Monday, November 24, 2008

A guest blog by Bryan McIver - our brother

Chantelle asked me to share some of my thoughts and impressions regarding my visit to Niger, in a guest blog post. And so here are my impressions of the continent, country and people as well as some of the experiences from my visit.

Certainly the first thing one comes to understand about the continent of Africa is that it changes you--not the other way around. A seasoned national and international traveller myself, I found out very quickly what it felt like to be at the mercy of this unforgiving continent. We arrived for our flight from Casablanca to Niamey, 3 hours ahead of time, however after being misinformed about the terminal number, the ticket line, and baggage allowances and then receiving misdirection on paying for and processing overweight baggage and finally running back and forth from counter to counter, trying to make sense of the administrative nightmare that is African beauracracy, I found myself standing in Mohammed V Airport with 30 minutes before the departure of my flight, not having even checked in yet. After hacking my way through airline, customs and security officials, as if blazing a trail through the jungle, I made it to the gate, only to find out the flight was delayed by 1 hour. This gave me a much better appreciation for the phrase coined by foreigner's: WAWA (West Africa wins again).

In probably one of the few things she has ever gotten right, Madonna once said: "I assure you it doesn't matter who you are or how much money you have, nothing goes fast in Africa." As someone who earns a living, managing large projects--navigating people, equipment and money through the time sensitive world that is North America--nothing could come as more of a shock to my system than this reality. My first reaction to this was to say that "people in Africa don't wear watches, they wear calendars". However I quickly came to rephrase this to say: "People in Africa don't wear watches, in fact they are unaware of this device, they don't have a clock anywhere in their home, and the lone calendar in the possession of their extended family is currently functioning as a less than useful windscreen on their uncle's motorbike." That being said, there is something almost freeing about not worrying about time and and simply taking in the events of the day as they arrive. What doesn't get done one day, can always be done the next.

And it's as if the people of Africa have an appreciation for both of these immutable laws of the continent, ground into their DNA. They operate easily in the unforgiving elements and despite the lack of reliable schedules, find the time to complete the essential tasks of each day.

What strikes me the most about the people of Africa (specifically Niamey, Niger) is that--although those lifestyle essentials that are missing are wildly obvious to westerners--African's don't appear to notice what they don't have--instead they pay closer attention to what they do have. They don't notice that most of their roads are missing asphalt, curbs and lane markings...They do notice that they can always find one more lane in which to drive. They don't notice that they lack a house with cement brick walls and roof...They do notice--and use well--their bed, chair and cellphone. They don't notice that they only have 1 or 2 meals each day...They do notice that they have tea and sugar and are happy to share it, with even their wealthiest visitors.

In terms of the team in Niger, I got to see first hand a group of individuals who are very committed to helping the people of Niger and who are continually learning and perfecting their approach to development work. Their strategies include listening to the locals to determine needs and requiring the locals to take ownership in programs.

Paul and Chantelle have created a wonderful home at which any western visitor can feel very comfortable. Inside the 4 walls of their yard is the formidable Toyota Landcruiser and Paul's workshop, housed inside the steel shipping container. Surrounding the house is a variety of lush fruit and vegetable plants and trees that Chantelle and her gardener care for. Step inside the house and you'll find many of the conveniences of a north american home.

One of the most poignant revelations of my trip to Niger was the importance of learning a second language. There is something to be said for the ability to be able to communicate with someone in their own tongue. Certainly Chantelle can speak French very fluently but it was such a treat to watch Paul communicating easily in French with his guards, shop keepers and even just strangers on the street.

And finally, a couple words of advice for those first timers going to Africa to visit Paul and Chantelle:

1. Eat the meat before you see where it is purchased from.
2. Drink the tea without considering how the glass was washed.
3. Come prepared to give back just a fraction of what this country and its people will have to offer you.

1 comment :

Ann Elston said...

I have a home in Agadez which I can't currently get to because of the "civil unrest" so have limited my last two trips to a couple of weeks in Niamey to work with Tuareg silversmiths. Your comment that Africans are more aware of what they have than what they don't have is such an accurate insight.