Sunday, August 17, 2008

African Scenes

Bovine Abomination

A dead cow is lying in a ditch undergoing purification. On the first day, the cow had not been looking well - it was little more than an anemic mass of skin, bones and pustules - and it owners, knowing that the end was nigh had grudgingly abandoned it – quite literally putting it out to pasture. All the same, despite its slight mania at the end, charging about and bucking at phantom assailants, as if fighting death itself, the cow’s sudden collapse was in some way surprising.

The second day the buzzards came, and the smell: terrible and stomach churning greeted the countryside with an impermeable reek that stretched out for kilometers in every direction. The ants got to work after the buzzards had left, as did the maggots.

The third day, the smell worsened as purification intensified and the long chain fatty acids in the cow’s stomach were converted. The air became thick with the smell of bucolic acid.

The fourth day the odor became so intense that people could no longer think. All that remained was the head of the cow, but the rot again intensified. Those living in the adjacent field began their morning by stifling vomiting. The air seemed to hang thick with disease. People began to fall ill.

On the fifth day, the odor had subsided, leaving only a skeletal structure and a brown stain of dead plant life where the cow had been to remind a passerby of the cow’s existence. Thus, the cow had taken its revenge. Abandoned yes, but for days, impossible to ignore before its eventual restoration to the soil.


Heavy Weather

Rain storms in Niger are primordial. One can actually watch the natural process by which the atmosphere transforms itself. The normally pale blue of the sky is supplanted with a light crimson that matches that of the earth. The cloud of red earth that gathers blots the sun, pushing everything into darkness, and this before the rain clouds gather. This is because the rapid change it atmospheric pressure sees enormous winds, as hot, high pressure systems collide with cold, low pressure ones; carrying clouds of dust. The air suddenly feels very heavy – then comes the downpour – which is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Rain drops the size of fists slash at the earth while the wind continues to whip the earth into frenzy. To be caught in a rainstorm is to be lashed and beaten by the physical force of the weather. The ground, which is largely light sand, is transformed into great pits of mud. Lost travelers caught in rain storms are said to drown in these pits. Then, within an hour of the storms passing, the water is filtered through the silt and the earth becomes again dry and sandy. This process is massively cooling and at times brings several hours relief from the oppressive heat of the days.



Niger, despite the lack of buses, trams, subways and other typically western options, lives by mass transit. This is accomplished through bush taxis. Bush taxis tend to take the form of dilapidated late 70s vintage Peugeot station wagons that have an extra row of seats driven into them. Thus, a typical station wagon – and one should remember that the regular delineations of “seats” mean nothing to either the bush taxi operator or passenger – is able to accommodate upwards of 14 people, with luggage. Livestock that cannot be carried in hand, or be forced to ones feet is simply strapped to the roof. Thus one can sometimes expect to see live chickens at ones feet and live goats, and in one case, a donkey tied to the roofs of ones typical bush taxi. The bush taxis exist by their own laws of time. One spends hours waiting for a taxi and then hours again waiting for the taxi to reach capacity. Once a driver has secured a full load, the taxi is off, smashing over potholes on ill-maintained roads. The drivers know the roads well and avoid the worst of the axel destroying road obstructions. Police check points come and go – navigated via identification cards and occasionally hastily produced bills, accounts are settled between passing drivers going in opposite directions – occasionally seeing disputes in the middle of the road that can tie up traffic in both directions. Stops take place in towns where taxis are assaulted by local vendors pushing on one every manor of meat, confection and the rest, many of which are snapped up by hungry and weary travelers. There is a great deal of “off-roading” as often the bush provides for better driving conditions than the highways themselves. There exist two other things that can slow ones bush taxi ride – the 5 times daily call to prayer, which will see drivers temporarily abandon their vehicle, often in the middle of the road to stop and pray – and the breakdown, which, barring tools, can see one stranded, literally in the middle of nowhere until the next taxi comes around, which in some cases can be a matter of days. Water can run out quickly in Niger, with the heat of the sun making dehydration a constant and very real possibility people have been known to siphon blood off of livestock and the rest in order to survive a multi-hour bush taxi stop-over.

