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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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!