Closing the book

This blog was a record of my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, West Africa. I served from July 2010 – January 2011, when, due to an incident of terrorist activity, all 97 Volunteers were evacuated immediately and permanently.

Although I did not serve the full 27 months I am still officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, because I was evacuated due to security concerns.

I chose to stay in America and not pursue another service in a different country although that option was made available to me.

Over two years later, I have never truly regretted either the decision join the Peace Corps, or the decision to leave and not go back.

I currently live in Orlando, Florida and proudly work for a wonderful nonprofit organization. I still highly recommend Peace Corps and remain active in the local RPCV chapter.

If you are interested in Peace Corps please feel free to read what I’ve written here, but keep in mind that everyone’s experience is different and unique.

Most of this blog has been made private, but if you’d like to see more or have any questions, please feel free to email me at schwendemanjessica [at] gmail.

Thanks for reading!

Description of Service

At the completion of their service, all Peace Corps Volunteers complete a document called their “Description of Service”, or “DOS”. Because all Niger Volunteers closed their service when the program was suspended, we each wrote one of these. It’s difficult (impossible, I think) to put into words what my service meant to me, but here’s my attempt.

Description of Service
Jessica Schwendeman – - Republic of Niger
July 8, 2010 – January 21, 2011

After a competitive application process stressing skills, adaptability, and cultural sensitivity, Jessica Schwendeman began a training program based in Hamdallaye, Niger in order to become a Municipal Community Development Agent Volunteer in the Republic of Niger, West Africa. Ms. Schwendeman began an intensive eleven-week pre-service training on July 8, 2010 in Hamdallaye, Niger.

The program consisted of actions aimed at improving local governance by strengthening the capacity of municipalities to identify needs and put into place quality services and programs, as well as to increase citizen participation by directly involving local people in the process of developing their own community. Specific activities included reinforcing communication & interaction between community members and municipal authorities, as well as among communities; encouraging the emergence and creation of local organizations that have a collective voice in community development matters; helping community associations in general and women’s groups in particular identify and prioritize community enhancement projects; asisting community groups in the development and implementation of project plans (involving as many citizens as possible), and evaluating planned activities for future enhancement; working with community members to create town-wide events/ celebrations that rely primarily on volunteerism (i.e., HIV/ AIDS Day, Earth Day, Women’s Day, etc.); helping youth groups identify community needs and develop appropriate activites to address those needs; and collaborating with other Volunteers within the commune on both village-level and commune-wide projects.

During training (which included 219 hours of language, 15 hours of cross-cultural instruction, and 26 hours of technical skills development) Ms. Schwendeman lived with a host family in a small rural community with five other trainees. She successfully completed training and was sworn in as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer on September 23, 2010. At the close of this training she was tested by ACTFL/ETS standards and received a score of Intermediate Mid in spoken Zarma.

As a Municipal Community Development Volunteer in Peace Corps Niger, Ms. Schwendeman was assigned to Fabidiji, a rural town of approximately 5,000 inhabitants. During her three months at post, her primary duties were:
1. Designing and executing informational interviews in Zarma among ten village leaders, including the village chief, the Secretary General, the tax collector, the municipal secretary, the civil status registrar, the primary school director, the middle school director, the president of the women’s association, and the village doctor. These interviews were geared toward better understanding relevant social and economic issues affecting the community.
2. Conducting 57 door-to-door interviews to collect demographic data on Fabidiji’s residents in order to assess citizens’ needs and opinions about their community, as well as to develop a demographic snapshot of the typical resident.
3. Analyzing the community’s responses to needs assessment tools in order to design feasible potential projects based on resources available (construction of latrines at the middle school, training on income-generating activities, including production of shea butter and soap-making, for the women’s association, and the creation of a hands-on training experience in developing and running a small business for middle school students).
4. Engaging in participatory community analysis through meetings with community members, asking them to identify needs and resources available in the village and developing a community map.
5. Developing a community study analysis based on the original research described above, and presenting the results to community leaders in report form, with the objective to motivate them into taking an active role in development.
6. Planning and implementing a community integration strategy that included attending naming ceremonies, marriages, and funerals and fully participating in village-wide events, as well as eating daily meals and spending time with a chosen host family.
7. Observing classes at the primary and middle schools to gain a sense of how the education system works in Niger, as well as clarifying American English grammar, spelling and other related questions from both students and teachers.
8. Sharing and answering questions about American culture during informal conversations with residents, most typically while circulating around the village.
9. Facilitating daily English Club extracurricular activities at the local middle school for students aged 8 – 17. The interactive curriculum included popular American songs and games, along with discussions of American culture and customs.
10. Corresponding with an American school regarding Nigerien culture and language, and assisting middle school students with writing letters in English to pen-pals at a Florida middle school

The Peace Corps program in Niger was suspended on January 17, 2011 due to security concerns and all Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated.

sitting on the dock of the bay…

I have so much I want to say about this, but I’ll keep it short for now, with more to come later.

