Living In The Questions what its all about for me right now. This post is my attempt at continuing the wheel of my friends, fmaily and home have sent me here, to Niger, West Africa, with more love & support than I could are my words, experiences, and heart. Read & share back. Love & Peace...Amy*

Wednesday, January 25, 2006



Me & The Fam

Me & My Family

Sunday, January 22, 2006

December 23, 2005 Where is Home?

Its been a while.....
but I think I have something to share, so I'm writing. I hope this finds each of you healthy, open, growing and content with something, if not everything. I haven't written for what...2 and 1/2 almost 3 months.....for many reasons.

Last month I spent 2 weeks in Hamdallyee, at our initial training site, for an In-Service Training...where I got to meet back up with what is left of our original 39 volunteers (down to 30 now....through sickness, self-revelation and other circumstances). One morning, while I was walking alone through the bush, parallel to a dry rocky mesa on my right, and a rising sun on the left...a sun so yellow and orange that I wanted to eat it, I got to thinking about what home is...and what that word means to me, while I'm an ocean away from all that is familiar, and centuries away from my former "reality."

So I'll start by telling you a little about my "home." Although my garden began growing, thanks to an amazing neighbor who gave me 20 baby tomatoe plants, and helped me with the eggplant, onion, pumpkin, melon and zuchinni.....explaining that Islam calls him to show kindness to his wasn't until I got out of the garden, and house and into town that I started to feel at home. There were days there, in the beginning, when I didn't have the energy to do anything. I walked in circles, constantly apologizing for not understanding French, and hating the way people looked at me as though I was dumb because of it...feeling hot and sick...and wondering if the next two years was going to be a "get tough" camp where all I would have to show for it would be the fact that I was "tough enough" to do Peace Corps. But I sucked it up, let go and instilled a little faith the Peace Corps system...trusting that if I walked around, laughed at myself enough, and listened, I would eventually be able to speak some Zarma and French...and possibly feel a little at home, like the trainers swore I would.

So, when I almost got beat up and mobbed, I felt that I'd really made it. (Mom don't faint...I'm going to explain). The first instance happened at about 10pm when I was walking home, alone, at night. Now many of you are shaking your heads at my irresponbility, but I promise that in my sleepy little town of about 6,000 people I am 100 times safer than anywhere in the U.S. As I walked along, admiring the sky and trying to blend in with the dark (I swear that my white skin glows in the dark, without street lights I still hear "Anasara."), I saw a group of about five little 9 year old girls. Now, I must say that ususally I am able to charm the socks off of kids 12 and under, but there are a few exceptions here in Niger...and tough 9 year old girls are one of them. As they crossed the road I heard whispers in Zarma and "Anasara," so I knew it was going to be trouble.

I tried to be casual and not show my annoyance at being held up on the way home, as the little ring leader of the group showed herself and demanded a gift. When I told her I didn't have anything for her and she should give me a gift instead (I asked for her skirt to be exact...which usually makes them laugh and diffuses tension), she got some attitude and informed me that since I'm an Anasara I have money and should be giving to her. Again, I casually, but firmly told her I had nothing for her. She then spat out some rapid fire Zarma, and when I said I didn't understand she decided to show me what she meant. The little demon grabbed a huge wooden pounding stick from her little fellow gang member and raised it to hit me.

I saw red. I now understand why bulls get so pissed at little red flags, because all I wanted to do was grab her stick and smack her on the head with it. Suddenly, instinct and PC advice took over (kids here in Niger do not respond to reasoning...instead they respond to fear) in a matter or about 3 seconds I dropped my bag, lunged for the little girl, and scooped up her stick as she dropped it and they all ran. They scattered like roaches, and I declared the stick mine. As I tried to reclaim some dignity, put my bookbag back on and look as intimidating as possible they began pleading for their pounding stick back.

Refusing to argue with them I marched on, dennouncing the ring leader as a bandit. As I neared an even larger group of adults, and realized that I didn't have the vocabulary to explain the girls' cruelty, I flung the stick as far into some nearby bushes as possible, and told them to go get it. I walked on home, shaking I was so angry. They'd never disrespect a Nigerien like that.

