In the past month life has been a whirlwind to say the least. Between cramming in Hausa, learning Nigerien culture, and socializing there has been little time for much else.
Saturday, November 28 was Tabaski, an Islamic holiday celebrating the sacrificed sheep which Abraham kills instead of his son Ishmael. We went to a service in the morning and participated in the prayers, which is mostly a lot of kowtowing. They then waited until most of the participants had left to sacrifice a white sheep. Upon returning to the home we did henna (which is actually Chinese hair dye because real henna takes too long to make) and while we were in the hut they killed three of our sheep. The rest of the day was spent taking pictures and watching the sheep roast. I ate innards of one of the sheep, details in the food post.
By a few days left here I mean that as I post this (I’m typing it up before I get to internet) I will be already en route to my new location. The security situation in Niger has changed in the past weeks to the point in which it is not feasible to keep trainees in country. While we have been waiting for news as to what is to become of us we have been consolidated in a safe place and until the past week presumed we would be returning to our host families and eventually going to post. Instead we have been consolidated and have only returned to our host families for a short time to experience Tabaski and say our goodbyes. Some of the current volunteers in Niger have been displaced because of heightened security and they continue to hope for their futures to be determined. So let me return to my point, instead of staying in Niger we are doing the next best thing. Peace Corps has wrangled a rather unprecedented switch of stages. Instead of breaking up our group of trainees which is the most common way to deal with an evacuation of trainees, they have managed to place us together (minus one person due to medical reasons L) in Madagascar, a country which is just now reopening to Peace Corps volunteers. We are all sad to have to leave Niger because of the people and the community which has so warmly welcomed us but in light of the situation not too many people are upset about being sent to Madagascar instead.
From Hard Corps to Beach Corps this is going to be a huge switch. We’ve all packed for the completely opposite environment and have learned so much Hausa or Zarma when we will instead need to be learning Malagasy. Its great that we are going to be transferred as a group since we already have formed some close bonds within the group and losing that and our new homes would be a lot to bear. We will be repeating all of training and have been placed into new sectors since while there is overlap between sectors, the countries differ so we are being reassigned.
Since my time in Niger is at a close I’ve done my best to summarize difference aspects of Nigerien life. The experience of being adopted into Nigerien society is amazing and unique and I carry the memory of it for a lifetime.
In America I was led to believe that some other countries contained many starving children. After spending time in Niger it is often more apparent that children and adults are malnourished rather than famished. Few people go to bed hungry and often they eat until content. With limited resources such as quality soil, rain, or moderate temperatures most people are sustained on an assortment of grains, occasional meat, and only seasonal fruits and vegetables. This leads to many nutrient deficiencies and during harsher parts of the year, food scarcity. The most common dishes seems to be rice with sauce, mashed millet or rice with an okra sauce, and noodles with sauce. Each of these can vary depending on what vegetables are available and more wealthy families often have meat or veggies in the sauces.
Condiments and seasonings are also very different from at home. Instead of salt and pepper on the table there may be tonka (crushed red chilies) in the middle of the bowl. Another common thing to find is Maggi an additive which mostly relies on MSG for its flavor. While you can occasionally find salt its generally rude to ask for other seasonings and thus you can either eat what is set before you or insist that you really are full after just a few bites. Out of several weeks of food here I’ve only had one where this has actually happened and another person I was eating with quickly realized that I simply didn’t enjoy the sauce and scraped it off of the rice for me. She wasn’t offended because it meant more sauce for her.
Texture and preferred flavors are almost completely different from America. In few American dishes can anything be described as bitter. In Niger cola nuts hold special importance and to my palate are one of the harshest and most unpleasant things to taste. Things can often also be bitter and sweet at the same time which is very confusing for me. Unfamiliar textures come into play and one in particular comes to mind with the term “snot sauce” which while running down the side of the bowl does resemble mucus. Vegetables are often cooked beyond recognition or ground up and then cooked. While millet pounding takes up a large part of a woman’s day, I’ve also participated in grinding onions, peppers, and tomatoes.
There are of course the more (for Americans) untraditional foods such as locusts and animal innards. Locusts when fried with salt or pepper taste rather delicious, especially if cooked until the texture is more like a cracker. So far sheep intestine has been the best of the innards, both in texture and flavor. Heart, tongue and liver were less to my taste but also cooked very thoroughly since our family is told to cook the meat well done so that we don’t get sick.