Niamey By Night

Weddings in Niger take the form of daylong festivals and always seem to fall on Saturdays. Saturday is the marrying day and to throw a wedding on a different day is to violate the strict traditional rules by which Nigeriens operate. The wedding I had gone to was very nice, a friends cousin, and atypical in that, the level of education and affluence of the family saw a move away from the formless garments that characterize traditional Muslim dress towards, tighter, and dare I risk saying it, more physically “complimentary” attire for the women. A traditional Tuareg band played and people danced. African dance takes the form of conjoined circles in which everyone takes a turn at being “showcased”. This can be simply a variation on a dance step or an intrinsically complicated gesture. Both are treated equally in the eyes of the co-dancers. One up-manship exists, but is friendly, and always concludes with boisterous streams of laughter. Africans laugh like no other culture - and they do it frequently – a deep, head thrown back affair that seems to rumble from their very essence.

Following the wedding my friend asks me if I would like to go to a birthday party. I was supposed to be back at the training site hours ago, and I am already breaking every regulation that Peace Corps subjects trainees too, so I figure, why the hell not, any damage has already been done, and away we go, whisked across town in the back of a Niamey city taxi. Transportation around Niamey couldn’t be cheaper and taxis generally pick up people on route, although unlike bush taxis, traditional seats are observed. Thus, one is always in a full taxi but never compressed into a corner.

Niamey is the administrative capital and largest city in Niger. At only a million, it is relatively compact, but undergoing rapid expansion. The population of the city doubled in the last 15 years and is likely to triple again in the next 20. Like Lagos, in next door Nigeria, the ongoing encroachment of the desert is driving subsistence farmers from the land into the city. This means that the city is getting poorer and the new residents tend to be desperate, giving rise to parts of Niamey where one, especially an “Anasarra” or foreigner does not want to walk at night – making the omnipresent and low cost city taxis all the more necessary. Niamey itself is situated on the Niger River and divided into five administrative communes, four on the mainland and one taking the form of an affluent island in the middle of the river – which houses the heads of state, the countries banking sector and the University of Niamey.

We are the last in the taxi, and thus in purely egalitarian manner the last to be dropped off, which sees us given an informal tour of the city from the back of the cab. The different neighborhoods have very different characters. The grand market area is rife with vendors, while the small market sees the best fruit and produce sellers – making it a necessary point of visitation – while also boasting roaming bands of thieves and other brigands – due to its proximity to the Ecogar Wadata (the terrifying bush-taxi station/hub) and one must watch oneself. The region around the ministries is upscale and mired only by the omnipresent collections of prostitutes at nights, serving not Nigeriens, but foreign aid workers who have come for a bit of sex touristy as well.

My friend and I arrive at the bar that the party is being held; at only to be served kegged beer (a rarity in Africa) and fresh mutton. There are two competing beers in Niger – Biere Niger (or Giraffe – for the animal that gives its likeness to the label) and Flagg – which are almost indistinguishable from each other. The difference seems to be that Flagg is the stronger and ‘hoppier’ (making it the slightly more expensive) of the two. Flagg then is the drink for evenings and BN (so goes the acronym) of the late afternoons when the sun remains highest in the sky. We mix with the party guests, almost all overwhelmingly educated Nigeriens currently working with NGOs, with the occasional American. The French as it turns out, have failed to make much of an impact in development work in Niger do to their apparent inability to stay on and provide programming follow-up. This means that French development missions see the French show up, thrust handfuls of money at projects and leave, much to the frustration of their African counterparts. This makes Americans (because of the Peace Corps) joint-European, and surprisingly, Japanese missions very popular. My friend and I spend the evening with two certifiable and decisively drunken middle-aged University of Niamey professors. One of them teachers philosophy and elucidates on the finer points of Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathprusta” in a formal and decidedly African old-world French while wildly dancing on the table – never missing a beat, either musically nor in the realm of rhetoric. The other is a professor of English literature, who has studied in England and proceeds to start argument after argument through his ongoing fallacious insistence that Martin Luther King said, or meant to say “I had a dream” rather than “I have a dream”.