I self-righteously retold the story the next day to my gardner friend. He interjected with "Boys, right? You mean it was little boys who threatened you..." thinking I'd mixed up my French..and meekly I told him "No, you heard me right. Little girls tried to jump me. Nine year old little girls."

Now this is not the point at which I began to feel at home in Balleyara. Quite the contrary this made me wonder if I was ready for 2 years of little girl gangs....but I tell you that not just to let you laugh at my experience, but also to contrast it to my "Women's Meeting" experience right before I left town for our training.

There is a women's group that meets each Saturday to discuss town issues. Since I'd never been to one, felt like it would be a great place to learn about the more subtle town dynamics and my "Mom" invited me, I went. My Nigerien family is wild...they have 1 Dad who is quiet and never talks, 3 Moms (Marie is my Mom...old, loud, mischevious, and smart. A business woman who, although uneducated, speaks French and has all these side businesses to make money.), and alot of grown sons (one who is Sufi is very good friend), teenagers, kids and the like. There are approximately 20 kids.....all loud, kind and alot of fun.

When I arrived at the Women's Meeting, 20 minutes late, I heard the women before I saw them. Around the corner of the house in the shade of a large tree, about 30 women were sitting on a rainbow of mats. All with beauitful outfits and head wraps, some holding babies, some young and newly married, others old and established. All loud and laughing. When I came in I got shouts and laughter, "Amy! Amina! Amina-tu! Anassara!" Two women called me over to sit with them (didn't know them) and told me I needed to "pay." They explained that each week each woman puts in 200CFA (about 40cents used to help out group members when they have problems) per week. As I got out my money they also told me I needed to pay for the 2 previous weeks, that I hadn't attended. I thought they were testing me, as they often do and argued for a minute....trying to explain that I shouldn't have to pay if I hadn't joined the group yet. They were insistent....they started the group two weeks ago, and I was a member now, so I needed to do my part. I was amazed that these women have so much backbone and "get done" power....they simply get things done when they need the group needed the money, they knew I could spare it, so they got it from me .......I coughed it up and sat.

The conversation quickly turned to questions of whether or not I had a camera, so I could take pictures of them sometime. Being the energetic volunteer that I am, I told the women my camera wasn't far...I could walk to the hostel and get it. They were ready for pictures and sent me off.

When I returned & sat down, I was handed a baby and told to smile. After about 5 group pictures, the camera was returned and the women started asking me to take individual pictures (they rarely have pictures of themselves so any are considered precious). What started as 2 women in a picture and another with her baby, ended in 2 women playing tug-of-war with my arms, and 10 more arguing over who's baby was prettiest and deserved to be photographed.

I must have looked panicked because out of no where comes this beautiful, lightskinned woman, about 40, who said "ENOUGH!" She yelled at me to get my stuff and go, swatting women's arms angrily since they'd mobbed me. My saviour, Ayisa, grabbed my hand, jerking me through the crowd. She picked up my bookbag, put my arms in it, and started pushing me through the women. I was laughing so hard it hurt, and told her I didn't have my shoes! (You take off shoes before sitting on mats). She quickly changed directions, found my shoes, and literally put them on my feet!

Then she told me to run! I told her (this is all in Zarma) that I didn't have my cell phone or money! She said "It will come! Just run!" As she pushed women away, I ran, and collapsed outside the house.... laughing so hard I cried. When she came out, laughing too, the other women told her she was crazy, an gave her a hard time since she ended the pictures. They also accused her of being a vampire, and warned me that she was capeable of eating me (a very strong animist vibe still runs through the bush and some Nigeriens swear there are vampires)!

As I collected my cell phone and money, which sure enough surfaced, I thanked them for not only inviting me to their meeting, but for their friendship. I could not have asked for a better send off into our 2 weeks of training. So walking into IST training, my heart was full of love, head full of ideas and I was curious to know about the experiences of others....