I am deeply saddened to announce that due to continued safety and security concerns – mainly the recent al-Quada kidnapping/murder of two Frenchmen from a bar in the capital – Peace Corps has permanently suspended all programs in Niger.

All 98 volunteers, including me, have been safely evacuated to Morocco to await reassignment or return home.

Though I personally always felt completely safe in-country, especially in my village, I understand and agree with the decision to leave. Please keep the people of Niger in your thoughts – it is they who will be impacted the most by this tragic turn of events. The people who took me in, shared with me what little they had, and became my family will always be in my heart. Kala hanfo & fonda tilas ay corey.

Not sure what the future holds for me – but I am confident, as always, that Peace Corps will take care of me. Depending on what’s available, I do have the option at this time to take another assignment in a different country (anywhere in the world where Volunteers serve) and basically start Peace Corps over again – going through training, learning a new language, integrating into a new culture, and serving 27 more months. Obviously it is not a decision to take lightly and I will continue updating this blog as I get more information.

This was the best experience I’ve ever had and I’m so grateful to the outstanding PC/Niger staff and my wonderful fellow Volunteers. Thanks all for your support over these amazing six months.

Layla’s Moussizes

I am lounging on my cot underneath my shade hangar during the hottest part of the day when I hear a car horn frantically beeping and a familiar voice shouting my name. I run out to open the gate and there’s Rachel, sitting in the back of a Peace Corps vehicle, holding a large bowl out the window for me to take.

“Here they are,” she says proudly. “What do you think? They’re cute, right? They slept for most of the ride but I think they’re waking up now…”

I look down into the deep wooden bowl to see two adorably tiny black-and-white kittens. Momentarily overtaken with glee, I revert to a four year old’s speech patterns, shouting, “Kitties in a bowl! Kitties in a bowl!”

Rachel’s cat, Kaydiya (named for the Zarma word for “rainy season”, which was when she’d gotten her) had recently had two male kittens, and Rachel asked me if I wanted one. I’m allergic to cats, but without any carpets or plush surfaces around, it would probably be easier to stay in control of the dander. Either way, the idea of a companion is quite appealing – and plus, cats are extremely easy to care for and can even help to control the ridiculous bug population around my house.

I tell her I’d love a kitten, and she promises to bring me one on the shuttle, which runs monthly on a set date between houses in our area to provide volunteers a transportation option to get in and out of our villages. She was going into Niamey to get Kaydiya checked out at the animal doctor there, and possibly see about getting her fixed. Several days before she was set to come, she asked me if I would take the other kitten as well, so she wouldn’t have to leave it alone. I can keep them both if I like, she says, or give the other one away. Why not, I think – two cats really aren’t that much more trouble than one, and they will be company for each other.

So with both kittens in hand, I say thank you and wave goodbye to Rachel as they drive off. I take the bowl back into my house, setting it on the concrete floor. The cats seem to just now be realizing that something has happened and their mother is no longer near. “Hello, kitties,” I say to them, “Welcome home.” They stare back, apprehensive.

The cats are virtually identical in markings, except the larger one has a black spot on his side. He climbs out of the bowl, sniffing at his new surroundings. I gently pick the little one up and scratch its ears. He squirms and I let him go down to the ground, where he immediately bolts for a corner of the kitchen, underneath a bench. His brother follows quickly, and they crouch there in the darkness, little bodies entwined, shaking slightly. I try to go near and the larger one makes a soft hissing noise, flexing his back and twitching his paw at me threateningly. “This is a good start,” I say to myself.

The rest of the day runs pretty much the same. The kittens have set up camp in that dark, dusty corner and stubbornly refuse to budge. I take the hint and avoid the area, going about my day as if they weren’t there, though I hear the occasional meow coming from the spot where they’ve sequestered themselves. I was a little concerned that they would run away – the wall surrounding my concession definitely has several kitten-sized holes – but clearly that’s not an issue for now.

