Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Trekking Through Mali

I just returned from an incredible vacation, trekking through the Dogon country in southern Mali. The views were amazing from the ground looking up at the massive mesas as were the views from the cliff edges looking out and beyond. Just as incredible were the ancient Telem mud and stone houses built in the cliffs during the 11th century. It was ridiculously hot hiking but on the plus side it wasn't tourist season so we hardly saw any foreigners at all.

I ended up traveling with a German volunteer who lives and works in the Dosso region of Niger. He is fluent in French so that definitely helped out along the way. I've traveled in West Africa a bit so my experience helped when bargaining or trying to catch rides. We took a bus from Niamey to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso since we could not take the direct route from Niger to Mali for security reasons (four foreigners were just kidnapped near the Niger-Mali border a couple of months ago). We were well on our way and only a few hours shy of Burkina's capital when our bus rear-ended another big bus. Luckily no one was hurt but the buses were pretty smashed up, especially the front end of ours. Thankfully another bus came by which had some empty seats so we were able to hop on and catch a ride to Ouaga.

We spent only a couple of days in Ouaga just hanging out. My buddy Michael met up with some other Germans while I hung out with some Burkina PCVs. We were able to check out a soccer match- Abidjan vs. Ouagadougou- which turned out to be a really competitive game and fun to watch.

On day 3 we woke up way too early and caught a 6am bus north to the city of Ouayigouya in northern Burkina. We hung out there for a while, waiting for a bush taxi to fill up then finally took off, heading north towards Koro, a village just over the border in Mali. It was a rough bush taxi ride for many reasons- first of all we were on a bench seat facing another bench seat so our legs were in between the other mens' legs and vice versa (just awkward and uncomfortable); secondly we were driving on a red dirt road with the windows open so you can imagine what we looked like after 6 hours of red dust hitting us in the face (looked like a bad tan, but worse). About half way there we stopped in a small road-side village because of a flat tire. After waiting for about 30 minutes, Michael and I decided to find the local bar. Luckily it was just down the road and we spent the remainder of our time there drinking mildly cold Brakina beers. We finally made it to Koro just before sunset so we ended up staying at an encampment there, just pitching our tents for the night.

The next morning we got up and out early, catching a better bush taxi on a nicer road to the town of Bankass, one of the starting points for Dogon country trips. Since it was market day we checked that out for a while, buying some cool turbans and getting some local food for lunch. Luckily we got hooked up with a really cool guide, Moumouni, who spoke English as well as French. The first thing he told us was that the trip wasn't about the money for him but for us to enjoy ourselves. Amazing. That afternoon once it cooled down a bit we took a bush taxi the 10km to the base of the escarpment, a massive mesa which stretches 200km to the northeast. We took a small hike and ended in the village of Teli where we would spend the night. That evening before dark we hiked up the cliff face and checked out the ancient Telem houses, said to have been inhabited by pygmies before the Dogon people came and drove the Telem out. It was amazing how these houses have been preserved for so many centuries, not only because the villagers protect the area, but also because the huts are sheilded from the elements.

We spent the next day hiking at the base of the mesa, staying the night at Moumouni's village, Ende. Not only were we able to check out some more Telem dwellings but late in the afternoon we hiked to the top of the mesa and checked out the view as the sun set behind us. Incredible.

Our 3rd day was spent hiking down at the base of the mesa then in the afternoon we again trekked to the top and ended up staying at a village built on top of the mesa, right on the cliff edge. The views both at sunset and sunrise were indescribable.

Our 4th day was spent trekking around the top and that night we ended up at another mesa-top village at a really small encampment owned by a man named Abraham. He was a great guy and very benevolent. After an amazing dinner he played us a tune on his handmade 2-string "banjo" made with a 5-liter tin and stick. He also did a skit for us including some traditional Dogon dancing and singing. Definitely one of my favorite spots of the trip.

