Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Arrival in Niamey, Niger
I arrived in Niamey early Monday morning carrying four suitcases with my clothing, supplies, food and over 200 friendship bracelets from students in America for the children of the Azawak.
How wonderful it was to see the faces of Ariane and Denis after over 24 hours of traveling! Being here is somewhat like what I imagined and also not like it at all. First of all, our house is much bigger and nicer than I thought it would be. There are ceiling fans that keep the rooms cool even when the temperatures climb to 100 degrees in the middle of the day. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms – plenty of space for Ariane, Denis, Fassely, Laurel and I. The bedrooms even have air conditioning, which we haven’t had to use yet since the nights have been cool enough for just the fans.
But I never could have imagined the streets of Niamey. For one thing, I brought the wrong shoes. My sturdy, open and airy shoes fill with sand because the roads are for the most part deep sand. Today I bought a pair of plastic flip-flops from a vendor on the street because the only kind of shoes that will work are ones that the sand can easily slip off.
What strikes me is that no matter how much as Westerners we hear about developing countries and know that people don’t even have the basic necessities which we take for granted, still you cannot be prepared for the reality of poverty.
Where we have paved streets and complain about potholes, here most of the streets are sand. Watching a car careen down the road is like watching a sled on a snowy day. Only here there is no snow. Not even close. On some days when the temperature hovers at 100 degrees and the sky becomes overcast, you imagine that maybe there could be a thunderstorm, but you also know that it is almost impossible given that during this dry season it simply doesn’t rain. There is trash everywhere. Children with big eyes and shy smiles asking for money. Beggars. People sell stuff on the streets from phone cards to jewelry to grilled meat. Whereas in America we might think of very poor people as relatively rare and living in certain neighborhoods, here in Niamey, this is the normal way of life. I guess you could compare standards here to the poorest of the poor in the U.S., people living on the street. But here there are more merchants walking with goods on their arm or on their head than shopkeepers with storefronts. Squatters live on dirt parcels. Traditional nomadic people find housing in open air tents in the middle of town.
But the difference here is that in spite of their circumstances, everyone has their dignity. It is rare to pass someone who does not smile and say “Bonsoir”, and ask how you are with “ca va”. The people are so friendly and warm that although I am sure I need to watch my purse to guard against the quick hand who would take my money or belongings, you can feel the goodness of the hearts here who are struggling to survive and to make a life for their family in a place where there is no where to turn.
I can only imagine what it must be like in the Azawak where, as Ariane has told us, it is poorer than poor. Here in Niamey, you still have the luxury of turning on a faucet. But in the Azawak there is no water, except for the rare but overcrowed borehole structure, and now the Amman Imman borehole in Tangarwashane. We hope to change that soon by building more borehole structures and faucet systems.
This week, Ariane and Denis are taking care of administrative and logistical preparations so that we can leave for the Azawak on Monday.