I’ve set out a plate of water and another plate of pounded kuli-kuli, which are pellets of dried peanut mash, the byproduct of making peanut oil. Other volunteers have told me that it’s what they feed their cats, but so far as I can tell, mine haven’t touched it.

I leave them to their corner and go out for the evening to Ramatou’s house. The usual crowd of kids is there, and I announce excitedly that I have two new kittens. “But,” I tell them, “I don’t have names for them yet. What should I name them?”

The kids are confused and ask me why the cats need a name at all – the concept of pet ownership, keeping an animal in your home with you that doesn’t work for a living, is almost completely unheard of in this country, though I try to explain.

“So what should their names be?” I ask again.

There’s silence for a while, and then one particularly imaginative child ventures the suggestion, “Moussize,” – the Zarma word for “kitten”. The other kids seem to love that idea. I quickly veto and turn to one of the oldest boys. “If you were going to have a cat, what would you name it?”

“Layla,” he replies with absolutely no hesitation. Touche.

“What about Ibu?” I ask. It’s a nickname for the common name Ibrahim, pronounced “ee-boo”. One of my host brothers during training was called Ibu, and I think it’s cute, and will be a good name for the larger one.

I settle on Omar for the smaller one – another common Nigerien name. Omar and Ibu. The kids think it’s hilarious that I plan to call animals by human names.

Soon Ramatou’s husband, Seyni, comes home. I tell him all about the cats. “Great, Layla,” he says, “but what will you do with your cats when you travel?”

I stop in my tracks – in all the excitement, not for a second has this thought occurred to me. At least once a month I leave my village and go to the regional capital, sometimes I’m gone for four days at a time. I can’t very well bring cats with me everywhere I go. I stand there at a loss, marveling at what a horrible pet owner I already am.

Seyni laughs at my complete lack of attention to detail. “When you leave, you will give the cats to me and I will take care of them,” he tells me.

Relieved, I thank him and we sit down to eat. After dinner, I return to my house to check on the cats. It looks as though they still haven’t moved – which they probably haven’t. The sky looks cloudy and a fierce wind has started up, which means rain is imminent, so I set up my mattress inside.

I awake a few hours later with a jolt. Both cats are standing on my pillow, about two inches from my face. I jump up and they scamper away, and the moonlight from the window reflecting on their white fur gives them a ghostly radiance. They lie down across from my mattress near the door and stare me down until I finally drift off to sleep again.

The next morning, they seem to be warming up. I go to the market and buy them a major treat – 100cfa of fried fish and Solani, a bag of liquid yogurt. This is more than a little ridiculous, considering that most cats here live on a sporadic diet of spiders and gutter water. The smell of the fish is enough to bring them to my feet, and by the end of the day they have begun to follow me around and will even let me pick them up for a few seconds before they whine to be let down. I give them little bits of my food and drag strings of fabric on the ground for them to chase. They’re amazing companions and I could watch their little kitten antics all day – they viciously play-fight with each other, climb up my shade hangar, pounce on unsuspecting insects, and curl up to sleep next to me when I lay down to read.

Layla’s moussizes are soon famous throughout the village, and people I don’t even know are coming to my house to have a look and pet the kitties. I’m glad for the opportunity to share a bit of American culture with my village and introduce them to a new way of looking at animals, and, above all, I’m pleased to find that, of all things, a love for adorable kittens is pretty much universal.

Scenes from Ville, Part Three: Layla’s Day

Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar…

I awaken to the Islamic call to prayer broadcasting throughout my village via loudspeaker, crackling and almost incomprehensible. It’s 4:30am, and my day is about to begin.

Soon people from all over my village will kneel on their mats, praying for the first of five times daily, as they have for most of their lives. The call to prayer is just one of the ways that Islam shapes daily life in Niger, but for me, it serves as a handy wake-up call. 4:30am probably sounds ridiculously early for most people stateside, but it’s only logical that when it will be 95 degrees in the shade by noon, making any kind of activity (or indeed, any kind of movement whatsoever) almost completely impossible, you start work as early as you can.

I stretch out on my cot, and look up at the sky. As long as it doesn’t rain, I sleep under a mosquito net outside, as it’s much too hot to fall asleep inside at night. Besides, I enjoy looking at the stars. The remains of my first shade hangar, which collapsed on my first night, have since been cleared away, but my Municipal Secretary, Seyni, has promised to build me a new one on Friday – market day, when he can get the materials. So, until then, I have no shade in my concession, but at least I can look up at the stars at night.