And I found that some people haven't been "home." Some have refused to become part of the process, refused the process of change, simply put. To walk into a culture and try to connect and build a home, is to offer a part of your hopes that it finds connection with the hearts of others. Upon arrival, I was in a state of shock...shock at my own distance from home (emotionally, physically, sensorally), shocked to observe a system where 2 women seem to share a daily work load and also a husband and shocked at the gross inquality we've come to know as "reality" where kids in the U.S. are surfing the net at age 6 and grown women and men here stare at me since I'm their first experience of "whiteness."

But to adapt is not simply "getting over culture shock." Yes, there is a measure of comfort now I find from eating Nigerien food (at home it was usually starchy bread and its howru & sauce or Cokes), long running jokes I share with friends in my neighborhood and a bit of forgetfulness of the fact that I am never quite as clean as I was in the States. But I am still shocked daily by 2, 3 or even 4 women sharing a man, children who sit and wait on me to finish at restaurants so they can eat from my wastefulness, and the fact that I actually hear some Zarma.

Adaptation is changing....letting go of some of my Americaness, my whiteness, my capitalist sense of who is deserving and who isn't and so much more. I have to look people in the eye when one of their children or siblings dies and tell them I'm sorry, have patience. I have to say hello to every damn person I pass on the road, and ask about anything from their health to family to work. I have to recognize the fact that they don't just ask me for "cadeaux" or gifts because I'm white, but also because they give freely to each other when they ask for something. Allot of people don't know how old they are here, don't use literal hours to set appointments (done by position of the sun and one of the 5 prayer calls of the day), and they constantly ask where I'm going and where I'm coming from....not out of nosiness, but because they are being polite and curious.

I cannot be closed here. In Asheville, I couldn't tell you the names of more than 2 people who lived in my apartment complex. Here, I have held strangers' babies, been invited to share the lunch of market vendors, and have learned (Am learning) relax.

This experience engages everything you've got....from problem solving skills, to academic training, to muscle or lack thereof, to emotional resources.....and its hard. Old insecurities I was able to distract myself from in the States with my social life, my work or my hobbies find a way to the surface here. I have to answer deep and often painful questions dealing with what I believe, how I am going to live, self-esteem, ethics, sexuality, love, and what it means to be a human and co-exist with other humans on this planet.

Some of my peers have risen to the challenge...some are working out responses to these tough questions. They are loved by the Nigeriens they live with, and have connected across cultural and language. By being willing to grow in their villages, their villages are becomming their homes. Their hearts have touched. Yet others have refused to change. They see any change as loss rather than growth, and have turned opportunities for introspection and growth into habits of substance, distracting sex and hurtful gossip. They describe feelings of a dual existence, with only one home...the States.

My most disappointing and difficult interactions have not been with Nigeriens, but other Americans. I am sad to sometimes see peers without patience, and gaping holes where humility and respect should be. And I've been disgusted at my own tendency towards stinginess. I've caught myself numerous times, measuring how much I have or receive against what my peers have...or working hard to get to the front of the line of Americans at training dinners so I get dessert. Sounds silly, but why is it that someone who lives on less than 2 U.S. dollars a day can insist that I sit down to share their dinner, but I have a hard time sharing one of the many bags of MnMs my Dad has sent? I have a feeling these problems affect allot of us, and are a symptom of something much larger in our daily lives...

I ask these questions and one more....I now can say that if asked what a "home" is I would answer that a home is somewhere you've allowed youself to really "Be" and you've done some learning/growing. The type of learning that enriches your personal story and changes your life. I now have many homes....a highschool about 10 minutes from the beach in Daytona, a college circled by blue & purple Appalachian mountains, a little farm in France, a bay in a small Spainsh village, and now a little desert town in the heart of Africa. What is it about my home, the home we share over there in the West...with so many cars and T.V.s and books, that we can make better....more connected to history/herstory/ourstory, to siblings of different skin tones, to the idea of sharing resources and what is fair? What do you think?

So I write to say hello, to share some stories and to ask some questions. Please, talk back. I am "home" and feeling that my service isn't just a "2 year commitment." My life will be about this place, this continent, its stories, its people and how we live together. I miss all of you terribly and speak honestly when I say, "I wish you were here."