Our last day left us in Dourou, a larger village, also on the top of the mesa. We stayed at a really nice encampment called the Oasis. Since it was market day we were able to stroll through and check it out. In the afternoon we climbed down the mesa and checked out a valley which was first covered in small sand dunes and as we decended we came upon a fertile valley with gardens of tobacco, eggplant, onion and lettuce along with massive mango trees.

The trip back was long and pretty uneventful. I ended up taking one bus for 11 hours and then making it to the bus station at 2am, stayed there until 7am for the second bus to leave, then another 10 hours back to Niamey. The second bus was awful since there were no windows that opened, only the tiny cracks for the emergency exits in the ceiling. On top of that many people bought fried fish to eat on the bus and one woman had a bucket of raw fish that she was bringing to Niger. The smell, well you get the picture. Ahh, gotta love traveling in Africa.

We were able to see the process for weaving the unique cotton blankets then dying them with indigo, the men carving the traditional Dogon masks, and men making traditional beaded necklaces. At each encampment we stayed on the roofs of the traditional Dogon rock huts, climbing hand-carved ladders to reach the top and then waking up each morning to catch the sunrise.

It was an amazing trip overall. Of all of the countries I've visited in West Africa, Dogon country in Mali was my favorite all around. Not only were the views amazing, but the Dogon people have a rich culture and the fact that they have preserved the ancient ruins was amazing.

Village Learns About AIDS

I just recently got funding from a worldwide AIDS fund and decided to do a project in my village. Working with a local NGO (non-governmental organization) based out of Gaya called Marketing Sociale, I made arrangements to have a "sensibilisation" or a village meeting focused on AIDS education.

Three "animators" or presenters came to my village along with my buddy Jeremy, a PCV down in Gaya. They arrived early on in the afternoon in order to give us plenty of time to set up and work out a program for the presentation. We had quite a few technical difficulties trying to set up a bunch of old electrical equipment for the presentation- projector, speakers, DVD player and microphone- but by dark we had it all rigged up, well, kind of.

The female presenters talked to the women and girls asking about the basics concerning AIDS prevention while the men did a condom demonstration. Afterwards we showed the crowd- yes there were A LOT of villagers there, over 150 men, women and children- a couple of videos which talked about AIDS- modes of transmission, prevention methods, etc. We then had a question and answer session to see what all the villagers had learned and what questions they still had.

Once it was all over with we ended up playing Nigerien music videos for my villagers which they were ecstatic about. Most of my villagers never have any form of entertainment other than listening to the radio so being able to watch videos on a big screen was very special for them, especially the women who took a break from their daily (and nightly) grind to enjoy the films.

The next morning, with the help of the NGO, we had a meeting with the two shop-keepers in town and explained the importance of having condoms in the village. As a result both men have begun to sell condoms in their shops. For me that was the best part about the entire meeting. The fact that condoms are readily available in the village for those who decide to use them is extremely important. It was a very rewarding experience for me as a volunteer since not only were people educated but since the shop-keepers are now selling condoms, it will be sustainable.


Hey guys, I know it's been a while since I've written. I've been here and there bust mostly in the bush, chilling and enjoying the slow-paced village life. Last month I went to Burkina Faso and traveled around the country with a friend of mine who I went to UA with. Although Burkina and Niger compete for who's last on the United Nations Development Index (who's the poorest country in the world), after visiting Burkina I think Niger definitely wins.

There were several things that stood out to me in Burkina that were different than in Niger- many were not easily recognizable but since I've lived in Niger for almost two years I could easily point out differences. One of the most noticeable things was that women everywhere were riding bicycles. Now that may not seem like a big deal but I think it is huge especially when it comes to women's development. The fact that they have transportation to be able to run their errands and go to the market is extremely important. Other differences I noticed: better and more paved roads, many more people driving scooters rather than bigger motorcycles, a bigger variety of fruits and vegetables, electricity in more places, dive bars EVERYWHERE and so many more people educated. I was surprised to hear most everyone in the city, even children, speaking French to each other. Mind-opening.

