December 07, 2009

En route to Antananarivo

Nobody said serving in the Peace Corps would be easy. Sometimes we just have to make sacrifices. Sometimes, you just have to spend a day in Paris and pretend to enjoy it…
Due to the surprisingly limited flight options between Niamey and Antananarivo, I am pleased to report that the French capital was set upon this morning by a peculiarly underdressed clan of volunteers, desperate for hot showers and dairy products. It is recommended that all innocent civilians remain indoors, for all indications are that this ragtag band of vagabond youth will ignore all common sense (chacos…with jeans…and an Obama jersey…you wouldn’t dare!) and descend upon the streets to be amazed by such novelties as sidewalks, stoplights, and kebab stands. It is likely we will be unable to peel our eyes from such glories to so much as glance upward at the Eiffel tower. Lord knows what chaos will reign after nightfall.

Fortunately for the French people, our layover is only a day. We proceed on to Antananarivo tomorrow morning, to begin our training afresh in a new land. Because this transfer has occurred rather unexpectedly, I have only a limited amount of information about what the future holds. In all likelihood, we will have seven to eight weeks of training, structured similarly to that which we experienced in Niger: emphasis on language (Maligasi, spoken in various dialects all over the island, four to five hours a day), as well as cross-cultural, medical, security, and technical instruction. The overall structure of Peace Corps Madagascar, however, is fairly different. First of all, the program operates in four, rather than five, sectors: Health, Environment, Education, and Small Business/Community Development. The thirty-seven members of our stage were redistributed amongst these divisions and I was quite pleased to be placed in Environment.

The Peace Corps’ professed environmental mission in Madagascar focuses on battling deforestation and protecting lands of diverse value. Many volunteers work within or on the fringes National Parks and Forests, promoting environmental awareness, though it is also possible to be located far from any government holding. Needless to say, the goals and efforts of the environmental sector in Madagascar are radically different than that of Natural Resource Management in Niger. While it is an adjustment, I am thrilled about the opportunity.

Unlike the cluster system used in Niger, the placement of volunteers within Madagascar is more scattered. In terms of distance, volunteers are considerably more isolated, sometimes a twelve or fifteen hour bush taxi ride from their nearest volunteer. While that may sound rather lonely and intimidating, once-monthly trips into shared “banking town” (no, seriously, you bank, but you also meet up with fellow PCVs), provide respite from the bush.

Madagascar boasts incredible biological and geographic diversity (at least, according to the Lonely Planet guide book that has provided us with the majority of our information regarding our future home). Likewise, the positions volunteers fill are highly varied; a PCV can work on the coast with fisheries, in the highlands battling deforestation, in a regional capital securing microfinance loans, or in a small village teaching English. Until one receives their post assignment, the options are wide open even within sectors.

I am beginning to realize how difficult it is to be simultaneously informative and entertaining. So I will sign off by saying that I do not know when I will have internet access again (it likely will NOT be a six week wait) or when the ball-and-chain I affectionately refer to as my cell phone will be operational (probably within a week). If any of you have the holiday blues, just think of how, as my hair grows out, I am told with increasing frequency that I resemble a chia pet.

New Address: (Keep up that Snail Mail!)
Bureau de Corps de la Paix
B.P. 12091
Post Zoom Ankorondrano
Antananarivo 101

December 03, 2009

C'est la vie en Niger (or, say, random exmple, Madagascar)

I am, in fact, aware that creating a blog with the expressed intent of informing everyone I am alive, then letting said blog sit inactive for months on end, is a rather counterintuitive strategy. In my defense, I have only failed to update you all because certain circumstances have prevented me from doing so. I can personally assure you that it was not a lack of effort on this end; in the past six weeks, I have had internet for exactly 62 minutes, no less than 41 of which were spent accessing my gmail account. The keyboard might as well have been hieroglyphs. Being technologically inept to begin with, this was a nearly insurmountable issue.

