Sunday, February 28, 2010

Politics as Usual?

You may have heard that there was a military coup in Niger. It’s rare for Niger to make headlines, but apparently this was big news back home. There seem to be a lot of people with a lot of questions, myself included.

Let’s start with a little bit of background: Last year, the president, Mahamadou Tandja, had a referendum passed that would allow him to run for president after his second term was up. The US State Department, many other western countries, and the African Union opposed this change in the constitution, saying that it was a step away from a healthy and functional democracy. The opposition party has accused Tandja of corruption, violating the constitution, and falsifying elections. As things progressed, many countries, including the US, Canada, and the countries of the EU, pulled their aid from Niger, with the exception of humanitarian aid (such as providing food in case of famine). This move cut the Nigerien government’s funding significantly, almost by half. Now, just about a week ago, Tandja’s house was overtaken by some members of the military in a coup. Tandja is being held, and the junta has set up a transitional government until they can hold a new election. The coalition that overthrew Tandja’s government is saying that their goal is to renew Niger’s commitment to democracy. (BBC have some pretty decent articles on the coup and the things leading up to it, if you're interested)

Let me just say that things in my neck of the woods were, and continue to be, remarkably calm. I’ve heard that there were some peaceful demonstrations, but for the most part things are carrying on just as they always have. In Niamey, some 15 hours from where I live, there were more demonstrations and activity, but here if it weren't for TV and radio, you would never know that anything had happened.

The local government, at least until they have another election, is staying as-is. In my mayor’s office, people are continuing to work as usual.

I have heard people talking about the coup, with a myriad of reactions. Some Nigeriens have expressed concern about Tandja’s well being, and others have expressed disappointment in another failed attempt at a democracy (This is not the first time things have played out this way here. In fact, since Niger became in independent state in the 60s, they have never been able to have one elected official give over power to another elected official. They elect one guy, he tries to remain in power, he gets overthrown, then they elect a new guy and the cycle begins again). Many have made comments about the decrease in NGOs and aid work since the referendum.

So… that’s about it. It probably sounds a lot more exciting through the news than it does in my life. Things are calm and virtually unchanged. Even so, watching the political situation (who the transitional government functions and what the next elected officials do) develop over the next few years will, I think, be both interesting and informative. Whether this is for better or worse? I think we'll just have to wait and see.

Starting Over

So, here I am. Back in Niger. I was reassigned to an Urban Commune, which means I’m still working with a mayor’s office, but in a larger city. I’m further east that I had been, and now have a VERY long bus ride if I want to go in to Niamey. This city is also the regional center for PCVs. The Peace Corps office and transit house (hostel) are here, which means other PCVs are in and out all the time. I wouldn’t have liked it at all if I had been placed here to start out with. I loved being in the bush, out on my own, in a village where everyone knew who I was. I even loved that I had to walk 2 hours through the bush to buy onions (and only on Mondays). I loved the tranquility of village life. BUT now that I only have 8 months left, this is perfect. With such a short time here, I wanted to be somewhere where things would get done more quickly (i.e. a city) and where there were more resources to work with (i.e. a city). And coming back from everything that had just happened at home, I felt like it might be prudent to be around friends (i.e. THIS city). So, basically, this was EXACTLY what I wanted.

I’m living in the Mayor’s compound, but they’ve built a wall between my yard and theirs so that mine opens up directly to the street. It’s actually a really nice set up, because it means I have my own space, but I sort of have a host-family, too. The Mayor has two wives (very common) and 9 children (also, common). I hang out with his wives and oldest daughters (22 and 17) pretty frequently. Most days I eat one or two meals with them. And their kids come over all the time, of course…

They also have a young girl of about 10 years old who works for them, taking care of the baby and occasionally doing housework. It took me a little while to realize this. One day she came over to my house in the middle of the afternoon, when all the other kids were at school. They are in private school, including all the girls, which is a REALLY big deal. When I asked this girl, Yasmina, why she wasn’t at school, she said, “I don’t know. I don’t do that. I do this” and she pointed to the baby. That’s when it clicked. She’s not their kid.

My house is two rooms (TWICE the size of my old house – major upgrade!) AND has electricity. My family has a pump in their yard, so I fill up my water jug there whenever I need it. Most of my things (or at least, those that I really wanted) were shipped here from my old village by Peace Corps, which was super helpful. Sadly, I couldn’t get my cat sent out here, but poor Bingley is probably better off where he is: my neighbors loved him and will take good care of him. I did get a new kitten, though. He’s black with white tips and I’ve named him Bennett (catching the theme?).

Work things are looking promising. We’ve started an English Club at the local middle school. At our first meeting I had the 18 students singing along to Frank Sinatra’s “How About You?”. I just wish I had recorded it! I’m also training some of the mayor’s office officials in using Excel (or will be, next week). Finally, I’m going to be working with women’s groups. I met with the Women’s Federation, who represent over 100 women’s groups, just last week. We were talking about the possibility of doing a goat project, like I did in Allela, but after thinking it over a bit the women told me, “No, no. We don’t want you to GIVE us anything. We just want to do trainings with the women’s groups so they can organize projects on their own”. One woman even said “Iyawa dadi ce,” which roughly translated means, “Being capable feels good”. I was FLOORED. That is LITERALLY a PCV’s DREAM. “No, don’t GIVE us things. Just teach us to do it ourselves”! Needless to say, I’m really pumped to be working with these women.

