Sunday, August 31, 2008

Driving....Niger style

I have mentioned that I am mostly adjusting well to driving a right hand vehicle. I paid attention to my speed today as I went all around town trying to piece together all the required information for our Permis de Sejour (Residence Permit). Over a few hours in the city, both the city centre and outskirts, i think my average speed was 25 kilometres an hour. When i was near our house on the outskirts I actually hit 50 km/hour for about 45 seconds (before i once again slowed to a crawl for goats, people, cows, etc) and that felt really fast! I've attached a picture of some of the streets and areas we drive on a regular basis. There are three reasons that we drive consistently slow here.

1) The streets are crowded. They are full of people, motorcycles, animals, carts, other vehicles and bicycles etc. Today I passed a guy on a bicycle, and on the back of his bicycle he had tied down both a lawnmower AND a wheelbarrow, and yet was still riding. Can't say I've ever seen that before! You go very slow in many places simply to avoid the huge masses of things you don't want to hit.

Some of the crowded streets, where people run out in front of you ALL the time.

2) The roads are bad. Especially after the rain we have had lately, the potholes are bigger than normal, like whole car size potholes. Paul saw the whole front end of a vehicle dissapear in a puddle that had been hiding a giant pothole. The ruts, mud, piles of garbage and rubble lying around ensure that travelling super slow is the right way to go.

An actual road we drove through. During rainy season it floods and sticks point up to show you where the road bed is. The water was above the bottom of our doors- thank goodness for good door seals!

The roads right by our house. We have to take the long way around to get to our co-workers house since some areas become impassable

3) The other drivers are bad drivers. Well, I would say the majority at least. I think at home we have a certain amount of assurance that the other people sharing the road with us can see ok, have taken a drivers test, know the rules of the road, have decent reflexes to unexpected events, and are aware of their surroundings. You can throw all of those assumptions out the door here. The other drivers don't drive defensively and we see many accidents everyday. So we drive slow and try to avoid accidents at all costs. Not just because we are white and will automatically get blame and be expected to pay- but also because I don't want to live with a serious accident on my conscience for the rest of my life, even if the other driver was clearly wrong.

So I drive quite slow, like school zone slow, all day and most places I go. And I'm not passed that much, expect by the crazy over-full taxis. So everyone seems to go slow to avoid bottoming out their vehicle or crashing or killing a camel(or said camel denting my bumper). And I drive with heightened awareness and reflexes, ready at any moment for a goat to jump out in front of the truck or a motorcycle to veer directly into my path. I'm thankful for the 4 inch lift on my truck which allows me to have a good view over everything at least, but that lift makes it hard to get into the truck "appropriately" with a skirt in a culture where you shouldn't show your knees!

One other thing that bothers me a lot about driving here is that no matter how crazy it is in the day, multiply that times ten for the night (or as soon as the sun goes down) Take all the craziness and do it in the dark! Don't get me wrong, there are in fact streetlights on most of the major roads in town. I think they were given through development projects and grants for socail infrastructure to help improve the city by a few big aid organizations such as USAID. The problem is, having the lights in place is great, having the budget money (or political willpower or whatever) to actually turn them on at night is a whole other ballgame. Funny how the government or organizations never think that far ahead :P So we drive, with many more people out due to the cooler temperature, in the pitch dark except for lights of other vehicles. Did I mention most bikes, carts, people and goats don't have lights? So you see where I am going with this. I hate driving at night.

I could say this slower speed of driving parallels the slower speed of life. Us North Americaners (and i guess europeans too) are used to a fast pace of life, speeding down the highways at 120km is nothing, and in town the 50 or 60 km/hour speed limits are often broken as we rush from one place to another. Here, the speed limit is technically 50 in most places, but i know i never have to worry about ever getting a ticket here, since i rarely even reach that! We slow down, we are much more aware of the people we see and pass and who interact with us. We make adjustments as things happen and we dont worry about how long it takes us to get to the destination, only that we arrive at all. A good lesson to apply to the speed of life

Finally a straight, lonely, dry road! Too bad it's 2 hours out of Niamey!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Watching and Learning

This past week has been one of watching and learning. We have been so blessed to have had 4 or 5 days now with clouds and rain. The rain is so important for the crops for the people right now, with harvest coming in October and this is prime growing time. And of course the wonderful side effect of this rain, is the milder temperatures! We were so thrilled to actually be cold one morning in our room and have to pull on a sheet. It was 26 degrees and we were cold! Outside this afternoon it is 29 celsius and cloudy. We are loving every moment of it. Like Paul says, i think your system gets a bit messed up here. Your body adjusts to the high heat and when you get brief respites when it falls into the upper 20s, we feel quite cool and want to wear pants and long sleeves! The rain and cool weather has refreshed us.

