Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I'm not supposed to be sitting in Ohio right now....not for another nine months. Really not for another year at least, because despite being tired of the sand and sun, I probably would have extended my service in Niger. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. On January 12, PCVs in Niger each received a phone call telling us to pack our bags and say goodbye. Because of a recent kidnapping in Niamey, security concerns lead to PC Niger suspending its program and removing all volunteers. I left my village early the next morning and we were flown out of the country late that night to our transition conference site in Morocco. I still feel numb.

It had been such a great week too. I had just finished helping move in seven new volunteers to their sites and was happy to be back in my village working on the garden project and planning my brother's upcoming trip to visit me. The past few months had been challenging. I had been feeling homesick and stressed out but that week things were falling back into place. I was content again and feeling excited about the possibilities in the next few months. Another volunteer and I were working on organizing a regional girls education conference and I had just finished the proposal for it. The kidnapping that had happened earlier that week was of course on my mind, but I can't say I was expecting that phone call. I'm not normally one to think, "that will never happen to me" but I think I did genuinely think that, with all PC had been through in Niger, being evacuated would simply not happen. I understand the decision and I know it was the right one to make. It's just not fair.

After hearing our options on transfers during a whirlwind week in Morocco, it became clear that I didn't have many choices. I also decided that frantically jumping to another country wasn't really what I was prepared to do. I love adventure, I loved the excitement of Peace Corps but I was simply not ready to do it all over again. I missed my friends in Niger. I missed my village. I missed everything and it was hitting me like a ton of bricks that week - hitting all of us. I couldn't go into another country and start over. I couldn't get over the fact that I wouldn't be going back to Niger.

So, after bumming around Morocco for a couple weeks, I am back in America. Jobless, homeless, and not sure what is next but incredibly grateful for the past year and a half. Everyday was incredible. There are some people who are really good at making everyday count. I wasn't one of them before I came to Niger. I realize now, that you never know about tomorrow. But you have today and you had better make it count. Peace Corps was an amazing journey. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I suppose the only thing left to say is thank you to all of the amazing people that I had the privilege to share this time with. My community in Niger deserves a thousand thanks. They were my family, my friends, and the most genuine people I have ever met. I will never forget them and hope to go back some day. My Peace Corps family too was the best partner to have. Despite whatever bureaucratic downsides there may be to Peace Corps as an organization, I loved the staff and volunteers I worked with in Niger. They are dedicated and compassionate people.

When I said goodbye to Ousmane, who directs the program I was working under, he pointed to the space above his office door where someone had painted the phrase It's a small world after all. "Don't forget that," he said as we shook hands, "It's not goodbye, you know". I looked up and was reassured that this wasn't the last time I would be in Niger. I hope he is right, because flying back across the ocean...the world felt pretty big.

~Fatouma

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Garden Update

January 12, 2011

Well, I suppose not everything we do can be successful, or maybe we just have to start redefining success. My primary school garden project was chugging along nicely this fall. The fence was built and we were ready to begin planting. Things went a little not-according-to-plan, but that is fairly normal for Niger. Instead of calling in our town’s Agriculture Agent to help with the garden prep and planting, my school director decided we would just begin....that maybe wasn’t such a good idea. So, the students began clearing their garden plots and things still seemed okay. Then, I discovered that instead of purchasing seeds for the project, my director wanted to buy seedlings. Ok, but that definitely wasn’t what we budgeted for.....but we made it work and planted them (still no Agriculture Agent visit...). Not surprisingly, not much survived and we now have a very nicely fenced in....pile of dirt. The trees we planted are still alive, so that’s a plus.

Watching this project spiral downward made me realize several things. First, my school director has a bit of an ego and is more concerned with having a garden that looks good than having one that teaches something. Secondly, he doesn’t actually listen to me. And it’s not a language thing. I talk; he understands; he ignores. That’s how it goes. Thirdly, no wonder international development is such a miserable cluster @$#% of bumfuddledness! I can’t even get tomatoes to grow at a primary school and the UN thinks it’s going to reach all of those Millennium Development Goals?

