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Tattoo Typos and Odd Couples

Two weeks from today I’ll be on a plane for Africa. Which means I’m spending a lot of time contemplating if I should invest in more equipment for my camera. Which means I’m looking back at all my favorite pictures from previous trips to Africa. Which means I remember two pictures that I wish I’d captured, but never thought to.

#1 – Rabi’s Arm

This is Rabi. She lived across the path from me in Tokoye-Bungou Sud, so she was one of my first and closest friends. She was, however, fiercely competitive with my very best friend, Madou. She was mostly competitive for the potential material benefits that could come from befriending an “anassara,” I came to realize, so over time I distanced myself from Rabi. At least in socializing.

But occasionally I’d feel bad about neglecting my neighbor, and I’d go spend an afternoon with her. On those days, I spent a lot of time staring at her tattoos. Rabi had many tribal markings. She had the two razor-carved lines that ran from the corners of her mouth across her cheeks to her ears, typical of many members of our Hausa village. She had the S-shaped tattoo between her eyes, uniform on nearly all the women of Tokoye-Bungou (including me, but I’d opted for mine to be on the small of my back, because “If I get it on my face, all the other anassaras will laugh at me.”).

Rabi was apparently a fan of tattoos. In addition to “S” she had a diagonal line beside her nose, and a line running down her chin. And once upon a time she had splurged on decorating her inner forearms. One arm displayed a scorpion — drawn as a cartoon (unintentionally, I would guess) with the thick black lines indicative of the technique of dipping four bound sewing needles into a jar of ink.

But the other forearm was the one I stared at. Tattooed there were two words — one on top of the other. The first was BABI, and right below it was RABI. When I asked Rabi about it she explained that she had asked the (probably illiterate) tattoo man to write her name – RABI – across her forearm. He completed the entire tattoo, spelling out B-A-B-I before anyone noticed. Someone eventually did notice, and so the tattoo professional corrected the error by spelling Rabi’s name correctly the second time. No line across the typo or anything — just a permanent misspelling. And I wish I’d taken a picture of that forearm.

#2 – Opposites Attract

Dogo and Madou, my best friends in Tokoye-Bungou, are similarly wonderful, but vertically opposite. Dogo (who’s name is actually Moussa but everyone calls him Dogo because it means “tall” in Hausa) stands at about 6 feet 7 inches or so. Madou, his dearly loved wife, stands at maybe 5 feet even. I have a multitude of photos of these two, but the one I always regret not having captured is a photo of them, standing side-by-side, illustrating their extreme heights (or lack thereof).

Which means that someday I hope to get back to Niger and capture these photos the way they are meant to be.


    Peanuts & Gardens & Trees

    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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    The Moussa Sisters

    Dogo and Madou’s family have been my closest friends in Tokoye-Bungou since very early on in my Peace Corps service. I ate dinner with them every night, and over time became able to communicate and converse with them about anything with very little difficulty. They seem like an odd pair — Dogo is probably about 6 foot 5, and Madou is about 5 foot nothing. But they are both kind and generous, and unlike a lot of couples here, I think they love each other. Well, at least it appears that way ever since Dogo’s other two wives left him (out of jealousy?).

    Dogo is not his real name. Dogo actually means “tall” in Hausa, and it’s the primary name that he goes by. His real name is Moussa Tchiwake, and he has 6 children. His wives have given him at least 9 children, and I know their stories. I want to tell you about the Moussa sisters.

    Diya Illu & her little brother Aminou

    The eldest girl is Diya Illu, whose real name is Sueba, but I’ve never heard anyone but her teacher call her that. I’ve thought hard about how old she must have been when I lived in the village, and it was probably about 7 years old, making her 15 or 16 now. She’s tall like Dogo, all the kids are, and quiet too. When I arrived in Tokoye-Bungou, she wasn’t in the village, and I was worried she’d been married off already. Two years ago I’d cried to the school director, begging him not to kick her out of school for her bad grades. But he told me that Niger is not America, and education is not a right here (which isn’t true, but it didn’t matter). So, Diya Illu has little choice but to marry, otherwise the fear is that she’ll become “spoiled” — not spoiled by things, but by age.

    Diya Illu (L) & Nafisa (R) in 2000

    She isn’t married yet, but she will be in less than a month. I insisted to Dogo and Madou that Diya Illu really isn’t old enough to get married and start having babies, but Madou’s argument was that clearly the fact that she now has breasts qualifies her as being old enough to marry. In the end, it wasn’t up to them anyway. Diya Illu returned to the village to see me, and soon after Madou happened upon the news that her marriage had already been arranged. Apparently, it is not up to Dogo at all to agree to the groom’s dowry — that’s the responsibility of Dogo’s older brother, Fodi. Fodi collected the dowry (about $80), but for some reason the message never got communicated that the wedding date was set. So, Madou was frantic, realizing that she would soon be stuck with the responsibility to provide food for the celebration, as well as all the cooking pots and serving pots and clothes and everything else a new bride needs. It seems all the burden is placed on the women, while the men get dowry money.

