Sunday, February 25, 2007

If I had a hammer...

When you rent a house here, a lot of things are broken. Property owners don't try to preserve their investments, and places that go unrented literally start to fall apart because the owners don't keep them up. So we have had many tradespeople here to fix things: plumbers (dozens of times--every toilet I've seen in Niger is broken, continually), carpenters, tileworkers, locksmiths, metalworkers, air-conditioning repair people. The first thing you notice is that they bring either no tools at all, or else they bring nothing but a hammer. Doesn't matter what they are supposed to do--it's reasonable for a carpenter or metalworker to show up with a hammer, but plumbers? AC repairmen? LOCKSMITHS? And they use them, too! I could hardly concentrate on my work in the office while the locksmith was shaking the house with his hammering. The plumber spent hours making banging and shattering noises, while ostensibly trying to fix a toilet.

The guy who fixed the holes in the floor where tiles had come up showed up with a little plastic baggie full of cement powder, and nothing else. Like many men in Niamey, he was wearing a polyester 2-piece suit over no shirt, nor socks, and cracked flip-flops. He mixed and spread it with his hands, got up and left empty-handed. It was almost Zen-like.

Right now a plumber is working on a clogged clean-out for the kitchen drain--a kind of broken cement cistern leading into the septic 'tank' (actually a big hole underground). He just asked me for a "sheau," which I managed to figure out meant a bucket, though he was saying something more like 'shuck-it.'

He had come with a hammer.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I'm taking requests...

Steve's response to my blog was "That's it?" (I'm paraphrasing his actual response, which involved Bangkok.) He wants to know what we eat for breakfast, etc.; so I'm answering his questions and then some. The kids eat corn flakes we buy at the overpriced import supermarket, except Etani who eats bouille if he can get it: a hot millet porridge that our helper Nadege makes for herself. I don't like it--I don't like millet, or rice (outside of a sushi roll), or the stews poured over those grains which form the basis of west African cuisine. I wish I could find an Ethiopian to cook for us. We have a part-time cook, Leopold, who also goes to the open-air markets to shop for us, but he cooks us French food, or moussaka, or the fresh pasta we taught him how to make with a pasta machine borrowed from friends. (Having a pasta-slave is the number-one thing I'll miss about living here.) He's trying to get the food concession at the US Embassy, though; so we may lose him in a few weeks. Labor is cheap, so we have those two helping us, plus a part-time gardener/pool guy, Pierre, we split with the neighbors. We don't seem to have much more time; but at least the place is clean and we don't have to do it.

Etani also eats the rice & sauce Nadege eats for lunch, as well as the white, jello-like balls of corn flour and tapioca, also served with 'sauce.' He greets the local doormen in Zarma: "Fofo! Baani samay!" His favorite place in town is the National Museum and Zoo--which is the only kid-friendly activity in town, other than taking him to the school playground. It merits its own post.-it cannot be described briefly.

"Getting a decent pair of shoes?" Almost impossible--they're imported, expensive, and low-quality. That's the paradox, here: imports are rare, expensive, and not worth it. Things made here, though, are cheap and, in the case of leatherwork and silversmithing, excellent. The leatherworkers have a workshop around the corner where I've had belts and watchbands made from crocodile, ostrich, and lizard--all of which hides are by-products, as those animals are all eaten, here (see Jennifer's Washington Post article about what happens when giraffes get hit by cars in Niger). They also had samples of handmade shoes, of finely-woven leather that looks like crocodile, and the pair I tried on were fantastic (though not so cheap).

"Who burns our garbage?" We forbid our folks to burn it--you can hardly breathe in the city because of all the burning garbage. It's bad enough without having it inside our walled compound. (Yes, our house has a 10' wall around it, like all the lots in the neighborhood--even the ones without houses! Nigeriens love walls, and I've been in traditional houses here with only the sleeping area roofed, and the rest of the 'house' just walled, with no roof to protect you from the sun.) We pay four buck a month for a private garbage service only used by rich foreigners. When Jennifer asked him what he does with the garbage, he said that before he can take it out of town to be recycled or dumped, people buy it--all of it. It actually costs him money, because they give the money to the drivers, not him, and then ask the drivers to deliver it, in his trucks.

"Who has boils, chiggers, etc...?" Nobody has anything strange--that we know about. The gastrointestinal adventures are constant, and often involve fever and vomiting like a firehose, but that's all to be expected. Everybody's been sick a lot this winter--even though it's hot, rather than cold--but, again, that's normal. I'm still waiting for a Guinea worm to erupt from my eyeball, like happened to a Fulbright professor Jennifer knew the last time she was here.