So, it was a crappy fall. But I think maybe I fell into the same trap my director was in. I was so concerned about producing a successful project to put on paper and send back to Washington that I didn’t stop to realize the good things that were in fact happening. So the veggies died. It happens. But, none of the kids really seemed that concerned that they wouldn’t be able to go sell produce at market and make a profit. From the beginning, they were more excited to run outside and play in the dirt with each other. Maybe that doesn’t look as nice on paper, but for kids here, an hour of having fun with each other is a big deal. Kids here, especially girls, haul water, run errands; serve as manual laborers, babysitters, caretakers, and shopkeepers. This fall, for a couple of hours a week, they could just be kids. When I looked at the photos of one of the days we planted seedlings I realized that all of the students were smiling; and so were the teachers, even the director....well, I might have seen a smirk. I almost laughed out loud as I imagined typing up my project evaluation and having nothing to say other than, “we had fun”. Maybe at the end of a day, when there’s nothing else you can do, having fun with something is a big success in itself.



My school director has been busy working with the local elections that took place this week. When they are over though, he says he wants to meet. He says the kids can each contribute a little money and we can buy new seedlings to plant....this time with the help of our Agriculture Agent. I resisted the urge to scream “I told you so” and nodded my head instead. He said, “We’re not tired, Fati”.

I am still amazed at this place’s ability to make me laugh, cry; get irrationally angry; turn cynical, then hopeful; and make me fall in love with it all over again......all in the span of a day.

~ Fatouma

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"To Plant a Garden is to Believe in the Future"

Happy fall everyone! I know back home the leaves are changing, there's a chill in the air, and the pumpkin spice lattes have started(damn...one more year!) Here in Niger, it's also cooling off. The harvest is in and we are getting ready for Tabaski later in November. It is also the start of gardening season and I'm very excited to report that my village's school garden project is actually underway! This week while hosting some brand new PC trainees, the community built the fence to enclose the garden and we are planning to start planting next week. I spent most of the time standing around asking questions and trying to be usefull. I have learned that while I may have the skills to fund a project, I have no idea how to build a fence or plant a garden. This week I realized that my village will take it from here, and that's how it should be so I'm feeling pretty good. Check out the pics and below is some more information on the project. Thank you Thank you Thank you to friends and family who donated to this project. Stay tuned for more updates!





Primary School Garden Project (funded through PCPP)

Gardening provides supplemental income and food for students. Initiating a school garden in the village would reach children early on and educate them on the importance of off season gardening. They will acquire the skills to establish their own gardens later on and gain knowledge of healthy eating habits. The community in turn will benefit from an increase in produce selection as students will be selling their goods at market once a week. Because the village is located off the main road to Niamey, it often does not benefit from the same produce variety despite its close proximity to the capital.

Students will also gain valuable skills in income generation and collaborative work through the proposed project. The garden requires students to work in teams to achieve success. The student government ministers will develop their leadership skills and the other students will learn to work with a group of their peers. In participating in the selling of their garden produce, students will practice their math skills in the market and learn the basics of income generating activities as they sell their goods to make a profit.

The community will benefit from the school garden as well. The village's small market will gain a boost of produce variety. As students share their acquired knowledge with their friends and families, the community is more likely to garden themselves or purchase school produce to supplement their diets. The school will continue its close relationship with the community and allow the students and COGES to solicit help to sustain the garden past its first year. The sustainability of the project is favorable as most of the material items and labor needed each year is already coming from the community. The planning of a seed caisse will ensure that the school is able to continue the garden without a partnership contribution. The school director is committed to making the project an annual, sustainable part of the school and will ensure that students remain engaged in the program.