Traditional Nigerien foods are definitely different but I am hoping to take home some of the sauce recipes as some are delicious. I’ve lost the weight that I gained to come here after I decided to plump up for Africa and have even lost a few more pounds on top of that. This is mostly because of the way in which food is eaten. Most people do not eat at tables but rather on mats on the ground. Shoes must not be worn while on the mat. A communal bowl is shared, generally with a maximum of 4 people per bowl or platter. You then eat with your right hand only and try to maneuver oily rice (or other oily substance) into your mouth. One sign of a good Nigerien is if you can manage doing this for an entire meal without dropping anything. Most people sit in front of the bowl with their legs crossed since leaning is not appropriate. You also must stay within your region of the platter/bowl and so you may or may not get the meat or vegetables that you desire if they land in the wrong area. This is one way that diseases are spread a little less (unless of course you have a child in your concession who is too young to understand they are not allowed to “voyager”). For Peace Corps Trainees we always wash our hands before and after a meal.
More important than food in this country is water. With varying water tables throughout the country many places spend much effort obtaining water. Most Nigeriens do not drink water very often and you will almost never see them carrying water with them or drinking it outside of their homes. This is also part of the reason that they usually are not sweating as living on the borderline of dehydration is a way of life here. Water is reserved for washing and cooking, only occasionally is it taken by itself. This being said the people here are great at conserving water and my roommate and I had two water containers of about five to six gallons which we only needed refilled every two to three days. This means between bathing and drinking water we were very conscious. Baths here consist of a fenced off area with a drain (which leads to the latrine hole), a stool, a bucket and a cup. It is actually really nice to take a bath under the stars as long and it saves a ton of water. For latrine use the trainees are given toilet paper but most Nigeriens use a buta (kettle) filled with water and use their left hand (reason you don’t eat with your left hand) to splash and clean themselves. We filter all of our drinking water here to avoid getting sick. Used water is then poured on plants. In many ways they have a lot less here and in many ways they use it so much more efficiently that it is not an issue.
By the time we left for our host families houses the third day we arrived we also were informed of the language we were to learn. I started learning Hausa that same day. For the most part the language is not difficult other than that some things do not translate and there are certain consonants that have qualities that I cannot repeat, particularly an explosive K. Language classes took up most of the time of our training and we commonly had three, one and a half hour classes per day. After this many hours of class everybody gets tired of language and just wants to rest. As the weather cooled down it became more bearable and at five weeks in we were getting to the point of being more comfortable using our language skills and being able to form coherent conversations.
Some of my favorite things phrases that do not directly translate are “Sannu de kokkari” (greetings on your effort), “Ina gashiya?” (how is the tiredness?), and “Watekila” (pronounced wa-tequila meaning maybe). In Zarma, the language that the other half of the trainees set out to learn, my favorite is “Hambaga” (which while distracted sounds like people are talking about hamburgers and means maybe).
The language teachers are all multi-lingual and talking to them often can be a bit confusing. Between what English, French, and Hausa each teacher knows we can usually manage a basic conversation. If you sit by them at meals it also is a mixture of languages, this time including Zarma as well. Most of the trainees have also adopted such methods, spewing out the word in whatever language comes to them first. This has resulted in some random words in Japanese, German, Spanish, as well as many others. The only things that we end up really needing to look up in the dictionary are the ones that can’t be made into a picture or conveyed in another language that everybody knows.
Family and society
I moved in with my host family the third day in Niger after only a single lesson in Hausa. My host family has three mothers: Salamatu, Maymoona, and Idoe, one father: Mati, a son Bashiru, and a daughter Zalika. My name here is Rachida and other than Peace Corps people this is what I’ve been referred to all the time. Most of the more rural families consist of a husband and at least two wives. While polygamy is ridiculed in many more developed places in the world in some ways it benefits the people here. In Niger there are more women than men and women work mostly to maintain the households with their average of more than seven births per woman. It quickly becomes more appealing to share work with another woman so that preparing meals from scratch (which takes it to a whole new meaning here compared to home) can be alternated or the work split in half.
Children are ever present in Niger. They are often found in a shirt or pair of underwear until they are of age to attend school. When they are younger than two they are carried on their mothers back in a sling that is tied in the front, around the breasts, slowly dragging everything downward. When they become old enough to attend school they wear full outfits and carry bags or backpacks. Most days they line the streets unattended playing near or within their homes. The most common thing I have heard in my time in Niger is “Fofo! Comment tu t’appelle?” yelled by small children. If you don’t turn to recognize this they quickly will repeat this or add on “Anasara!”. Somehow having “Hello! What is your name?, White person! Foreigner! Hello! What is your name?” yelled at you as you walk down to get breakfast gets annoying rather quickly. This can be partially solved by either telling them that you are not “anasara” or by creating a name, generally Blueberry or Flip-flop to entertain yourself and keep them from continuously asking questions. If you can get over the numerous annoying tendencies of children in the village, you can also see the great value of children in this society, especially for outsiders. Children are an entertaining source of new vocabulary and are not bothered by new language learners’ inability to correctly use grammar. They also can speak some French if they are in school and can translate certain ideas to your host parents. Most of us trainees have fallen in love with a few of the children here as they can be welcoming and make living with a new family an enjoyable experience.
