Millet Fields in Rainy Season

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Transition Conference

The conference was filled with deep sighs, dramatic pauses form the orators, and sarcastic quips from all the usual suspects, myself included. Despite having four members of the Peace Corps Niger staff in Morocco with us, we nonetheless felt the presence and direction of the “transition team,” mostly composed of staff from D.C., to be overwhelming. I commend them for their efforts; they did a great job with a shitty situation. Tondi, Valerie (Country Director), Walter, and Jenelle were also going through a loss, and for this reason, Washington decided to put them in charge of only simple tasks, for fear of them getting emotional, I suppose.

Paperwork was filled out, medical sessions and interviews conducted, and summaries of our service written. All in all, major life decisions were given 72 hours to resolve themselves. The options were as follows: 1) close your PC Niger service, receiving most of the benefits of being an RPCV (returned peace corps volunteer), and call it quits, move on with your life, 2) close your PC Niger service, (PC pays your plane ticket home of course) and re-enroll, planning to wait 3-6 months to get a new assignment and starting fresh but all over again, a full 27 months, 3) sign up to be considered for one of a handful of positions for direct transfer, … … you know what, I’m going to spare you the details. Just know that there were a lot of things to consider, very little time, and everything was up in the air. Many people went home, some knowing that once home they probably wouldn’t be willing to “waste” three to six months waiting for a new position (we’ll see what unemployment does for those friends though) working with as little as 1500USD of readjustment allowance. So, a few of us opted for a newly crafted option called ERS (expedited return to service). Meaning: we would bypass the re-enrollment rigmarole and be put into a PST as early as March 1st, which is when my particular program in Costa Rica will begin.

All of these decisions were to be finalized on Wednesday the 19th of January and there was much talk of the necessity for the ‘stars to align’ in order for a direct transfer or an ERS to work out. Now, it just so happens that January 19th was a full moon. I wouldn’t call myself superstitious, I might be a mystic, but not superstitious. However, I have seen the moon shape the tides and I’ve seen a total eclipse of the sun, as well as the effects they have on the human spirit, and it seems utterly stressful to make such an important decision on this full moon. But, when I exited the hotel and walked down the alleyway toward the payphone to call home, I looked up and there was the brilliant moon herself, larger than usual and as full as can be. I felt her power and was grateful. For others, to be sure, the stars did not align… at least not as they had hoped. In my humble and ridiculous opinion all things in this world are always and eternally in their right place; call it fate, call it destiny, (don’t call it causality or determinism) I won’t give it a name, because to give it a name is to tarnish its perfection. Let yourself melt into it and it into you, for it cannot be symbolized.

Tune into my new blog address: , for the next chapters in my adventures. We are all connected in ways we shouldn’t know.

The Flight

My particular airport experience was tainted by a familiar foe, a parting gift of food poisoning which left me in the fetal position on the airport floor in those few moments when I wasn’t doing abdominal crunches over the toilet. I remember flashes of security guards, asking me “Kana da lahiya?” “Bani da lahiya.” I said. Another flash and I was lying on some chairs. When I came to my senses I was landing in Burkina Faso and the sun was rising. Next to me sat a bizarre character with a scraggly beard and hemp bracelets…but no, he was not a Peace Corps Volunteer. Our breakfast trays arrived at that moment and I declined, but it got put down anyway, so I offered it to the strange young man. He declined then I said something in Hausa I faded back into unconsciousness. The plane shook gently as we hit the runway and as I awoke, feeling no nausea, I breathed a sigh of relief divining the source of my illness to be measly food poisoning and not giardia, amoebic cysts, or Allah knows what else. Feeling the immense calm and love of life, health, and breath that almost always follows recovery, I took in my surroundings with a Buddha’s smile. I conversed with the man who didn’t eat my breakfast and he unnecessarily apologized for not doing so. I asked him what he was doing in Burkina Faso without searching for a segway; I was unfiltered and very receptive at that particular moment. His story involved his band “Kermesz a l’est,” some sort of banjo rock band. He plays the banjo and his group was in Burkina for two weeks doing a sort of musical and cultural exchange. Being from Belgium, he spoke an awfully pure French. I, on the other hand, was speaking a highly African French characterized by the use of “vraiment” and excessive amounts of “quoi.” I promised to go see him and his band in Belgium if I were ever in the area.

