A Day in the Life
(a description of a day in the life of a niger peace corps trainee, from my blog: www.xanga.com/astronomigirl)
“There is one way to understand another culture: Live it. Move into it, ask to be tolerated as a guest, learn the language. At some point, understanding may come. It will always be wordless. The moment you grasp what is foreign, you will lose the urge to explain it.”
The call to prayer sounds every morning at sunrise, wailing “Allaaaaaahu Akbar!” as the men make their way to the mosque. The neighbor’s mules and the local cocks have been raising hell for two hours by now, the ruckus penetrates the foam earplugs I am accustomed to wearing from nights in the TL. I rise at 6 am, when the trees in my concession are silhouetted in the muted morning light. I check for new bug bites, assessing their size and swollenness, then push my way out of the neon green mosquito net which surrounds my bed (apparently only for appearances). It is far too hot and stuffy to sleep inside our thatched-roof hut, so we sleep outside under the stars. In the mornings, our beds must be dismantled and taken indoors – in rainy season, the storms roll in loud and unannounced. The flies are unlike any others I’ve known, attacking any and every expanse of open flesh. I start sweating almost immediately. Dental hygiene, contact lens insertion, and face-washing must all be done with filtered water, typically poured awkwardly out of my nalgene bottle. Dressing usually involves a baggy tshirt and a long wraparound skirt or loose-fitting pants. In Niger, knees are considered private, inappropriate, and must be concealed at all times. I slather spf 70 on my face as a finishing touch, bid a fond goodbye to my host mom, and then I’m off to the market for breakfast.
Most mornings I enjoy a Solani “la ban” – a small cold bag of plain flavoured yogurt, which I tear open with my teeth. Some days, if I’m feeling extravagant, I’ll buy a small mango to wash with soap and water up at the site. In Niger, to eat on the run is to eat with the devil, so we stand in clusters on the main road, sucking yogurt out of bags, trying in vain to be invisible. It’s a short walk up the hill to the PC training site, but I’m always sweating by the time I reach the top.
We have language classes, cross-cultural training, and technical training under thatched roof hangars, shielded from the harsh afternoon sun. The chalkboards are slabs of wood, painted black. How uncanny, that I am learning how to speak French in Africa, from Nigerien men and women… We have lunch up at site, enjoying simple luxuries, like small servings of vegetables, salted popcorn, milo cocoa powder mixed with hot water. The days may sound lazy, but we are always exhausted, taxed from the heat, the insects, the restless nights of sleep, the struggle to translate every idea or need or whim.
“Happy Hour” is every day after classes, an opportunity to socialize and savor the taste of English on our tongues. We walk back down to the village as the sun lifts its despotic veil, following a cobweb of dirt paths to our separate adoptive homes. I call out “Asalaam aleykum,” when I enter the threshold, listening for the warm return: “Amin, aleykum asalaam!” I sit on a plastic mat with my host family as the sun goes down, kicking around the few phrases at my disposal. I struggle to learn French all day at site, but we speak Hausa at home. As the heat relents, the flies follow suit, and I jump at the opportunity to bathe. The ‘shower’ is a roofless cement room with a squat wood stool, a blue bucket, a cup, and a water jug. It’s my favorite time of day, as I get to be relatively clean and private, for all of about five minutes.
Dinner is eaten on the ground – girls with girls and boys with boys. We sit around a flat plate in the dark, pressing rice into small piles and scooping them into our mouths. There is something familiar about eating with one’s hands, a return to instinct, childhood, deeper roots. After dinner, my host siblings crowd around a small color television to watch their favorite show – a tacky Brazilian soap opera, dubbed in overemphatic French. Only in Africa!
I’m in bed by 9:30, reading or journaling about the day’s activities and discoveries, while gnats crawl through the mosquito net to attack my headlamp. I fall asleep to crickets screaming, the Nigerien news blaring in French from a shortwave radio, the stars beaming brightly from above.
Sometimes I’ll be pouring bucket water down my back, swatting the flies away. Or I’ll gaze up at my mosquito net and feel the grime on my neck against my pillow. Or I’ll stare at my host mom and realize that communication is a wide river that I won’t be able to cross any time soon. And I realize then, that I’ve never been pushed so far before. I am truly and completely out of my element here, yet I know that I’m still being pampered here in hamdallaye. I wonder how long it will be before I cease to marvel at the strangeness of life here, before the need to reconcile this experience with life in the states just fades away, before this life becomes my own.