As the years progress there are selection processes based on tests that allow children to move on in school. About a quarter of students move on after primary school to their equivalent of middle school and then again about a quarter moves on from middle school to high school. In high school there is some English taught so occasionally you will here bits of English (one man even told us to look him up if we were in the capitol and he would show us around the university). More boys continue their education than girls, mostly because of responsibilities at home though there is also the influence of it being more difficult to find a husband for a highly educated young woman. Women who continue their schooling through high school and university commonly adopt more “westernized” ideals and do not marry until later in life and do not accept their husband having as many wives. This is also true for women in cities, largely because the cost of living is high. Islamic law states that a man can only have multiple wives if he can provide for them well and equally, the same follows true for only having children that can be provided for. People living in the major cities mostly have only one wife and fewer children than other rural families.
The dynamic between wives can be very interesting. The majority of women have an appreciation for polygamy and even appreciate their husband taking another wife because their work load becomes more bearable. This does not mean that the relationships between wives are always a happy one, especially if the husband chooses to take another wife with little warning or to a significantly younger woman. Women are allowed to divorce or separate from their husband if he takes another wife she does not agree to although the woman loses many rights. Children go with the mother if she separates from her husband if they are under seven and generally go with the father if they are older. Divorcees are uncommon and generally either remarry quickly or face a lower position in society. The entrance of a new wife can cause quite an uproar within a family and while most families handle them well in the end, tensions can be present. To alleviate some of this, the new wife is expected to do a lot of work upon entering the family in order to give the older wives a break.
Ah, fashion! In an effort to organize this I’ll start from the top down and keep in mind children will always prove the exception to these standards. All women cover their hair if they are married or going to prayer. The only female hair you will see is that of an unmarried woman, and even they cover their hair sometimes too. Head wraps are tied in an assortment of ways, varying by style and by culture. Some women wear a cloth which drapes from their head like a shawl, covering their shoulders as well. Depending on the ethnic group and weather, men wear hats, turbans, or nothing on their head.
Hairstyles and facial scaring can also indicate a particular culture. Women often have their hair braided which keeps it out of the way, easy to cover, and lets the scalp breathe. I very quickly learned that a Mohawk is indicative of a young Fulani boy and is not culturally appropriate on a woman. Facial scarring varies within Niger and while some of the scarring on women is for solely to enhance beauty, other types indicate which ethnic group a person has descended from. Very few people wear glasses as there aren’t the resources to provide them or an optometrist. Earrings are acceptable on women and while a few places will accept nose rings most other piercings are viewed as strange. More conservative areas deem them unacceptable to be worn. Women occasionally shave off their eyebrows and sometimes paint them back on.
Shoulders are almost always covered, except for married women in the confines of their concession on the way to bathe. They are either covered by the draping shawl, a loose fitting top, or a shirt. As unfamiliar as this is, breasts are not unusual to be seen as married women commonly breastfeed while talking to you or wash their top half. While this might sound exciting it is more akin to watching the National Geographic specials (refer to how they carry infants). Culturally breasts are not the sexual objects they are in America and instead greater importance is placed on covering the area from the belly to knees. Men wear shirts or jackets at all times when women are present. These shirts can range from an Obama jersey to a traditional flowing bubu (flowing garb which is dress like and covers everything).
Women usually wear long wrap skirts (pagne French/Zarma, zane in Hausa). The flap is on the left hip and if it is tied with strings rather than tucked in then the strings must be tucked in. There are methods to make this less restrictive on walking since they often are ankle-length but most of us still find our stride a bit shorter when we wear them. Women can also wear tailored skirts or dresses. Men wear pants.
Shoes vary but are generally plastic and foam flip-flops. In the hot or rainy season little else makes sense to prevent nasty foot infections. On special occasions women will wear nice flats or heels. On special occasions outfits also become more traditional which varies highly between the different people here. Henna can be worn (by women) on the hands and feet especially in preparation for a holiday or ceremony. Often times the entire bottoms of feet are covered in henna, dyeing them either black or red depending on the type used. Henna is also put on finger and toenails which (FYI) permanently stains them and you have to wait for them to grow out. The only time I noticed any male with henna on it was as a few boys painted on sideburns…hilarious.
In coming months I will be learning Malagasy in Madagascar which is supposedly an easy language to pick up as the past and future tense changes a word by one letter. The main difficulty will be trying to learn another language after stopping most of the way into Hausa lessons. We'll see how it goes! I'll post my new number when I get it.