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.

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