Archive for January, 2010

What we send to Africa

January 28, 2010

As mentioned before, there is a good little documentary about used clothing being shipped to Africa. According to it, at the time, used clothing is the biggest export from the US to Africa.  But books to Africa- and presumably to other parts of the global south- is another area that deserves examination.

Apologies to any astronomers reading this, but when Pluto was declared un-planet worthy, one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind was “Africa is going to get a shit load of old astronomy books for kids.”  Why? Because out of the goodness of our hearts we figure, “well, they’ll be happy  grateful for anything.” And (again apologies to astronomers) maybe the inaccuracy of the planetary sciences is not the end of the world (haha, so to speak) here but you have to wonder about some of the stuff that ends up on shelves here.  Those that receive it here are then reluctant to get rid of them.  There are no recycling programs for books here – they tend to burn them for disposal- and understandly, that is more than those who care for them are able to do. One librarian said that “someone took the time to put the words to paper, so that deserves to be kept.” I wanted to mention that they didn’t make the paper and hand print each book! But I appreciate the sentiment.

The result is, however, that shelves are stuffed with copies of such gems are “Canada in 1970” (3 copies), “Being black in corporate America” (in 1972), “Stripetease” (two copies of a biography of a Quebecois stripper circa 1975),and results of confences that took place in Ottawa in 1968, along with biographies of politicians that have no relevance to people’s lives here- mainly French and Qubecois. That being said, we cannot use our criteria for deselection, because truth be told there would be very little left.

I can appreciate that people here find use in things we easily discard- going through my trash is something I should expect. From a library perspective, this hit home when I remember when I was working at a well off suburban library that discarded romance paperbacks if they had a crease in the spine and I visited a St-Petersburg, Russia, public library where novels were held together with electrical tape.  Here, also, everything old is new again.

When items that are no longer useful are shipped across an ocean, it costs a tremendous amount of money, that could have been used to buy new items or local, appropriate items.  And it, agains, puts pressure on the library-keepers here to keep items.  When they have so few resources, they are reluntant to get rid of anything.  My first workshop next week will cover weeding, and I’m interested in finding out how it goes.

I don’t know what the solution is. Nor do I say that everything that is sent is useless. I hope that I can somehow communicate to librarians in the global north what type of donations should be made to people abroad, including that books do indeed have a, shall we say, shelf life.  Other things to do include when collecting donations of books, I think, is to ask: what is needed (subjects, dates, languages)? What is available for purchase locally and is money a better idea? Are there NGOs working in the area that can tell you what is needed?

More to come.



January 18, 2010

Let me jut say a word about meat.. Vegetarians and vegans be warned! And cat lovers. You’ve probably heard or read that if you reduced your consumption of meat, you would save land for growing food for humans. I’m not going to dispute that, I’m not knowledgeable enough to do so and I love a good tofu scramble the next girl. (If you doubt, check out the recipe in “Vegan with a vengance”- I dare you not to love it.) But here, in Niamey at least, meat is everywhere. I think I have already eaten more beef than I would in a year- maybe two- in Vancouver.

That accounts for the animals everywhere: the cows, the sheep, the goats and the chickens. You see the transport of the animals that are going off to the other world everywhere, usually a few of them strapped to the rooves of trucks. “That’s where you’re tasty brochettes come from,” I say to myself. Better than factory farming, at least. I almost got trampled by a whole heard of bulls coming up my street recently, so I figure that all the animals, which roam freely around the city, lead pretty free range lives before it comes to that. (Except the “range” part, of course.)

I didn’t cook much chicken here at first because the only way I had seen to be able to buy it was, let’s just say, *very* fresh. Like alive fresh. Not that I haven’t had offers: at the market a man will hold up a chicken to you, by the legs, and ask you to buy it. The first time I thought the guy was joking in that “let’s watch the white woman’s reaction when I offer her this”… but the second time, I asked the guy “now what do you expect me to do with that?” He replied “No prolbem, I just go down there [he points] and take care of it…” Ug. I gotta say, after you’ve looked that feathery lady in the eye, that’s a difficult prospect. I mean, I had to have my lobsters boiled for me in Newfoundland, for heaven’s sake. I am a wuss.

One morning on my walk to catch a cab to work, I came accross a huge, gigantic, black turkey wandering the neighbourhood. Russ asked, “So he was just wandering around?” “Yup, just wandering around.” “Until somebody gets hungry,” he replied. Too true.