Monday, September 20, 2010

September 11, 2010

I have lived in Niger over a year now – a country that is certainly over ninety percent Muslim. In this past year, I’ve listened to BBC in my mud brick house, surrounded by tiny kids and sheep, as much of the western world continues its childish crusade against Islam. I listened as Switzerland banned the construction of minarets and France restricted women from wearing hijabs. What’s more, I listened to people actually try to come up with practical reasons to justify these new laws. When an American pastor announced his plans to burn Korans on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I thought for an instant that surely I was tuning into some other world’s news. Quickly I remembered that even my country has been swallowed up in the mess we live in today. I am tired of people being hateful towards each other. I’m exhausted with it. The events that happened nine years ago on this day have nothing to do with Islam. They were carried out by hatred – hatred that ever since, my country seems to be trying to match.
One of Peace Corps’ goals is to create better understanding among Americans of other cultures. I feel that, as an American living in a Muslim country, I should share my experience and talk about this religion that surrounds me everyday. However, the events of the past month have made me realize that much of my country does not care to know. Much of my country seems content to wallow in their own prejudices and anger. I mean, would you care to know? Do you care to know that on September 10th I rushed back to my village (having been working at our training site) to celebrate Eid al–Fitr with people who, despite not having enough to eat themselves dished out lunch to me with generosity that would never be matched in America? Would any of you like to know that despite a severe food crisis, political uncertainty, the peak of malaria season, with daily farm work to be done, my village and most of the country fasted for the holy month of Ramadan? They went without food or water from sunrise to sunset everyday for a month to be closer to God and practice discipline and humility…… Makes giving up soda for Lent seem a little ridiculous, eh? Would anyone at home care to know that PCVs frequently work with local Imams to educate their communities on the importance of girls’ education and population control? Would you like to hear that I think it is ten times easier to be a non-Muslim in this country than I imagine it’d be as a Muslim in America?
My friend recently finished her Peace Corps service and returned home to Ohio with her fiancĂ© who is Muslim. One of his first experiences in America was probably hearing about our plan to burn holy books and protest the building of a community center in NYC, just because it was housing a mosk. I am ashamed that a man whose country has shown me so much kindness, generosity, and acceptance will not receive the same from mine. But I don’t really think most of you want to know that. I mean, if I told you all these things; if I made you understand the beauty of where I live, you would have to feel something. You would have a face to put with Islam and would have to set aside the images of burning buildings, and hijacked planes. It is easier to be angry. Haven’t I just exemplified that in this post? My friends here would tell me to have patience. They are better people than me. They deserve better. I don’t have patience and I am as angry as those on the other end of the spectrum.
I would consider myself a spiritual person but not particularly religious. Islam, like any other faith, can be beautiful; it can save; it can give strength to those in need; and it can be destructive. An episode aired just after 9/11/01 of the West Wing in which one of the characters says, “Al Qaeda is to Islam as the KKK is to Christianity.” It is the only voice of reason I remember from that time – a tv show written by a probably drugged up Aaron Sorkin. Even my own father yelled out that day that we had been attacked and were at war. He was correct, but we were not attacked by Islam and the war we are fighting is against the hatred rooted deep inside each of us…..and we’re losing. Of course you could say that there is equal hatred and misunderstanding on all sides and that is true. But there are enough people yelling about that and we cannot solve the world’s problems by pointing fingers outward. Americans in particular need to start looking inward and fight against our own ignorance and arrogance.
Since last November, I have lived with the possibility that if a regional terrorist group, AQIM gets much bolder in West Africa, Peace Corps Niger may very well pick up and leave. That means being in my village one day and being yanked away the next with no real notice. So, for those who would like to have burn-a-Koran-day and whatnot, keep in mind that your hatred puts me and other PCVs around the world at risk. Not to mention that it is a ridiculously ignorant and bigoted thing to do or support (and your silence equals support!). Maybe we should stop focusing on the destruction of things and work on creating something. You do nothing for the world if you burn a book.

I thought my country was moving forward, but today it seems we are as far behind as ever.

~ Fatouma
(The name of the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite daughter – his only one to bare children, and therefore often thought of as the mother of all Muslims - and a popular name for first born daughters here…quite a name to live up to!)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

All you need is Mud!

