Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On to Peace Corps, Ethiopia!

Hi all!! For those of you that havent heard, I have reapplied for the Peace Corps and am heading off the Ethiopia on the 4th of October, 2011.
Here is my new blog address: http://backtothebush-ethiopia.blogspot.com
Thanks for following me through my time in Niger!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Evacuation, COS, and Lessons of Peace Corps Niger

And two months later she finally writes again... I'll start where I left off, and probably break this into two posts (there's a lot to say)

Funny how you can have the next year of your life planned only to have it erased with one phone call. I think it was the 15th of January, at the ostrich site- it had been an increadibly productive morning and one of the first few days I really felt confident and successful at my new job; around noon I get a call from our safety and security director. 'Due to the latest kidnapping in Niamey, Peace Corps has decided that the volunteers safety is at risk and that we will be evacuating from the country as soon as possible.' Ok, so the statement he actually read to me lasted probably 10 minutes, but as I got off the phone, Im not sure I could have told you 10 words of it, only a numbness and the thought 'I'm leaving'.

That was the beginning. Note that this is evacuation number two for me, number one being a little over a year ago from the Tahoua region- and I would like to say that I took it a lot better the second time around (less tears). The message did however include 'drop what you are doing and go home and pack immediately', yet I sat teary-eyed with the ostriches for about 2 hours, then pulled it together, and sat for another hour with Abdou, Abdoulai, and their families (the site workers) and broke the news to them.

The next few days are a blur of packing, traveling in to Zinder with one of my pcv neighbors by riding in the sarki's car to the village on the main road, taking one of the worst bush taxi's I've ever had in my 28 months in country (just how many times did they take that car apart during the 6 hours of travel time?!) Though, it was hillarious that we had a 'personal guard' for the trip. Followed by a bus to Maradi, a bus to Niamey, 3 grueling hours that same evening at the Peace Corps bureau clearing all our accounts and what not, and finally, on a plane late that night to Casablanca, Morocco.

Evacuation Conference, Rabat, Morocco.

I'm not sure how many of us entered that conference thinking we were going to directly transfer to another country, but far more than actually did. We spent roughly a week looking over our options- to tranfer to another country (should there be an opening), re-enrolling, or COS. I was pretty determined at first to continue through a direct transfer, and was offered a position in Lesotho working at an Orphanage, but after some serious thought, I turned it down realizing it really wasn't what I wanted to do- I was just scared to move on without a plan. Much of the conference was how to deal with life after Peace Corps, i.e., how to write your resume, how to interview for jobs, and how to answer those dreaded 'return home' questions. After this emotionally draining week, I officially COSed (Completion Of Service) on January 21st, 2011. I feel good about my decision, and looking back on my service, I have no complaints.
So, what have I been doing between January 21st and now? I'll save that for the next post.

As the Last 'Peace Corps Niger' post, it's hard to summ up the past 2 and a half years of my life. How do you explain an experience that has completely changed me? So instead, here are a few things life in Niger taught me.

1) PATIENCE. Every day for two years, 'sai hunkuri' ('until patience'). Nearly every aspect about life in Niger demands patience- the language, the heat, the chariot spider... and waiting 4 hours for a bus that you, a large crowd, and a variety of livestock, wait for and then takes another 4 hours to get 40 K, is ok.
2) People are so friendly, and mean well. (even the ones that ask you to marry them in that pompus attitude) Everyone everywhere was happy to help me get where I was going, to invite me to dinner, to have me take their baby to America...
3) Eat what youre given. Stewed leaves, raw locusts, strange nuts found on that hill, sead pods, or that unidentifiable 'bush meat' that could be anything from a hedgehog to the neighbor's cat- Sometimes thats all they have, and they still were eager to share it with me.
4) Maggi makes anything taste good. (Even raw locust.)
5) How to drive a donkey cart: use a stick. Some of my favorite times in Niger were just riding the ostrich site's donkey with the cart attached, hauling millet stock from the field to the pens...
6) Everything is relative: hot vrs. cold, clean vrs. dirty... oh, and in the bush, hair-washing is a bi weekly activity.
7) To sleep almost anywhere. 130 degrees and packed in a bush taxi? No problem. A nap on the tile floor during hot season? Definately.
8) The art and joy of eating with hands. Trust me, it takes a little practice to be able to get it from the tray to your mouth without losing half of it on the way, but, food tastes better if you eat it with your hands.
9) To hand-wash clothes. I can get them cleaner than that washer machine.
10) Not to forget all the many lessons of the Zoo! How to raise a baby hippo, how to catch an ostrich, how to NOT catch a baboon, how to yell at kids in 4 languages, traditional medicines and what they're used for, and how to safely feed lions at the Niger Musee zoo (trust me... it's not the same as anywhere else.)
11) Lastly, that very few people in the world get the chance to have the experience that I did; my memories are hard to explain and my feelings of Niger and the Nigerien people are hard to convey. Peace Corps was the best decision I ever made for myself, and just as Peace Corps describes it, "the hardest job you'll ever love."
Working to set up millet stock screens on the ostrich breeding pens
Colors of Morocco!

