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…

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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.

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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.

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More later this week.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Welcome to the Peace Corps Alex! You're doing great. Don't worry - all Peace Corps countries are full of alcohol. I'm sure you'll find some or, better yet, learn to make it yourself! Keep on truckin'.

Adam