Archive for the ‘Niger’ Category

Nigerien Agriculture – from my experience

In Appropriate Technology, Economic Development, International Development, Natural Resource Management, Niger, Peace Corps, Sustainable Development on March 14, 2014 at 8:04 pm

(For the record – in English – someone from Niger is a Nigerien, someone from Nigeria is a Nigerian.) 

An acquaintance asked me to describe my experience with smallholder farmers in Africa, this is what I ended up writing for her.

My most intimate experience was as a Peace Corps volunteer living in a rural Nigerien village.  Farmers would generally have “ownership” or at least control over 1-3 hectares of land where, if the rains were perfect, they’d grow enough millet and sorghum for most of the year.  Land was not “owned” in our northern sense though, it was apportioned by the village chief or county chief (Chef du Canton).  Farmers could not take out loans against their land titles, there are no titles per se.  So, if a farmer wants to improve his yield – the options are (and all include money):

  1. To work WAY harder: rehabilitating degraded soil which you need tools or to employ manual laborers for, in which case they need the funds for these tools or laborers, which they almost never have.  Animal traction is difficult because of the soil but it depends on the geography.
  2. To purchase fertilizer/improved seeds: all the various scientific studies about Niger (google ICRISAT) and farming millet show that the only way to improve yields is to use fertilizer or invest in improved higher/faster yielding seeds.  For this you need money, but it also entails significant risk because this is an entirely rain-fed exercise; if you invest in fertilizer or improved seeds and the rains are inconsistent or otherwise deficient, you lose your investment.
  3. Irrigate: This is almost a non-starter as it’s so expensive or the field has to be in a perfect location close to a water source.  Definitely possible for some farmers that I knew along rivers or seasonal lakes, some of them invested in pumps and would irrigate their fields, planting more water-intensive crops such as maize.

The other issue is the whole market situation – most of the farmers I knew were straight-up subsistence farmers.  They were almost never selling their harvest unless it was a dire situation or something unusual like a wedding.  They otherwise needed the food to survive, and barely survive.

I found that in general my villagers were experts at managing their risks, they knew the bare minimum they had to do to avoid a huge loss but to keep their family alive.  In rough years like in 2005 and I think 2009/10 (I can’t remember the last really bad year) they lose/deplete their coping mechanisms, which are basically selling assets like their cattle/sheep/goats, sending family members away to earn money (sometimes young children), or migrating to urban areas as a last resort. These really bad years used to be far enough apart that people could recover, but now they’re closer together, leaving people vulnerable.  Also, population growth, even with intense family planning interventions from the government and NGO’s, is very high (something like average 7 living kids per Nigerien mother) so any improvements are negated by population growth; there’s not enough to go around.

In some cases the environment has degraded slowly enough that villagers still maintain their mental model of their home villages being a place where Allah should allow them to farm – but the land has become so degraded and dry over time, through deforestation and erosion – that harvesting a survivable crop is all but impossible.  These people make up the majority of those accepting WFP food distributions and literally living off of aid.  There are ways to rehabilitate the land; there’s a thing called “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration” that has had great success using indigenous trees and grasses but it takes years to show an effect.

Anyway, I’ll leave it there for now


Breaking Bread with West African French

In Career Development, International Development, Niger, Travel on June 29, 2012 at 5:10 pm

This is a blog post written for LiveMocha.com, the original post can be found here. I updated this version a bit. 


Du pain, s’il vouz plait,” I said.

Du quoi?” the waitress replied.

Du pain,” I repeated.  She raised her chin and stared at me, shrugging her shoulders slightly before looking around for something else to do.

Quoi?” she said again.  This went on for another three rounds before I pointed to some bread that another customer was eating and hand gestured that that’s what I had wanted. I felt dejected and incompetent in speaking French when she finally repeated back to me – “Oh, d’accord, du PAIN…

I was in Benin, a tiny little francophone country on the Gulf of Guinea, located on the west coast of Africa.  Benin is next door to Niger, the country where my wife and I served as Peace Corps volunteers from 1997-2001 and where I learned all my French.  I had taken one quarter of French at UC San Diego my last semester, which I had taken on a lark because I needed the units and I liked the way it sounded.  Little did I know that my quarter of French would help take me to West Africa where my career would be defined.