Haily and I, the final two of our AG/NRM stage, at our Evacuation dinner in Morocco.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Life with the Ostriches

My new village has roughly 4,000 people, is settled in a small ‘mountain’ range, and about 500 k to the nearest anything. Maybe further… Other than that, it’s small enough to feel at home, but large enough to not feel obligated to know everyone. There’s electricity for 8 hours of the day, 4:00 pm to 12:00 am and the nearest water pump is about 10 feet out my front door. I have a smallish house used as a kitchen, a large two room house used as my main house, which they just finished- when I got there it didn’t have a floor, and only a feeble little door that didn’t shut properly, but when I moved in we brought with us three bags of cement and screen windows and doors. Two weeks later and two additional bags of cement later (which I bought from a market 50 k away and had sent out to the village on a car) the house is finished… Well, they put a new door on it- that doesn’t shut, but other than that it’s great. And then in one corner of the concession is a little house with the latrine. It’s almost too much space for one person, but I have to admit it’s nice. Unlike my first village (in Tahoua region) I don’t have kids poking over my walls every 10 minutes, or women coming in to tour my house (and ask for all my possessions) uninvited, or those goats that somehow got in my concession in the middle of the night and have eaten half my shade hangar.

The village itself has primary and secondary schools (elementary and middle schools), a good sized health clinic, and several other important looking buildings that I haven’t figured out what they are yet (I did find out one of them is a library). Oh, and the Sarki of the area lives here (sarki is Hausa for ‘king’) and has a small mud-brick ‘palace’ (if you will). Niger is very interesting in that it still has a large influence of traditional leaders. (Differing from the government leaders) Most villages have a ‘maigari’ or village chief, most areas have a ‘sarki’ or ‘king’ reigning over several villages in a larger area, and Zinder is even home to the Sultan, obviously the highest position.

Moving on… the Ostrich conservation site is about a 20 minute walk from the village and set at the base of the mountains. There are two guards/caretakers for the site (Abdou and Abdoulai) and their families, and then me. Keep in mind this is also backed by several organizations, namely the Nigerien-based organization, CRNEK, and the Sahara Conservation Fund, and a whole team of people in the states (such as the St. Louis Zoo, Disney Animal Kingdom, etc.). In a nutshell, I work with the team to address problems/needs of the site/birds and then with the site keepers to implement the potential projects and changes. The site consists of two large sections, the Eastern and Western pens, each pen broken down into two holding pens, and ten breeding pens. Right now we have only 8 birds; 4 males, 3 females, and a female 6 month old chick, so everything is focused in the eastern pen. Hopefully a few years down the line we’ll have both pens filled.

We’re just getting in to breeding season, so the moment I got there I’ve been working to get things set up. First, switching their diet from a maintenance diet (they were receiving wheat bran and corn with a supplement of limestone) to a breeding diet (Beans and sorghum with a limestone supplement- we’re working to find an additional bone meal type supplement). So I spent one day with the caretakers teaching them the proper dietary amounts, weighing and measuring the different feeds, etc.

Another project we’ve been working on (that’s so far proving to be far more effort than I thought it would be) is to put up screens between the breeding pens and then separate the birds into pairs into the pens (currently we have a group of 5 in one of the large holding pens). With the three screens, one was made with millet stock, the next I tried woven mats sewn to the fence, and the last one we resorted back to millet stock. The biggest problem has been getting the birds in to the new pens. I’m still working on that one. Because the gates are so narrow, they either completely pass by them without seeing them, or are too scared to attempt to go in. So far I’ve tried to lure them in with food (melons) by leaving a trail (I feel like waiylee coyote trying to catch the road runner..), since that isn’t working, I think my next plan is to move their entire grain/water dish near, and then in the new enclosure. If THAT doesn’t work, then it may have to resort to setting up a temporary chute and herding them in. I want to keep this as stress free for them as possible, but we’ll see.