Monday, February 12, 2007

daily dose of life, African style

Daily life is hard in Africa--most people struggle to get the water and food they need, and there are constant difficulties with health, shelter, the heat, the government, and in many places rival ethnicities. Privileged western people like us don't have those problems here; but it's still a lot more difficult than in the States. Bills have to be paid in cash--checks and credit cards don't fly, here. And here where only a tiny percentage of people make more than $100/month, everything is far more expensive than in the rich U.S.: gas, electricity, water, etc. You have to run around and pay your bills in person with big wads of cash--now, even for internet service. There's only slow dial-up speed access, but it costs more than broadband back home. This morning at 9AM I went to pay my internet bill, and was disappointed to find only the office manager there, a woman with a conservative, Arab-style head scarf whom I've dealt with before. The men at the little internet start-up are all pleasant young guys from Benin--but in general, I find that if I walk into an office in Niger and find a Nigerien woman with a head scarf, it isn't going to be straightforward, nor pleasant. This was no exception. We asked to upgrade our service to a slightly quicker trickle, from 'Silver service' to 'Gold,' though I would liken it more to upgrading from 'Molasses' to 'Honey.' It took a week for them to do it, but they billed me the whole month. I explained that I'd be paying the lower rate for the time until they changed it. She said the bill was there on the computer and she couldn't change it. "But someone can change it, " I explained. She said, "Oh, it's nothing, a dollar maybe," (it was many times that) "when you leave here you might drop that much in the street!" I explained that if they want to have customers from the US and Europe, they can't do this What's-the-big-deal-just-pay-more thing, and have to be professional and precise. "But Monsieur," she replied, "You are not in the US."

How true. So paying my bill became half an hour of arguing, repeating, and, finally, yelling. When I told her we weren't getting anywhere, and to have the president of the company call me when he got back in town, she said she was going to cut my service off. That's when the yelling started. She was yelling in her African French, and I in my much worse French, which degenerated as I got angrier, until it was like the literal translation you get from using a translation program on the internet.

"Listen good, thou!" I yelled rudely; and she leaned forward, eyes wide and staring directly into mine, and said, "Uh-huh," as if eager to hear what I was going to say.

At this point, while my anger was running my mouth, some part of my intellect was commenting in the back of my head, 'What am I, her morning entertainment? She's enjoying this fight. Why does there have to be a screaming argument every time we pay the rent, or the electric bill, anything? The money isn't going to her. Is this the only way she can find for people to pay any attention to her? Is she that bored? Or, in a Muslim country where women are in a very secondary role, is this the only way women like her have learned to talk to men?'

Meanwhile, I was yelling, "If you want do business to Americans; thou make pay for what service just is!" And after all, what was she doing but giving me the business? I went on,"You have naught but 15 clients! Thou cut my service, I quit and tell all embassy people thou service nothing, behave bad!"

By this point, a quiet technician had come out to listen to what the shouting was all about. He patted the air above my shoulder, and said softly, "Let's be calm." He walked behind her desk and started clicking away at her computer, asking for details and receiving brief, clear answers from her explaining what I wanted. He changed the bill, coming up with a total slightly less than my calculations, apologized, shook my hand, wished me good day, and glided back into his office while she made change and wrote out my receipt. At one point while he was typing she tried to make a side comment to me, but I refused to either look at her or to translate her French in my head. The best way to discourage behavior, for dogs or people, is to pay no attention to them when they misbehave. I sat down and flipped through a magazine while she wrote the receipt, took my change without glancing at her, and walked out, saying "Have a nice day!"

Sunday, February 11, 2007

What are we doing here?

Jennifer got a Fulbright grant to teach and do research here in Niger, where she worked in development 13 years ago. We're here for 10 months, and we're just about halfway through right now. I'm doing my writing work from home, the kids go to the American school connected to the embassy, and Jennifer is teaching at the national university--the only university--of Niger. We're in the capital, Niamey, where there are amenities like power (usually), little supermarkets, slow internet, etc. But throughout most of the country, people still live traditionally, in huts, farming or grazing animals. The countryside is very beautiful around here, and there are wild giraffe just half an hour outside the city. That's our favorite part--or mine, anyway--because the city is ugly, overpopulated and very dirty. Famine over the last five years has driven hundreds of thousands of people into the capital--where there is neither work nor social services. There is no municipal garbage removal, nor septic sewers, so the pollution is everywhere, and the smells. Household garbage is often burned, which in a city of nearly a million makes for almost constant smoke, more or less intense. Well over 90 percent of the people in town are desperately poor, and unemployment is over 70 percent. But crime is surprisingly low--the people are gentle, and abhor theft. In the capital, all of the dozen or so ethnicities of Niger live together, speaking Zarma and Hausa to each other, along with immigrants from the neighboring countries of Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana. Everyone greets each other with elaborate greetings, inquiring about one's health, family, sleep, work, heat, etc., and they seem genuinely glad when you respond in kind.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

