Scenes from Ville: Introduction

I’ve gone back to my village now, but while in Niamey last week I had some time on my hands and access to the internet, so I thought I’d give you a taste of what my life has been like while in my village, and set up some posts to appear here on a timer at intervals.

Though I won’t have internet again until late October or perhaps November (but anything goes in this country, as I’ve already seen numerous times), new content (that I wrote over October 11 – 12) will post on its own at around this time on October 18, October 20, and October 22.

The first three months after Swear-In, after all volunteers move to their villages, are not really for projects. In fact, we are discouraged from starting anything major during that time and aren’t even able to receive funding until after IST (In Service Training) in January. So, when you ask me what I’m working on, the answer is integration and cultural exchange.

I’ll be moving into my house, working on my Zarma, meeting people, walking around, sitting in on classes, hanging out at people’s concessions, going to the market, picking beans in the fields, going to the well, holding babies etc etc etc. Africa is balls-out amazing, if you’ll pardon the expression, and every day here is an adventure full of new experiences from the moment I wake up (hearing the 4:30am call to prayer, or perhaps my neighbor’s donkeys) to the moment I hit the pillow underneath my mosquito net, totally exhausted – and I want to share it with you.

Check back on Monday for the first automatic update of stories of my life “en ville”.


Fonda Tilas: Peace Corps Niger says goodbye

I never expected to be here. I’m not supposed to be here. I don’t even really want to be here.

I am supposed to be in my village, enjoying my first month, fixing up my house, walking around, eating with my neighbors, going to the well, observing classes at the local primary school, meeting my community. But instead, I’m in the regional capital of Niamey, staying at the volunteer transit house with people I wasn’t supposed to see again until January. My best-laid plans were shattered just three days ago with a phone call.

It was Friday, my market day. In the late morning, before the sun was too hot, I headed toward the commotion in the center of my village with a mission – I needed a bucket. Normally, I can get all kinds of food items like pasta, rice, some vegetables, powdered milk, tea, etc on any day, but for larger household items (or if I ever decide I need to buy a donkey) I have to wait until Friday, when people from all over come into my village to sell fabric, animals, produce, and all manner of knick-knacks large and small.

I announced my intentions to Ramatou, the wife of my Municipal Secretary, Seyni. They have been my main contact with my village and I visit them every day. She insists that another villager should go with me to bargain the price – I am an anasara (white person), and that means that I’ll only get cheated. “They will charge you 1000cfa for a little bucket that should only be 500cfa,” she exclaims, and I am accompanied by a quiet girl of about 16, Aischa, who has been strictly instructed to get me the best possible price.

I am chatting idly in Zarma with Aischa, making our way down the hill to the market, when my phone beeps with a text message. It’s from my neighbor Rachel, a volunteer approaching her second year in Niger, who lives in a town about 2 hours away. I frequently text back and forth with other volunteers, grateful for the correspondence with other Americans. I check her message: “Just heard about Stephanie. How are you doing?”

Stephanie? An image forms in my mind: tall, brunette, athletic, laughing. As another volunteer in my sector of my training class, I knew Steph well – at 26 years old, she had been a successful CPA in Arizona before she decided (almost on a whim, as she explained it to me) to quit her job, sell her apartment, and come to Africa with the Peace Corps in July. Speaking as someone who did that exact same thing, I could relate. Stephanie was the life of our training class, she loved to tell stories to large audiences, play basketball, watch Friends DVDs on the sole television at the training site, and had been declared “Most American Trainee” by our Training Manager, Tondi – whom she called “Dad”.

Puzzled, I text back, “What about Stephanie?”

No response for several minutes, and I navigate through the barely organized chaos of the market, hungry for news. What could possibly have happened? Perhaps she ET’d (Early Termination, Peace Corps-speak for quitting), I ponder, but that notion is laughable – Steph had been thrilled to move to her new post across the country in Zinder. She was happy here, had made good friends and was adjusting to the difficulties of life in Niger with aplomb.