I squeeze out of my net, unlock my door, and walk inside. After brushing my teeth, I think about breakfast. I could make oatmeal, but that would involve not only washing a dish, but turning on my stove, and I would really like nothing to do with either endeavor just yet. Instead, I take out a loaf of bread and spread it thickly with off-brand Nutella I found in Niamey. Amazing. One of my favorite things about my village is that I have a baker, and can always get fresh, delicious bread – quite a lucky break.

I turn on my iPod speakers so I can listen to music while I start my morning chores. Sweeping my house is a thankless job – as soon as I sweep out the massive pile of dust that has accumulated on my floor in the last 24 hours, it will start again. But unless I want to live in a sand dune, it has to be done. After I’m done inside, I fold up my cot and bring it inside, and then take a smaller hand broom made of twigs and sweep my outdoor concession. I remember the training staff teaching us how do this, and thinking, You want me to sweep the dirt up off the dirt? Are you nuts? But the broom leaves an aesthetically pleasing pattern in the sand as it sweeps up all the little branches and random debris, which really does make it look better.

I pour out water from my large water bideau and fill up my water filter, adding bleach with an eyedropper to kill any bacteria, and leave it to sit for 30 minutes. The water comes from a filtered pump in the middle of town, and it would probably be safe to drink straight, but I’ve been relatively healthy so far and see no need to take chances with ameobas.

I take the rest of the bideau outside and pour it in a large basin – I have clothes to wash. As the sun comes up, I sit hunched over the basin, feverishly scrubbing my shirts and socks and sheets with a bar of soap and a little sponge, before hanging them out to dry on a line I’ve hung outside. After the clothes are done, I wash my dishes.

Chores done, and it’s only 7am. I sit for a little while, listening to music and thinking about what I’m going to do for the rest of the day. I then pour out the rest of the dirty water, and pull some fresh for my shower. As I’ve mentioned before, with no running water we have to take bucket baths – in my outdoor bathing area, I fill a little teapot with water, pour it over my head, soap up, and then rinse. This is actually quite satisfying and refreshing, while taking less time and using less water than a conventional shower.

After I’ve dried off, I dress for the morning. I tie a long, brightly colored piece of fabric, called a zara, to my waist and put on a simple t-shirt. Because women in my village cover their head, I loop another strip of fabric around my head and tie a bow at the nape of my neck. I catch a glimpse in the mirror. I think I look a little like a pirate…but of course no one in my village will judge me, because they’ve never seen one.

I fill up my water bottle, lock my door, and leave my concession. I really don’t have any set plan, but I do know that every single house in the entire village would be delighted for me to pay them a visit, which I do. I pick houses at random to pop in, greet them, and sit for a few minutes exchanging pleasantries. That’s really all I need to do – Nigeriens are a very social people, and they will always entertain company. Besides, my Zarma isn’t good enough to have an in-depth conversation anyway.

After visiting three families, I make my way down to the market to buy more bread, greeting everyone I see. I pass the doctor’s office, where several families are waiting outside to see the doctor. Gastrointestinal diseases are common here, as is malaria – the doctor has told me that this year alone there have been over 200 cases of malaria in the village.

It’s a bit of a hike but the market is located right by a beautiful valley. My village is located on a hill, and at the crest you can see for miles. It’s really a beautiful sight. After buying a few loaves of soft bread, I sit under the shade with a group of men who always seem to be there, I chat with them for a little while, mostly listening, gesturing, and nodding. They are curious about America and my life before I came here, and I try to explain as best I can. As a female American in the village, I enjoy freedom to sit and talk with both men and women. Male volunteers generally have a more difficult time sitting with women, and a Nigerien woman could never sit and talk with a group of men, it wouldn’t be appropriate. But because of my unique position I am able to do both, which I am sure will help me greatly in my work at a later time.

After sitting for a while, I bid the men farewell. I purchase a bottle of orange flavored Oriba, a brand of soda that I believe is one of the few products you can buy here that was actually produced in Niger – Oriba has a factory in Niamey. I’m not a big fan of soda in the states, and here it’s basically liquid sugar (even more so than in America, if you can imagine that). I drink about half of the syrupy beverage while standing again on the crest of the hill overlooking the view. Two little boys are watching me with great interest, and I wave merrily at them, which seems to give them courage to come up and talk to me. I hand one the rest of the soda, saying in Zarma, “Some for you, and some for you. Share!” A man putting a harness on his donkey nearby laughs aloud at my tone. The boys run off to enjoy their gift.