drinking with Tuaregs

The Tuareg people are spread through the Sahara, where they have lived nomadically in one of the most desolate and punishing environments on Earth, raising animals or trading things across the vast trans-Saharan trade routes. I've been learning their language, which has its own ancient alphabet preserved for thousands of years of nomadic life, almost without the use of books. They have a fascinating culture, and one of the first things you learn about it is that when greeting someone at home, water or tea are usually offered. So when the musician, Ibrahim (above), I hired to teach me one of their instruments (the Tehardent, an ancestor of the banjo) comes over, I started offering him water and tea, and unlike Nigerien guests from other ethnicities, he never refuses. After a few minutes of standard greetings--How's your campsite? How's your tiredness? How 'bout the heat? etc., etc.--I bring out a glass of water, saying "Aman da" (There's water!), and he thanks me, picks it up, and drains it in one draught, without stopping to breathe, says "Aahh!" and puts down the glass, saying, "Aman iman!" (Water is life!--the words in Tamajaq are almost the same).

Tea is even better. The Tuareg drink the espresso version of tea--Chinese green tea, mixed with mint and steeped so strong, in so little water, that it's undrinkable without several teaspoons of sugar in each tiny glass demitasse (and almost undrinkable anyway). They pour it from way up high over the glass so that it makes foam on top, which they value like Italians value espresso 'crema.' Then they slurp it loudly when drinking, like wine tasters, to get the full flavor. They describe the flavor by saying, "The first cup is bitter as death, the second mild as life, the third sweet as love."

Friday, February 9, 2007

I was walking with Hesperus in our neighborhood the other day, going to a little artisan workshop where they make great leather goods, to pick up a couple watch straps for my old Bulova automatic--I'd sweated through two already, and I was having some made in local ostrich hide, lizard skin, and natural crocodile hide (something I'd never even seen before). This place has got WHOLE crocodile hides up on the wall--you get to pick the part you want! They live in the Niger River, and the folks upstream from here in Mali catch them, eat them, and sell the hides. Anyway, Hesperus had gone with me to order the straps, and when we went back, two of the artisans who had been charmed by her the last time had made her gifts, a little necklace and a child's belt in a pale leather she had admired. As we were walking home, Jennifer called on the cellphone to tell me that Athena had come home really tired and crabby from school and was having a really hard time at home, so we shouldn't show her H's presents today. Hesperus didn't want to hear that, and we argued the rest of the way home. When she told me, in a familiar tone of voice, "You don't know what you're talking about! It's fine! I'm wearing them and that's that!" I said, "You sound just like Great-grandma Marilynn!" (not that she ever said that to me, but it was the tone of voice she used when arguing with grandpa). Hesperus said (in the same tone of voice), "That's because I'm part of Grandma Marilynn, because I'm part of you!"

Saturday, February 3, 2007

with the harmattan come the flies....

We've just been in the brief cool season, about a month when it's sunny and not too hot, with cool nights and mornings. The downside of which is the harmattan wind that comes off the Sahara, bearing sand so fine it remains suspended in the air. It gets into everything, especially your nose and throat. When I open my laptop, I have to wipe it off the keyboard. Some days aren't sunny at all, in fact; they look foggy and overcast, like a wet coastal town back home, but it's bone dry. Somehow, despite the mild weather, everyone becomes sick--our whole family has been hit, Jennifer several times, and everyone we know, too.

And then there are the flies: affectionate African flies that stay right around your head and face (or right on your food), and shooing them away just makes them dodge your hand and land right back in your face. I killed 13 yesterday right before friends came over--Peter and his kids from next door (Dina was sick...see above), Dean and Sirianna and their daughter Ayla, and our neighbors from across the street, a Swiss woman and her 9-yr-old daughter. We all had a good time, but there were still flies.

The only way to keep flies away is to turn the volume up on your stereo, crank up the treble on the equalizer, and play Devo as loud as you can stand.