    Next in line was Nafisa, the daughter of Madou’s cowife at the time. Nafisa and Diya Illu were close to the same age and good friends. When I visited the village last time, I heard the tragic news that Nafisa had died. She must have had some sort of allergic reaction, because the story goes that her whole body became swollen to the point where her belly beads burst off and they had to cut off her necklace so it wouldn’t choke her. She suffered greatly, and I hate thinking that it might have been remedied. She’s not the only girl to have died. After Diya Illu, Madou gave birth to a big, seemingly healthy girl. As we sat talking one night last week, I asked what had happened. She said the girl was born alive, but by the time they were cutting the umbilical cord, she died. Dogo came into the hut, and lifted the newborn’s arm back and forth in disbelief: “She died? She died?”

    Indo as a Toddler

    Rachida as a Toddler

    When I first moved to Tokoye-Bungou in 1999, Indo was over a year old, but so malnourished she could barely walk. She had a hugely swollen belly button, which was further excentuated by her swollen belly. She cried constantly, and was never a happy toddler. When Madou became pregnant with Rachida in early 2000, she knew it would be too difficult to keep caring for Indo, along with a newborn. So she took Indo to live with her mother in a far-away village.

    Rachida was born healthy and happy. The difference between the two is still stark, and they don’t appear to be particularly close. Indo struggles in school,

    Indo Today

    and Madou says that after 3 years she still  doesn’t know how to write her name. Given how malnourished she was as a baby, it’s sad to see what an impact it has had on her learning potential. Rachida is bright, and her parents have high hopes for her education. She wakes up early every morning to bathe and put on makeup, and repeats the primping after lunch. One day, as Rachida was carefully applying black lines along her eyebrows, Indo walked by and pronounced, “The teacher says that girls who wear makeup aren’t smart.”

    “Lies!” insisted Rachida, as she peered even more determined into her mirror.

    Rachida Today


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    Moms and Malaria

    As I wrote about before, I brought 50 treated mosquito nets with me on my trek to the village. I had a plan for how I'd hoped to distribute the nets, and that plan was communicated thoroughly to Dogo, who helped translate my Hausa into the type of Hausa that the rest of the Hausas (who aren't used to funny white-person accents) can understand.

    To be honest, I kind of dreaded distribution day. Not that I wasn't really excited about the chance to potentially prevent hundreds of people from contracting malaria (the mom typically sleeps with several of her small kids on one bed), but I was worried it would be a free-for-all, with lots of demands about why this person got a net and not me?! But, as became a theme of my visit, all went much better than expected.

    Now, how might all the women of the village come to learn about the pending mosquito net distribution? you ask. Well, through the town crier, of course. I was still nestled in my cocoon of fabric inside my tent (I'd underestimated how chilly the nights would be), when I heard the familiar voice yelling the announcement. "ALL THE WOMEN WHO ARE PREGNANT! AND ALL THE WOMEN WHO HAVE A BABY THAT HASN'T YET REACHED ONE YEAR! BALKISSA WANTS TO TALK TO YOU THIS MORNING! AND BRING YOUR HEALTH CARD!" He'd walk a few yards, take a deep breath, and repeat, until he made a tour of the whole village. So, it was time for me (Balkissa) to get up.

    The town crier had omitted the detail that the women were to meet at the chief's hut, and not at my hut, so there was an early flood of visitors who had to be

    redirected. I soon joined them in the round meeting hut in the center of town. I've been really thrilled to discover that I haven't forgotten much Hausa. Still, I hadn't quite anticipated giving a speech to nearly 100 spectators. No turning back now! So, I dove in and told them why I brought the nets — that my friends in America heard that their babies suffer from malaria and wanted to help prevent that. And then I explained how to use the nets — let them air out for a day, but not in the sun; use them all the time there are mosquitos, not just during rainy season; if you have an old net, give it to your other kids and not your husband (sorry guys).

    Then came distribution time. Dogo forewarned me to check every woman's card carefully, and it was good advice. Although, it seems to transcend all national barriers that doctors have terrible handwriting because it was nearly impossible to decipher the information. That, and a good number of the cards had been partially eaten by termites or stained by who knows what. Nonetheless, I verified that the pregnant women really had gone to the clinic for prenatal checkups. And that all the new moms had taken their babies in for vaccinations and baby weighings. For those who hadn't, I made them wait until the end to see if there were nets left. I explained that I wanted to make sure that those moms who were really motivated to take care of their babies got the nets first (hoping they'd be encouraged to be more proactive with their health care in the future). In the end, everyone who qualified was able to get a net, even if they'd lost their card or it was incomplete. I even fudged and let babies who were 13-15 months slip through. Luckily, I was the only one who could read their real age on the card. There were some sly women who tried to trick me into giving them a net. A few who insisted they were just 2 months pregnant, so I couldn't tell yet. Or those with toddlers running around trying to insist they weren't yet one year old. But, it was easy to laugh and make them fess up. And in the end there wasn't nearly the mass stampede that I'd feared. Quite the opposite.