August 16, 2010

Every woman I know in my village, even from wealthy families, cooks meals over an open fire. The gas stove top I have in my house is, as far as I know, the only one in my town. Most people throw a pot on top of three rocks, fire underneath, and call it a stove. We were trained by PC on building something called an improved cook stove out of mud and I’ve spent the past several months working on teaching women to make them in our village. It has been both rewarding and frustrating, and has, as always been accompanied by some funny stories.

First, some informative tidbits(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cook_stove) from a presentation I recently did on cook stoves for other PCVs...
- Half the world's population of nearly six billion people prepare their food and heat their homes with coal and the traditional biomass fuels of dung, crop residues, wood and charcoal on variations of cook stoves
- “Developing countries consume little energy compared to developed nations; however, over 50% of the energy that they do use goes into cooking food.”
- “The average rural family spends 20% or more of its income purchasing wood or charcoal for cooking. Living in the city provides no refuge either as the urban poor frequently spend a significant portion of their income on the purchase of wood or charcoal.”
- Since the energy crisis of the 1970s, there has been increased attention on improving models by NGOs and governments in developing countries
A good definition for what we mean when we say improved cook stove is...
- “A stove that needs far less biomass to cook the same amount of food than a traditional one and consequently produces also far less smoke than a traditional stove.” (Improved Cooking Stoves for Developing Countries, Johannes V. Owsianowski)
- Improved cook stoves can result in around 35% fuel savings, greatly improving efficiency

I spend most nights sitting with friends as they prepare dinner over traditional stoves and have observed what a pain in the ass they are to deal with. That’s really the only way to describe it. Here are some of the things one has to deal with.....
- using lots of fire wood while most of the heat escapes and doesn’t even make it to what you are cooking
- smoke going everywhere, often right into your face
- the open fire is affected by winds, which can be a huge issue in Niger, where strong winds and sand storms are common
- the pot isn’t stable and can fall or spill what you’re cooking
- fire is open and close to kids, putting them at risk for burns, or setting the cook’s skirt on fire

Last fall a friend’s entire concession caught on fire when no one was home. They think it was most likely caused by the wind tossing up hot coals from the morning’s cooking fire, which lay out in the open.

The demand for fire wood to use as fuel is rapidly influencing Niger’s environment. There is a lot of buzz about desertification and deforestation and erosion, etc. And it’s all correct. To be brief, Niger is using up more trees than it plants. And with a high population growth rate, the demand for fuel will not be decreasing anytime soon. So, can a cook stove made from three rocks and some mud really do anything to change this? Well, probably not; at least not on its own. But maybe some cook stoves, some tree planting, and a whole lot of education combined and we might just have a solution. This is just my part of the puzzle.

So, the improved cook stove was developed in the 70s to help with all of the issues mentioned above. There are a lot of different models made for different needs and fuels. I’ve been working with a simple design that’s a sedentary, mud constructed wood burning stove. The idea is pretty simple- enclose the pot in think mud walls to hold the heat in and protect the fire, thereby using less fuel and preventing homes and small children from catching on fire. The stove is easy to make and best of all, totally free. And while Niger is lacking in many things – food, infrastructure, rainfall, a government – there is no shortage of mud. No joke, 90% of my village is made of it. The stove offers the following benefits...
- less $$ and time spent on acquiring fire wood
- smoke is channeled through specific windows in the stove
- pot is stable and doesn’t spill
- fire not as vulnerable to wind
- safer for kids and cooks alike because the fire is enclosed
- more heat = faster cooking = more time for cooks

My village now has around twenty mud cook stoves, including one I built for myself that can double as a dutch oven (more about that later). Women in my village have been very enthusiastic about the stoves, though somewhat less enthusiastic when I try to explain that they in fact need to learn to make them. Sometimes it’s clear that someone wants one just to say that the American made them a stove. But others are interested in learning about them and really utilizing them for their benefits. I have been working one on one to build most of them. Most women end up wanting two stoves, as each one will only fit one size pot. Each meal is usually prepared with two pots, one for hawru and one for sauce.