Emergency Leave: 6

In December, Vic came home from Mozambique. I took the bus up to Buffalo, so that I would be there when he got in. (Side note: Several people at the time commented: “you’re taking the bus all the way to Buffalo?! That’s like, an 11 hour ride!!” to which I would say, “11 hours in a nice bus, on a nice, smooth, paved road, with a bathroom!! TALK ABOUT LUXURY!” If I had brought a laptop, I even could have used the INTERNET while on the bus. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that. America is a strange and magical place…).

We hadn’t seen each other since May… sometimes this long-distance thing seems surreal. I’ve found that there’s a strange phenomenon within Peace Corps with regards to time. You start viewing months more like days. Literally, I think things like, “Well, its mid-February now, so it’s basically March. And then there’s April, and I have that thing to do in May, so that’ll go by fast. So, really, July is just around the corner!” Non-Peace Corps-people sometimes ask how I’ve found being in such a long-distance relationship, and I’m not sure how to answer. “It’s not so bad… We talk once a week or so and I’ll see him in about 4 months,” seems like a reasonable answer to me, but they tend to look at me like I’m crazy.

That’s not to say that it’s easy. There are periods where our minimal communication is infuriating. There are stretches of time that are lonely and hard. But it was while I was home taking care of Margie was the first time that the distance felt more than geographical. For the first time, I felt like I couldn’t relate to his life, and like he couldn’t relate to mine. After all, how could you ever understand something like that if you’re not there? Still, we talked about it; we talked about why it was painful and frustrating to be apart during all that. We said everything that could be said and got through it.

I expect it wouldn’t have been all that different even without the geographic distance. Even when people are right there with you, physically, there are some things we all experience on our own. A hug would have been nice. For him to see, with his own eyes, everything that was happening would have been nice (well… not “nice,” but you know…). But I would guess that even then I would have felt like he didn’t understand, because he wasn’t ME in a relationship with HER for the last 16 years. He loved her too, but it’s just different. This was MY grief. He could support me through it, but not be IN it, regardless of distance or lack thereof.

Anyways… in December Vic was home. I spent about a week in Buffalo with him and his family, and then he came back to Boston with me for about a week. Buffalo was fun. I had met most of his family before, but in passing at his graduation party. This gave me the chance to get to know people a little more, which was great. It was also good to be away for a bit. I couldn’t worry about getting things done around the condo, because I wasn’t there. I could rest.

Once he was home I had talked everything through with him, and decided that I would go back to Niger. It became clear, once I was sure what my options were, that part of me would regret it if I didn’t finish my service, and that no part of me would regret it if I went back and gave it my best shot, even if it was hard.

Being home with him was both good and stressful. We tried to cram so much in. He came to the one-month memorial mass, which was great. It was really hard for both of us that he couldn’t be there for the funeral, so the memorial mass was really nice. We spent a couple of days with my Mom for her birthday, which was really nice, too. We got together with friends a couple of times, had dinner at my Aunt’s, and went to the Tangney Grab (a family Christmas party/”Yankee Swap”)… and we packed. He helped me sort through pictures, papers, dishes, etc. etc. By “helped” I mostly mean he hung out with me while I did that, because I really had to be making decisions about what I was keeping and where things were going - i.e. I didn't really let him do much, but he took it in stride... I was overwhelmed, but for the most part he kept me sane. Everything got done when it needed to get done, and we had some fun despite the chaos of it all.

In the midst of all the packing, I had the chance to share some really cool stuff with him. Old family pictures, Chris’ eulogy from Dad’s funeral (Chris’ eulogy from Margie’s funeral, for that matter), things I had made as a kid.... The kind of things that mean a lot, but that aren’t on-hand on a day-to-day basis. We also found a portfolio of pictures that Margie had apparently had done when she was about my age and trying to get in to modeling. I do vaguely remember being told that she was a hand model, but these weren’t just hand-pictures. These were pictures of her in all kinds of outfits and costumes, looking sometimes glamorous, sometimes sassy, sometimes silly, always beautiful. I had no idea those existed – talk about a find!!

The last day before Vic went back to Buffalo we had decided to set aside as a “date”: no hanging out with other people, no working/packing/obligations; only the two of us, and only fun things to do. We took the T in to Boston, walked all around Newbury Street and Beacon Hill, went ice skating on the frog pond, wandered around Quincy Market looking at Christmas lights. It was perfect. Then, towards the end of the day, over by Long Wharf under the archway, all lit-up for the holidays, he proposed! I could hardly believe it. To this day I have no idea what he said (although I have been assured that it was very eloquent): I was so in shock! We had, of course, talked about the possibility before, but under the circumstances I was sure he wouldn’t do it then. Things were just too crazy. There would have been no chance to plan anything at all! As it turns out, he carried the ring around with him for those two weeks, waiting for the right moment to present itself. He had told my mom a few days before when we went out to dinner for her birthday, and he had even called Margie the month before to tell her.