I am an international aid worker; I work for IRD an international NGO that does humanitarian projects all over the world, mostly funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as well as UN agencies such as UNICEF, UNHCR, and the World Food Program (WFP). I manage IRD’s Food Security projects in Niger.  This is the culmination of all my graduate studies and it’s where I pointed myself after I left Peace Corps Niger in 2001.

What languages do you use in your work?
Aside from my quarter of formal French training before Peace Corps, I learned about eighty percent of my French in Niger, in particular during my last 10 months when I lived in a city and had to work in a more office-like setting. I picked up a lot on my own, through immersion, as well as from a patchwork of professional and non-professional tutors.  After completing my Peace Corps service, I took some French at Alliance Française of San Francisco, then took three semesters of French during my MPA program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, before I got my job at IRD.

In the beginning of my Peace Corps service, I also learned Fulfulde, a widely spoken West African language, mostly spoken by semi-nomadic goat herders – not the most marketable language.  I used this language for about 18 months while we lived in our mud huts in a rural village of 500 people in southwestern Niger.  I had about 10 weeks of formal training during my Peace Corps pre-service training, and as Niger is a francophone country, the class was taught in French, which was super challenging.

I then learned a little bit of Hausa, which is the majority language in Niger and Nigeria – there are probably over 100 million Hausa speakers in the world.  BBC, the Chinese, VOA, Germans, all have radio broadcasts in Hausa, and there are newspapers and websites in Hausa.

What were your go to tools to help you in your language learning?
My habit for a while was to listen to RFI – Radio France International, which is broadcast all over West Africa on FM.  Listening to the news was easier than watching movies or TV, as informal, slang-laden France-French is super hard for me to hear.  The news is being read clearly and formally for the most part.  I would sit there with a dictionary and my favorite resource, the Kendris 501 French Verb book.  It’s been my experience that when you nail verb conjugation, you sound great, regardless of your accent.

When speaking your target language, it’s important to know your audience.
As for accents – where I’ve had to speak French, that is, in West Africa – I’ve never felt the need to make myself sound Parisian.  I rarely do the guttural French “R.” I concentrate on getting the vowels right, correct and appropriate conjugation, and gender agreement.  When I’ve seen Americans trying to speak perfect Parisian French with West Africans, they understand but they don’t really care.

You have to remember that French is their colonial language – they speak it, but some people don’t like that they speak it.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a vibrant African Francophone literary community – there are plenty of erudite Francophone Africans speaking very good Frenchy-French.  But you also have heads of state speaking French with heavy local accents, simply because it’s still their official language. Even though it’s colonial, it’s the least bad option as countries like Benin and Togo can have dozens of dialects, Niger has four big languages – but you need a lingua Franca.

How do you use your target language in your work now?
My last trip to Niger was in March 2012 for about 3 weeks.  I ended up translating a lot, switching back and forth between English and French for my non-francophone colleagues. Just like when I was in Peace Corps, I found that people would quickly learn what words I knew and would adapt to speaking French that they knew I could hear.  As soon as I would start using a new word, it would creep into my local colleagues’ speech.  I’m going back in a few weeks for another 2-3 week trip.

I still concentrate very hard when I order extra bread, that’s one word I need to get right, especially after a long day at work.

After serving in the Peace Corps, Scott attended San Francisco State University for his graduate studies and the Monterey Institute of International Studies where he studied international program management, continued his French language learning, and from where he recently won the Alumni Volunteer Service Award. He has also taken French language courses at the Alliance Française of San Francisco.