The rain pelting down on the truck and container

Bennett loves to squeegee the terrace. He won't even wait until it stops raining to get started. Good thing the rain is so nice and refreshing and it is wonderful to play in!

This week I was also learning and observing culture. In the vacant lot next to our house there is a lady who lives there in a grass hut with her 4 children. Her husband is either continually away or completely out of the picture (haven't yet figured that out). She used to have her hut in our lot before our house was finished. When we moved in we gave her some plastic tarps to seal her grass roof against the rains. She sits outside our house (we have the big shade tree) for many hours each day talking with the guard and passerbys as the two youngest children play. Her two older children work small jobs around to make some money for the family. I spend a good chunk of time outside talking with this lady, she speaks good french, and our children play together. I noticed that her youngest son (boubay) had only one pair of old blue sweat pant shorts that were torn and rough, no shoes and no shirt. Her other son had a tshirt wrapped over a pair of shorts that were so ripped that they weren't acceptable on their own anymore (see pic below). Anyhow, i got some of Bennett's shorts out for an older size and gave them to boubay to wear, along with a few shirts. He was so thrilled and his face lit up. I couldn't leave the rest of the family out, seeing as they all had only one worn out item of clothing, and got them all some new clothes over the next few days. They were so thrilled and thankful and it gave me some awesome opportunities to share with them. The mom told me she had never had anything of good quality before, and I shared with her that she has value, to me and to God and is deserving of love. The story gets interesting in that i learned a few days ago that she also has a female family member, who is better off financially and lives nearby. Apparently she saw that the family had new clothes and felt shamed that someone other than family was seeing needs and caring for them instead of her. So i came home to see they all had a whole other new set of clothes from her! My intent was never to shame them, in fact i didn't even know they existed, but I am content with the outcome that this family now has more clothes and the boys can play fully clothed, the mother has dignity and can be cleaner and wash clothes easier since she has something else to wear, etc. So i welcome the shamed family and hope to love them too, but am happy that maybe they will remember to care for their own family. An interesting cultural lesson as I try to walk the line of being culturally aware and appropriate while still loving people unabashedly. Here is a picture of this wonderful family before the new clothes.

So the other change in life lately is that I am relearning to drive! Our awesome Land Cruiser is here and is a right hand drive. So i have to do everything with the opposite hand now. I find I am doing really good at shifting, staying in the lanes, etc. Everything except signaling. The turn signal lever is on the opposite side now that i am used to and so i keep, by habit, going to the left and I keep turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal!!

Thank you for remembering us so often and for the encouragement of your words to us. We see so many things each day that tug at our hearts. Today while driving I saw, while parked at a light, a young boy who had elephantitis. His upper body (he is in a rickety wheelchair) looked 12 and small and frail. His legs were huge and grotesque. They looked like gigantic legs of a 500 pound man and his feet were misshapen and almost 2 feet long. SO often my heart aches for the people who know so much sickness and pain, and all I can do often is lift them up in prayer.

Bennett playing with the neighbors

Arielle at the zoo (which is a small sad place, but we got to see a hippo up close and personal and they had a park to play)

And one final note for today. In Niger we see abject poverty everyday. When we go out, we see beggars all the time, often who come to our vehicle, knock on our windows and follow us. We are used to the out-stretched hands, asking for something from us. But today we went to the zoo. And this one really made me laugh. We can't even escape it at the zoo!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Our vehicle has arrived!

Two posts in one day, I'm good! (Really I am just trying to minimize the numbers of emails my subscribers get!) There is another new post directly under this one for you to read!

The Good news - Our truck has arrived!! We have been borrowing vehicles since we arrived while we waited for ours to arrive and clear customs.
For all of you vehicle types who like the details - We have a used 1999 Toyota LandCruiser HZJ77. For those of you who don't know the Toyota series, this is a diesel 4 door wagon. The 70 series is the toughest vehicles that Toyota makes and, according to Paul, possibly the toughest vehicles on the planet. Just ask the africans who have pushed these vehicles to their limits for many years. It has 32 inch tires , a 4 inch lift and a factory PTO winch. The winch is rated for 10,000 pounds, but was bench tested at 22.000 pounds. It has 73,000 kilometres on it. It is 4 wheel drive (of course). It is also a right hand drive! That means the steering wheel is on the right and I am going to have to learn to shift with my left hand, shoulder check right, left check mirrors, etc. Paul is building a back bumper, front bush bars for the bumper, roof rack transport system and a snorkel to complete the package as he has the time (its his fun hobby time and he loves doing it!)