Anyway, that’s the general goings on of my job. I already miss the Musee like crazy- especially the primates- and I hope they’re doing ok without someone there to give them some attention. Oh, and my baby hippo- I really hope he’s weaned to grass soon, then I’ll stop worrying about him too. And of course all my friends and the keepers I got to work with.

With a little of my spare time in my new post, I’ve gone walking up and down and around the mountains and saw two Dorcas gazelles, several ground squirrels, and what I think was a hooded vulture. I’m still waiting to see the potas monkeys, I’ve been told I have a few weeks before they’ll be down on the site all the time (I see their prints in the sand a lot). Also there’s this one mountain that stands alone; I’ll try and add a picture of it. There are all kinds of stories surrounding it that long, long time ago it was a stronghold during all the wars and that there are massive caves in the mountain which they hid their armies and all their weapons. The story is that the caves are still there with all the weapons from the wars, but that the entrance is caved in, or that nobody can find the entrance. I spent an entire afternoon climbing it and searching for caves… which, there are several (or maybe just small holes, I don’t know), so I may have to come back with some rope and a flashlight. I’m getting a new Peace Corps volunteer neighbor only 10 k from my site… I really hope he’s into hiking… or spelunking…
Anyway, the first two weeks at my post have been really great- I love the village, I love the landscape, I love my new job, I think it’s going to be a great 3rd year in Peace Corps!
Before I left, the Musee had a little ceramony and presented me with a certificate (they even had a tv crew there.. it was a little over kill and a little intimidating) This picture is me and all the keepers I worked with throughout the year
Posing for one last picture with baby bouban: he wouldnt hold still- he gets really distracted by feet...
First few days in my new village: this is me and the two guards/caretakers on our way to the ostrich site
This is Jullien, 10 year old male ostrich. They love these wild melons (they're not the delicious melons youre thinking of) and if I walk in to the pen with one him and Aisha (the female in his pen) they get a little over excited....

This is thelone mountain I mentioned earlier. Dont let the photo fool you- its HUGE, and really fun to climb (I climbed up around the back side, it slopes a little better there)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Last few days in Niamey

One week left of Niamey life, then no more delicous resturants, internet at my fingertips, fresh fruits and veggitables, cheese, cell phone reception, or English conversations... The closer I get to December 10th, the more I keep splurging on things 'one last time'. Kinda like before I left the U.S. for Niger, strange how the list of 'things to splurge on' has changed though. To be honest, I can no longer remember what that 'one thing' I had to have before I left was. I remember really, REALLY missing candy and junk food for about the first 4 months of service, then I just stopped thinking about it. I've discovered most of my favorite foods I can actually make myself (like scones....thats right.) and fresh foods tast soo much better.

oops, let me back up a little bit. I think in my last post I mentioned that I was hoping that I would make it back mid December for my month home leave. This was, however, before I had discussed with the organization I would be working with. After discussion, we realized it would be breeding season for the ostriches, and it would be really important to have someone at the site. Which is just fine, but also means no christmas at home this year.. We'll shoot for 2012 holiday season :). Currently I'm concidering mid-March, mid-April home leave, trying to hit Easter (also attempt to avoid the 120 degree hot season), but we'll see. So, that said, I move straight up to the site after my original COS date.

I think the hardest thing by far will be seeing the rest of my stage excitedly pack up and leave for home, exciting vacation destinations, new jobs, and grad school. I remember when the first group of my stage left a year ago (back when we were evacuated from the Tahoua region), it makes one increadably homesick to watch everyone move on and know that you have a year left. Don't get the wrong idea, I'm very excited about this new job and about the village, location, and everything, it'll just take some transitioning.

My shade hangar project (which is taking a rediculous amount of time considering their small size and light work involved) is finally underway!!! If all goes well, it should (InchaAllah) be done by the end of the week. Other than that, its just a matter of training and transitioning one of the keepers to continue the food donation program and then I'm officially finished. This is another part of the new post that will be hard; this has been such a fun job and amazing opportunity to work here at the zoo. The keepers and everyone I worked with were so friendly and helpful- it'll be hard to say good bye.