For more stories about international aid work and world issues, you can follow Scott on Twitter @voxsouley and check out his blog voxsouley.wordpress.com

Niger, the 2012 edition

In Career Development, International Development, Niger, Travel on April 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I got back from Niger yesterday, after a brutal 3 weeks, where I had to work over 250 hours doing an internal audit and be acting country director for about 8 days. Suffice it to say I did not have time to write like I usually do. But I got this down while I was between planes in Paris on my way home.

On French…
My French is getting better. I’m functional and was able to really work in French. I felt like I wasnt missing much of what people were saying; that I can at least hear Nigerien French. Apparently I say, “C’est ça” a lot, enough that my non-francophone colleague asked me what that meant. I mess up verb tenses and feminine, masculine, plural possessives, basically all grammar that makes you sound eloquent if you nail it. But my Nigerien colleagues didn’t seem to care.

On working…
I got to be acting Country Director for just over a week. It wasn’t fully anticipated when I went, but I was delegated authority and the staff treated me as the patron for the whole time, it was a great experience. Everyone comes to you with their issues for resolutions or decisions, you have to be patient, courteous, and helpful – but firm. One little thing I loved about being a CD, even temporarily, in Niger – I love stamping things when I sign them. We should do that in America.

On being back in Niger
It was great to be back in Niger, even though it was for a grueling internal audit after letting our CD go. I am on the books for working over 250 hours in just under 3 weeks. I didn’t have time to see my village or hang out with friends, it was ALL business, unfortunately. I felt like I owed it to the local staff, many of whom were pretty stressed out, for reasons I just can’t get into here.

It was still nice to make groups of people light up when I would greet them in Zarma or Hausa. Nigeriens can look so serious while they watch you walk around observing things, but (at least in some instances) then you greet them colloquially and they just beam happiness at you and are so appreciative that you learned some of their language. That never gets old.

On Niger…
The last rainy season sucked, they couldn’t produce enough food, and Niger still has one of the highest birth rates in the world, at almost 7 children per woman. I was involved in my NGO’s World Food Program (WFP) activities, which include Blanket Feeding and therapeutic/supplemental feedings for malnourished children.

Niger is having a tough year. They’re facing a possible famine, instability in Mali has sent many refugees to the border areas, and the collapse of the Qadafi regime sent thousands of remittance making Nigeriens back home. However, the Issifou government is being extremely responsive and helpful to the aid community, in contrast to the Tandja government which worsened the ’05 hunger season through their anti-foreign assistance stance. I appreciate a country wanting to be self reliant, but you need high quality institutions and sufficient finances to feed starving families that can’t produce anything. Niger will have significant new income from its new Chinese-built oil refinery, hopefully that helps things in the coming years.

Other things…
It was insanely dusty until April 1. Then, out of nowhere, it rained. It was like flicking a switch. The dust had been so bad that I developed this gunk in my chest that hopefully will work it’s way out over the next few days at home.

I’m bummed I missed the cherry blossoms, hopefully there are still some blooms around.

On traveling…
Never gets easier being away from the family. My middle daughter especially, she takes it very hard and it’s just painful. Hopefully some day she’ll find some inspiration from my work and feel like she played a part in helping people. But now she just misses her daddy. Still flattering, still painful.

I’m happy I’ll be home for my son’s 1st birthday. I missed my daughter’s 5th when I was in Ethiopia and I never, ever, want that to happen again. Even though he’s only turning one and probably won’t remember, I can’t make a habit of missing these kinds of things. I’m glad I stayed firm on that.

Anniversaries in a bright new Chad

In International Development, Niger, Politics, Sustainable Development, Tchad on January 6, 2011 at 7:09 am

I’ve been in N’Djamena, Chad for two days now.  The big deal here is that the 50th anniversary of Chadian independence from France is being celebrated on January 11th – they’re calling it the “Cinquentenaire.”  All the main round-points and traffic circles are being spruced up with new cement bricks and landscaping, they’ve repainted the buildings on the main Avenue Charles De Gaulle (irony alert!) and workers are madly completing a large monument where presumably the festivities will be based.  From time to time, there are also jets rumbling overhead, which a colleague tells me are for an air show.

