As I mentioned in a previous post, prior to leaving for Niger I witnessed an amazing outpouring of generosity among my family and friends. Many people approached me, asking if they could send money with me to help out the village. I was truly moved, and then a little bit scared about how I'd go about spending all the money on the most impactful, effective, and sustainable projects possible. All in the matter of one week. It was kind of like doing another round of Peace Corps service, only really, really condensed!
But here's why it was all worth it. . .
When I lived in Tokoye-Bungou, the chief approached me about 6 months into my service (once I had enough Hausa to understand!) and told me what their two greatest needs were: peanuts and a school. For the first, peanuts are a cash crop in Niger, and used in various forms in all sorts of local dishes. The villagers desired to plant peanuts in their fields, but didn't have the seeds necessary to do so. For the second, the village at that time had one teacher, and a small classroom built out of millet stalk. The students sat in the sand on the floor, and there were even stories of snakes making surprise appearances during class.
The tricky part about Peace Corps work is that it's difficult, at times, to differentiate between a village's intention to really improve their livelihoods, and their desire to profit from the American living among them. I got really lucky with my village. I originally received funding to provide the village with 20 sacks of peanut seeds, which they distributed among the community in a crazy, complex system that I was sure would guarantee failure. However, despite being illiterate, Nigeriens are very capable of keeping track of who got what, and who owes what. So, the first year the loan succeeded, and grew by 10 additional sacks. I was already thrilled, since previous PC peanut loans hadn't even made it through the first year. But, Tokoye-Bungou was motivated, and made it work. Six years later, when Reuben and I returned to visit, the peanut bank had grown to 70 sacks. This year, they were still waiting for the repayments after the harvest, but they anticipated bringing in 400 sacks!! The problem now, they said, was that they had no where to store the peanuts. They'd been dividing them up among various huts, one of them with a huge crack in the wall that was sure to collapse with the next rain. They needed a more permanent structure. And, since they'd proven their committment to the peanut loan project, and since it had become something the extended community relies on, I decided this would be a good use of the donated funds.
Also during my PC service, I'd been able to get funding to construct a permanent school classroom. A few years later, the government stepped up and added another class. In a village where not a single adult speaks French (the national language), there are now children who read, write, and understand the language, and some of them have even moved to a nearby village to attend secondary school. I truly believe that in a generation, Tokoye-Bungou will be a completely different place. I hope they don't lose their charm, but I do hope they continue to improve their standard of living.
The new school teacher approached me during this visit, with the idea to start a garden at the school. The students would benefit from the added nutrients of the vegetables, and they could also sell the surplus at the market. This also seemed like a great way to spend the money.
So, one day I traveled with two teachers and Dogo to the city, to buy all the supplies we could possibly need for these two projects, plus a whole lot more. Before arriving in the village, I'd met a master gardener in the city, who was able to hook me up with all the seeds and gardening materials we would need. He even made himself available to come to the village to teach the students how to properly care for the garden. I also wanted to start a tree nursery on the school grounds. I'd been amazed at how the lemon tree I planted in my yard had grown so much over the years, and the villagers say that everyone gets to benefit from it. How cool would it be, I though, if EVERYONE could have their own lemon tree?! The gardener was able to supply us with 200 citrus and mango trees, plus he threw in an extra 35 free of charge. My idea is to keep half of them on the school grounds, where every student will be responsible for caring for one of them. With the other half, each student will bring a tree home to their parents, to plant in their concession or their fields. My hope is that this will give the parents good incentive to keep their kids in school, or enroll those who aren't yet attending.
We also paid a visit to the local "Home Depot" of sorts, to price out what it would cost to build a storehouse for the peanuts. Normally a project like this would have taken a lot of time, but I only had one day! So, we were able to make it work by settling on the purchase of enough supplies to build a concrete foundation, support the mud walls with cement reinforcements, and put a tin roof on the top. The teachers were instrumental in finding a truck that was strong enough to haul 2 tons of cement, 7 sheets of tin, and a whole lot of trees all the way from the city to the bush. In fact, I really have to commend their efforts because I'd returned to the village by motorcycle at that point, to spend some last moments with my friends, and they weren't able to get the transportation sorted out and completed until almost midnight! It was quite the excitement unloading a huge truck by starlight.
In the morning, when they saw what we'd brought, the villagers were so thankful for the contribution to their school and their peanut bank. And I told them that it was their own hard work that had paid off.
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