Saturday, January 21, 2006

Home Sweet Home (4 Those Bush Volunteers)

Seppy's Hut

New Members of Team Balleyara!!!!

Swear In Ceremony Team Balleyara

Lucy the Camel

Lucy the Camel

Rainy Season in the Sahel






Fulani Children

Fulani Children



Sept. 2, 2005 Wodabee Fiance', Death & Homecoming


I am sticking to English greetings for fear of goofing up yet again with language (two nights ago I said "Boyfriend" in Zarma "Arywaso" instead of "Thank You" which is "Aysaboo"....after dinner at my neighbor's house). I am sorry that its been several weeks since I've last written, between trying to keep up with language class and get through the last weeks of training its been difficult. Also I know that you all want to hear only so much about camels, amphibians and I hope the weeks in between the last email and this one has peaked your interest again.

I have three stories I want to share....well, two stories and an insight I guess. The first is love (infatuation perhaps), death and home coming. So, lets get started :-).

The first thing I knew about Niger was about the Wodabee people. When I "Googled" Niger I got these wild pictures of beautiful men in amazing costumes (I highly suggest googling if interested). The Wodabee are a subgroup of the Fulan, and primarily nomadic in the Western and Northern parts of the country. At the end of the rainy season (about the end of Sept) they all gather together for a week of festivals to celebrate the rains. At the close of the ceremonies is a male beauty contest where the men paint their faces with elaborate colors to emphasize the different features they find attractive (what we Westerns would typically consider to be more feminie features). Young virgin girls choose the winner of the entire contest/dance, and all of the available women can choose which man she finds most beautiful (an interesting process where women are supposed to act shy and demure while choosing a man)....alot of "love matches" turn into marriages from the festival. Also, perhaps the most entertaining part of the dance is when the men make AMAZING faces, and do wild things with their eyes (rolling one while the other stays straight, crossing them). The winner not only has beauty, but also is able to do the craziest things with his eyes (they see strong eyes as a sign of a strong marriage partner). This was what I knew about them before I went.

Two weeks ago we had a cultural fair, where visitors from different ethnic groups visited our training site, including Tuareg, Fulan, Hausa, Zarma and the Wodabee. I felt like it was Christmas! All of these different kinds of people in one place where I could look at them and ask tons of questions! So, I made the rounds by sitting with all of the different groups, and saved the Wodabee for last....anticipating how it would feel to actually see people I had only seen in photographs...who had become almost magical for me over the months preceeding my arrival in Niger. Well, all of that anticipation didn't prepare me to actually see them.

I sat down infront of a young man, Darri, about my age, with long hair (past his shoulders) braided down his head, traditional dress (tons of beads and tailsmans), light mocha skin, and huge almond eyes. I sat down on a mat opposite him and sat, enthralled while he put on his make up (traditional festival dress). An intense sense of being so blessed to be in this place and time washed over me...almost in tears, because I was actually seeing what I'd dreamed about for so long (Africa) right in front of me. Since I knew what all the different makeup was used for I began to narrate what he was doing to my fellow trainees. Although he spoke only Hausa and French, he was very aware of what I was doing...almost as if he understood that I knew about his culture. Over the next two hours I sat asking questions and watching. I learned that they value beauty and hospitality to the extent that they give their last bit of food to their guests, they have competitions to see who treats their animals the best, and the posess a self-composed quiet energy unlike anything I've ever seen.

He sat, watching us. He answered questions when asked by the translator, but as we talked and watched him, he simply watched us back. There was no rush to fill silences with conversation, no discomfort on his part with our watching him, he was just aware of himself, and there. After my two hour observation session turned crush (I was not alone in this group...several of my other female trainees where right there just as wide eyed as I was:-), I got a real education on just how powerful superstition is in this country.

