The day after I last updated, Tom and I headed about half an hour to meet up with my friends Katie and Stephanie from Iowa for a picnic lunch and some giraffe viewing! The last herd of giraffes in West Africa happen to live very close to Niamey. So we hired a guide, got in Tom's car, and headed out to the bush. The guide sat on top of the car and, holding a stick down in front of the windshield, directed us where to go. When we found giraffes, the car stopped and we got to get out and take pictures! After our first sighting, the guide scaled a tree and found others, so we drove on. I think we saw at least twenty five. They are so so beautiful and graceful.. and tall! And they let you get quite close to them, too. We had a delightful picninc lunch by a watering hole where they were-salad, hot dogs, my snickerdoodles. Yum. This would probably be the best picnic I've ever been on if it were not for..
This past Saturday! A local peace corps girl gave Katie and Stephanie a tip about hippos near Niamey. So. Saturday, Katie, Stephanie, the fam, me, and a friend named Ousman who comes along often because he has an invaluable knowledge of how to fix anything that goes wrong-from the broken towel rack in my bathroom to a car engine-piled in the SUV and drove about twenty minutes out of Niamey to a town called Bournu, on the river. There, there were about twenty kids telling us they wanted to be our 'guide' to see the hippos. The peace corps girl had told Katie and Steph to make sure you find a real guide, so we did, and after that got in two very long and skinny canoes -- Katie, Steph, and Ousman in one; Tom, Aichatou, the girls and I in the other, and we punted along the Niger river until we saw hippo( no s?)! They made very very funny noises. Ousman made a lot of jokes about their dangerousness (although they really do attack, that is no joke -- we kept a sufficient distance), and we took tons of pictures. Hippos in my opinion are very big, make funny noises, are really cool to watch, but in general look like big rocks sitting in water.
After we saw the hippos, we went back the car and grabbed the picnic gear and our guides put us back in the canoes and paddled us off to an island, where we got off and walked for probably eight minutes. Did I mention that this whole process was happening at midday in full sunlight? Eight minutes feels like a lot more when you are near the equator, walking in sand and have skin prone to sunburn. (I was responsible, and wore sunscreen. Stephanie forgot, and we think got a little heat stroke/exhaustion afterword). Anyway, I was losing faith in our guides, leading this mismatched troupe of small children and unknowing foreigners from one side of a very hot island to the other (especially because I saw no shade) when they pointed out a magnificent baobab tree (French students remember Le Petit Prince!), took a small left and led us UNDER a very large mango tree, where we settled in for an amazing picnic that I will be hard to top for the rest of my life. It was phenomenal.
Also along the lines of eating, I have had the privilege to go out to eat three times since the girls have been here! Last night was my favorite-a gorgeous outdoor Chinese restaurant with really really good Chinese food. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Last week, I cooked a lot for myself, because I was in the bush, at a rural hospital in...
...a village about an hour SE of Niamey. Stephanie and Katie were staying there to observe the culture and do some medical help. Stephanie is a premed major, and was especially interested in seeing rural medicine in Africa. They came to Niamey over the giraffe weekend and told me that they could really use a translator, and Tom and Aichatou let me go with them to Birni for their last four days there. I don't often get to see American girls my age here, so it was a great treat for me! We had a room that was created as the isolation ward for the hospital but never used. It had air conditioning (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). We made our breakfast and dinner there on a portable cook stove, and they brought us lunch each day.
The first night we were in Birni, we set up my cot next to the window. The window has two parts- glass on the inside, which can be opened to open shutters on the other side of the sill. We were sitting quietly reading before bed when we heard something and looked up to see that a butterfly had made its way in through the slats of the shudders....and was being followed by a very wily lizard (they are very adept here-window was at least 9 ft off the ground). We of course immediatley rushed to the window to take pictures, which unbalanced the lizard, who fell into the recess between the glass and the shudders (thank goodness it was closed!!) It jumped around for quite a while and we shreiked like girls, but Bill (we named him) eventually settled down. We weren't about to open the window for fear he would jump in the room, so I got the pleasure of sleeping next to a lizard the whole night. I didn't feel a hundred percent at ease. Aichatou and Tom later told me that it is a common African belief that spirits will take the form of a lizard. Aiie. In the morning, our host, the doctor, shooed him out, while we whimpered like girls on the other side of the room. Living in the bush you run into creatures a lot.. We had a few cockroaches in our bathroom. Stephanie was lucky enough to find them each time. She sprayed enough insecticide to kill an army of them, but those buggers take a while to die, really.
