantly asking. My response is a simple "No, I'm not fasting," but that always elicits the "you're not fasting?" response (statement of the obvious - very quintessential Niger). To this, I have to say something, because repeating oneself is pretty mind-numbing after a while. "I'm not a Muslim," I say, and people usually say "you're not a Muslim?" (again), but I had one old guy say to me:
"Are you fasting?

"No, I'm not fasting."

"You're not fasting?"

"No. I'm not a Muslim."

"Don't say that!"

"What, that I'm not a Muslim?"

"Yes! Don't say that!"

"Well, I'm not."

"Don't say it though! That's not good. Just say you're not fasting."

I've also had one or two people respond to the not-a-Muslim thing with "Oh, you're a Christian," to which I either give up and say nothing, or change the subject, or note that two PCV neighbors are, or disagree, if for no other reason than to dispell the stereotype that all white people are Christians. One day at Kokamani, another old man observed, astutely and in English:

"You're not fasting, you are not a Muslim."

"That's right."

"You are a Christian, then."

"No." (devilish glint in my eye brought on by non-adherence to major known monotheistic religions, and therefore heathen nature)

"Ah, you are a pagan."

Riiiight.

My training group (stage) has dwindled down to 20 from the original 37. We've only got a matter of months (or weeks, or days, depending on who's counting) left in Niger. We just had a close-of-service conference aimed at telling us how [hard it will be] to reintegrate into Regular American Society, how to write our experiences into resumes, and celebrate our accomplishments. We had panels with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (your newest acronym to understand, my friends, is RPCV) working for NGOs in Niamey, and advice on how to get into graduate school. There may have been ONE person who didn't insist on graduate school for someone in my position, but I can't think of anyone at the moment.

I'm in a bit of a better place than some of my peers, because I've got a draft of my resume that was successful in helping me toward that Rotary scholarship - and, on top of that, I've received my study institution assignment: to the University of the South Pacific, in Suva, the capital of the Fiji Islands. That's right. I have somewhere I'm going, and it's a tropical island (BIG SMILE). But it's not until January 2010, giving me an entire year back in the States in the interim. This information is still really new, and now I'm trying to figure out what to do for one year, no more, no less. I'm trying not to dread the inferiority complex I'll have in the face of Friends With Real Jobs who may be hosting me on their couches, and I'm still trying to be here in Niger for the next few months, and finish my projects and do well in Tamtala.

I may have mentioned that we're working on a five-year development plan for the village in partnership with a local NGO. I may have mentioned it's been challenging, but overall it's great to see the village council-people thinking deliberately about priorities for Tamtala. Unfortunately, the women have a hard time participating fully because they are expected to prepare lunch for all attendees, and are illiterate in French. Everyone also seems to have a hard time differentiating between the causes of poverty and its effects. It's a self-perpetuating problem, making everything muddy.

To unwind and escape the stress after that series of ten-hour-long meetings, I thought I'd pick up some light reading. Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was the only novel left in my house. Bad choice. Who needs to read about drought and worthless land and human suffering? Not I, not here, not now.

A fellow PCV's counterpart, a veterinarian in a big town equivalent to my area's "county seat," came to Tamtala to see any sick animals (the art of the house call is alive and well here, not to mention utterly necessary). He really and truly does speak some English - not "small small" and not "Broka" - so he was a logical choice early in her service to be a go-to person, and I facilitated their partnership when she was a new volunteer. The visiting vet and I chatted between bellowing cows about the book I was reading, Aung Sun Suu Kyi's Freedom From Fear. I was impressed that he knew who she was, even though he had the details a bit off. We had another religion-centered session of "head-opening," (as we say in Zarma for "enlightenment") and as he was leaving, he said, "Thank you, Sakina. You look like a wrestler!"

Jaw dropped, laughing, utterly confused, I said goodbye and shook my head. Who knows what he meant by that?

I'm also preparing to be a Volunteer Assistant Trainer for the new crop of AG/NRMs arriving in Niger on October 9th. Staff is busy preparing for their stage at Hamdallaye, and Haoua recently informed me that she's chosen Tamtala as the site of the NRM "Tech Trip." This means I've been walking around the village with Amirou, assessing all the work that's been done that we can show off to the new people. One project that predated my arrival was a series of demi-lunes south of the village. These are half-moon shaped holes in the hardpan designed to catch rainwater and renew the soil, and are often coupled with a heavily manured "zai" hole in which a tree is planted. Since it's common to plant Gum Arabic in zai holes, we want to take the trainees out there so they can learn to prune them. as Amirou and I were preparing to go out there one afternoon, he asked where my machete was.

"My machete? We aren't going to prune the trees," I said. "They're too small for a machete anyway. But we're just going to look. The visitors will be pruning them."

"I know, I know," he said. "But I've misplaced my machete. We need one."

"No, we are not pruning the trees," I repeated.

"We cannot go into the bush without a machete," he insisted. "It's not good."

I relented. Though it may sound exotically dangerous to you at home, "the bush" is not. Never once have I felt unsafe walking through it. Bush Nigeriens are harmless, helpful, and very friendly. But they are all afraid of the bush. We don't have lions or any scary wild animal, just wandering donkeys and cattle (though there once was a hyena - once). I've never felt the need to be armed. But I grabbed my dull machete in its pretty pink sheath and walked out of the village - fifteen minutes, maybe - with Amirou, looked at the tiny spiky trees, and came home without event. Good thing we had it, though, just in case. Now if only my villagers would plan for contingencies like that when it came to saving money to buy medicine for their children in case they get sick. Bah.

Oh, I just got Facebook, finally. I wanted to see some current pictures of my friends, and for that it's been good. Anyway, FYI, I'm findable on there now too. Anyone who wants to give me a high-paying job in Seattle or Portland for March through June of next year, I'd be happy to hear from you. Seriously.

To, kala ton-ton.