Going through security without much delay we gathered our luggage and boarded tow massive and remarkably clean buses. We cruised along the coast and through the Moroccan countryside, finally arriving in the hotel in Rabat (not Robot) after navigating traffic, something that none of us was ready to experience. Almost all of the elements characteristic of this and of any city seemed foreign and slightly sour to us.

The End

I only have a few entries left to write. Now that all ninety-eight Peace Corps Volunteers have been safely evacuated from Niger following the kidnapping and subsequent deaths of two Frenchmen living and working in Niamey, I am free to blog about these not-so-current events and the fate of PC Niger.

On January 11th we were informed by our fearless and saintly training site manager, my truest confidant, and our surrogate father, Tondi, that the PC Niger program was being suspended. He read a prepared statement from Washington; it was dry and conclusive.

The implications quickly started to be understood. All of our villagers wouldn’t quite understand why something that happened in Niamey means that I, Saadou, have to leave my safe and secure home in Koré Maïroua. The volunteers who were in the most dangerous positions were obviously those stationed in the capital, working alongside NGOs and other organizations. But the more rural volunteers live in a network of houses, a neighborhood and community that would never allow something like a kidnapping to happen. So why did we have to leave? Eventually we the volunteers accepted the rationale for the evacuation and began to think about our futures, but what came first was a set of goodbyes. All my friends in the small town of Koré said, “Sai wata rana,” (until another day) mostly because I didn’t have the courage to express to them the gravity of the situation. Others with whom I could employ my French understood more deeply what this meant for our budding friendships. Fortunately, as is not the case in all evacuations, we were allowed to go back to our villages for one day, gather our things, and say goodbye to our work partners and our amazing friends, some of them people we had grown closer to in those few months than many of our friends in America.

Goodbyes were, and always are, painful. I usually convince myself that they don’t have to be, but these were so brisk and unexpected that I found myself tearing up all too often. As Tondi said once, “you know, Nigeriens say that you aren’t supposed to cry in public, but right now…you need to cry, you need to do it.” There were many expressions of confusion, disbelief, disappointment, and sadness on people’s faces. I gave away chairs, mats, tables, my bed and mattress, pots and pans, string, a hammer, and countless other small items. I was giving away small but significant pieces of my Nigerien identity, the things, simple and scarce as they were, that had come to represent my new life, a wonderful and inexplicably rich life. Sure, some of you will say that I am idealizing this period, pretending like I loved every moment. This is true. When something is taken from you it becomes much more desirable than it was when you took it for granted. But to say the Nigerien people were the most sincere, honest, and hospitable people I’ve ever met, is not an idealization or an exaggeration.

I left my village like a ghost, putting on my turban so only a few people would be able to recognize me as I drove through town for the last time, not wanting to exchange greetings that I had come to love. Eventually, people trickled into the hostel from the far out regions of Maradi, Zinder, and Diffa, some of them in the beloved Peace Corps Magic Bus. The last night there we invited many of our Nigerien friends who lived in the capital, our past ‘formateurs’ during training, to spend some time with us on our last night in country. Emotions were all over the place. 2AM rolled around after our all-nighter and we loaded and left the hostel with a convoy of five Land Cruisers, one pick-up truck, and two all the sudden not-so-magic buses. Cruising through the streets we took familiar turns but the avenues were barren, deserted, unrecognizable. We didn’t pass a living soul. Sometimes the silence was heavy but being the amazing group we are, our favorite inside jokes bubbled up to the surface for the last few times. Most of us loaded the plane to Morocco in a state of sleepy disbelief and general numbness.