We really could not have asked for a more perfect, tough or durable vehicle for the types of roads we will travel here in Niger, and the fact that we bought it used and for an awesome price allows us to be good stewards with the money God has provided through many of you, which is very important to us. This vehicle belongs to GDA (our development organization here in Niger) and we drive it for our ministry & work. We also do pay personal mileage on it for when we use it for personal trips in case you were wondering how it works out here.

This truck was bought through an organization that supplies and sources vehicles for missionaries around the world. Our particular vehicle is from Japan and was shipped here along with another awesome used LandCruiser for our teammates the Marineaus.

Paul is thrilled, his love of all things LandCruiser has come home again! (We used to have one in Canada too)

Thank you again for partnering with us in all the ways that allow us to work here. We look forward to giving you more tales from the field as this truck takes us into the outermost parts of the country!

Ode to you Readers!

Can you believe how fast this past year has flown by? Shortly after we arrived in Quebec for language study I started a tracker on my blog which records number of hits and location of the vistors. We had 5,749 hits on my blog from Aug 4 2007 to Aug 4 2008! (which is my cycle year). WOW! And I know the actual visits could have been a bit higher too but those of you who get the subscribed version in your email inbox and don't click the link to go to the actual blog but read the content in the email don't count in the total (click the link in the email to read it here! Looks cooler in the original site!) How awesome to know people enjoy reading and following us, and thank you for your interest in our work!

One interesting thing that the tracker provides is location/saturation dots. You can see below the map that plots the visits. The bigger the dot, the more hits from that location. (You can always see a current live version of this by clicking on the little map thumbnail on the right of the blog) It has been reset now and is starting a new count, showing I've already had 62 hits in 5 days! The most interesting thing to me was always the map. Some of you I know well and love seeing your big red dot! I have good friends in Switzerland, Alaska, Quebec, Toronto and Los Angeles, Pauls parents are in Dubai. family in Red Deer, Calgary and Denver. Hi guys! I see those dots! But intriguing to me is the dots, especially those that are bigger and indicate more hits, in places I am not sure who i know there, or did we ever even meet at all? I feel like we have this relationship going and yet I dont even know you! For example, who lives on the west side of the Hudsons Bay in Canada? Who is following us from South Africa? What about some of those other big Europe dots? There are lots of bigger dots in the USA and Im not sure who you belong to!

So, I would like those of you who read my blog to leave a comment! You can click comments at the bottom of the blog (you dont have to sign in or anything, you can leave it as an anonymous post -just add your name in the comment field). Please let me know who you are and where you are from!! Especially those of you I might not know! (but all you others too please!) For those of you who I might not know yet, but who would like to also receive our monthly newsletter via email, please let me know that too! So I've titled this post - Ode to you Readers! I am thankful for your participation and love for us and can't wait to hear who is all out there!

Please leave the comment!!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

From Italy to home

Well i finally made it! And not a moment too soon. 2 days after my flight the airport here went on strike and all flights are now diverted to a neighboring country and you take a bus the last 10 hours. ouch!!

I am so happy to be back with paul and the kids, and even happier that i can finally say i am officially done my masters! After 6 years, i owe many thank yous to many people for the encouragement and support they gave me, even the times it stopped being fun and was a lot of hard work. My degree is being mailed sometime in the fall, and we are planning to attend the next official convocation ceremony to walk the stage and celebrate my degree. (some of you already asked so here is what it is officially called - a Masters in International Development from the School of Law at Tulane University) Hands down this last class was also the best. I came home even fuller of passion and interest and raring to go than before, if that was even possible! Paul just laughs at me when i find someone who is like minded and we get off talking about programming and development and get all excited and passionate like. So thankful to have such great education that specifically relates to our job here.

I went from Rome to Lake Bolsena, where we spent ten days and had amazing, top level speakers from major aid organizations and the UN. Lots of opportunities to chat privately with them as well and discuss Niger. Then we went back to Rome to visit a few major food aid agencies and have meetings there, then we went down south to Brindisi to visit the United Nations response depot, from which they can respond to any emergency in 72 hours or less. Amazing class in every way.

SO I will give you an overview of a few of the things that really hit me about this world we live in, and specifically about the food crisis. Have you noticed that Costco runs out of rice and prices for rice, tomotoes, etc have skyrocketed alongside the oil and gas increases? Well its not a coincidence and its not going away anytime soon. In terms of impact, this is the biggest disaster the world has seen in 45 years, and yet no one is talking about it. 30-40 governments are on a watch list for instability because of all the riots and unrest caused by people who are unhappy with the governments response to high food prices.

But what are the causes and why can’t it be stopped? The causes are not easily explained, but are linked to numerous factors. Here are a few of the main ones

  • The increased demand for food commodities in developing countries (such as China and India) . Their ability to purchase has increased, and their tastes are changing. They want a more varied diet and food from other countries, same as we do, so their imports are increasing.