Unfortunately, hieroglyphic keyboards are not solely to blame for my lack of communication. Terrorists are!! (Seriously). About three weeks ago, there was an attempted kidnapping of American embassy personnel in Tahaoua, a regional capital in central Niger a couple hundred kilometers from our training site in Hamdallaye. Though the attempt was unsuccessful, and apparently rather poorly planned, it prompted a consolidation of all Peace Corps volunteers and trainees within Niger. Consolidation represents phase two of our Emergency Action Plan; phase three is evacuation. Particularly disturbing about this incident was the apparent involvement of Al-Qaeda. As you may have heard, Al-Qaeda as an organization is not overly fond of America and its various manifestations, humanitarian or not.

For our stage (training class), consolidation initially only limited our training. Though we were ripped from the arms of our host families and dragged kicking and screaming back to the training site, language classes and technical training continued much as before. The hope and expectation was that the issue would blow over, consolidation would be lifted, and we would be sworn in on schedule. As you have likely surmised, that is no longer the case. Only a week or so after the initial kidnapping attempt, another was made across the Mali border, though still very close to Niger. Not a positive trend, one would say.

A couple days later, we were informed that we would not be continuing as trainees in Niger. In the current security climate, we, with limited language and cross-cultural skills, are simply too much of a risk. I will tell you the truth; that was a devastating thing to hear. Though six weeks in America may glide on by, it felt like a short lifetime here. We had formed relationships- with our host families, our language trainers, Peace Corps staff, and each other- that feel much older than a month and a half. I was truly beginning to feel at home in a country that seemed so foreign to me only a short time ago.

Though I was already lost in the impending downward spiral of my worst nightmare- (“I’ll have to go home. I’ll have to get a job. I’ll have to grow up. Oh no, people will expect me to get married.)- the Country Director continued on: “…because your stage seems unusually close, both Peace Corps Niger and the bureau in Washington have decided to move you all, together, to Madagascar.” What ensued could only be described as pandemonium.

It is a unique challenge to adjust one’s mindset from spending two years in Niger to spending two in Madagascar. They are radically different posts (at least if the packing lists are any sort of indication). While I’m thrilled about the opportunity to serve in Madagascar (seventy different types of lemurs people!), I can genuinely say it is difficult to leave Niger. The people here are the kindest I have ever met; they are open and welcoming, tolerant of just how strange Americans are, and truly thrilled that we want to be here, learn their language, and live amongst them. They may be among the poorest in the world, but don’t tell them that; they have a joy for life that I can only hope I will be able to take with me.

It’s a nearly impossible task to encapsulate my six weeks here (especially because I know at least some of you have opened a second window and are researching just how much a flight to Madagascar will set you back). I could talk about how beautiful the country is, how all the mud buildings glow red in the evening light, how the sun floats hazy in a cloud of dust just above the horizon before you glance away and back and it is suddenly gone. I could talk about how the market is a flurry of color and smell and activity, how the spices are piled up and the joy in bargaining is almost worth more than what is actually exchanged. I could tell you just how cozy you can be in a bush taxi with twenty-five of your (now) closest friends and their goats and all the various miscellany one just couldn’t travel without. I could describe the children who line up to hold my water bottle, or the neighbors who are quick to use the word friend and mean it, or even the guy on the bus who bought us apples just because we used Hausa to ask him where we were. Or, best of all, I could recall for you what it is like to finish a day surrounded by the familiar ruckus of the family concession, gathered on mats or around the fire, exchanging gossip over the wall, sharing rice with our hands, welcoming the cool of night.

In the end, these are only snatches of a life briefly lived in Niger. I move forward to Madagascar knowing I leave a small part of myself behind (more, of course, than just twenty pounds and eight inches of hair).

October 20, 2009

A Quick Pre-Departure Update

So quick, in fact, that I don’t even have time to come up with a snappy title to entice my reader (apologies Prof. Siegler, no ‘Accusations of Atheism’ here)! Packing for two years takes time people…

A couple of days ago I received some new information about my departure and training that negates what I said previously about my contact for the next couple months. It appears that I will NOT have internet access during training. Hamdallaye, the small village where we will be living through the end of December, has no internet cafes or other facilities. But I remind you all…snail mail!