At two in the morning, we are crammed into the Land Rover of a Rasta Dreaded head of a ministry who continues the debate on King’s words with the English professor while explaining his long standing dislike of Hausa music (which is sort of a wailing sub-Baliwood affair with sickeningly, almost diabetes inducing saccharine melodies and heavily compressed vocals), occasionally pausing to curse at over drivers as we drive (as can be the norm in Niamey) against the flow of traffic and on the wrong side of the road. Traffic laws then are rarely enforced leading to a sort of semi-anarchy on the roads, which at times follows strict regimental patterns but at times degenerates.

I eventually manage to hitch a ride, early the next morning, back to Hamdallaye, and manage, through a process of sweet-talking and obfuscation to avoid the tyrannical penalties that could float my way. My friend and I crack jokes about how much easier things will be once I have completed my spell in “école militaire”.


Literature + Illness = Illness (with apologies to Roberto Bolaño)

Nigeriens are sick all the time, and while in Niger I am sick all the time. Between the mind-altering medications and constant string of inoculations administered to me by Peace Corps, I have found myself mildly delusional most of the time. I have been reading Joyce, Borges, Nabokov and Cervantes and my dreams take on epic dimensions, mixing and matching, creating mélanges of stray thoughts, hopes and odd literary phrases, which I awake with on my breath. This is a form of sickness – a sickness of the mind in which my physical decline sees itself mirrored in my subconscious. My writing, when I can manage it, has taken on a disjointed semi-stream of consciousness. I write, like Bellow’s Moses Herzog, letter after letter, never to be sent - to be burned or thrown out or forgotten. Schoenburg and Said have become my bedfellows. My mind shifts from atonal composition to orientalism in alternating bouts. Fevers take me and then leave me. Illness does not make for great art. It makes for more illness, epic delusions of literary grandeur and post-modern tragedy. The negotiation of difference becomes a negotiation of the same and all meaning or allegory becomes null. All verse becomes frightening.

The Cellular Tower

There is one piece of infrastructure in Hamdallaye and that is the Cel Tel tower. It is a new addition to the landscape – a strange, looming monolith to technology surrounded by millet fields. It lights up at night – boasting its own generator, guard and razor wire topped wall. The cellular tower is in many ways forbidden – it’s clashing with its national environment reinforced by the protective measures necessary to insure the tower is not stripped for scrap by starving people. While it offers unprecedented access to information and technology, it remains unlikely that more than a handful of the town of Hamdallaye’s citizens will ever have the affluence necessary to acquire a cellular phone and make usage of the tower. Still, the tower is a major draw, especially during the evenings. Like with cargo cults in the South Pacific people flock to the Cel Tel tower. They dance around it. They sing. Cel Tel showing interest in Hamdallaye is a sign of progress. It shows that the town, the country is on the way up. It shows that mass dissemination of information is a possibility, even if just a remote one for the small towns on Niger. Or, conversely, it represents the shrewdness of Hamdallaye’s merchant class – to lobby Cel Tel, to get the tower brought to Hamdallaye to insure that the Peace Corps, with its unprecedented wealth – with its trainees that every 3 months deepen the towns coffers with their culturally atypical purchasing power will continue to fatten their coffers, remain in town. After all – the rumor had been that Peace Corps has been considering moving the training site - citing lack of cellular access and the escalating cost of satellite phone usage. Now with a push towards community based training – the site may be disseminated all the same, providing a major drain on the economy. Still, the Cel Tel tower will stand – a testament of what can happen when a handful of Americans are cloistered anywhere in the world and that potential to access to communication will remain.