I remembered the last time I saw her – at 3:30am on the morning that the new Maradi and Zinder volunteers were leaving for their posts from the training site, a few days after we had sworn in. On a good day a bus ride from Niamey to Zinder is about 15 hours, and Maradi 10, so those volunteers were up bright and early to catch their bus. Those of us who were closer and didn’t have to leave until later (10am for Dosso) still woke up to see them off. I remembered hugging her as she got on the bus, and waving goodbye as they pulled away in the dark of the night. “See you at IST,” I had told her, referring to our in-service training in January. “I’ll be there,” she responded.

What about Stephanie? I think, and the thought continues to nag me as I dodge galloping donkey carts, women carrying buckets of water on their heads, bouncing infants tied to their backs with colorful strips of fabric, and large groups of children running through the market, making motorcycle noises while gnawing on massive roots of sugar cane, sucking out the sweet juice and spitting the pulp out on the ground.

Just as I approach the shade hangar containing all manner of plastic buckets, my phone rings – Rachel. I answer, and she immediately asks me if Ousmane, the Community Development Associate PC Director, our supervisor, had called me yet today, because apparently he was calling all Community Development Volunteers to give them the news about Stephanie. I answer no, and immediately her sharp intake of breath gives me the ominous feeling that she really doesn’t want to say what she’s about to tell me.

“Oh, Jess, I’m so sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but Stephanie Chance passed away in Zinder last night.”

I felt like I had been punched hard in the stomach. Unable to speak or breathe and feeling extremely nauseous, I fell to my knees in the dirt, only vaugely aware of the nearby merchants’ cries of alarm. Rachel continued to say that Stephanie was found in her house that night, that no one knew the cause of death yet, that all of the PCVs from Zinder region and my stage were coming in to Niamey the next day for a service, and that she, Rachel, was coming to my house as soon as she could get a car to stay with me so we could make the 2 hour journey together in the morning.

Images played in my mind like a movie, Stephanie and I sitting at a volunteer’s house eating tuna sandwiches and playing Uno over Demyst during our second week; Stephanie asking one of the training site kitchen staff in broken Hausa if he knew how to make breakfast burritos; Stephanie making plans to visit Morocco in March, right before hot season; Stephanie during the Nigerien fashion show, standing in front of us wrapped from head to toe in a ridiculous outfit made from thick layers of pastel green lace (“This is seriously the hottest thing I’ve ever worn,” she said, panting and sweating, and a male volunteer watching winked and replied back, “You’re telling me!”); Stephanie in a cardboard party hat sitting at the head of the table in a Niamey restaurant on her birthday.

“Jess?” Rachel’s voice over the phone brings me back to reality. In a voice that sounds strangely foreign and not at all like mine, I thank her for calling, and tell her I’ll see her later that day. We hang up and I slowly start to stand. A small crowd has formed around me of concerned villagers, one of them helps me get to my feet. Nigeriens don’t process grief as Americans do, I know they won’t understand. “Tali si no,” I assure them. No problems.

Aischa pulls on my arm and I am reminded of the task at hand – I need to buy a bucket. In a daze, I turn to the vendor and point at a medium sized purple one. “1000cfa,” he replies. Ramatou was right, but I’ve lost the will to bargain, and suddenly I am completely unable to speak Zarma. I stare blankly at Aischa as she goes into an intense bout of haggling with the merchant. I really don’t care how much I pay. Just get me out of here.

I end up paying 600cfa for the bucket, and immediately make my way back to my house. I toss the bucket aside and lay down on the floor, my mind reeling. Ousmane calls me then, and I tell him that he doesn’t need to tell me, that I already know. My heart hurts for him, he was close with Stephanie, and now he has to make almost 30 individual phone calls telling people about her death, probably reliving it each time. He tells me I’m cleared to go to Niamey, and asks me to go into the Dosso transit house that evening to be with my fellow volunteers. “No, Rachel’s going to come stay with me tonight,” I say. “That’s good, Layla-tou,” he replies, using the Zarma habit of adding “tou” to one’s name as a way of saying “dear”. “You should be with other volunteers for support during this time.” I thank him, and tell him I will see him tomorrow in Niamey.