I can’t describe how ridiculous giddy I was for the rest of that night. We went out to dinner, basking in the exhilaration of this new step in our relationship. When we got home that night, we started making phone calls, to tell family and friends the news.

The next day, he went back to Buffalo, and a week later (after Christmas and the oh-so-fun opportunity to tell many – although sadly, not all – family and friends about our engagement in person), I went back to Niger. To start over.

Emergency Leave: 5

At 6 AM one day the phone rang. I rolled over, groggy, irritated and confused, and ignored it. Eventually it stopped. Then it rang again. And again. Finally I dragged myself out of bed to answer it.

Me: “Hello?”

Caller: “Alo? Alo? (garbled attempted English)”

Me: “Hello? Who is this?”

Caller: more unintelligible words

Me: “Who is this?”

Caller: “Niger! Niger! Allela!”

Me: “KAI! Ga Farida. Wa ne ne?” (NO WAY! This is Farida. Who is this?)

Turns out it was the mayor. The day before I had called my friend Rabi, to greet her. I had told her that Margie had died and that there had been a problem up in Tahoua with the Embassy people (“mai rishin hankali” she called the terrorists – literally, those who lack common sense). So the mayor, having heard that she had talked to me, decided to call and check in, and to greet me on my loss (I no longer speak English properly. I know that is NOT how you would say that, but I don’t know how you WOULD say it, so…). I told him I hoped that I would be coming back after Christmas, but that I couldn’t be sure yet. I told him to greet the whole village for me, and he sent lots of blessings, and said that everyone was asking for me. Speaking in Hausa while standing in my room in Quincy was a very odd feeling, but a good one. It was SO sweet of him and made me really happy. It was even worth waking up at 6am for…

Emergency Leave: 4

The week Margie died was also the week that things got really crazy back in Niger. I got emails from Peace Corps staff and from other Volunteers with updates. I had been given two months off, and had over a month of that left, so I didn’t need to be immediately concerned with what was going on there, but still it was a bit overwhelming. There was an attempted kidnapping of American Embassy employees about three hours from my village (For the record: these attempted-kidnappers were not Nigeriens. Nigeriens in general are very pro-American and extremely welcoming. There are, however, some other groups who are staying in the desert in Mauritania, Mali, and now Niger who are… well… less friendly).

PCVs had been consolidated (that is, all brought in to a central location and told to stay put until further notice), and the Embassy/Peace Corps were considering evacuating certain areas. They ended up evacuating my region, which meant I couldn’t go back to Allela. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go back to Niger at all, or if I would want to under the circumstances. Readjusting to a whole new community would be a lot to take on… At that particular moment too many things were up in the air and too much was going on for me to be able to process it enough to make a decision. I put all that on hold.

Emergency Leave: 3

One night things took a final turn for the worse. I woke up to her calling my name: she had fallen on her way to the bathroom. I carried her back to bed, and tried to figure out whether or not she needed more pain medication. After a little while, I called the hospice nurse, Margie’s sister, Marie, and my sister.

Up until then hospice nurses had been occasionally stopping in to check her vital signs, but we didn’t really need them. After that, a nurse was there several times a day, and family members were around 24/7. I guess it was really only about three days… but it felt longer. Moments stretch to infinity at times like that.

All I can say about that time was that even those last moments with her were a blessing. To be the one who cared for her when she needed it most (she, who had so often been the one to care for me when I needed it most) was a privilege for which I am ineffably grateful. To hear her speak of my father in those last days, to know how fully she loved him, and how desperately she wanted to be reunited with him… to think that he has been the hinge that brought and held me and her together all these years… it was sad, but it was beautiful in its own sad way.

The funeral, too, was sad and beautiful. The church was full. I mean FULL. Standing-room-only, Christmas-eve-mass kind of full. She had picked out all of the music and readings, dolled out jobs to close relatives and friends, even picked out the casket. There were tears, of course, and laughter. It couldn’t have been any other way.

Emergency Leave: 2

The first two weeks with Margie were such a blessing. In some ways, it was hard to hear her speaking so frankly about her death, but it probably made things easier in the long run. After a long and couragious battle, she had accepted it as inevitable and wanted to make sure that she had taken care of everything. It was like she was ticking items off a list: paperwork; funeral plans; things to tell loved ones; etc, etc.

Most days she seemed more or less fine. She had some energy, could be up and about, laughing, joking, talking, visiting with people… we even went out a few times, to dinner, to church… Friends and family were in and out frequently, usually with flowers and food, and the phone hardly ever stopped ringing.

What I will always treasure was our time alone together during that period. Watching movies (“Loving Leah”: a Hallmark movie that she just HAD to buy); talking about all kinds of things; cooking; driving to and from Dana Farber for blood transfusions (and her teaching me all the back roads through Dorchester and Jamaica Plain)… As much as her illness was an ever-present thing, that time in many ways felt “normal”. We laughed and cried and said all the things we needed to say.