The Old Man

The old man’s eyes are white and opaque. He stares up at the sky, where through the halos of cataracts he can make out the dim hint of the stars, so bright in his youth. The bright blotch to the East is Niamey. Cities he knows hate stars, they hate to be reminded of their own cosmic insignificance as it clashes with their own sense of self-importance. This is why the old man prefers the country. This is where, from the woven matt he lies on, he can still, though just barely, see the stars. He grins up at the sky and thanks Allah that his stomach is full – even if it is just with rice and sauce. He remembers the fish of his youth, seemingly more plentiful and the wild corn that he used to cultivate by the river. He remembers the peanuts he used to farm, the taste of them, how they wore against his teeth, teeth that can no longer pierce the sinews of meat. He has been sick. He has had holes cut in the back of his head and filled with herbs and other medicines. The cure always takes strength from him before it gives it back. He holds his child, one of many to him and point to the sky, explaining it to the child – explaining the cosmos as he understands them. The meat and sinews of a farmer, the sun of a farmers and the father of a farmer. He talks about how life has changed and how it is different. The more people. The radios, flashlights and mobile phones. Technology is transformative, but also destructive. He has connectivity now, but the family has become more disparate. Islam has intensified. He remembers a time when the men and the women used to eat together. Now dogma forbids it. The two spheres were once unified but now they are different. Traditional roles have been altered and hardened along lines that do not permit for further revision. The seamlessness of the increasing subjugation of women and his acquiescence to it. The population explosions and the reduction in firewood, in food, and standard of living for everyone. The extension of the nighttime – the lengthening of the day through technology – indeed the conquest of the night. Then, under the din of radios in the distance, and the braying of livestock, he sleeps.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Compressing Time’s Arrow

A Peace Corps imposed relative communication means I have a time to cover in this post. I am attempting to condense the better part of a month. Thus time’s arrow – moving forward through compression becomes at best, “time’s dart” – but this is of course a much less charming literary metaphor…


The steel and aluminum frame of the 757, pregnant with its precious human cargo, hovers over Niamey. The touchdown is hard over the bumpy runway, a circumstance made all the more obvious by the three complimentary cognacs I had consumed in the previous hour – an act of defiance; a fit of pique even – to extract revenge on the cruel French customs agents who had surreptitiously confiscated my two liters of hard won duty free Johnny Walker Black Label – despite my being able to produce the correct documentation. My inability to appeal to the decision had more to do with my flight from Philadelphia being delayed than with lack of protocol. The confiscating parties then knew themselves to be in the wrong but acted anyways – fulfilling their function as autocrats. Or perhaps they just fancied a drink. Either way, I suddenly found myself making peace with two largely scotch free years.

Then came the slow taxiing and de-boarding process. The heat is becomes stifling the moment the aircraft doors slide open – the humidity such that the very atmosphere itself seems to be sweating. We are then forced to stand on the tarmac for 20 minutes before being shuttled, by bus, a total of 20 yards to the airport gate – an unnecessary formality that remains staggering. Following this, a rough and tumble time through baggage services and the customs and immigration services – the less said about these the better – and I am being loaded into a Peace Corps shuttle and being spirited away to Hamdallaye – a small village 30 km from Niamey, ostensibly, I will learn later, known for the importability of its drinking water- which will serve as the staging site for my initial nine weeks of Peace Corps training.

Niamey slides away into roadside bucolic desert stretches with the occasional narrow strip of mud housing and shops by the side of the road serving as towns. The angry eye of the sun intensifies. The insects swarm. Traveling in Africa tends to mean traveling in the stifling heat with a lot of other people. Ones typical station wagon, when converted into a bush taxi is generally expected to seat 13, discluding the driver. The first two days at the training site pass in a blur of bureaucratic haze and heat exhaustion – and just as the two days in Philadelphia prior to departure – we are not told much. Peace Corps has a policy of giving you “the information you need just as you need it” which at practice seems to fall into a mire of providing information sometime after one would like to call upon it. The heat muddies my mind. Thinking becomes a mechanism of the ephemeral – ideas half formed at fleeting and much of time base. Eat. Drink Water. Sleep. Repeat.

