Monday, March 09, 2009

Life in the bush - Tamasheq survey time!

I wake up to the noise of pounding. I am in the village of Tagentassu, a Tamasheq village about 90 minutes out of Niamey. The sun has barely begun to rise over our tent and already the women of the village are outside pounding stalks of millet into a fine grain using a large mortar and pestle. This pounding is repeated all across the village almost all day long and becomes familiar background noise. We get up, get dressed into our long skirts and tops of colorful African patterns and wrap our hair up. It promises to be a very hot and sweaty day.

We head out in three teams to do surveys. Each team has one Canadian and one Tamasheq. I am paired with Kutana, who is also my language tutor and the one who helped me translate the survey in the first place, so I am confident that we are well trained and ready to go. The other teams are Sophie and Mohammed, and then Daniel and Miriama. We are paired not only for language abilities, but also a male and female on each team for maximum cultural correctness when we enter people’s home, especially if the husband happens to be away as is often the case.

Daniel and Miriama doing a survey

*photo courtesy of Emily*



Sophie and Mohammed (striped shirt)

The first place we come to survey is the man who runs the local fish store. I say store, but really he just has a pile of fish sitting on a rough wooden table in the shade. Since it is still a novelty to see us in the village, we soon have a crowd of people surrounding us. At one point I count 29 men standing around us in a circle listening. We try to tell them we will get to them too later, but they still want to stay and listen. One man makes me laugh. He is tall and looks very strong. He is very dark colored (Tamasheqs range from much lighter skin arab-looking to quite dark full African looking). He has on a big thick gold long necklace with some type of big charm on the end (wouldn’t surprise me at all if it said “Pimp Daddy” at this point). Funniest thing though, he was wearing a full body….PINK LACE outfit. Even complete with a bright neon pink golfers style low hat. Way too funny. I just couldn’t take him seriously. I wish I could have taken his picture, but didn’t feel it would be appropriate. I see a few of the younger men wearing jeans and I think of jeans fondly. Oh jeans…has it really been 9 months since I wore a pair of you? We got through all the questions, trying to keep the “public” commentary of the crowd to a minimum and make our way around the corner to another house made of clay bricks. These houses look very different from the Fulani villages we were in last week. They are square and made of clay bricks, with usually a little patio roof made of straw and sticks and poles out front to give them a bit more living space out of the sun out front.

We come to a house where just the woman of the family is present. The man is away in Nigeria looking for work since it is the dry season and there are no crops to tend. Apparently this exodus is common and we find a large percentage of the houses we visit have some of the working age men away looking for work. We sit with the woman and begin the survey. Next to us there are 4 sheep with their heads in a bowl of milky looking water. I learn later that after they wash the millet grains, they use that water for the animals, giving them a little bit of millet in their water. Better than nothing I guess. Every once in a while, if the woman does not know the answer to a question, I hear the answer said from a voice behind a straw wall in the next area. I think the grandmother is sitting there listening and weaving, but she doesn’t actually come out. But obviously she is listening closely and throwing in her two cents where needed. My foot is falling asleep. In many places here I am sitting on a mat on the floor and after hours of it I find it hard to get comfortable and to keep my feet from falling asleep. We are surrounded again, but this time mostly by children and a few other women. This is a family with 13 people living in this little house. The children are crawling all around, with less than half of them wearing anything of their bottoms. One little girl has no pants on, and a bright yet filthy t-shirt. She might be 6 years old? She is so dusty that her skin looks gray instead of black and her face holds the crust of her attempts to wipe the snot out of her nose. It is the season where many people have colds here, likely not made any better by the amount of dust in the air, and all the kids are covered in snot. I really want to wipe all their noses, but I didn’t bring enough Kleenex for that monumental task.

One mom has her baby tied to her back with an old, faded beach towel. One teenage boy has a tank top on that says “AIG” in bright letters, and I wonder if he knows about the financial recession and that trouble AIG is in. Probably not. AIG may be in trouble, but they still can afford more than one tank top in their wardrobe. We finish off this survey and head off to do others, spending all day in the village doing surveys, meeting people, telling them about us and listening about them. I love this job!

That night after supper, we brought out the guitar and Kutana played traditional music and sang for us. A few ladies from the village came to visit us and we sat on a mat and laughed and chatted, using a mix of tamasheq and french to communicate.

As the music was playing, a bunch of kids from the school (our tent was on the schoolyard property) came to listen, slowly followed by some adults, until about 45 people were all sitting around in the dark listening to the music of this “free concert”.

As a side note, I also took the opportunity when offered to learn some of the local skills of millet pounding and matt weaving. I think I was much slower than they were. It is really hard work!