I spent a couple of nights in the capital, Ouagadougou just checking out the city and eating a lot of frozen yogurt. From there I headed with my friend Melissa to her town, Koudougou where we checked out the market and ate a traditional Burkinabe dish called "achecke"-pounded and steamed cassava with onions, tomatoes and fried fish. I couldn't get enough of the avocado sandwiches either!

We spent one night in Bobo, checking out the big market, the grand mud mosque, and some really unique dive bars, one with some pinball and arcade games. In Africa?
From Bobo we took a bus southwest to the town of Banfora, in the southwestern corner of Burkina. We rode about 15km from town, past vast fields of sugar cane, and arrived at "the domes", a huge are filled with rocky cliffs and spires. Amazing. We also checked out some waterfalls, spending an entire day playing in the cold water and jumping off of the small falls. That night we rode to a near by village which had huts and an area to camp. Being cheap PC volunteers we opted to camp outdoors but ironically around midnight a big rain storm rolled through so we had to run inside one of the huts. I was completely blown away since the rains normally don't begin until May or June. Either way the "mango rain" was nice and the next morning it was really cool.

I had read that there was a train that ran from Abidjan, Ivory Coast all the way to Ouagadougou, Burkina, built during the colonization period, so I thought it would be a great way to travel back to the capital. It wasn't. We didn't leave Banfora until 6pm and it ended up being a 13 hour ride back to Ouaga in second class. We moved to first class and enjoyed the padded seats and AC for all of 15 minutes until we were kicked back to second class. It was hot, dirty and the seats were hard plastic. I couldn't get much sleep in so I stood in the doorway between cars and just tried to enjoy the breeze. It was quite an experience and I'm glad that I gave it a shot but I think I'll stick to buses from now on.

Back in the capital I was able to check out FESPACO, Burkina Faso's African film festival. It was a great time and I saw some really interesting films and documentaries. There was also a fairgrounds near downtown which had a variety of artisans along with food and drink. The theatres were exceptionally nice so many times I entered planning on watching the film but ended up sleeping, getting too comfortable sitting in the AC in comfortable chairs.
All in all it was a great trip, especially since it had been over a year since I had left Niger! By the time my trip was over I was ready to get back to the village and enjoy some time in the bush.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

2009 AIDS Boat Tour!

So it's 2009 and I just finished up a year and half here in Niger! Can't believe that I've been here for that long! The holidays went off with a bang- there were actually a few fireworks down in Gaya- and cold season was glorious, although it was extremely short this year. It's now back in the 100s and getting hotter. Cold season is officially over- sad to say.

On the good side, I just finished up the first ever AIDS boat tour in Niger, organized by a couple of PCVs along with some animators working with an AIDS NGO. Our 3-day tour began just south of the border with Mali and ended about 30km south of Niamey, a total of about 250km!

Our mode of transportation was a motorized pirogue (wooden boat with a small Yamaha engine), about 25 ft long and 4 ft wide, with a nice canopy built for shade. We had a bunch of life jackets so we used all of the extras for seat cushions and back rests- made for quite a comfortable ride! The boat had a few leaks so every so often- about every 15 minutes- someone had to bail the water out- it kept us busy though!

The boat ride began about 25km north of the city of Ayorou and worked its way south. The water was smooth as glass in most parts although we did see a few ripples and white water- nothing to be worried about though. I brought along an inflatable alligator and floated down the river a bit in the places we stopped to cool off as the days were really hot and the water was very cool.

The landscape was amazing, nothing like anywhere else that I've been in Niger. We saw so many species of birds and quite a few hippos as well! There were many villages along the river and even some villages on islands in the river. The sunsets were indescribable although early mornings on the water were just as tranquil and amazing.

