Monday, February 23, 2009

A survey experience

As most of you know from my last post, we have just embarked on a major survey project here in Niger. This past week we went to a village called Teppe, which is a Fulani village. Now this week that survey team is in another Fulani village called Kojeri and I personally am in Niamey doing 30 or so surveys of all our urban employees and their families,the majority of whom are tamashek and thus in my language group.

But to give you a feel for what it is like, here is what it was like to do one of those surveys last week!


We walked across a field covered in dried, sharp, short millet stalks and an assortment of dried animal dung to the collection of huts where the village chief and his family lived. The stalks are reminders of the main staple crop of the people, and now all they are is a hazard to my ankles. We arrived, were introduced, and they promptly swept a little spot under one of the grass thatch roof thingies for us. Check out the photo. I don't really know the name for them, but they are poles supporting a grass, poles and woven mat roof, with no side walls. Just keeps the sun off.


And then they brought out the dreaded white man's chair. See it there? Most people always sit on the mats right on the floor. But they see me and instantly whip out whatever chair-like structure they can find, usually either a branch or fabric chair. I don't actually want to sit in it. Especially not since it is the ONLY chair, and I feel like a Chief with her subjects sitting on the ground before her. YECH! I want to sit on the ground with the rest of them, but I am told quite bluntly by our interpreter that it is the honor they have given me and to sit my butt down. I sit. My pride a bit hurt for some reason that I am forced to have a place of honor when I want to be accepted as one of them and to be at their level. Something I know I have to get used to.

We sit down and the surveyors start the work of introducing our team, our work, and our purpose. Then the actual survey begins. It is all in fulfulde (of which I only speak about 5 words) so it is no surprise that I am taking in more of the sights and sounds around me that listening intently to each question. ( I promise I do listen intently when they are in my language - Tamasheq!)  The cacophony of sounds of goats bleating, chickens and other fowl squawking and children is so loud that sometimes I can barely hear the survey questions. The chickens, probably 50 or so in all sizes and colors, are running all over the place.

The women gather. Not close enough to actually be taking part (we did the actual interview with the chiefs wife since He was gone) but close enough to hear everything that was going on. They have ground millet all morning and now sit with two bowls and a woven little round circle that they use to separate the chaff out of the grain. The array of fabrics that they are wearing is both breathtaking and gaudy. I see orange, red, green, yellow, dark blue, turquoise, black and white, repeated in different patterns and shades on all their outfits. They are almost all wearing headwraps of matching (or sometimes clashing) fabric. There is no such thing as "in fashion" here. Their hair sticks out under the headwraps and you see thick braids down the back and smaller braids coming from above their ears, then wrapping in a loop in front of their ears and attaching to the main braid at the back of their heads.

A few of the younger men hear that something is going on and slowly they start to arrive as well. It is more appropriate for them to get involved and they sit close. Two have frayed, cotton leisure suits on. It reminds me of an suit that someone wore back in North America for a summer party or wedding, and promptly got sold to a second hand store. Eventually those things all end up somewhere like this, worn in the bush in the middle of Africa. (Those of you in Western Canada- I kid you not I have seen some used clothing for sale in the market here in Niamey that still has the Value Village tag attached!!) A couple other men have more African clothing of bright fabric pants with a long tunic style top. But the majority have faded cotton dress pants with any type of shirt- from T-shirt to polo shirts to button up dress shirts, all faded from heavy use and hours under the unrelenting sun.

There is a big rooster less than a foot away from me. A baby sheep is just a few feet beyond him, laying in the sand and chewing something. A small child, around 4 I would guess, takes a baby from an old withered grandmother and carries him around on her back. Yes, even the small children carry even smaller children on their backs here. One of the young girls (maybe 17?) sits about 30 feet away. She is beautiful. She keeps stealing glances and looking over at me, but when I look her way she quickly hides her face or looks away. I think she is shy. (see her below in color -hiding her face again!)


A couple of other small children run around naked, with round distended bellies, not unlike those you see in the World Vision commercials. One rolls an old bike tire, using a stick to help it gain momentum.

I turn my attention back to the survey and all is still going fine. Something keeps bumping my seat. Yes, from under my seat. What is going on? I try to be polite and not gawk around or go on my knees to look under my seat, thus drawing attention to myself. Finally I pull out my camera with the swivel screen, aim it under my chair as nonchalantly as possible, and this is what I see.....