“Fonda tilas”, I say, a Nigerien way of greeting after a death has occurred. It means, “Greetings on what must be.”

After we hang up, I sit and stare at the wall for what seems like a long time. “Stephanie Chance is dead,” I say aloud to the emptiness of my room. Saying it out loud makes it real somehow, because this is the opposite of real. It’s completely absurd that a vivacious 26 year old woman, who appeared the picture of health, would be dead and no one would know why. I need more information, and to know what happened. Most of all, I want to be with my stage – my fellow training class.

Rachel arrives that afternoon and spends the night at my house. She cooks me “comfort food” – mashed sweet potatoes, corn, meat, gravy, and bread. It’s delicious and I enjoy her company, I’m so glad to not have to spend the night alone. In the morning, we leave for Niamey and arrive at the transit house, where I share a somber reunion with the 28 other volunteers that make up MCD/CYE 2010.

That evening, our country director comes to talk with us. A memorial will be held for Stephanie the following day, Sunday, and she will be leaving for America immediately afterward to return Stephanie to her family. The death appears to have been from natural causes, she says, but we’re still not sure what happened and no one will know for several weeks.

The next day, the memorial service is held. As many volunteers that could come are there, including the chef du canton of Hamdallaye, the village that hosts the training site. He performs the fatiya, a prayer to open the service. Several other speak, Stephanie’s closest friends, Ousmane, Tondi, and Absatou, her main language teacher from training. Afterwards there is a slide show of photos and we watch while eating eggrolls and cake.

Following the ceremony, most of the trainees go to the airport to see Valarie off to America. I stay behind, emotionally drained and physically exhausted, and go back to the transit house, where I fall asleep only a few hours later, at about 8pm, and don’t wake up until the next morning.

Today, a counselor came in from Washington to speak with us and make sure that we know they are prepared to support us. I feel that Peace Corps has done all they can for us as far as emotional support, and I am grateful to them for this.

Soon, we will be headed back to our villages, 29 bright stars scattered from one end of the country to another, filled with hope and excitement to enact positive developmental change and cultural exchange in our villages. There should be 30. I don’t know where we go from here, but I know that our stage will never be the same. Already I can feel that the dynamic is different, and Stephanie’s absence hurts like a bruise. I can’t understand why this has happened, or how. Here one day, gone the next.

I guess I should dust off some tired old chestnut about how we should live every day to the fullest, like it’s our last. And I am excited to go back to my village – I feel a renewed vigor to continue my study of Zarma and start working in my community. Because for those of us left behind, we will all have to work that much harder to make up for what we now lack, to fulfill our promise to this country. Stephanie would have been a great volunteer, and I hope that in the next two years we can make her proud.

Homestay Info

During training, Peace Corps Volunteers in Niger stay with host families that generally speak the language they will use during their service. As I have mentioned, I am in a little village of Barchawal, staying with the Hamidou family.

My host father has two wives. Niger is about 95% Muslim, and according to Islamic law, a man can have as many wives as he can afford to treat equally. He works in Niamey (the capital) and sells pagnes (women’s skirts), and I think that either his father or his uncle is the chief of the village. Therefore, he is relatively wealthy for the village. He’s a really nice man who laughs a lot and rides his motorcycle into work every day.

His second wife is 19, they’ve only been married about 5 or 6 months, she has her own concession inside the compound. I don’t really interact with her too much, but she does eat with us. In Niger, men and women always eat seperately, the family never eats all together.