After two days, there is installation with host families. We are handed flash cards, taught how to greet and installed. No luck, my host family is remote, and rustic – read not-educated meaning they can’t speak a word of French meaning I am forced to blankly stare at them as they state demands (later I learn for gifts) and try to piece together information through note cards. With this GI tract punishing meals of pounded millet and a sauce that resembles a mélange of okra and snot – all misted with a misting of sand and the occasional incisor destroying bit of gravel. I am allergic to my mud hut, have a perennial sinus infection and appear to be discharging bloody bits of brain material through my nose. Feeling slightly awful all the time is a real possibility in Peace Corps Niger. Then there are the amoebas, the bacteria and the viruses – the less said about which, again, the better. Other culinary considerations include all things deep fried in rancid oil – none of which I could even begin to handle while well, never mind with my immune system thrown into disrepair. Nigerians, it should be noted, spurn vegetables (despite the easy availability of tasty squashes, mangoes and onions) and protein is limited and expensive – so it is all carbohydrates all the time, a sort of reverse Atkins diet. Weight loss is guaranteed. The Amoebas especially can see one dispose of 10 pounds in a day. People would pay for that shit (pun intended).

My host family consists of a muddled old goat, his multiple wives, various extended family and a hungry, malnourished brood of children. It is impossible to determine which children belong to whom, and it is better to now ask as disputes can sometime arise as parents forget who owns which child. Livestock dot the household. A rooster lives next door to my bed, both resulting in the threat of bird flu (that terrible future scourge of the 21st century!), and results in lost sleep. Roosters after all do not, as popular mythology dictates, rise with the sun, but generally rather between those misty hours of 2 and 3:15. The urge to “befowl” (pun intended) what little brain material is possessed by said rooster with a large rock is constant. Following this, there is the morning salvo of mosques that begin their loudspeaker assaults on the population at 5:00 every morning. Never mind that children here are malnourished and have distended stomachs as proof, the mosque, in all of its religious dogma is well equipped with regularly maintenance loudspeaker arrays so as that it can disseminate their propaganda. Nigeriens do no actually speak Arabic, few can read the Koran, let alone at all, and so the messages broadcast have some resemblance to Arabic, but are meaningless. They are simply a dogma followed that people purport to believe in without understanding a word of what is being said. A particularly amusing week of mosque babble came when the chief Imam was sick, away, etc, and his understudy took over propaganda duties. “Allah Akhbar!” sounded, but instead of launching into the regular variations that follow this came heavy breathing, then slightly withheld repletion, as if questioning, imploring “Is God still greatest?” More heavy breathing and this doctrinal conundrum was resolved. “Allah Abkhar!” Yes he is. All of this taken with the occasional sounds of wild dogs tearing each other to pieces in the distance, neighbors blasting radios well beyond their point of distortion well into the night, etc, tend to result in very little sleep.


Slowly, but surely, we are being given more freedom of movement. I managed a brief “demystifying” (as the Peace Corps jargon calls it) jaunt to Doso Ville, which is an interesting city in a particularly beautiful region of the country – right up on the Niger river where the baobab trees grow to monstrous proportions when they are protected by the government and thus not reduced to firewood for the local population. I have also managed several treks to Niamey to visit my dear friend Ibrahim, who I first encountered in France. Ibrahim is a charming, well-educated Nigerien, boasting a European education, brilliant ideas for the future development of his country and a healthy skepticism. He also likes to drink, which has allowed for the odd evening in Niamey bars, where I can engage my favorite vice to some extent. Niamey is interesting and I sense a research project possibility in rapid urbanization and how the city is trying to respond on its limited budget to provide infrastructure – surely more on this later.


More later this week.