  • There is a reduced amount of land being used for food production in some countries due to biofuels. The USA gives huge subsidies to corn farmers who use their crops for biofuel rather than food crop. The USA originally admitted that they felt their biofuel impact was only 3% of the price increase, they recently adjusted that number to admitting 11%. However, a recent report by the World Bank blames 75% of the price increase on biofuel policies. The truth is somewhere in the middle, but no one is denying it is there.

  • The increasing costs of oil, gas and inputs (such as fertilizers) is leading to a higher final price from producers and importers.

  • There are reduced crops from natural disasters such as floods and droughts in major crop producing areas recently.

  • Increasing consumption by western economies that dont produce enough in house to match their increase appetite, thereby increasing imports.

  • The declining value of the U.S. dollar, the currency with which oil and food prices are generally pegged.

  • Large amounts of speculation in the markets. People are hoarding since they know prices are going to go up, which does happen, people speculate on that, etc. Market madness!

For those who have more income or food security, the food crisis will mean increasing prices and decreasing availability of some foods. For those who are the poorest, these increasing food prices can potentially push them into absolute poverty and crisis. They may be forced to sell what little assets they have to buy food. Aid organizations will also be forced to drop their number of beneficiaries as prices rise and their purchasing power decreases. The World Food Programme is estimating 50 million people will have to be dropped from programs!

In the long term, these crisis decisions and drastic measures will make it much harder for those living on the poverty line and below it to regain livelihoods, income and security. These decisions will include selling assets, taking children out of school, not accessing healthcare, and buying less nutritious food, which will lead to greater susceptibility to disease and epidemics.

While richer countries have the ability to shift their spending and manage price increases, the poorest of the poor will be the most affected. Food importing countries will also be hurt as prices rise for their imports and some items are inaccessible. Traditional farmers will suffer as the costs of inputs such as fuel, technology and seeds skyrocket. So while it may be hurting your pocket book only a little as you have to spend a few extra dollars for your food or treats, it may actually be life or death for the poor.

As for ways to address this problem, there are many things that can be done inckuding food aid to bridge the gap, stopping market distortions through import and export restrictions and speculation, re-examining biofuels, increasing research and development in agriculture,etc. Nothing is going to be a quick fix. So can you expect the price increases in oil, gas and food to stick around? You bet. Be thankful that most of you reading this can manage those increases, and please pray for us as we work with those who can't.

There is also a huge disparity of aid help out there for this crisis. According to the UN FAO, there are 36 countries that need assistance so far with this crisis. The top ten are (in no specific order) Somalia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Mozambique, Burundi, Liberia, DRC, Sierra Leone, Eritrea and Niger. And yet the largest amount of aid is being given to North Korea and Ethiopia. Not that these countries dont need some help, but they are far from being the worst off. Ethiopia actually has a substanital safety net system. So why do they get some a huge share of the aid resources if they dont need it the most? Truth is that aid is highly political. (Please believe im writing this as impartial and non political as possible with facts!). Aid is often tied to countries that are keys for regioanl security, and jumping off points for other military action. It also protects pipelines, ports and allows other countries to retain some control of an area of the world. For example, wuth all the unrest in Somalia and Sudan and Chad, the USA (which is the largest donor of aid money and food in the world) cannot afford to have any instability in Ethiopia and lose their foothold there, thus the aid arrives. True stuff folks, aid is tied to politics, sometimes regardless of need.

To give you another comparison, approximately 12 US$ per person is pledge in aid to Niger (of which much is expected to not arrive due to other factors and the falling US dollar) For the Tsunami victims, there was $2500US per person in aid.

All this to say we are entering some scary times, especially for the poor in the world. I dont know what your affiliations are, what your politics are, what your donations or charitable giving look like, but I encourage all of you to make a difference in whatever way you can, through whoever you support. Here our team is trying to put in place some agriculture, goats, microenterprise,etc to shield some of the people we help from the crisis. Thank you so much to those of you who make a difference by supporting our work here through our work special and the Global Advance Fund. If you would like to contribute, please let me know (you do receive a charitable tax receipt)

Many blessings on you all. Thank you for the support and encouragement again of me through school, and now in our work here in Niger.

If you would like to see my top 58 photos from Italy (I took over 1300!) you can check out my public facebook album at

B: Dad, I dont love you anymore
Dad: you dont why not?
B Just because. i love mommy now
Dad: Oh ok....
B: NO, its NOT ok. But thats just life!!
(2 minutes later he loved dad again too..dont worry!)

Today while driving
"Mom I dont like the french people anymore!"
Mom: why?
"Because all they do is talk french!