After Darri left our director told us that he and a group of his friends would return the next week to do a traditional dance for us. "BUT!" They said, "You women should not look them in the eye. Because Wodabee men have magic and can cast spells on women to make you run away with them." Initially my feminist self was irritated that we women would be considered weak enough to "run away with" these men, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how logical it was for them to call their presence "magic." Coming from the U.S. where we so often are uncomfortable with silence (both with ourselves and each other), and also in a culture where we spend so much time fixated on the "self", yet can't ever seem to locate it, I was awed by this man who seemed to effortlessly present his "self" to us, through simply "being" there with us. There is something very magic about a person who can present themselves to another person, wholly and powerfully, magnetic almost. Its human attraction at its most base level I think....

So, after testifying to our group that I agreed "they were indeed "magic", but I was strong enough to resist temptation and run away with one of them", our director asked me to present the dancing Wodabee group when they arrived!

As dusk settled the group arrived and prepared behind a partition while we ate dinner. Hoping to sneak a peak at them and show some hospitality at the same time, I carried a pitcher of water to them. What I saw amazed me. In the dark I could make out about 8 men, all about 6ft tall, lithe, standing in a circle with full make up on and costumes....feathers, beads, yellows, reds and blues. They were talking quietly in Hausa, and all fell silent as I approached to ask for Darri in my halting French. He thanked me as he took the water, and I quickly left to introduce them and begin the show.

The dance was almost seemed unsynchronized......they alternated between calling out together (these gutteral calls that were simultaneously high pitched and deep) and dancing on their own. I suddenly reazlied that this was why I came....I was seeing the same dance that night, that I would have seen 1,000 years ago had I been watching them. After an hour of watching Darri told everyone that now had come time for the women to pick the dancer they liked best! As he demonstrated the steps we were to do (a slow rythmic trot while holding one hand to the side of our faces), my logical side said "Don't Do It!" Everything in me that had ever said "Play it cool" told me that choosing which man I found most magical infront of 60 other people was a bad idea. But I thought, "You know what, how many times am I going to be infront of 10 Wodabee men dancing in costume, giving me liberty to choose one?" I DID IT! I got up, heart pounding and hands shaking, and trotted my way over to Darri! After standing infront of him I then realized that he hadn't told us what to do after we chose one, so I stood there red faced for a minute longer, and then rushed back to my seat, both exhilirated by and embarassed at my boldness!

After the dancing ended and a group of us (all women trainees) stood around their bus to say goodbye and gawk (I felt somewhat remnicient of my New Kids on the Block, and N'Synch days). I got a great laugh out of listening to our director ask if all of us women were "accounted for" ( i.e. had any of us fallen under their spell and hid out on their bus) and our other Nigerien women language instructors swap stories about how they averted their eyes from the Wodabee men for fear of being hypnotized during their performance (these are grown university educated women saying this!). And I laughed to myself knowing that whatever resolve and stance I took on the outside ("They are not really magic, this is silly, no one runs away with them"), that on the inside, I too wondered what it would be like to roam the streets of Agadez and the Sahara with a group of beautiful nomads.....

Not only have I gotten to see magic and beauty in these first 2 months, but I've also seen pain as well. I knew dealing with death would be reality here, but I had no idea that the "dealing" would come so soon. Two weeks ago as I walked through the village, returning from a day in the city, I greated my adoptive sister from afar. Since I yelled the greetings from about 50 feet away, the littlest boy, Reedwan (technically my adopted nephew) sprinted towards me and jumped into my arms. I was pleasantly shocked as he is normally shy around me. Smiling and laughing I carried him to the house where we passed his father, Kareem, who was leaving. Kareem quickly said hello to me and made a passing joke about Reedwan being my child since he liked me so much. Thinking nothing of it I walked into our compound to see the entire family there (parents, 2 daughters, 4 adult sons and neighbors), with one of the sons wearing ash on his face. Feeling a bit unsure I approached Shaybu, to see what was going on. He explained that that morning, Kareem's wife, Reedwan's mother had died (she had been ill for quite a while, but her illness was never explained to me). I immediately switched to English and got out "I'm so sorry" before realizing that I had no idea what to do.