Saturday, December 25, 2010



Excerpt from “The Glass Bead Game” (Das Glasperlenspiel), by Herman Hesse

“Sometimes he felt capable of any achievements. At other times he might forget everything and daydream with a new softness and surrender, listen to the wind and rain, gaze into the chalice of a flower or the moving waters of a river, understanding nothing, divining everything, lost in sympathy, curiosity, the craving to comprehend, carried away from his own self toward another, toward the world, toward the mystery and sacrament, the at once painful and lovely disporting of the world of appearances.”

Can you imagine being presented with this passage and only understanding every third or fourth word? My abounding love for learning, books, and literature is steering my aspirations, the goals of my service, toward the creation of a public library. I have not yet reached the six month mark and have not, therefore, participated in the famed In-Service Training (IST) which will provide me with the basic knowledge and courage to start a real project. At this point I couldn’t get started even if I was overly anxious enough to want to. The training will be mostly centered on funding sources available to volunteers. Unfortunately, books are very expensive. But, I have opened my eyes to start searching for the future librarian for the Public Library and Community Center of K___ M________. (Edited for security)

Other volunteers have succeeded in the creation of a library but stories, myths, and warnings are circulated about wonderful libraries without librarians, without the money to pay them, or without continued interest from the community. It is very anti-PC of me to say this, but having a library without patrons still seems better to me than having no library at all. I grew up with a library always available (not that I spent ALL my time there) and I have grown to love stepping into the atmosphere of silent contemplation only a library can offer. It’s almost as if the building itself is thinking…deeply thinking. It’s like a living organism with one organ dwelling hopelessly on romance and love, another organ totally rational and valuing only pure facts and figures, and yet another devoted to distant pasts and forgotten languages and cultures. To stumble around a library is to stumble around the world, when your checkbook can’t quite provide the means to do so in real life. I just can’t imagine what my life, especially the last five years of my life, would have been like if libraries didn’t exist. So, you, faithful blog readers, will clearly be hearing more about libraries from me.

Today was bittersweet; as is every day to some extent, especially in the Peace Corps. I spoke to my favorite high school teacher and he informed me that he no longer works at the CEG, he has been reassigned to a different village. For many volunteers, myself included, this is a constant surprise and disappointment. People from schools and mayor’s offices will appear one day, brighten your life indescribably, and disappear the next. You think you find someone who will be a key to your happiness and possibly someone who will provide help with projects and moments later they are moved to some random location, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away. They have little to no say, of course, because they are in need of the job and saying no to a new assignment means you’re broke! I value flexibility and I try to embody it literally and figuratively, but my God, it sometimes seems there is no rhyme or reason to the process. En tous cas, I wish my friends wouldn’t be taken from me with such stunning frequency.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Southwest Potatoes

So I peel the potatoes and cut them meticulously into uniformly random pieces, about the size of a quarter and as thick as three nickels, never four. All the while I can already taste the finished product. Usually, as is the case with human neurology as well as many other animals, more pleasure is had preparing and anticipating the reward than when actually or receiving it. But in retrospect, tasting the southwest seasoning doused liberally on these potato bits, fried golden brown, with precious olive oil, may have been the moment of purest pleasure all day long. There’s something about southwest seasoning that sets me right. I couldn’t help singing to myself as I flipped up the frying pan, sending the potatoes into the air and letting them fall back into the pan. The sound of the sizzling, the silence of the potatoes in the air, and then the sizzling again. The kitchen is a place of mediation, of the yoga of cooking. Rarely, while preparing food, am I somewhere else mentally. Each cut, each potato peeled keeps me right here in the kitchen, right now, totally in the moment. Later, when eating the food my mind begins to ramble. In Hausa there’s a word for things that come into your mind, or in a Hausa’s terminology are brought into your mind, while you are eating. Santi is that word. If you bring up something random, or even not so random, while eating a Hausa will tell you that you did santi. I’m starting to demystify this concept for myself (as Westerners often do) while writing this entry. Now, I think about those ideas coming to me as me leaving the now moment in which, while cooking the food I was so absorbed – skittering off into the infinite array of memories and connections after having been so present in the kitchen. But now I will re-mystify because this idea of santi, if said by a Nigerien man, who never cook the food themselves, can’t be explained by my justification above. I suppose I’ll have to accept the mystery and destiny of santi. And back to Southwest Potatoes. I hope potatoes come into my life now as GI disorders did during my first three months. For the last 18 months before coming to Niger I avoided starchy vegetables like potatoes like the plague. I indeed thought it a crime to call them vegetables at all! Now here I am, asking Allah to bring me more.