His first wife is the one I consider my host mother – she is 33. She is really smart with a good sense of humor and I am pretty sure that she can read, which is rare for women. Her brother actually went to school in Pennsylvania and speaks fluent English – he visited us the other day and it was nice to talk to a non-PCV in English. My host mother has four children – a boy, 5 months; another boy, 3; another boy, 9; and the eldest is a girl, 13. The baby is ADORABLE, I love to hold him and play with him. He usually doesn’t wear anything, except when it gets down to about 90 and then they put him in a little hat and snow pants. The 3 year old is warming up to me as well, he loves to play with his dad’s motorcycle. I’ve never met the 9 year old boy, he is a student in Niamey and doesn’t live at home. My favorite is the eldest sister – she has such a wonderful personality and is one of the smartest girls I’ve ever met. She also goes to school in Niamey and speaks Zarma, French, and even a little English. She’s been super helpful for communicating with the family because I speak a little French as well. They are really committed to us learning the language and are super patient. She loves to dance and sometimes I sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to her at night – the stars here are super bright and beautiful. My roommate has iPod speakers and we have dance parties sometimes – my host sister loves Shakira and Beyonce. She hopes to go to college in America and be a doctor.

Generally, they are really a great family to be a part of, I’m glad I was placed with them.

Hamburgers today were pretty good. I got fries and a milkshake too! On the way out, I bought a bunch of pastries to share with my host family. I wanted to go to the grocery market and get some food, but they close inexplicably from 12:30 – 4pm everyday. I guess I’ll have to wait until we’re back here again, I think we’re coming again next weekend but maybe not.

Some other highlights from training have been that we had a really interesting session on Islam the other day – it is a really interesting religion and an integral part of life here. Also last week we got to meet the acting US Ambassador to Niger. He was a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) from the Phillipines. I got to speak with him at lunch and he had some great stories. I think when we have our swearing in ceremony in September it will be at his house.

Have to go now – we are going to take the bus back to our homes. I’ll update again soon, probably next week. If you have questions you can leave them in the comments and I’ll answer in my next update! Bye for now.

Update from Niamey

Hello everyone!

Currently I’m at the Peace Corps/Niger Headquarters in the capital, Niamey, and I have an American computer so I can write something a little more coherent. This weekend has been amazing. We are on a “demystification” trip, where we go to visit an actual volunteer in the field to see how they live and what kind of work they do. Of the trainees in my stage, or training class, we are pretty much split up into two groups – Community Youth Education (CYE) and Municipal Community Development (MCD). From there, most people are learning Hausa language and the rest (nine, including me) are learning Zarma. The MCD people who are learning Zarma are in Barchawal, the small village I talked about in my other post. Everyone else is in Hamdallaye, which is within walking distance to the training site. Barchawal is 6 miles from the training site, so we bike the distance twice a week at about 6:00am to get breakfast and shower before classes begin at 8:00am. The six of us in Barchawal call ourselves Whites on Bikes.

There is no running water (anywhere) though the training site does have electricity. We take a shower by filling a bucket with water and then using a tea kettle to pour it over ourselves. This is actually really effective and makes me think about how much water we waste in the US on a shower – I can take a perfectly good shower and be clean with less than one bucket of water and I’m sure I use 10x that much in the US.

Classes run all day. We have technical sessions about Nigerian government, community assessment, and non-formal education, etc. Also, there are health sessions about how to filter water and what not to eat. And we do language training in our villages on the days we’re not at the site, those classes are literally all day and pretty draining. Zarma is a relatively easy language to learn but I’m having a hard time and trying my best.

Most people have gotten sick, I think, but they were well taken care of and got better quickly. So far I have been fine with the exception of a ridiculous amount of bug bites and pretty bad run of dehydration from heat exhaustion last week, and there’s also the aforementioned incident with the malaria medication but that was totally my fault (I had forgotten to take the pill after dinner so I thought I could just have it in the morning before breakfast, really bad idea).

I do like the people I’m with here, they are really cool and we’ve already become close. There are 33 of us total and we are all together on the training site days, so it’s nice to see everyone. One of the other trainees is actually an Alpha Xi Delta from Oregon State! Her name is Annette, she’s really cool. I thought it was pretty amazing, I WOULD find another AXD on the other side of the world, right?