While in Birni we got the chance to:
- Take temperatures and blood pressures at a local clinic. People come there to get shots and vaccinations, and have to have their blood pressure and temp recorded before hand, just like you do when you go to your doctor in the States. This was a bit funnier, however, because next to no one spoke French, and most people came from rural surrounding communities. This translates to temperatures being very hard to take. I, of course, was given the task, and had quite a few laughs trying to explain that you first have to lift up your tongue (not stick it out or make funny shapes with it), then place the thermometer under it and then close your mouth until it beeps. It was very funny. Of course, they would laugh equally hard, I am sure, at my attempt to speak Zerma (their language) or tie a headscarf. And we felt underdressed-- most people get dressed up to go to the doctor or into town, so they had beautiful hair, scarves, and patterned dresses while we were wearing t-shirts. Oh well. Americans.
- Visit a Peace Corps girl in Kiota, Niger. Katie finishes her two-year Peace Corps term this week (!), and showed us all around her village of Kiota. Kiota is big in reference to many small bush towns, and nicer because a Muslim Sheik resides there, but is still quite small in comparison to Niamey. Katie taught us tons about Nigerien culture and language, and we filled her in on trends she has missed in the US (Livestrong bracelets, 80's style stuff such as leggings and leg warmers, shrugs, big beaded necklaces). "What a novel idea," Katie said, "going to a shopping mall to get clothes that are aldready made for you. No tailor involved."
- Visited a larger regional hospital in Dosso, where Birni sends their patients. I got to use my French a lot there for translation, and we got a tour of everything. We saw their maternity ward, and Katie got to hold a brand new baby-really cool! (Moms very willingly hand over their babies here). We saw a lot of women that had had C-Sections too. All of them were wearing skirts, but none tops (and we were walking around with male doctors). The bottom half of your body is way more important to keep covered here than the top half. We also got to see a surgery ward with the surgeon who had preformed all the operations (he does three a day) and the pediatric ward. The peds ward has two sections--one devoted solely to malnutrition and the other to everything else. The babies who were malnutritioned were very sad looking, and though it was hard to believe, were recovering. It's hard to see kids that should be running around and playing that can't walk because their bones are too fragile. There is a new malnutrition medicine/food that works very well though, and is making good progress.
I have more to say, including the stories of my trip to the national museam and the Grand Marche in Niamey, but this entry is long enough already. So, I will leave you with some things I have learned about Nigerien culture:
-Often, people will go to traditional doctors over (or after) certified ones. They have some remedies that work and some remedies that are crazy, like manure for healing gangreene or firming up a baby's soft spot, or drinking lion pee to stop asthma. This is much more common in rural areas than cities.
-Women cover up almost their entire bodies, but I have seen at least ten commercials for condoms this week. It's common on Nigerien television.
-Islamic men can have up to four wives, if they treat all equally, and more if the women are not Muslim.
-Many women may have three or four husbands in a lifetime.
-Men commonly hold hands with other men, but men and women will never hold hands in public. Even though I know this, it is a weird sight to adjust to.
-I'm starting to learn how to distinguish between different African groups - Tuaregs are tall, light-skinned and wear blue robes and white headscarves. They are a matriarchal society, and the ones with the camels . Fulanis are laregely nomadic and wear pointed hats. The women braid silver coins into their hair. Tubu are dark, can be fierce, and traditionally carry knives (both women and men). City dwellers are different in all cases, however, and my Tubu friends Aichatou and Ramatou have not yet threatened me with knives, and I'm can be sure they won't. They are also very beautiful.
-I can greet people in Hausa (Ina-Kwana; La-hee-a-low) and Zarma (Fofo; Fofo) now, as well.
More to come soon.