So as the story goes (and correct me if I’m wrong): God musters up the courage to speak and s/he’s all like “Yo Abraham, what you’re gunna have to do is kill your son to prove your love for me.” Then Abraham is all like, “Aight God, you’re pretty stellar, if I do say so myself, so I’ll do it.” Abraham is about to do the deed when, in a stunning anti-climax, God decides that he should just kill a sheep instead.
The rest is his-tory. This morning a huge amount of men, women, and children went to the largest mosque in town, one that is used only twice a year for Tabaski and Ramadan, for a special 9am prayer. The sheep stayed home and surely sensed the change of atmosphere, something was brewing out there, they could feel it. After the prayer everyone returned home in an anxious trot, mentally prepared for the sheepicide. And so it was that today, hundreds of bah-ing sheep and maa-ing goats had their lives ended in tribute to Abraham’s fealty, and to the love of God. The scene was so gory and bloody that it seemed to me to be out of a movie. Pools of brilliant red blood in the 10am sunlight. “Jini ya yi yawa,” said a little girl – too much blood. Yeah, I said in English, yeah.
Within the next few hours certain households started burning huge piles of wood surrounded by as many as ten or twelve carcasses. They would be slow roasted and basted in the animal’s own body fat, but not eaten until the next morning, as is the tradition. Instead, the first day of the fête families feast on the organs only. As they day progressed there were many events worthy of recounting but they were more like non-events, a sort of daydream. I went to my neighbor’s house and whether it was planned this way or not I arrived at the exact time that they were ready to eat – but this was no normal meal. There was ice water. There was couscous and a sauce unparalleled by anything I have ever tasted in Niger. His wife, whose name I still can’t pronounce, is full of mystical powers. She is something like a sorceress when she begins to brew these unspeakably delicious stews, of which she will never tell me the full list of ingredients. The sauce was full of melt-in-your-mouth onions, tomatoes, and peppers poured over perfectly cooked guinea fowl and chicken. My first sip of cold water put me into a trance and I departed this sweet world for a brief moment.
I started to walk around and made it 200 ft. before I sat down to drink some tea with some people I’ve never met. There was a guy named Jos, dressed super-fly and a red car (with air-conditioning he assured me) was parked nearby. Apparently he is some sort of village celebrity back from Cotonou where he works selling motorcycles and cars. People were flocking to him having heard that he was back in town and I was along for the ride. I stayed for almost three hours talking to him about Niger, being a bachelor, business, and the U.S. After a while I realized I should visit more people so I made my way to the road and sat down with some friends where I often have profitable conversations. BBC Nigeria was on and I tried to understand as much as possible. The problem with understanding a discourse or lecture in a new language is the moment the speaker makes the switch to pronouns and ceases to mention the people, places, or processes that are the basis of the discussion. If you happened to have missed any one of these things you are hopelessly lost. Only rarely do I catch all the details.
The two o’clock prayer rolled around and when everyone went to the mosque I went to the tasha, where all the personal vehicles which constitute Nigerien public transport pass through. To my surprise, there were people engaged in all sorts of card games and gambling. I guess I thought, or assumed, that a culture that prohibits alcohol and concubinage would also prohibit gambling. I played some foosball (yes even in Niger, except no beer to go with it) and despite my partner being the best player in the tasha, I lost the game for us in a miserable display of ham-fistedness. Embarrassed, but smiling, I walked home ready to relax but I was called into a concession, it was the home of Baragé, a man who started the École Privé here in town. Also there was the co-founder of the school, ex-vice-mayor, founder of the Centre de Developpement Communautaire, and village badass, Moumouni. This is where I learned the most about the traditions of the fête. We laughed a lot, sat on mats, it was quite wonderful.
Soon thereafter, Moumouni asked me if I wanted to take a trip to Mai Kalgo, a nearby village. Sure, I said. When do you want to go? He asked. Whenever you want, I said. How about tomorrow and we’ll come back Saturday? …Ok, yeah, sure. I said, running through all the possible snags in this plan. I have learned to keep my word much more than in the U.S. because you’ll get some serious beef from people even for small promises that you don’t keep. I was not sure what to expect of the visit or the village but he assured me that he has a house and family there and it will be fun. See entry, Mai Kalgo for details on this trip.
After an hour or so, the sun was about 45 minutes from setting so I headed towards my house. Halidou, my neighbor, called me in from the street and with a slight reluctance I entered. “You got here just when the organs are ready to eat.” He says calmly. At this point I’m just a molecule of water flowing in the River Tabaski, ready to go anywhere and unable to change my destiny. Destiny then led me to eat some intestines, then they brought the liver which, delicious and meaty, I devoured. Then came the heart, and I recalled the sheep whose head I had rubbed just that morning, and as I ate his heart, sautéed in a frying pan of his own body fat, I felt something of the sheep’s life force, and I rejoiced. Halidou came over with a bag full of dates. “Eat these and you won’t have diarrhea.” I asked him if even Nigeriens get diarrhea and he said, Yes of course. I foresaw the future, dates would do me no good but I ate them anyway. The question remains as to whether it is the bacteria from the meat that causes the diarrhea or the sheer quantity of easily digestible meat relative to the other foods eaten during the day.
I went home after a vigorous hand washing and took an open air shower in the twilight. All the mud walls around my house were a brilliant orangish red, and I felt overwhelmed by appreciation for the pastel orange and purple clouds and the way they augmented the ethereal twilight.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tinctures and teeth, pelts and poisons!