I have learned quite a bit more about what my schedule will be like during training and, since it seems I won’t be able to describe it as it unfolds, I’ll provide a quick rundown now. My fellow trainees and I, young and wildly enthusiastic, will arrive in Niger Thursday afternoon, where we will be greeted by current volunteers who will give us the traditional welcome gift of a warm bottle of water. Simply enthralled to be off the plane and finally getting a chance to save the world, we will pound that bottle of water and ask immediately who we can help.

Thursday and Friday nights will be spent at the training center (I’m confident there will be spontaneous rounds of Kumbayah, hopefully with accompanying dance numbers). In our first few days we will be bombarded with a variety challenges and instruction: survival tips, a village tour, meeting the chief, language assessment, and a session on the use of Nigerien tools.

On Saturday, I will meet the family with whom I will be living for the duration of my nine-week training period. Depending upon which language I will be learning, my adoptive family will speak only Hausa or Zarma. Most of my days will be full of community-based language classes, cross-cultural and technical training, and medical, safety, and security instruction. Each day, I will receive a stipend of 1,500 CFA for all my expenses. At roughly three dollars a day, I remain a pretty cheap date.

After three weeks, each trainee will embark upon a demystification weekend, a visit to a volunteer currently in the field. (On a side note: I’m really hoping this is the weekend we get to pick our spirit-animal). Time will be spent meeting friends and neighbors and witnessing first-hand what life is like in the Sahel. Presumably, when each trainee returns, they still want to spend two years of their young life in such splendor (for once, I’ll be serious and say I do).

Because I’m in a hurry, I’ll give the rest of the training schedule in bullet form, because really, I’ve always believed that’s how papers should be turned in anyway:

Week 4: Site Placement Interviews

Week 5: Site Announcements

Week 7: Live-In (Visit to Permanent Site)

Week 9: Language Proficiency Test and Final Evaluation

December 30: Official Swearing-In at U.S. Ambassadors Residence in Niamey (ahem, house party!)

Wish me luck!

September 25, 2009

Look, I got a blog!

Apparently, blogs aren’t that difficult to get in this day and age. Personally, I prefer to think what my mother tells me: I’m a unique little snowflake and everyone will want to hear about my experiences.

(Of course, I’m a little nervous about what happens to snowflakes in Niger).

For those of you who may not know, I am beginning my Peace Corps service in a little under a month. On October 20th, I fly to Philadelphia to go through approximately twelve hours of orientation (or ‘staging,’ in Peace Corps lingo). During this period of extensive training, we all turn in our paperwork, receive our shiny new Peace Corps passports, get shot up with an absurd number of vaccines, and, oh yea here and there, get some tidbits of information on what the next two years of our life will be like. Once we are ensured not to fail, we fly out of JFK the next evening to Paris then on to Niamey, the capital city of Niger.

For my first three months in Niger, I will undergo Pre-Service Training. During this period, I will be living with a family in a small village just west of the capital and my days will be chock-full of intensive language classes, hands-on resource management training, and cultural instruction. My lessons will most likely be in Hausa, spoken by a majority of the population (though Niger is a former French colony and French is spoken in the government and the capital, most rural regions maintain native languages).

During this three-month period, I will probably have fairly consistent internet access at Peace Corps headquarters, so I will be checking my email and updating my blog as frequently as possible. So write me some emails folks (! I would love to hear from you, even though I’m positive that adapting to an entirely foreign culture will be a breeze, that I will feel not even the slightest twinge of homesickness or craving for those cowardly creature-comforts of life in the US. I am, of course, joking. I fully expect my time with the Peace Corps to be a struggle, with challenges and frustrations part and parcel with the rewards.

After three months, if I pass inspection, I will be sworn in and will move to a small village “en brousse” (in the countryside). From this point forward, internet access gets a tad sketchy (maybe once a month or two?). I’ll still be updating this blog as often as possible but the best way to reach me is…duh duh duh…SNAIL MAIL!! Yes, it still exists. So write me a letter, it will be a little like time travel and who doesn’t want that?

Katie Browne

Corps de la Paix

B.P. 10537

Niamey, Niger