This Chadian colleague also told me that this is all to show that Chadians are in a new era of a prosperous Chad – they raised fonctionaire salaries and improved their housing, and are cleaning up the streets.  He also was worried that the recent republican takeover of the US congress was worrying for the future of foreign assistance.  I agreed on the last part, but remain uncertain of the new prosperous Chad.

So far, N’Djamena is a sleepy capital city by a river.  The streets do not seem that crowded, most of the people I see out and about are men.  There seems to be the usual Sahelian mish-mash of North Africans, Chinese, French, and here, Oil Workers.  We spent last evening at the Carnivore, a decent restaurant that caters mostly to expatriates. My Country Director here is Congolese, and he knew everyone, especially the other Congolese.  The Carnivore was hopping, with decent live music – one of the singers reminded me of Angelique Kidjo.  There was a point where the band was playing a cover of the Lionel Ritchie song “All Night Long”, sung by a Cameroonian, with Libyan, Chadian, and French guys all drunkenly dancing with each other and singing along.  The juxtaposition of styles was fun to watch.

My wife and I are celebrating an anniversary ourselves.  Yesterday, January 5th, it was our 10 year anniversary of closing our Peace Corps Service in Niger.  I feel like my trip back to Niger last September was reflective enough about this.  But it is a unique anniversary, and I’m happy to be spending it working in Africa, doing something I had wanted to do because of my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, all those years ago.

IRD in Niger

In Capacity Building, Career Development, Economic Development, International Development, Natural Resource Management, Niger, Organizational Development, Peace Corps, Philanthropy, Sustainable Development on October 7, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Note:  This post is also cross posted on the Official IRD Voices blog.

I love working for IRD because they sent me to Niger.  Most people wouldn’t make a statement like this, because by all statistical measures, Niger is one of the worst places on earth.  It’s the poorest country in the world on the UN Human Development Index, 182 out of 182.  Fifteen percent of children die of largely preventable diseases before reaching the age of 5.  Most people live on less than one US dollar per day.  Niger is currently emerging from an epic famine that most development experts consider being one of the worst in recorded memory – with up to twenty percent of the population considered to be severely malnourished, according to FEWS-NET.

I’m happy I went to Niger for two reasons – first, because I get to work for an organization that helps Nigeriens, among the most perennially and consistently vulnerable people on earth, and second, because I lived in Niger as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1997-2001.  I had not visited since then, and this was the kind of homecoming I had always hoped for.  With the statistics that I highlighted above, I never wanted to come back to Niger as a tourist.

IRD has been operating in Niger since 2005, working under two consecutive US Department of Agriculture Food for Progress Title II grants, as well as grants from the UN’s World Food Program and UNICEF.  In total, IRD has monetized over 9,100 Metric tons of commodities, funding almost $ 4 Million in projects benefitting 170,000 people.  These proceeds funded our Pastoralist Livelihoods Project, which reconstituted goat herds decimated by drought and flash floods, provided cash for work on pastoral rehabilitations, and supported the creation of cereal and feed banks for women’s groups, all in the Abalak region of the Tahoua Department.

My colleague Mamadou Sidibe, a Senior Monitoring and Evaluation specialist here, was able to visit the sites in the northern regions of Niger, and IRD’s work indeed did make the desert bloom.  The simple act of paying local men to dig long trenches against the slope of a barren desert, has yielded hectare after hectare of arable grasslands, where the semi-nomadic Tuareg and Fulani herders can graze their livestock.  This has the benefit of both increasing disposable income to spend on food, and of decreasing the chances of conflict – wherein the herders encroach on farmlands in search of fodder.