I attempted to do a training at my Mairie one morning and invited several women from around town....one of whom actually showed up. On my way home, two people asked when I was coming to build stoves for them. That was a bad day. It is also hard for some women to use the new stove. A lot of them say that the fire isn’t going because they can’t see it – a point that has to be discussed at great lengths. And sometimes the fire does go out but you can’t see it because of the mud walls. This is a particular pain that I’ve experienced on my own cook stove. But on the whole, I’ve enjoyed working on them mainly because it is something that creates an immediate effect in women’s lives. Thus far, the benefits seem to outweigh the negative issues.

I’m taking a bit of a cook stove siesta as it’s rainy season – not the best time to work with mud....or do anything for that matter, because everyone is in the farms all day!

~Fatouma

The M part of MCD volunteer.....

August 9, 2010


I recently heard a BBC radio report on a new law passed in Liberia making it compulsory to register for a birth certificate within a certain period of time following a birth. The country is trying to improve its public record system and is using the law as a basis for new awareness campaigns to register all of its citizens. I mention this because at the time, I had just finished a project in my village along these same lines. Like Liberia, Niger’s public record system is a bit....lacking. Systems of birth, death, and marriage certificates are pretty automatic in the States; I doubt we even give them much thought. Here, it is not such a given. Most births and deaths take place in homes, making it difficult to keep records of them. A wedding ceremony is complete when the Marabout says so, not when the two parties fill out a piece of paper. Furthermore, institutions like the Mairie that are in charge of such records are not well known in their communities, and some are not even functioning. The result is that most people do not know their exact birthday and many communes do not have accurate records of their populations. My commune is particularly bad with death and marriage records. I think we received something like ten marriage registrations for all of 2009....which is hilarious because I think I’ve been to more than ten weddings in my time here.

And why, you say, in the midst of a food crisis and military coup worry about public records? My short answer would be, because you have to start somewhere. But really, they are an important aspect of community development. On an individual level, you need a birth certificate to attend school, get a driver’s permit, a national identity card, and visas or passports. Death and marriage certificates provide valuable evidence for inheritance rights as well as tax obligations. As for the community level, public records help the government know and understand population demographics which come in handy when say, an NGO rolls up and says, “We want to build a school, how many students are in so-and-so village.” Or when there are emergencies such as food shortages (hey, sound familiar?!) and aid agencies need to know how many people they need to feed in a given area. Oh snap, not such a bad project after all.

So, during June and July, I and my counterpart, Abdou organized a campaign to educate our commune on the importance of these public records and the processes for going about getting them. Abdou is our commune’s Etat-civil and is in charge of maintaining birth, death, marriage, and tax records for the entire commune. That’s one guy for 33 villages, adding up to around 20,000 people. Of course, that’s using his records, meaning it’s probably more. Abdou brought up the project idea himself when we were discussing sensibilisations that I could possibly help with in the community. I helped arrange a small amount of funding for us to cover transportation costs, but Abdou designed the campaign and saw it through. I consider the project to be a success already because of what he got out of it. I think he was so excited to actually see an idea of his being planned and then carried out. His confidence got a well needed boost and when we finished he was smiling straight for almost a week. He is now back to his normal, moody self ....but it’s Ramadan now, so I’ll give him a break. He says there has already been an increase in the registrations he’s receiving. We’ll be able to see at the end of the year if there really was an increase from previous years.

It was nice to work on something directly with the Mairie, where I spend a lot of time but don’t necessarily feel like I do a lot for. The whole challenge of creating a reliable public infrastructure is an incredibly slow process, one that I know I won’t see move much in my two years here. I consider our campaign a success but have no idea if it will help improve things in the long run, seeing as something like this requires not only the cooperation of the public, but the reliability of government institutions like the Mairie, which is pretty much always up in the air. New local elections are currently scheduled for November 27. Stay tuned....