A typical lunchtime meal is rice or couscous with a sauce with hot peppers and meat. I’ve heard different reports about what kind of meat it could be (or more specifically what part of the body it could be), and when you ask, you just get told “meat”. For a while I asked the woman who prepares our meals at work for “without meat”, but that seemed to be mildly offensive, from what I could tell (or perhaps she was just confused.) I could have said I didn’t eat meat, but that also could have meant months of explaining ahead of me. Let’s just say, I can report it is not organ meat,but now I get hassled for my eating of the “piment” (hot peppers), which apparently can afflict one with a whole list of ailments, one of which seems to be unique to “women who sleep alone”, who should not eat the peppers.

I had just missed the “tabaski” celebration when I got here, which (I believe) is a religious celebration that involves the mass slaughter of sheep. It is pretty important, and just to reinforce the importance of the occasion, I still see the billboards that banks have up to take out your “tabaski loan” – loan to buy your last
minute sheep for the occasion. I gather that savvy people like my former neighbour already have their sheep for next year. That’s planning! It does tell me however that meat is not neccessarily a cheap commodity for locals, which might also explain why “brochettes” – sticks with pieces of meat – are so popular, as opposed to having a whole steak.

Although I don’t know if it qualifies as meat (it’s not vegetarian) but crickets are sold by the wheelbarrow full. When I first spotted them out of the corner of my eye, I thought they were toasted shrimp -for reasons that escape me now- but as that thought crossed my mind, I also thought “but where did they get the shrimp… we’re landlocked…?” Then I took a closer look. I’ve since been told that the cricket’s feet and body have different tastes and are sometimes separated. My friend’s girlfriend cooked him some crickets with some hot peppers. Apparently not bad. [Okay! I know photos are in order, I’m working on it.]

I suspect that many other creatures are eaten, including cat, because I’ve seen a basket of a man’s selling meat with a furry tail still hanging over the side. When it comes down to eat, people eat what they can get. But, I won’t be tasting any cat if I can help it, and I’m fortunate that I can make that choice.

On a side note, just to tie many posts together, after I wrote this entry in my notebook, I had a dream that I somehow cornered Barack Obama on a Skytrain platform and practically forced him to come for a meal at some New West dive. He ate the meat but left the fries, and left in a total huff. In my dream, my dad (who I had apparently just also taken to the same dive) told me that I shouldn’t have taken him to such a crumby place. I woke up *really* honestly feeling like I had pissed off the most recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Just all freakin’ weird feeling. Darn those anti-malarials.

Today’s horoscope

January 7, 2010

I happened to spy my horoscope today in the daily newspaper, the pro-government Sahel: “Habillez-vous plus chaudement”. English: “Dress yourself more warmly.”   Granted, when we left the house this morning, the city was just bouncing back from an overnight chill of about 15 degrees C. (it is the desert after all!), but we’ll be able to warm that chill that gets deep into yor bones when it’s going to hit 38 degrees C tomorrow afternoon. (

just a few things

January 2, 2010

Sorry for the long time without a post.  I wrote this a few days ago. Today, at home we have no water, but I have some internet access at a cafe, what a weird world….

I’m writing this on December 27th, so marks one month since I left Canada, and the 28th will mark a month since I arrived.  Made it this long.  Day to day stresses of survival have shifted to work related ones, and of wondering whether there is a purpose to me being here.  Is the project I’m working on going to be worthwhile?  I don’t really know enough yet to know the ansewr to that. My camera isn’t working so until I get that straightened out, you’ll have to bare with me.

I went to a wedding yesterday. Well, sort of.  What we didn’t know was that we had been told to arrive what turned out to be hours after the actual ceremony, which took place at 8 a.m. We arrived late morning, and by then people had been divided into their respective areas: men outside the walls of the house, under their tent, women inside the walls gathered in different areas.  The people getting married were two brothers (two different mothers from a polygamous marriage of my co-worker’s now deceased brother) to two women (one each). Part of one of the family is Tuareg, the ethnicity that hails from the desert part of the country who, I think, are nomadic.  The men are often seen with large head dresses, like turbans, which also includes a loose piece of cloth that covers their face (presumably that came about to block out sand, but that is a presumption.) They would probably remind you more of the middle eastern people than Africans, but given they share a country there is overlap now between their cultures.

