Life in Niger is certainly different, and I have a lot of time here to sit around and talk (causer, as they say in French), drink Tuareg tea and read. I work at my internship from 9 to 5 each day, taking a break for lunch whenever I feel like it. Often I meet up with Lawali and we stop by La Grillade for riz-sauce, rice and sauce with a piece of beef in it, at 600 francs a plate.
I’m working on a research project regarding the role of international organizations on democratic development and defense in Niger, especially how they relate to local NGOs and how they are dealing with the current political crisis here. Although I’m hoping to interview people from USAID and NGOs in Niamey, so far I’ve been doing mostly internet research. Lawali and I just registered at a local think tank’s documentation center, aka library, so that has opened up a number of valuable book sources as well.
One aspect of life here that takes getting used to is people constantly asking for money and assuming that you are rich. As an anassara (white person), I am presumed to have immense personal wealth, and strangers aren’t shy about trying to take some of it from you. I’ve had a woman ask us to pay for her taxi for her, simply because we’re American. A teenage boy came up to me one morning as I walked near Niamey’s Grand Hotel, “Bonjour! How are you? Remember me? I saw you yesterday, when you were coming out of the hotel with your friends!” I’ve never been to the hotel, but he was looking for a cadeau, or handout.
Another annoyance is the regularity of power outages. Electricity usually goes out at least once every day, sometimes for fifteen minutes, other times for a couple of hours. The UPS, or emergency backup battery, is a standard computer accessory here, found on almost every desktop. One appliance impervious to the power outages is the cell phone, just one reason people here love their mobiles. Every Nigerien’s cell phone is nicer than mine, and many people have several phones, among which they trade around their four or more SIM cards – Niger appears to have at least six mobile service providers. Such features as flashlights, cameras, and radios all come standard, even while many cell phone owners don’t otherwise own a radio or camera.
The one advantage America holds is that while BlackBerries are available here, mobile internet service is not. At an internet café or in the office, even high speed internet service is never as fast as regular service in America, ranging from acceptably fast to excruciatingly slow. I am now an expert on which sites offer low-bandwidth versions (e.g. Gmail, BBC News, MLB.com) and which don’t (e.g. WordPress, the site for updating this blog)! Even waiting for news sites to load can be painful, given their graphics-heavy layouts.
Every morning, I take a taxi to work. Taxis here are mostly white Toyota Corollas, old ones, with dirty, worn out interiors and myriad dents and scratches, if not missing headlamps or door handles. The upsides are the cost – 20 cents to be dropped off at the door of your destination – and availability – just stand by the side of the road with your hand out and call out your destination as the taximan rolls by; he’ll stop if he’s going your way.
Most weekends, I hang out at home reading and chatting, with occasional visits to such tourist attractions as the Musée National, home of an underfunded museum and the world’s most depressing zoo (mangy lions bored and underfed in tiny cages, baboons with barely enough space to move).
Friday, the US Embassy had a Fourth of July celebration. Rather than the homestyle, American BBQ I had expected, it was a diplomatic function full of dignitaries. Fortunately, there were also some young people, Peace Corps volunteers, and the embassy’s Marine security detachment. They also had free drinks, American flag cake (only small pieces were available, but still, cake), and sparklers. An ‘afterparty’ at the Marine house was another slice of America. They have A/C, big screen TV with a wide selection of DVDs, lots of care package items like Vienna Fingers (thanks to APO shipping), a pool, and a driver. Still, Niger is one of the least desired posts in the Marine Corps, likely a result of the temperatures and tame nightlife.
On Independence Day proper, I was invited to join a weekly game of softball at the Embassy rec center. It was a really fun way to spend the Fourth of July, accompanied by Americans and playing a sport from home I hadn’t seen in months. They also had a pool (although I didn’t go in), air conditioning, and a big screen TV with Wimbledon on, so I caught a little bit of the gentlemen’s doubles final. Overall, it was a nice day, even if it was devoid of fireworks.
If you have never experienced true culture shock, let me tell you, it is real. After five months in Paris without any major signs of it (rejection of language or customs, depression, that sort of thing), I was convinced that I would be able to handle Niger without being dragged through the “four stages of culture shock” that Haverford tells you about. Upon arrival, I enjoyed a week or so of what you could call a honeymoon phase, where although I was homesick from five months abroad, I was happy to be here. The next week or two were rough, as I started getting frustrated with the local language (not French, but AFRICAN French, which I still have a hard time understanding), questions of personal space, various “rude” social interactions (by American standards), strangers trying to get my money, the extreme heat, and an overwhelming desire to be in Southern California eating In-N-Out.
Finally, now halfway through my experience, I am moving through to the later stages of culture shock, what you could call the recovery phase. I am becoming comfortable in my new environment and learning to enjoy the positive aspects of life here without letting the frustrations dominate my outlook. Every day I find myself enjoying the many wonderful aspects of Niger, the community, the people, the culture, even some of the food. This morning I had a baguette with butter, my first taste of that dairy delight in a month. Sure, it wasn’t real, pure butter, but it tasted just fine.
As for the political crisis, it continues. Tandja continues to consolidate power ahead of the August 4th referendum he insists will happen. To give you a sense of the way things are going, Nouhou just passed by and glanced at my computer screen. “Ça n’existe pas,” he said. “It doesn’t exist.” He was pointing to the title of my blog, “Democracy in Niger.”