Because of the current food security crisis, IRD Niger is also distributing almost 6,000 Metric Tons of food, including Corn-Soy Blend, Sugar, Beans, and Oil, on behalf of the World Food Program.  These Blanket Feedings, Protection Rations, and Free Food Distributions have been in the regions of Magaria and Tillaberry, and have benefitted 67,000 children and over 1,100 pregnant and lactating women.

IRD will soon be starting up a more long-term development project to compliment our emergency relief and stabilization activities – the World Bank funded PRODEX project, focusing on developing the Onion Value Chain.  This project will last for 4 years and help develop Niger’s competitive advantage in growing the highly regarded “Galmi Red” onion.

My visit to Niger was, to me, a working vacation.  I not only got to see old friends and refresh my local language skills, but I was able to combine my personal goals of helping Nigeriens with those of IRD – to help the most vulnerable people help themselves.

See pictures on the IRD Flickr Feed here.

At Moussa’s House

In International Development, Niger on September 26, 2010 at 2:28 pm

(Note: I wrote most of this on my iPhone while sitting at my friend Moussa’s house this evening.)

I’ve been hanging out at my friend Moussa’s house in Yantala for a few hours now. Moussa is a long-time Peace Corps driver. Anyone who works in West Africa gets to know the drivers really well, you spend a lot of time with them.

Moussa has 6 kids, 3 boys and 3 girls.

He was moved from Konni to Niamey, so they’re still moving in. They’re burning trash.

The girls have been cooking and generally doing housework. I’ve occupied the youngest two, Souley and Fati, with my iPhone, shooting a video, letting them play some simple games. Souley and Fati are my kids age.

The sun’s set and it’s still warm. I’m glad I’ve been taking my anti-malarial, I’m definitely getting bit. The prayer call has gone out, you can sense the urban pause for prayer. There’s less motor noise, talking, music.

They’ve just let me kind of hang out and watch them arranging stuff, getting their sheep in a corral, moving their satellite dish. I’m kind of forbidden from making myself useful.

I don’t speak Hausa that well, so there’s kind of a language barrier. Otherwise it would be cool to at least explain some of the photos.

Two men came in to hang out, right before dinner. They greeted me, then sat down and proceeded to have conversations in Hausa.

It’s been a few days since it’s rained, so there’s a lot of dust in the air – so much that I can see about as many stars as I can see on a clear night in Northern Virginia. Which is to say, way less than in the Nigerien bush.

The dinner is rice tuwo. Moussa’s oldest son Faisal opens the pot to show three large, steaming and pounded rice-balls. A separate small pot with salty, oily meat sauce is nearby. He hands us all spoons and says, “Bismillah.” And we start eating. I haven’t taken any chances with local food since I’ve been here, so I’m game for the experience and the Nigerien home cooking. It was tasty and filling. I could feel my energy coming back after the shopping we had done earlier today.

Conversation ran around a bit – the cost of a trip to America is often an important topic for Nigeriens of all creeds. I used to lower it in my village, but I told them how much it actually cost. Moussa’s youngest son Souley told me, in super cute Hausa, about his Nintendo, how there’s Mario and another game with a Monkey. When you converse in a very foreign language that you’ve barely spoken in 10 years, a lot of the conversation is saying, “what’s that mean?” This is usually followed by a labored, roundabout explanation – it’s basically the process of a local person figuring out exactly which words you understand, and then catering everything they say to fit those words.

I spent the afternoon with Moussa at the Grand Marche, I had a few things I wanted to buy and he was into helping me bargain. However, I hung too close and he wasn’t able to get the best prices, which frustrated him way more than me. He found me a Nigerien Soccer uniform, which when I just tried it on at my hotel, looks more like a cycling uniform than a loose, flowing soccer outfit. Oh well.

The Grand Marche was a good experience though, it’s a classic African market – if you can’t find it there, it doesn’t exist. It’s labyrinthine, haphazard, with constant motion and sound. Shopkeepers kept making efforts to get my attention; I was a walking dollar sign. This used to offend me more when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, but you have to accept it. All you can do is be friendly and not intimidated, they’re just making a living.