I had not learned the proper condolences, and only knew that since death is so regular in their culture, they do not show grief like we do. They cry when it initially happens, and then at later ceremonies, but since I had arrived 8 hours after her death, they had already cried and were acting as normal as possible. I panicked, and tried to fight back tears, knowing that if I began crying I would not only risk interrupting their grieving process, but I would also force them to try and console me....which was not at all what they needed to be doing. I imagined what Kareem must have felt seeing his son run to a woman that wasn't his mother, and what Reedwan must have needed since he ran to me. Since tears were coming, I quickly made an excuse to leave and almost ran through the village to the training site. Once I got there I spoke with one of my teachers who reassured me that I was right in not wanting to cry infront of them. After we talked for a while they told me that all I needed to do (if I was comfortable) was return to the house to sit with the family for a while and then I could excuse myself to go to sleep.

Tondi, a huge Nigerien man with great English, an enormous laugh and a huge heart said that since I had told them at the training site of the death, it would be culturally inappropriate for them to go to sleep, without having paid a brief visit to the family to share greetings and offer condolences. What I saw next amazed me. After I returned to the compound, about 20 of my teachers walked in the moonlight, in a slow procession to the house. My eyes were wide with fear....what had I done! Now 20 people have come over and probably disturbed the family and are going to make them even sadder!

So I sat, and watched as the women sat on one side of the yard and the men on the other. There weren't enough mats so I got one from my hut to share with the women. Kareem came out of the house, looking surprised at all of the people, and sat on the dirt between the two groups. My heart broke. Here was this man, who had just lost his wife, sitting on the dirt (something they don't do). Since I didn't know how else to participate I looked around and found a stool for him to sit on. For about 10 minutes the group went through alot of rapid Zarma where all I understood was "Irkoy Beeri" (God is big). Just as quickly as they arrived, they left, and my respect for this culture the States I think we sometimes get so self involved in our own feelings that we don't acknowledge the death of someone's loved ones, because of how akward it makes us feel (I too have been guilty of this). But here, people go, spend a few minutes to share other's grief, no questions asked. Its simply what one does.....a beautiful show of support.

The following day, as I met with Tondi to discuss the previous evening, I found that the words of one of my favorite wise women & closest friends rang true ("Lead with your heart. No language is necessary when you lead with your heart,"Molly Bryant). Tondi explained that my adoptive family was touched that I had asked for help and told my teachers about their loss. Tondi also said that he had seen that I was now "Integrated." He said that as small as it was, getting a mat and stool was a sign of being connected. My eyes filled with tears and I felt, for the first time, I have proof of what I believe. Part of what I've been searching for here, in moving to Africa, is threads of commonality. I want to see, with my own eyes and my own heart, if people are really more similar than we are different. And I know it now. I feel it every time I laugh with a woman here or dance with a little girl...share mutual respect with one of my "brothers" or feel the kindness of a stranger. No words are necessary when you lead with your heart. I have full faith in our collective ability to change the state of things....both in our own lives and in relation to one another. Extending your heart to someone is cross cultural.

I am extending my love to each of you right now, and I send up prayers of thanksgiving and joy for your love and friendship. Each day I see something that reminds me of home, of the mountains of Asheville, of one of my amazing teachers or classrooms of MHC, of a beautiful memory with family and friends.....and I also send my love up to everyone hurt by the recent hurricane. I know many of you have family and friends that are hurting right now, as do I (Ricky & Kathy I love you and I wish you speedy recovery with your house), and I want to encourage everyone to do whatever you can to ease the suffering of our family on the Gulf.

My next large email will probably not be for several weeks, as I will be sworn in as a real PC Volunteer (my status as a lowly trainee will be a thing of the past :-), and expected to stay in my city for the first 3 weeks to feel settled in. I will be living in Balleyara....a "city" with less than 10,000 people, a great Sunday market and plenty of camels. I have a house with a large compound....large enough for a garden (please send gardening wisdom!), a chicken coup (yes, I will have chickens!), a latrine, and a 2 room concrete house with a grass roof. For the first 3 months I will be learning Zarma and French and learning how to live there. Excited....yes. Scared.....definitely, but its time. Time for me to be "home" here. I can't wait to share more stories, and keep your AWESOME letters and emails. Keep them coming.

Always* Love & Peace



Hamdallaye Girls Dancing

Hamdy Girls Dancing