I also love to go to the site because we get good lunches like stir fry and they even made us sweet potato fries the other day. Also we eat a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but the peanut butter here is weird so I just have jelly and butter. The food I miss most, and everyone makes fun of me for this, is a turkey sub from Publix with lettuce and tomato.

Something weird that has happened since being here is that I am completely off coffee, which if you know me, that’s really, really bizarre. I haven’t really touched it since I got here and I don’t even miss it. I share my packets of instant with everyone else though, and we trade for emergen-c and stuff like that.

I have to go now because we’re off to the restaurant to get hamburgers. I’ll update more later if I can, if not, I will next time I’m here, I think next weekend.

🙂 Jess AKA Layla

Hello from Africa!

I am currently at a tiny cybercafe in Dosso. They have crazy French keyboards that make it kind of hard to type and the internet is really slow, so I can’t really write much this time.

I am having a good time in Africa so far, it is really different from the US! Life here is hard to adjust to but the staff is wonderful and I love the other volunteers in my training class. I sent my family a long letter last week with a lot of information on where I’m staying etc, so when they get it I hope my sister will paraphrase it on here.

I don’t have running water or electricity where I’m staying, and we have training classes pretty much all day, we get up around 5 or 6 and then have stuff to do, classes, studying, etc until about 9 or 10. It is really hot (duh) but at night it gets chilly, so I am using a little blanket I stole from the flight to Paris, ha ha. We sleep outside underneath mosquito nets, and all my stuff is in a tiny mud hut that I share with another volunteer. We live with a host family inside their concession and eat with them. They cannot pronounce Jessica so my name here is Layla, I hear “Fofo! Fofo Layla!” (Hello) all day from the children who are everywhere. The food here is pretty yukky but I am getting used to it, I am glad I brought tuna pâckets and nutrition bars because we don’t get a lot of protien. Also, I get to bike 6 miles twice a week because me and five other volunteers don’t live at the training site with everyone else, we live in a smaller village together because we are learning a different language.

I haven’t been sick except for dehydration (we have to drink 6 – 8 liters or more of water every day) and heat exhaustion. Most other volunteers here are pretty healthy though. The people are so nice and they really look after you. They are so patient with us even though we don’t really speak the language, but I am learning Zarma.

I don’t know yet where I will be stationed, but I will likely be close to the capital and I might even have electricity, which I am happy about. Obviously I can live without it but when you don’t have it your day is basically over when the sun goes down, flashlights etc are useful but you can’t really sit and read with a light because of the bugs. So it is easier to have it. I probably have about 100 bug bites because they have three different kinds of insect repellant and I am allergic to all three. But it’s not so bad.

I spent this weekend with a current volunteer seeing what kind of work she does and tonight we are in the Peace Corps hostel in Dosso with a bunch of others. Tomorrow we are going to the capital, Niamey, to have pizza and hamburgers! It is such a treat because literally all we eat with our host families is rice or millet and sauce, sometimes beans. Twice a week at the training site we get better food though, but we’re all excited to see the capital.

Please don’t worry about me, yes it is difficult to adjust to such a different life and the classes are challenging, but I am in very good hands with the staff here and I feel very safe. Niger in general is a very safe place, there is a lot of poverty for sure but the people are warm and protective. I had a bad reaction to the malaria medicine the other day because I took it on an empty stomach (which they told me not to do and I definitely won’t do again) so I was sick one day in the middle of the village. The women went right away to get my host mother and the Peace Corps language trainer who lives with us, and some of them stayed with me until I was feeling better. Then for the rest of the day so many people came by to check on me and ask if I was ok.