I spent a big chunk of time under the tent where some of the women were.  What a hoot.  These women were cheeky, funny, and joking around with each other for the whole time we were there.  One woman would drum with her hands on a large metal pan, like a large (maybe 65 cm in diameter), upside down frying pan without the handle, and some women may sing a little, a traditional song. Sometimes other women come to dance, and some jokingly get up to dance and shake their touches.  At one point, two women got up to do what seemed like a butt wiggle-off, one of them even inserting a pillow into her pants just to compete the other’s voluptuous behind.  It was very funny!  Part of the singing includes the high pitched sound I’ve heard before in Egypt while coming across a wedding, which I don’t know if I can describe.  It’s high pitched, and involves wiggling one’s tongue. There could be a you-tube video somewhere that describes it.

I had a dinner engagement with a friend already planned, but my roommate carried on for the rest of the evening’s events, which included bringing the bride to her new husband’s home. From what I understand, the bride is covered with a sheet and brought to the groom’s home, who is also covered with a sheet.
They are then revealed to each other.  We didn’t know whether it was an arranged marriage or not, but my roommate said the bride didn’t look very happy.  My roommate also noticed it was interesting that the women who were so cheeky and teasing when at the tent in the afternoon were suddenly so formal and quiet during the later portion of the day.

I am sitting here at the Grand Hotel after an afternoon of swimming and some brochettes at sunset.  I’m watching what I thought was a dramatic flock of birds scatter overhead.  Hum, something is funny about those wings?  Oh wait, they’re bats!  Cool. Lots and lots of bats, maybe coming from the bat colony found downtown.  These are the first bats of seen since reading the very neat book called “Dark banquet” which covers vampire bats, bedbugs, and leeches (and the odd other bloodsucking creatures).

|A local jazz band has started playing, they are really good, but have a strange repetoire of songs they sing in heavily accented English (probably having memorized the words by earand with sheet music.)  Probably no one in the band speaks English, but the songs are still recognizable and quite enjoyable.  I personally would not have chosen “Fever” to sing to a crowd of foreigners in a country where everyone gets malaria at least once, but that is still one catchy song. Other songs in their rep include “Blue moon”, “There ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone”, and “Killing me softly”.  That last one especially brought me back to living in Montreal fifteen years ago, when the Fugees had just come out with a remake. It seemed like it played every night at 2.30 a.m. at Vol de Nuit on Prince Arthur street where my roommate and I used to go after a night of studying and writing for closing time beers.  I’m not afraid of having to entertain myself, but I’ve often found that working overseas has lent itself to cyclical boughts of loneliness, even if just lasting a few minutes, and as I sat there listening to their version of the song, for a pang I was struck with how far away in both time and distance sitting on that patio in the middle of the night in Montreal is to where I find myself now. How would my 22-year old self see me now?

As I wait out getting the first bout of malaria, I have to take the required meds, which may temporarily stave off the disease and hopefully also lessen the impact of it when I do get it.  I’ve taken anti-malarials before, for trips to Central America, but I think the meds for Africa are stronger.  I generally have no side effects (yet- liver damage and sun sensitivity are supposed potential issues), but I do have one: really vivid dreams. I had noticed it in Guatemala but not to this degree.  It is difficult to describe. It’s not that the dreams are weird, they are often quite mundane, actually, but so vivid I sometimes have trouble decifering whether it was a dream or not.  The other day I had to ask my roommate “Did we discuss the light in the living room at any point?” No. Hum. Anti-malarials brain (the equivalent of a senior’s moment, I suppose.) An ex-boyfriend I haven’t spoken to in ten years has reared his head three times in dreams – not in a starring role, just a cameo, but why? Why now? It was like he was *really* communicating with me.  In the morning it sometimes take a while to straighten out the images in my head, and assure myself it’s a dream. It’s a little unsettling.  (Not as unsettling as the I dreamed- without anti-malarials- that I was dating Michael Ignatieff and wondered when I awoke: am I? My stepmother tried to convince me I was too good for him, and my father let out a little “ew, yuck” when I suggested it could be worse: it could have been Peter McKay. But I digress.)

So for Christmas I had a surprise invitation to someone’s house for dinner- a Canadian woman who was having family from Quebec.  It was really good and involved singing to Charles Aznavour, which reminded me of C.R.A.Z.Y.  I spent New Year’s Eve with her and her relatives too, which was great. We ushered in midnight under the stars on her patio.

Happy New Year everyone. 2010 finally here, and I’ve been sick of hearing about it since 2003.  Miss you all.