By now it’s almost noon and it’s getting hot. I go back to my house, take my now bone-dry clothing off the line, change, wash up a bit, and start on lunch – today I make some noodles with tomato paste. After eating, I take my daily anti-malaria medication along with a multivitamin. Then I lie down and try to nap. It’s pretty hot in my house, and because I have no shade hangar anymore, I can’t go and sit outside. The sleeping doesn’t really work out, so I pull out a book and read for several hours, enjoying the peace and quiet of my house.

After I finish my book, I turn on some music and play Solitaire with my deck of cards, just to wait out the heat. I’m playing when I hear a young boy approach. It’s my neighbor, Ishmael. His mother, Aischatou, is the wife of one of the school employees. She speaks French, so I’m able to speak with her better than most others.

I invite him inside and he sits with me. At this point, all I have on is a knee-length skirt and a thin white tanktop with no bra. It’s rather less clothing than I generally make a habit of wearing in front of 13 year old boys, but give me a break, it’s at least 90 degrees inside my hut. I pull out my Zarma dictionary and we spend some time going over money vocabulary – the Zarma system for counting money is confusing and I’ve had some difficulty with it. I pull some coins from my purse, putting together random amounts he quizzes me.

After a while of this, he takes his leave and goes to the market to hang out with his friends. Alone again, I play some more cards, read a little more, do the dishes from lunch, and then get dressed again to return to the village – I’ll walk around until 8pm, when I go to Seyni and his wife, Ramatou’s house to have dinner.

Seyni is one of my counterparts in the village, and he came to the training site for a two-day conference about what to expect out of having a Peace Corps Volunteer in his village. At one point, he and I sat down to talk individually about what I might be able to accomplish in my first three months. He wanted me to do an English club, and spoke fondly of the past volunteer, Nadia (her real name is Teri), who had been close with his family.

The night after I moved in, Ramatou invited me over for dinner, serving millet and sauce. They have a television and quite a nice house – they’re definitely one of the more well-off families in the village. Each night it seems like every child in the village comes to their house to watch this ridiculously bad Brazilian soap opera dubbed in French, Marina, which is funny because I’m pretty sure that none of the children even speak French.

That night, Seyni sat down next to me and explained in Zarma, “Every night, you will come here at 8pm. We will sit. We will watch television. We will talk. And we will eat dinner.” Laughing, I agreed. And just like that, I had a standing dinner date for two years. After several nights of eating with them, I decide to contribute, and purchase a very modest gift or some sauce ingredients – a bag of rice, a tiny can of tomato paste, and a few seasoning cubes. But it doesn’t go over well – they refuse the gift, saying that I am a guest and they don’t want me buying them food. Frustrated at their admirable, completely Nigerien, yet totally unnecessary insistence on feeding me unassisted, I try to tell them that I am not a guest but a member of the community, that I will be eating with them often, that Peace Corps gives me enough money to pay for food, and besides, in America it’s rude to go over to someone’s house to eat without bringing them a little something. No dice. They won’t take the food and kindly but firmly warn me against bringing any more. There’s no way I’m going to just eat their food indefinitely without contributing, so I’ll just have to find the right moment and try again.

But before going to Seyni’s that evening, I decide to go to Aischatou’s house, right down the road. She welcomes me warmly, and I sit and talk with her about my house and Ishmael. She disappears into her house and returns momentarily with a massive platter of rice and sauce. She digs in (literally, Nigerien women eat with their hands) and invites me to do the same. I have a whole other meal coming to me in an hour, so I attempt to politely refuse, which, by the way, never works in this country. “A si kannu ni se?” she asks. “It will not taste good to you?” Damn it. Thoroughly guilt-tripped, I begin to eat with her, loudly praising her cooking. She reminds me that there will be a baptism in two days, and wants me to come to her house on the morning of so we can walk there together, and then reminds me to bring a small gift. I make a mental note to buy a few bars of soap at the market the next day.