We hit 3 villages per day but had to do a lot of guessing concerning the time as it was hard to judge distances on the river. The animators that came along with us rode in a truck and met us up at each village where we were to do the educational talks.

At each village we would begin our session by playing some loud music and dancing in order to draw a crowd- who wouldn't want to come and see a group of crazy foreigners dancing around?! From there we would either break into focus groups- men, women and children- then discuss AIDS, or we would perform a skit about AIDS. In the skit I played the guy who slept around without protection and contracted an STD. It was a fun role to play, especially since I got to show so much emotion, the crowd really got a kick out of the skits. We used the skit as an introduction to actually talking to them about modes of transmission as well as prevention methods.

The volunteers riding in the boat usually had to haul out after each skit and hop in the boat and keep cruising in order to make the last village by night fall. In the boat, we just hung out and relaxed, taking in the view and napping, as sometimes it could be over 5 hours in the boat in between villages.

The boat tour went finished without a single hitch and was an amazing journey. Not only were we able to travel down the Niger River, something only a few foreigners are ever able to experience, but we educated 9 villages and countless villagers about AIDS.

Friday, January 23, 2009

2008 AIDS Bike Ride

At the end of November, after a couple of amazing Thanksgiving meals at the hostels, about 40 volunteers headed out to eastern Niger for the annual AIDS bike ride. We began the bike ride on World AIDS Day in the city of Dan Barto right on the border with Nigeria. For the next 5 days we rode our bikes the 160km to Zinder, the eastern capital, stopping in 20 villages along the way to talk to the villagers about AIDS- prevention and protection.

It was an amazing journey, both on and off the bikes. I had such a great time hanging out with all of the volunteers, most of them from my stage. The biking was really fun too since we had a lead car blaring music that we had picked! The bush out east is quite different from the southwest where I'm from so it was nice having a change of scenery.

We made most all of our meals and slept at random places along the way, mostly school yards. By now most of us are used to living the "bush life" so it wasn't a big deal throwing up a mosquito net and sleeping on a mat in the middle of nowhere.

Once at a village all of the villagers would obviously come crowd around the music truck to see what all of the "anasaras" or "foreigners" were doing. We then danced and danced and...danced with the villagers before beginning our presentations. We had a team of local animators that would either do a skit and then discuss AIDS or we would brake up into groups- men, women, young men and young women (4 groups) and have seperate talks with them concerning AIDS.

Since the language in eastern Niger is Hausa, and I am a Zarma speaker, I couldn't do much as far as talking to the villagers but I was on "kid crew" at just about each village. This involved gathering all of the younger children and running off somewhere with them to avoid them being a distraction. For the next 30 minutes or so we were responsible for keeping the kids entertained. This may sound easy but children quickly lose interest, even with the crazy white people. It was a riot playing "duck, duck, goose", "ring around the rosie" and the "hokie pokie" with all of these little kids, especially me trying to explain the rules in a different language. I love kids though and we had a blast playing with them.

Overall it was an unforgettable experience and I honestly feel like we touched the lives of many Nigerien villagers who otherwise would probably have never been educated about AIDS and prevention.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Life in the Vill...

Just wanted to let you all know that bush life is great and I made it through mini hot season and am now enjoying the transition into cold season. It's still amazingly hot during the day, but early mornings and the evenings are perfect and late at night it has begun to get a bit chilly (upper 60s)! I never thought I would think that was cold but I'm so used to the heat here. Crazy.

I spend the majority of the last two months in my village, mostly spending time with my villagers, tending to my garden and trying to survive the post rainy season heat. It looks like my villagers had an excellent harvest this year as the rains came late but were plentiful. When I left my village, the men were harvesting beans, wild wheat, sorghoum, and hibiscus fruits. The women are harvesting peanuts and ground nuts along with all of the daily chores that keep them busy from early morning to late night- pounding millet, taking care of children, washing clothes, cleaning up the compound, getting water, etc.