The sweetest little baby goat has curled up under my chair. Occasionally he bumps my chair bottom with his head as he moves around, and sometimes he nuzzles the back of my calf or licks my ankles. (You can just barely see my ankle of the far right of the photo)

I go back to my people watching. This chief has 3 wives. Even the way they sit for the interview is interesting. The first and main wife was the main interviewee. She sat 2 feet away on a little wooden block that raised her off the mat a few inches. The second wife sat on her heels against a pole about 10 feet away. Even when the health questions about her children came up, she never came any closer. The third wife was even further back, also sitting against a pole. According to the survey, the wives were between 43 and 50. Not too bad considering an old man will often take a very young teenage wife.

The first wife


Since I don't speak fulfulde I watch these women and I think of them and their lives. I pray silently for them - for their health, for their crops, for their children, and most of all , that they would know HOPE. That their days to come would be better than the ones from when they were young and that even in the midst of their poverty that they would know joy and have hope.

A goat puts his face into a bowl of millet grain and gets a swift smack in the side from one of the young women. Another goat across the compound is trying to knock down a large pot that is hanging 5 feet off the ground on a hook. There is some WWF style goat wrestling going on with some others. Fiesty critters! We reach the mortality section of the survey. We learn that one of the young girls in the extended family had twins a few months ago. One died at one month or age, and the second died at three months of age. I wish I could express myself in fulfulde to offer my condolences. I reach under my chair and pet the baby goat. Two hours in and he is still sitting under my chair. Two hours in and I am now thankful for the chair since I don't think my hips or my joints could handle two hours sitting on the hard ground.  I see the persistence of one goat finally pays off, and he has his head firmly inside the pot, still hanging 5 feet off the ground.


Someone answers their ringing cellphone. (Everyone has a cellphone- but getting a signal out there is a whole other thing!) I don't know what he is saying, but i clearly hear the word "Anasara" (white person) so I know I came up in conversation. The goat beneath me bleats suddenly and licks my ankle again.

The chief comes home in a flowing white robe and old, falling apart white sneakers. To my delight, they pull out another "chair of honor" and he sits down a few feet away to listen to the rest of the survey. Yay - I am not the only one in a chair now. However, mine is still the only chair with a goat underneath it.

Eventually our survey comes to an end. It only took 3 hours to sit there, but we did 3 households and covered 20 or so people.

I am so proud of my survey team. I took to calling them the "dream team". Most of them had never even heard of a survey a few weeks ago, and with a lot of training and practice, here they are spending 2 weeks doing surveys of their own people and a neighboring village. Way to go team!  And off to the next hut!!



Follow the Yellow Brick Road said...

Great post Chantelle! It was so descriptive, I actually felt like I was there! My heart broke when I hear about the baby twins. So sad to hear that they don't have the same chances that we take for granted here. Thanks for sharing. Love you!

Follow the Yellow Brick Road said...

BTW..cute GOAT! I want it for a pet!

Anonymous said...

I was right there! Thank you sweetheart. heather

Carrie said...

Loved your post! The photos are amazing and it is great to see your experience through your words!

Judy Frentz said...

Chantelle.... dust in Niger, falling snow in Calgary, so says the weather cast on your site... and falling snow it is. White, fresh and clean, gently covering, almost without a breeze, one of those magical mornings.... and dust blowing, swirling, infiltrating one of your mornings as well? The survey posting spoke volumes... a reminder of how limits in hearing (language) sometimes frees up the other senses to taste, smell, see, experience what might be missed or partially missed when we are too focused on listening with our minds and ears. Thankyou for connecting women to women half a world away.... love Judy

Judy Frentz said...

Chantelle... as the dust is blowing, swirling, infiltrating your Niger (so says the weather post), this early a.m., white, pure, clean snow is steadily falling on a pristene (surface only!) landscape half a world away. I was struck by what you saw, felt, smelt, experienced because of the limitations on your hearing (language only!)... and challenged not to be handicapped by only using one sense (listening with my ears and brain) while there is a world of listening to do with my eyes and heart ... thankyou for connecting women half a world away.... love Judy