Moussa’s sons had been half-heartedly making tea almost the whole time I was there. In fact, Moussa had them throw out the first round of tea leaves because it had been over cooked while they were distractedly taking care of moving-in chores. After dinner, the two men left – one of them wants to contact me tomorrow for an internship at IRD. Faisal gave me the first round of tea. All the beds with their mosquito-nets had been set up – most of the kids had gone to bed, except for Moussa’s wife and the oldest two boys.

Moussa then drove me back to the hotel on his motorcycle. Niamey’s dusty roads were calm. Lots of bushy Neem trees overlooking small stalls with the occasional food stand or guardian, making tea or smoking. The top of the Al Nasr building – one of the bigger parts of Niamey’s skyline (such as it is) – is a big ad for Zain now. He drops me off and I shuffle back up into my cool, smoky, French oasis where I finish up this blog post for you now.

The Return of Souley

In Capacity Building, Career Development, Growing Up, International Development, Niger, Peace Corps, Public Health, Sustainable Development on September 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I just got back from visiting Doutouel, my old Peace Corps village in south-western Niger. It was such an incredible day, I’ve got to get some of my thoughts down before I crash.

Here are the big observations.

The millet is awesome there this year. The rains have been good, they anticipate harvesting in the next 3-4 weeks. They seem to have planted their usual mix of millet and sorghum, with squash and various leafy greens growing near the huts. One of the all-star gardeners helped a fellow villager construct his own new garden well, on their own.

They got a primary school! Right after we completed our PC service, in 2001, the government of Niger built a Primary School. Over 100 kids attend it, they’ve had four classes now. Only 5 kids fully graduated on to the next level so far, but that’s 5 kids more than had ever even had the chance before. And, just the fact that the children of Doutouel will have at least exposure to education means that a lot of development indicators will improve – girls will get married later and have fewer children being the most important, in my opinion.

They also have a health clinic! I was totally surprised to see this – Doutouel is a pretty small village – only about 660 people, plus the outlying areas that are administratively coupled with Doutouel. But it’s far enough away from the main clinic in Torodi, the market village, that people used to wait until grave circumstances to bring sick people to the clinic. The clinic used to be seen as where people go to die, not where to maintain one’s health.

The road is well traveled! The French paid for a road to be built from Torodi through Doutouel to the next largest village, Adare, which is about 25 kilometers from Torodi. The road is clearly the main reason the government finally came around to giving them a school and clinic – they could finally reach it. There was a bush taxi there when I got there. It was such a pleasant surprise. Getting down to Doutouel from Niamey used to take pretty much a whole day, depending on how we would get there. Today I went in an NGO vehicle, in perfect condition, and stopped for no one until Torodi. If we hadn’t had to stop along the way to pick up a PCV and visit the local functionaires, I could have been from my hotel in Niamey to Doutouel in less then an hour.

I cannot overstate how medieval my village used to seem when I was there from 1997-1999. You could mostly only walk there – the land cruisers could make it but with great difficulty – in fact my villagers brought out some old pictures of when they helped us pull a land cruiser out of the nearby river. But there was almost no modern technology in my village other than radios. Now, several people have cell phones. There’s the obvious clinic and school. There is a school teacher who lives there and is almost like a Nigerien Peace Corps volunteer, especially in the way he seems to act as a kind of ambassador for the outside world.

I was happy to take a current PCV with me, a young woman from Boston, just starting her second year as a PCV. I don’t want to use her name or give away her village, but having her around was very helpful for bridging the gap between PCV’s in the area. After spending the day with me, hopefully she has a sense of all the work that was done in the area for more than 20 years before she got there. She was also nice enough to use my camera to take pictures of my visit so I could concentrate on my Fulfulde and greet as many people as I could.

I was so deeply moved to see our best village friends still there, doing as well as I could have expected. My neighbor’s kids were doing great – the two oldest kids are basically adults now, with kids of their own. Even the youngest, who used to be very sick with constant ringworm, looked to be thriving.