This is all I have for now- once I move up to my new post I'll share more of my exciting job at the Ostrich conservation site :). Merry Christmas everyone, just in case I dont get a chance to write again before then. Wish I could be home to share the holidays!!

Our COS trip included a trip to see the giraffes!

Just pausing for a picture..

2 years in Country! The remaining 2008-2010 AG/NRM stage

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The beginning of the end... or the end of the beginning?

The weeks keep flying by so fast I can hardly keep up with them. Older volunteers always said that your last few months go by way too fast, now I'm beginning to see what they mean.
Last two months until the official Completion of Service date (December 10th)!! Two months of a new place to live, finishing things up, and planning for the future. With new changes taking place; PCVs moving in to Niamey, a few people getting ready to leave; the house I was living in is getting two more PCVs- so peace corps is letting me live in a nearby apartment for my remaining two months. Yesterday I officially moved in- big change #1.
Big change #2: I officially got the position! Working with Sahara Wildlife Conservation , I'll spend one more year here in Niger, in the Zinder region, working in Ostrich rehabilitation and conservation as a project assistant! I'm so excited! To move back to the bush and use more Hausa language, to continue to work with wildlife here in Niger (though I will miss my baby hippo here at the zoo!!) and see and work with the people of Niger through an NGO perspective. Especially because I hope to work toward a Biology/Zoology/Wildlife Conservation career, this will be a great experience and I am really excited!
I'm just beginning the extension-of-service process for the job, once I finish (in a week or so), I'll have all my information; when I start the new job, the dates of my home-leave, et cetera. My plan and hope is that I can take my home-leave somewhere around mid-december (it's a month long) and then start the new job in mid january, but we'll see how it goes.
I have to appologize- I feel like the past several posts have been nothing but updates, and a little short on the stories and experiences. Here's one to help make up for it:
Ramadan was last month, and here in the city it was a whole different experience than back in the bush. Either way, I love the Ramadan fete- everyone is dressed in their best for three days, plus good food and sharing, and the best part is everyone is so welcoming even for someone who is not Muslim, nor participated in the month long fast, I felt included in the festivities.
This year, before the fete I was told that the Zoo hosts a festival for the three days of fete. This included a live concert and dancing for most of the day, games and carnival-style stands where one could win prizes, food of every flavor, shape and size, and, of course, the animals were always there for viewing. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived early on the first day of fete- all the workers looking a little frazzled like they were preparing themselves for a long day. By 11, the gates to the grounds were packed by about 50 metres with a loud, pushing mob of people excitingly awaiting to enter the Musee. The resident vet spotted me and beckons me over- he glanced down a long list and says, 'Balkissa, you're stationed at the hyena/jackal area.' Oh. no problem.. I wasnt exactly sure what was going on.. give tours? answer questions? No, crowd control. 'Keep kids from climbing the fence and sticking their hands in the cages.' Ok. So I head down the hill, to my new location, where another keeper (assigned to the nearby chimpanzee area) spots me and waves me over. 'Balkissa! here's your stick' and hands me a long broom-handle like stick.
If you've even been to a nigerien event- sporting events, concerts, whatever, there's usually a couple guys with sticks working as crowd control.. trust me, the sticks arent just props.. I was crowd control for the hyenas and jackals. Surely the crowds wouldnt be that bad? Wrong. everywhere you look, a sea of people- crowding to see this and that, pushing to get up as close as they can to the cages. HOW many times can you ask politely for someone to GET OFF a cage before they even hear you??? No idea, they never heard me when I asked politely, and I had to result to loud cranky yelling. While I did get pretty good at yelling at people (I can say 'get down', 'stop that' and move away' in 4 different languages...), I admit I probably wasn't very good with the stick- I didnt use it very much, mostly on rude teenage boys who just laughed when I yelled at them for kicking the jackal cage- and even then they laughed still, because I hit them so lightly... in which case I resulted to shameing them, telling them they had no respect, Allah knows all, etc. That usually worked.
It was a long three days, thats for sure. I did enjoy seeing everyone in their new ramadan outfits, and it really wasnt too bad with all the delicious fried food being sold right behind me. Plus the musee staff came around each afternoon to give all the workers a meat sandwich and yogurt. So, maybe a tiring celebration, but still fun!