Every village of sufficient size has one day every week when the market area, built of wooden shade hangers and old, beaten trees fills past its limits with people selling everything imaginable. People come on foot, in bush taxi, donkey or cow cart, or in the back of trucks from near and far to haggle for the things they need. Some markets have only animals, and others only sandals and raw meat. But most, like my market, are a wonderful sight full of options and have a wonderful bustling energy. Farmers and herders come from far away with cucumbers, okra, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, sugarcane, hot peppers, salt, spices, herbs. City folk come out with medicines in boxes for every possible ailment, they bring from the market-rich regional capitals tomatoes, bananas, pineapples, mirrors, string, cell phones, oranges and watermelons. Herders, often of the Fulani ethnic group, dressed in winter hats and interesting vests, bring cattle, donkeys, goats and sheep. One might also find a camel for sale or a horse.
However, one does not go to the market expecting to find all of these things. They always have certain staple items but produce is hit-or-miss in almost every market, and prices have varied even over the four short months I have been here. At market nothing has a price of its own. Bardering is a skill learned very young, as well as selling for a profit. Kids spend a few hours out in the fields every day collecting weeds and other shrubs to bring back into town and sell as animal feed. Being a person who, because of my whiteness, is obviously chalk full of money, at least enough to have come here in a plane to begin with, I tend to encounter some ruthless bargainers. But those of you who know me well can see me walking away from many a sale instead of being ripped off and setting the stage for future rip-offs. My favorite line when given an obviously inflated price is "even for a Nigerien?" You scoundrel. We both smile and either I ask him to lower his price "because of Allah" and he does, or I find a different seller. One good advantage of markets here is that there is always more than one person selling any one item.
There is one man I am anxious to get to know, the Medicine Man. He has tinctures and teeth, pelts and poisons! When I get my language down I will discover his training, his lineage, his mysterious salves and perfumes! It took all my restraint not to buy the rock python skin, head and fangs included. It was beautiful. Who would have thought that my biggest predicament this week would be whether to buy a snakeskin or an oscillating fan...