Learning to weave mats

Learning to pound millet

The next day starts with the same noise of millet pounding and today after breakfast we get into one of the vehicles to go around and survey the houses that aren’t in the main village, but instead scattered over several kilometers in a radius around the village. These people live in more traditional huts made of straw and woven mats. I arrive at one hut, and after telling them about us and getting permission to talk with them, we sit on the hard ground on a thin blue plastic mat. Within a few minutes my foot starts to fall asleep again. There is a wooden pull cart right in front of us and the donkey that pulls it is just a few feet away in the shade of the tree too. Here under the hot sun any piece of shade is in demand. To the side of us a mutt dog digs a hole in the ground, moving aside piles of dirt, straw and dung to make himself a nice indent in the ground. He then curls up in it. I wonder if a foot down in the ground is much cooler and consider digging my own hole to sit in. It is really hot, with no breeze, and I can feel the sweat rolling down my back. Nice. We talk to the family and learn that their older son is also away looking for work. They have 8 children here, all filthy, all sick and yet all running around happy. One little guy is climbing around on the donkey cart and playing with an old tire. He rolls the tire over to the dogs hole and evicts him by rolling the tire over him, then promptly sits in the hole himself. One of their young daughters is running around in the sun, pumping her arms in circles like a giant flailing windmill and he bright, tattered, flowered dress blows around her. This tree we are under has a lot of thorns, which apparently make great clothespins, since their daily laundry is lying all over the tree, held up by the little thorns. I think to myself -this is real. This is their life. I see a chicken dig a hole and lay in it a few feet away from the boy, and notice the sheep behind the tree also laying in a dugout indent. I really need to try this sitting in a hole thing! After doing some probono work in the internationally recognized language of candy, we drive off to find the next hut, a kilometer or so away.

Here again we find a large family, where the man of the household has left to find work. No one is in school, even though several children are of the age that they should be. Either the school costs (maybe $20 per year?), or the walk several kilometers each way is enough to keep them at home. This woman’s baby isn’t more than 3 months old and the woman tells us she has no more breast milk and the baby is already eating millet and water. She still offers her breast to the child continuously during the survey, even though it is shrunken, old and dried up looking. Did I mention this mother is only 19 years old? She already has 2 children. Again, this is a common occurrence in our days in the village. This is their life! I got offered a little wooden chair for this survey and I sit there with a dozen or so little chicken running all around me, often under my chair, causing a ruckus. I miss my sweet, quiet little goat under my chair from the Fulani village since these chickens are starting to get on my nerves. A chicken even jumped up on my chair with me. While I was interviewing the family, I found myself looking at their oldest daughter who was 12 years old (from a different wife). I thought how hard her life would be, what it would look like when she got married in a few years etc. And then they told me the shocker that she was already married, and just back with her family for a few weeks while her 19 year old husband was out of town. Wow. So sad that I didn’t have any words at that moment. But we were just there to listen and learn anyhow, teaching and works will come later. Eventually we finish and drive off to the see their water source, a well that was dug in a dry riverbed. They only had to go down about 5 meters to get to water here. Still, the water is filthy and both animals and humans crowd around. The cord they use to lower and raise their buckets lays in the mud between trips down and gets contaminated with everything on the feet of the people and animals, and much worse things too, before getting lowered back down repeatedly into their water source. No wonder their water is an awful shade of brown. There are other wells in this area too, half are dried up, and the other wells are open at the top and look highly contaminated. Makes me think even more of closed system wells that aren’t open to the elements and have a pump system. More ideas. So many needs and ideas, and this survey tool will hopefully tell us where to focus first. So much can be addresses just with training and education too.

The local well



Before leaving the final day, we spent some time with the school kids where we had been camping out. This school has roughly 60 kids attending, very low considering the size of the population. The kids were a lot of fun. One class had no teacher for the two days we were there, so they sat quietly in the room and didnt seem to learn anything at all. We chatted with them, Kutana did some teaching for a little while, and we sang together. Just when we were getting ready to leave they all came around our trucks and were so curious to see us and they all wanted to say goodbye. They have a decent school building as those standards go around here, but they are so lacking in many other things to make the education count. Here are some photos of those kids and the school.





After our 3 days in Tagentassu and surroundings, we head back into Niamey. Now Emily and I are on the home stretch to get all the data entered, run comparisons, pull out valuable data and make recommendations. We are giving a report to the team on Wednesday and hopefully the final report will be done the week after. Phew! Huge project and tons of work, but great results and information!

And now I really need a good foot wash, rub and pedicure!


And finally, just to make you smile, check out this picture. Next time your donkey gets tired, tell him to take the bus!! The thing I was wondering, was how in the world did they manage to get a donkey on top of the minibus in the first place? Only in Africa!


Anonymous said...

What an amazing commentary Chantelle...and again, the pix speak louder than words. So glad the trip was successful. I am still smiling over the donkey.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chantelle & Paul,

Thank you for your updates! You do an amazing job with your words & pictures.

I have been wondering if it is possible to mail packages of clothes & stuff for people in Africa. Is this something that we can do or is it a pipe-dream of mine? We have so much "stuff" here in North America & we need to share. Or...can you buy things for the people of Niger if we sent money instead?

Just a thought....

Cheryl McLim

Anonymous said...

Hi again sweetie, it's heather...I was the 'anonymous' commenter that went 'unsigned'... wonderful chatting tonite.

Andrew Howarth said...

Hi Chantelle,

Your blog is great! You are doing amazing work and I look forward to hearing what comes out of all those surveys. Your stories make me wish that we were there with you and Paul and all the workers there again, and they also share the joy and sadness that come with living in Niger. Thanks for all that you do, and keep up the great work!! Of course all of your photos are amazing too. By the way, how is your stove working?

Take care,