I must stress that Doutouel was and still is a very lucky village, environmentally. Even in a bad drought year, they still have a seasonal river that they can use to water their gardens. They’re Fulani herders at heart, so they take good care of their animals. They have a low water table, and multiple coping mechanisms during lean years. They even have a granary that was built with the help of another NGO. I didn’t show up empty-handed, I brought them a whole sack of millet which they put in the granary for when they need it. So as far as Niger is concerned – they’re not a village that is a candidate for blanket feeding.

Still, they never have done all they possibly could. For instance, I’ve always thought they could easily plant rice or sugar cane in their vast water basin that gets annually inundated, and then sell it to buy food. But property rights make that difficult – it’s been brought up to them before but the organization and complications involved, and the newness of it make it too difficult for them now.

Overall, I was deeply moved – like, trying to keep it together moved – to see my old friends, and to see the positive changes in Doutouel after just 10 years. Every step I take in my career, when I encounter a question about appropriate technology or a development intervention, I think about what my villagers would do. It was so rewarding to see the key things being attended to: Primary Education, Public Health, and Infrastructure.

I hope to return the next time I visit Niger, which hopefully won’t be another 10 years from now. After all, it’s so easy to get there now! And my villagers can call me now!

The Field

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, Career Development, Economic Development, International Development, Microcredit, Niger, Organizational Development, Peace Corps on September 21, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I’ve been in Niger now since Sunday afternoon.  I built sufficient buzz amongst my little zeitgeist that people are asking me, “what’s it like to be back?”  That’s a good question, I’m glad you asked.

It’s awesome, really.  It’s good to be here, slowly getting into being here, getting to know the field office I’m supporting from HQ.  I kind of wish I knew more people here so I could hang out a little bit more, get out to the Grand Marche, etc.  I’ve got a whole list of things I want to buy while I’m here…  I’ve actually been working a lot.

The sounds are still there – the fast Hausa or Zarma, the revving motos, occasional prayer calls or African music.  Chaotic traffic.  Dust.  Some heat, although not nearly as bad as it could be, and to be honest, after a DC summer I’m loving the “dry heat.”

Because of the AQIM kidnapping 7 people, including 5 French, 1 Togolese and 1 Malagasy, France sent what seems like a garrison of soldiers here, and a handful of them were staying at my hotel.  I don’t want to get beat up by any French soldier that I could offend, but man if they don’t look silly in their short shorts.  They’re all decked out but with these 1980, daisy-duke camo shorts.  They almost look like they’ll break into a boy-band dance at any time.  But I digress…

The Niger River is really high, almost to touching the bottom of the bridge.  So I feel awful for the farmers and fisherman’s families whose campements next to the river have been washed away.

I’ve had Tele Sahel on for about an hour now while I’ve been online, and I’ve actually been very pleasantly surprised by all the industry that seems to have developed in Niger.  When I was here before, I remember the milk company and maybe the pagne company.  Now they’ve got lots of nice looking, Nigerien businesses advertised on TV (bottled water, various grocery stores, long-haul passenger bus systems, pesticides, hadj tour companies) which means they’re successful enough to pay for advertising, which is saying something here.

The other cool thing about Nigerien TV is they seem to broadcast a lot in Hausa and Zarma, in addition to French – in fact, most of the commercials are in either Hausa or Zarma.

As for the politics – all indications in my purview make it seem like the current military government is interested in helping regular Nigeriens.  My NGO colleagues say that the last Tandja regime was very anti-NGO and restrictive of many kinds of project, especially food-for-work.

A representative from Zain Mobile communications came and gave us an interesting presentation on using mobile phones to make cash transfers to rural beneficiaries.   We like this a lot and hope to integrate this – there are so many development advantages to this that it’s worth helping Zain enrich themselves and increase their customer base.  It promotes literacy and numeracy, the phones can be used for long term monitoring and evaluation, it does all the other proven things that cell phones have been linked to – such as what I’ve mentioned and other things like flattening commodity price fluctuations.