After we’ve finished, I wash my hands and thank her generosity, then make my way to Ramatou’s house. Her concession is filled with the usual gaggle of children watching Marina. I sit and join them. During a commercial break, some of the kids get up and sing a song to me that they had apparently composed together that day. It’s hard to convey in writing how adorably obnoxious the tune was, but I’ll try. Picture a group of 15 children clapping along and Ramatou rolling her eyes in the background.

Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla ga ba zankay
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla si ma hijjie
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla fun Amerik
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla gonda lampo
Layla, Layla, Layla

…etc etc

Which roughly translates into:

Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla loves children
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla is not married
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla is from America
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla has a flashlight
Layla, Layla, Layla

…etc etc

It’s cute, but Ramatou soon tires of them and shoos the children away. Now, it’s just me and her eating together. She makes rice and sauce as well, and we sit on the ground eating with our hands. She is young and quite pretty, with one 2 year old daughter, Mariama. Seyni arrives shortly and he gets his own bowl of rice and sauce to eat with a spoon (men always eat separately and they usually eat with utensils). He’s brought Mariama a Solani from the market – a bag of liquid yogurt. Delighted, she sits on his lap and drinks the sweet liquid straight from the bag. Seyni reassures me again that he will come on Friday morning to fix my hangar. He’s already fixed my gate and my inside door lock, and hired a man to come weekly to weed my yard.

I sit and talk with them until about ten, at which time I take my leave and walk back to my house. I’ve brought my lamp, so I can light the way back on the road. It’s not far, and soon I’m back at my house. I brush my teeth, set up my mosquito net outside and lie down, exhausted, hoping it doesn’t rain tonight.

This day was both similar and different to every other day. I like having a routine, and I especially enjoy the freedom to interact on my own schedule. I try to take the philosophy that each of the villagers has something to teach with me, and I want to visit each of them in turn. I want to work with the villagers to understand their successes, their hopes, and to figure out what they need and want from me. I’m also enjoying having time to myself, to read, to write and think in peace and quiet. Hopefully, with a little effort and a lot of patience, over the course of two years I’ll be successful at both.

Scenes from Ville, Part Two: Welcome Wagon

Dusty is the key word that I would use to describe my new house. It has the distinct air of having been unoccupied for a while, even though it was only recently vacated by the previous volunteer, Nadia. In this climate, dust, mold, dirt, and insects can accumulate at a disturbing rate, and I’ll have to do some serious sweeping to make this place livable.

I stand in my concession and take stock of my new territory. The yard is ridiculously huge and totally unnecessary – I’ll never use this space, and I’ll have to keep it clear of weeds and grass to discourage snakes and other critters. The gates are falling down; the shade hangar, an approximately 10′x12′ structure made of millet stalk and held up by large, thick tree branches, was halfway to collapsing; and the lock inside the front door is broken, so I couldn’t lock my house from the inside. I don’t even have any water – a neighbor brought over a bucketful for me to take a bath tonight, but I’ll need to go to the well first thing in the morning.

I’m disappointed, annoyed, and frustrated at its disrepair – Peace Corps has very strict guidelines for volunteer housing (“locks” being one of them) and this definitely does not qualify. Why this wasn’t already taken care of is beyond me.

I heave a great sigh and resign myself for the evening. I’m a whole new kind of exhausted, and possibly in danger of falling asleep standing up. I also haven’t eaten a proper meal the entire day, as we’ve been going on visits all over the region and haven’t had time to sit down and eat. There will be no repairs for tonight. I barely have the energy to open a packet of hazelnut cookies (the only ready to eat food easily accessible) and inhale them while leaning against the wall.

It’s quickly becoming dark, and thinking about the tasks in front of me makes the dull ache behind my eyes pound. I have to unpack my multiple bags, set up house, sweep every square inch of all three rooms, weed my gi-normous yard, buy groceries at the market, and somehow find someone to make these numerous repairs. Not to mention, it will probably be over 100 degrees tomorrow, like it was today, and I will have to accomplish these tasks in Zarma.

I don’t know how, I think. I can’t do it. It’s too hard. I sit on the sandy floor, brushing a cobweb out of my hair. I’m just going to sit here, and eat these cookies, and I’m not even going to think about it.

I finish the pack and toss the wrapper on the floor, for lack of a better place. Heaving another sigh, I pull myself up from the floor and go to get my shower stuff, bucket of water, and headlamp, so I can at least wash off the sand and sweat and god knows what else that’s all over me. My bathing area (that’s really just fancy-talk for a slab of concrete) is behind the house within my yard, so I grab my key and drop my stuff right outside my door.