    P.S. I'd love to start posting photos off all this stuff, but the internet connection keeps refusing to let me. So, hopefully before too long I can update the stories with photos to match!

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    Tokoye-Bungou First Impressions

    The Fam & Me





    It’s hard to know where to begin. Niger as a whole has progressed in a lot of ways since I lived here. Most city-dwellers have cell phones now, and towers to receive the signals have cropped up in the middle of bush villages. The towns have grown with new buildings, a tiny bit more infrastructure, and lot more people. But, at any given moment, you can still spot a camel being led down the middle of a busy street in the capital city, and ox carts are as common a mode of transportation as mopeds or buses.

    When I visited two years ago, I was amazed to find that a road had been cleared along the footpath from the main road to my village and beyond, and there was even a sign to let you know you’d arrived in Tokoye-Bungou. This time, the road and sign were still there, but the weather and the animal traffic are well on their way to returning the bush to its natural condition — the footpath’s sandy patches and rocky crevices have reappeared, and the rusted sign I can easily imagine as a future decoration inside someone’s hut. The rain, wind, and sun are so powerful here and it’s incredible to see how quickly they can transform things. In a week’s time my once-pristine American clothes and bags are coated with a layer of red dust and ash marks, the heels of my feet are cracked and blackened and I can’t scrub them clean. My tent was sun-bleached, dirt-streaked, and torn by the time I packed it up (and left it with a Peace Corps volunteer!), and despite my best efforts the inside was covered with sand and dirt and layers of cloth that I’d used as cushioning to make up for the air mattress that sprung a leak on my very first night. It’s easy to be shocked at how dirty life is here, but since it’s so hard to fight the elements, I’m not that surprised that the villagers learn to live with it. Well, the strongest of them do, anyway.

    A lot of my friends were gone. Dogo and Madou–who I consider as family–were there and among the first to greet me when I arrived. They led me to their new compound on the far outskirts of the village, where it was spacious and quiet, apart from the roosters at 4am. They gave me the village news. Sahabi, the star little boy in most of my PC pictures, had moved with his family to Nigeria. My good friend Haja had moved to Benin with her husband. My friend Abdou had been there for years too, and many others had relocated as well. The reason, repeated again and again, was that there was no millet in Niger. And no work. So, villagers are looking elsewhere — to coastal countries where the economy and the soil are stronger. Some will return when they have enough to live on. Some might not. Many kids I knew had grown and either moved to a nearby village for middle school (which is great!) or been married off shortly after hitting puberty. More on that later.

    Back to how dirty it is… My first day was spent sitting in the shade with Dogo and Madou and their 2 kids who are too young for school, AbdouRazak (6) and Aminou (10 mo.) Working with World Vision, I’ve learned more than I knew when I lived here about how complex malnutrition and illness is for little kids. It’s not just that they don’t have enough to eat. Sometimes that’s not the case at all. It’s that they don’t have diversity in their diets, and the little nutrients they do get are often sucked away by worms they contract from the dirt and water, or voided by diarrhea and infections. All day long AbdouRazak rolled around playing in the sand that was littered with chicken droppings and Aminou’s lack of a diaper, his black legs turned light brown and little doubt left as to how he contracted the worms that had made his hair fall out in scaly patches and his belly swell above his skinny legs. When I took him to the clinic, the nurse tried to tell me he just had drank too much millet drink, and that his incessant cough was from all the filth. True, it’s filthy, but I pointed out that his cough was also bloody and she finally relented that maybe he should get some medicine. Aminou is nicknamed “Biri” (monkey) because he crawls around constantly with his legs straightened out rather than on his knees. He’s teething and putting anything within reach in his mouth. Some things were taken from him (when noticed)– a rusty screw, a knife, chicken poop; others were given back to him when he dropped them — a rock, a moldy discarded squash. When I explained how I needed to avoid eating most of the village food because I was scared of getting sick, Madou laughed that they don’t get sick because they have lots of dirt in their bellies. Well, I said, you know that it’s because your kids put dirty things in their mouths and eat with dirty hands that they’re sick all the time. Huh, remarked a visiting villager, is that why they’re always sick? Yes. But, I don’t know if the understanding will lead to change.

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