~Fatouma

Friday, June 11, 2010

But I thought money didn't matter!

The cultural differences between my villagers and I are numerous and complicated. They could probably fill a book, maybe several. Having been in Niger almost a year, I have forgotten about some, or rather learned to accept them, but still struggle with many on a daily basis. My life at home was quite opposite that of my village now, and not just in terms of amenities. I actually think very little of electricity or indoor plumbing; though I still miss cheese a lot. Before coming to Niger I lived in my own little apartment with my own jobs, schedules, possessions and agendas. While my friends and I would probably be quick to insist on the presence of community in our lives, I see now that it was largely absent, or perhaps just different. Community was something we could enter and exit as we felt necessary. We could visit the local farmers’ market, see a show at a neighborhood bar, talk to interesting strangers on the bus if we so chose, and in general interact with our surroundings as needed before returning home to our individual comforts. My neighbors and I always said hello in the hallways, held the door for each other in the laundry room, but I don’t remember any of their names.

Ah, those were the days I suppose. Community is important in America and relationships with others are valued, but we do not come close to communal living that surrounds me now in Africa. My house is considered open to anyone, my belongings up for grabs if not being used, and a brief good morning to the neighbors is not acceptable. Eating alone is avoided, parenting becomes the responsibility of anyone older than said kid, and you best believe everyone is all up in people’s business. It is easy in America to romanticize communal living, picturing tiny villages where everyone gets along and works together. Likewise, as an American living in Niger, it is easy to think, holy crap I want my studio apartment back with a deadbolt and my dvd collection. Like most things, our two cultures both have their good and bad sides. The best we can do is try to understand each other.

While struggling with these various cultural barriers, another volunteer recommended a book to me called African Friends and Money Matters and it helped to put into words a lot of the differences in daily life that seem so frustrating to deal with here. The book focuses on the different ways Africans and Westerners view money and friendship. There were several moments while reading when I said to myself, "Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been dealing with!"

Some of the points I though important to share as they come into play in my life and work here everyday. As far as money goes, there are very different attitudes towards it in my village versus how we would think of it at home. The author explains that for many Africans, saving money is not really an option. It is meant to be spent and if you can’t spend it, someone else can and that’s that. This is true of many goods, not just cash. Stocking up, saving money or goods is not really done. I notice this with food especially. My villagers buy sauce ingredients as needed from small shops nearby, usually in pre-portioned amounts. For example, you don’t buy a can of tomato paste. The shop owner buys the can, then individually wraps spoonfuls of it into little plastic bags and sells those. When my neighbors are making dinner, they send a kid (or sometimes me) to buy the ingredients for that meal; a single serving of oil, tomato paste, peppers, etc. One day my coworker was buying a little bag of sugar to put in our tea and I asked why he didn’t just buy a whole kilo in the market. I had recently purchased one and it was far less expensive than paying for a little bag with the equivalent of a spoonful of sugar each day. He dismissed the idea as impossible. Where would he get the money for that? I didn’t understand at all. He was spending more money buying so many smaller portions. It made no sense! The book I read spoke directly to these spending habits. Buying more than is needed at any one time is rare because there will inevitably be someone to come along needing that item and you would be obligated to give it to them. If my coworker bought a kilo of sugar to put in his tea every morning, anyone else that needed sugar and happened to be passing by would probably ask for some. Case in point, when my neighbors found out I had an oatmeal can full of sugar, I got frequent requests whenever sugar was needed. In short, Costco should not look into expanding to Africa. Stick to the West where it makes sense to buy a twenty gallon tub of peanut butter.

So how do you get rid of a large sum of money you ask? No, not a bank account, that’s rarely done. The book points out that many people will invest it slowly in their homes by purchasing a plot of land a slowly building their property up. This made me laugh because indeed, there are half finished homes all around my village and everywhere else I’ve been in Niger. The same was true when I was in Ghana as well.