A problem presents itself immediately – I can’t shut my door. One of the large branches holding up one corner of the shade hangar has shifted somehow to cross the top of the corner of the door and is directly blocking its movement. I try to move it, but I’m not tall/strong enough, and it won’t budge. For nearly 20 minutes, standing on my tiptoes, I push, nudge, and cajole, but it’s no use, nothing works – it doesn’t move more than an inch.

By now it’s definitely dark, and the electricity has come on (it runs from a generator only in the evenings until 12am). The large florescent light directly above the door has become a shimmering beacon, summoning every moth and beetle in West Africa to reverently gaze at/violently fly into the luminous, flickering tube. The air above me is thick with flying insects – they’re in my hair, crawling on my arms, down my shirt. Toads the size of kittens hop near my feet, hoping to catch themselves some dinner, their bulbous eyes staring up at me with an unhelpful air of detached amusement. And I still can’t get this goddammned door closed! Furious with my predicament, I position my shoulder and give an almighty heave, slamming into the branch with the full force of my considerable exasperation.

As you might imagine, this was a mistake. The already shaky structure completely collapses around me, a large branch clocking me square on the head and knocking me over. Free of its obstruction, the door swings closed. Niger: 1, Me: 0.

Having hit rock bottom for the day, I lay on the dirt in a daze and start to wail, surrounded by judgmental toads, creeping insects, and the stench of failure. I am alone, alone, alone. What was I thinking, coming here? Who was I trying to kid? I can’t handle this. I was born in the land of indoor plumbing, Walmart, and 31 ice cream flavors. I’m so damn American I can hardly stand it and it took coming here to realize that – I love convenience, instant gratification, and 24-hour pizza parlors. In America, I lived off of $4 frozen dinners, I drove across town every week to get my eyebrows waxed, I once paid double for iPod headphones because I wanted pink instead of white, and my daily Starbucks order takes several minutes to explain. What the hell am I doing in Africa?

When I’m done feeling sorry for myself and my hopeless situation, or perhaps just tired of insects crawling into my eardrums, I brush myself off and walk inside, depressed and dejected. I’m staring at the wall when I hear a small voice coming from my gate.

“Saalam alekyum”, it says, Arabic for “I enter in peace”.

“Amin, alekyum saalam”, I respond automatically in a dead sort of voice. The response: “Amen, enter in peace”.

It’s a young boy, walking through the darkness in my yard with a silver pot. “Bon soir, mademoiselle,” he says quietly. He hands me the pot. “C’est pour vous”. This is for you.

I remove the lid. It’s a steaming hot bowl filled with a generous helping of pasta, sauce, and meat – a rare gift. Pasta and meat are expensive, and sometimes hard to find in villages like this. Overwhelmed by this generosity, I am momentarily unable to speak. Niger is crippled by food insecurity, people are starving and malnourished, and yet this thoughtful family that I don’t even know has sacrificed to purchase and prepare a meal to welcome me to the village.

“Merci,” I respond finally, a fresh lump forming in my throat. “Merci beaucoup”. Thank you.

The boy nods and silently disappears into the night.

I take a deep breath and make my way back into my house, dinner in hand. Maybe it’s not perfect right now; maybe this place needs some work. Okay, maybe it needs a lot of work. Yet, the tasks ahead of me suddenly seem insignificant next to this overwhelming gesture of kindness. I am welcome here, I belong, and though it may feel like it sometimes, I am definitely not alone. Right now, the only thing that matters is what I have right now – a hot meal and a place to sleep.

I’ll figure everything else out in the morning.

Check back on Friday for another automatic update :)

Scenes from Ville, Part One: Over Hill, Over Dale

Over hill, over dale,
Through bush, through briar,
Over park, over pale,
Through blood, through fire,
I do wander everywhere…

Puck’s lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream occurred to me as I barrelled down the rocky, unpaved road to my destiny. We are going to my village, my new home. Three days prior, I had sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and now I was leaving the comfort and safety of training to live at the level of the locals in a midsized village of 4,000 people, located about two hours from the regional capital of Dosso. I had already been there, having spent two weeks in my house with 3 other volunteers and a language trainer for an immersion activity, but that didn’t make it any less suspenseful. The rest of my life seemed to be laid out before me, full of twists and bumps and hairpin turns, and I was speeding down it at 120km/hour.