Working with the headmaster of my school along with a local NGO I recently did a school enrollment project that turned out quite well. Last school year we only had two classes for the primary school in my village and 59 students, 42 boys and only 17 girls. With a village of approximately 1500 people, this is pretty pitiful, especially with the number of children in the village. Our goal was to increase the enrollment and ideally we wanted enough for a third classroom. I was able to get funding for an NGO to come to my village and hold a village meeting where they spoke to the village parents on the importance of children, especially girls, going to school. There are so many taboos and reasons why children aren't in school so these Nigeriens were able to explain things and answer questions on a level that my villagers could understand and relate to. The meeting went very well and we even went to the neighboring village to have a meeting there.

From there it was up to the headmaster, some parents and I to recruit the students. For several days we went from compound to compound asking parents to put at least one of their children in school. It was like pulling teeth as they had many excuses for not being able to send their children to school- not enough hands to do the field work or herd the animals, not enough help around the home, too young, sick, etc- but with patience and perserverence we slowly recruited one student after another.

In total we recruited 37 students at last count, but are not finished. We have 15 new girls and 22 new boys. With the help of some village men we built a third classroom, a millet stalk "shack" like the second one, but enough to keep out the sun and wind.

I was also able to get a new teacher for our new class. We now have three teachers and three classrooms, first, third and fifth grade. I am out at the school daily to see the children and observe class. I will soon begin to teach weekly health lessons as well as world geography lessons. I will also continue to coach soccer each afternoon once school is out.

After being in Niger for over a year, I have begun to realize a few things that are a necessity for development to occur and I firmly believe that education is of the most importance. It is sustainable and that is the type of work I'm trying to focus on in my second year here. God willing the children will stay in school through high school and then doors will open for them. There is not one villager other than the teachers that have more than a primary school education and I am determined to change that.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hammock Camping in the Bush

For those who haven't heard about my recent adventure or misadventure (however you want to look at it), in the bush, it was quite an experience...

About a month ago I decided to go camping out on a mesa not far from my market town. I biked out from my village on a Saturday about 15km to a beautiful mesa not far off of the main road. Arriving in late afternoon, I went searching for a good tree to set my hammock up in. Finding one that would serve me well, I made several trips carrying my belongings up the tree and set my hammock up on a limb about 20-25 ft above ground. I got all settled and watched the sun set from the comforts of my hammock. I went to sleep around 9pm, quite content to be there and enjoying the silence of the African bush.

Around 1am, the fun (or something like that) started...
I woke to strong winds and looking back to the East I saw a storm quickly approaching. Damn. There wasn't much I could do to prepare as I did not bring a tarp or any kind of rain gear. I decided I would brave the storm in the hammock, hoping it would quickly pass. As the storm got nearer, the winds were so strong that I was forced to hold on to the tree for fear of getting blown out of the hammock. Once the rain hit, all hell broke loose. I just curled into a ball in my hammock and tried to stay warm as the rain poured down for an hour and a half. By 2:30am, the storm had passed and only the cool wind remained, somthing that I am usually greatful for. As I was completly soaked and all of my gear was as well, I just covered myself with my wet sheets and shivvered myself into something resembling sleep.

By 4am I couldn't stand the cold any longer so I decided to climb down and try to start a fire. With a small box of Nigerien matches and just a few scraps of paper, I was unable to get a fire going with everything saturated. I gave up an hour later and climbed back up into my hammock, waiting for the sun to rise.

It wasn't until the sun came out and began to warm things up and dry my gear that I was able to get some real sleep. I woke to birds singing and a beautiful view, promises of a better day...
I definitely can't say that I regret going on my solo camping trip, it was just a combination of bad luck and me being unprepared. I got some great pictures and a good story out of the trip! Ironically, I was dripping in sweat on my ride back when just hours before I was miserably cold. So it goes in Niger. "Kala suuru" or "have patience" as they always say here...