One of my favorite things summarized in the book was the observation that Africans are hospitable, Westerners are charitable. I thought this summed things up pretty well. The author makes the point that Africans will feed and shelter a guest even at an inconvenience to them and this has certainly been my experience here. I am always offered something to eat or drink if I visit someone’s house and I frequently see guests arrive from out of town and allowed to stay as long as they’d like with no complaint. Westerners on the other had are more likely to show their generosity by giving to a charity or contributing to a community project in a more anonymous way. It is common to see Nigeriens giving to beggers on the street, whereas in America, we prefer not to, figuring that donating money to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen will do more good in the long run than giving a dollar to the bum on the subway. I don’t know if one is better than the other. I guess our preference simply has more of a long term outlook versus the shorter term here.

Some other points made by the book that I have noticed in my village here are quoted below. Sorry to laundry list these but they have or will I'm sure all come out in other posts in more depth.

"Africans are very sensitive and alert to the needs of others and are quite ready to share their resources"
"Being involved financially and materially with friends and relatives is a very important element of social interaction"
"Many people buy meals at canteens set up on many street corners, outside of factory gates, and at other convenient locations" (even if it is more expensive)
"Africans readily share space and things but are possessive of knowledge" (This is a really important point I think and I’ll be writing a post about it just as soon as I can)
"People who have many possessions or a surplus of money are prejudged to be selfish egoists who are insensible to the needs of others"
"Africans do not budget for special events; rather, they spend as much money and other resources as they can marshal for each one" (This is why every naming ceremony and wedding I go to, I am bombarded for requests for money donations to help cover the costs)
"Friendships and other relationships are built and maintained with gifts" (This is exhausting!!!!!)
"Compliments are frequently given indirectly in the form of requests for gifts or loans and are often formulated as questions" (So, when my friend says she wants my bra, she really just thinks it’s nifty?)
"Africans find security in ambiguous arrangements, plans, and speech" (this makes this particular American want to bang her head against a wall at times)
"The value of a development project is not to be measured by its long-term success" (try explaining monitoring and evaluation procedures to your Nigerien counterpart)
"The response “No” to a request for money, a loan, or a material object is understood as an insult, indifference to need, a lack of respect, or a sign of rejection of the petitioner" (I’ve gotten into trouble with this one before. It requires some creative responses to requests.)
"Change is frequently a problem in business transactions" (We all know the lady at the bank here that will give you small bills and it’s a good day in Niger if you’ve got a change purse full of small coins!)

While reading this was helpful in understanding my village’s perspective on money and friendship, I found myself getting increasingly depressed while reading it. It was not in the way it was summing up Africans to the Western eye, but rather how I was realizing how they were seeing me. I love the people I live and work with and I want them to like me too. But how can we build meaningful relationships if I’m simply thought of as a rich, anti-social, selfish girl with nothing to offer? Furthurmore, it is really a luxury for me to be able to pick up a book and have a culture explained to me but how does that work for my illiterate friends here who only have my actions and explanations to learn from. It creates quite a lot of pressure. On a good day I can embrace where I am living and gently show my side of things but not everyday is a good one and I’m sure a lot of the time I seen quite strange to people here.

It rained the afternoon before leaving my village and coming in to write this post and I was flipping through a book of quotes that someone sent me from home. I was struck by one that said this:

“If you want trust, trust others.
If you want respect, respect others.
If you want help, help others. If you want
Love and peace in your life, give them away.
If you want great friends, be one.
That’s how it works.”
-Dan Zadra

As volunteers, we arrive here wondering a thousand things about this crazy foreign place; do people laugh the same, do they work the same, do they make friends, play with their kids, feel sad the same? I think in a broad sense, yes they do. And I also think that despite our differences we all have great capacity for good. Whether in my single person apartment in DC or in my shared mud brick concession in Niger, I have found that people are pretty damn cool. The culture thing just makes it harder to share it with one another. So, that’s the job we should all be working on I suppose.

- Fatouma

Again, the book is called African Friends and Money Matters by David Maranz