Anywhere I go mass quantities of children run behind me and beg to carry my things for me and ask how I am over and over. They ALL know who I am and call out my name when they see me coming. They love when I sing American songs and teach them easy dances and games (we played Duck Duck Goose and Simon Says last night, plus I taught about 20 kids the Macarena and YMCA) and it’s so funny how they are endlessly fascinated by this strange white woman that’s come to live here.

I have to go now but hopefully Jamie, who I miss a lot, will post my letter when she gets it! I miss everyone very much! I’ll post more when I can. I’m taking lots of pictures and I’ll upload them when I can get internet, my laptop, and a working electrical outlet all in the same place, which might take a miracle but it will happen soon enough. Goodbye for now!

Family Update.

This was an update email we received on Friday once Jessica arrived safely in Niger.

—– Original Message —–
From: AF/Niger
To: AF/Niger
Sent: Friday, July 09, 2010 8:33 AM
Subject: Arrived Safely

All 33 new Peace Corps Volunteer trainees arrived safe and soundly in Niamey, Niger, yesterday afternoon, after their two flights from Philadelphia. Peace Corps Niger training staff met them at the airport and transported them to our wonderful training site in Hamdallaye, about 30 minutes north of the capitol. The logistics flowed smoothly, the trainees are well, and we look forward to preparing them for their Peace Corps service in Niger. You’ll find your loved one in the attached photograph, just taken.

Thank you very much,

Valerie Staats

Country Director

Peace Corp recruits beginning their journey.

Last update from the USA!!

I’m in Philadelphia airport, waiting to get on the plane. We’re flying to Paris, and then into the Niamey airport from there. It’s about 13 hours total, I’m glad we get a little break in between. And we’ll be in Paris! Only for about two hours, most of which will probably be spent going through security again, but STILL! PARIS! It’s very exciting. My flight leaves in about an hour, and I wanted to update with everything I’ve been doing the last day…

Staging went well – basically we met everyone in our training class, talked about what to expect, and got the yellow fever vaccine, required to go to Niger. It was super long but short at the same time…if that makes sense. Last night I went and got an authentic Philly cheesesteak, then we went to a little bar and sampled some exotic beers. It’s always fun to meet new people, and I liked downtown Philadelphia, it had a lot of history and character. Plus it’s a walking city, I would love to live somewhere like that someday.

Everyone in my training class seems interesting and is very friendly. Though there’s a lot of diversity in our class, I think that essentially we are very similar. We all have a desire to do this and jumped through the hoops required, now we’re here to share the experience. I’m really glad that during this difficult time, when I’m not really sure what’s coming and I just left my home and my family, that I have them to lean on. I’ve already had lots of conversations with them and we are sharing a lot of the same complicated emotions – like excited, scared, happy, nervous, relieved, anxious, etc.

This will be hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done and maybe will ever do. Living in a place that is completely 100% the opposite of everything I know, leaving my family, and starting a new job will be really tough and overwhelming, but if the pamphlets are to be believed, it will be incredibly fulfilling and rewarding, not to mention life-changing. I’ve never been out of the country (I think I’m the only person in my training class who’s never traveled internationally – a couple of people were shocked that Africa for two years will be my first worldly venture) and I’ve never lived “alone”, though in the Peace Corps you’re never really alone.

As a Community Development Agent in the Peace Corps/Niger, I want to really challenge myself to succeed. The trouble, then, is defining what I would call success. I have no illusions about going over there and saving the entire country and changing everyone’s lives. My hope would be to impact people on an individual level, to give them a positive representation of America and Americans, to maybe spark some ideas as to how to better their community, or provide some resources that will be helpful. I feel like it’s difficult to really know what to expect without being so naive, but I really have no idea what will happen. Yet, now that I’ve met my training class, I’m able to draw strength that we’re going to figure it out together.

This will probably be my last entry for a while – I’m going to update whenever I can, but I probably won’t have electricity (my computer doesn’t have a battery) or access to the internet very often, but I’ll update whenever I can. My sister Jamie (who I adore and love and miss very much already) might come on and post for me as well.

Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll continue to follow me on my adventure!!

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