So, I’ll be more on my own with the local staff the rest of my time here, my M&E colleague Mamadou is heading up north for an assessment for the next 6 days.  Hopefully I can get some stuff done and leave the program in better shape than I’m finding it, which is not all that bad.


Going back

In Career Development, Growing Up, International Development, Niger, Peace Corps on September 15, 2010 at 8:35 pm

It’s as official as it’s going to be, I’m going back to Niger, where my wife and I served as Peace Corps Volunteers from 1997-2001.  I leave on Saturday, arrive on Sunday, and will be there for the next 2 weeks.

This trip represents a lot of different things for me.  Primarily, it’s a career development opportunity – I haven’t had many opportunities to get the long-term field experience that a lot of my peers have, so I need to take advantage of these chances to work “in the field.”  For me at this stage of my career, I couldn’t be more pleased with the situation – I am the only Program Officer at my NGO backstopping Niger and Chad.  I get to work on my Peace Corps Country, which is a nice full-circle opportunity for me in my international development career.

However, I’m hoping that this can be more of a beginning rather than a full-circle ending – kind of like the next phase of my life.  Peace Corps Niger is a large part of my identity.  I spent nearly 10 years as either a Peace Corps Volunteer, Recruiter, or former recruiter (while in grad school); working at my NGO represents the main 2nd phase of my career, especially since I started in the programming sector on the Iraq team last year.

But – it will be hard not to live in the past as I get back to a country I’ve grown to lionize.  As a recruiter, my Peace Corps Volunteer experience grew into this epic, heroic experience where I found myself and my career calling, overcoming the soul-crushing factors lined up against me.  Even now, I’m sure people are still sick of me saying, “When I was in Peace Corps… in Niger…in  Niger… blah blah” as I stand up and gesticulate and tell my guinea-worm project story for the Nth time.

The reality was probably more prosaic.  I was a decent PCV, I thought I learned Fulfulde pretty well (until I visited other villages with people who didn’t know the “Tubako” Fulfulde), I worked on a wide range of projects and even extended for a third year.  But I can’t say I lit the PC world aflame or did anything truly remarkable.  No volunteer of the year awards for me.  I got sick a couple of times, but nothing really awful.

I basically had the classic PC experience – I learned and gained WAY more than I taught, and it had a lasting effect on my career goals and life outlook.

So now, I’m preparing to get back and do something I never really did before – regular development work.  Niger is experiencing a crushing famine and has had devastating flash floods recently.  Niger is still the very poorest country in the world according to the UN Human Development Index, and the statistics that lead to that terrible ranking represent a non-famine year.  Niger’s reality is one of barely subsisting, on the knife’s edge of crisis, even in a good year.  I’m happy to be working for an NGO where I can help alleviate the suffering of Nigeriens, who are among the most vulnerable people on Earth.

With that in mind – I’ll have a lot on my plate these next two weeks.  I’m hoping to write about this as much as possible, and even cross-post my blog posts on IRD’s Voices blog and upload some photos to Flickr when I can.

Stay tuned.

Literacy Tipping Point

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, Economic Development, International Development, Niger, Peace Corps, Sustainable Development, Technology on September 15, 2010 at 10:51 am

Just read this interesting article on a Literacy Project in Niger.

It’s a CRS project using cell phones in literacy projects. As it turns out, if you give illiterate people cell phones and include literacy classes, they will retain their knowledge and use their literacy skills to send text messages. This is brilliant and I consider this a tipping point: where literacy is increased, living standards will go up.

I worked on a village based literacy program in the Torodi area of Niger in the late 90’s, and one major thing that kept people from retaining their literacy skills was that there was nothing to read in Fulfulde or Zarma. If you give them something to write and read, they’ll use their skills. Otherwise literacy isn’t of much use to them in their daily lives.