The day had been long, perhaps the longest since I had arrived. We’d spent hours doing “protocol visits”, criss-crossing Dosso region to visit all manner of important people in the government, police, and education system – about 12 or 15, all told. We spent the obligatory fifteen minutes each in their office, armed with letters of introduction from our Country Director, making small talk (“Ay ma Layla Hamidou, ay ga goyo development communitaire”) and hearing them say how happy they were that we were here, and how much they hoped that we loved their beautiful country.

After we finished protocol in Dosso ville, myself and another volunteer, Elise, left the Dosso transit house where we had spent the past two nights with all of our luggage, having packed everything up for the last time for a long time. I had spent the night fantasizing about how wonderful it would be, after living out of two large suitcases for three months, to drop off my bags with a satisfying thump on my doorstep, and to put my belongings on shelves and in drawers. We said goodbye to the other Dosso volunteers and were on our way.

Elise was dropped off first, and after finding her house satisfactory and only in need of some very minor repairs, we set off to do protocol visits around her village. We only had one – the sheik. A shiek is a high-ranking leader in Islam, and he is a major community leader. His home/office space was a massive (for Niger standards) building with two stories. We went upstairs and I was surprised to see almost a hundred people waiting to see him – women in one line, men in another. Everyone was crowded in like sardines, and the body heat in the small room seemed to raise the temperature 20 degrees. We’ll be here forever, I thought unhappily. The Program Assistant for Dosso, Seyni, who was accompanying us, raised his index finger, indicating us to stay there, and the waiting crowd parted for him to pass through. A few minutes later, he stuck his head out of the door and beckoned – the sheik would see us.

I walked into a magnificiently appointed, air conditioned office with a large wall of books and religious artifacts. We introduced ourselves, handed him the letter, and sat down on his plush couches. He exchanged pleasantries with us, and then bowed his head and raised his hands. Seyni indicated that Elise and I should do the same. He murmured under his breath for a few minutes, then raised his head and we were dismissed. Ay saabu, merci, thank you, we said, and squeezed out the door, past the envious waiting crowd.

After we left, I asked our installation officer, Hawa, what had just happened. “You have met the most important religious leader in West Africa,” she said. “People come from all over the world to receive his benediction, as you have just done.” Awed, I walked back to the car.

We drove off, leaving Elise at her front door, as I waved frantically and promising to text her when I got to my house. Now, it was just me, Hawa, and Seyni, driving down the road to my village.

The road to my house was long and bumpy. Sitting in the back of the van, I almost shook with anticipation as I took in the beautiful African scenery. It was nearing sunset, and I could see for miles over the flat, barren desert.

Finally, we pulled up to a large sign imploring me to “BUVEZ COCA-COLA”, “Drink Coca-Cola”. My house lay just behind the fence. I jumped out of the back doors, and Seyni climbed up to the top to begin untying and pulling down my luggage. People began to appear out of nowhere, and soon I was surrounded by villagers, examining my clothes, asking my name, or hanging back just to watch the arrival of the white woman from America. Several young children grabbed my bags and brought them up to my doorstep, which Hawa unlocked and handed me the key. I had a look around inside – it was almost completely empty, but it was all mine.

There was no protocol to do in my town, as I had already met everyone. So Hawa and Seyni, no doubt twice as exhausted as I was from organizing visits all over town, made a hasty getaway after briefly introducing me to my villagers. I stood by the gate and watched the car drive off into the fading sunlight, my last link with Peace Corps. I was now completely on my own, the only American for miles.

The women accompanied me into my concession. One of the children pulled out a chair for me to sit, and I stretched out and then slumped into the chair, grateful to be done. Wherever you go, there you are, I thought. Soon, the women bade their goodbyes – they needed to go off and do their housework, cooking dinner and cleaning the concession, before their husbands came home from the fields or the market.

Two small children who had just arrived peeked into my gate, and creeped in to stare at me. “Mate ni ma?” they demanded of me. What is your name? “Ay ma Layla Hamidou, ay ga goro ni kwarra ra jiiri hinka,” I replied. My name is Layla Hamidou, and I will live in your village for two years. The children giggled furiously, and turned to run home. “Fonda kayan, Layla!” one yelled over her shoulder. Welcome. “N’goyya”, I said to my now empty concession. Thank you.

I was home.

Check back on Wednesday for another automatic update :)

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