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Notes from Niger

two e-mails



In my six weeks in Niger, I had half of one Sunday off, wrote no more than two quick emails, and barely took my camera out of its case. I spent four weeks in the city of Maradi, then two weeks based in the town of Mayahi. For five days a small team of local staff and I headed out from Mayahi early in the morning to the villages where the vaccination teams would be working the next day. We chose what school building, or shade tree, to use as a vaccination location, and set up the bright orange webbing that guides the crowds into and back out of the site. After five days, the local team had learned the drill and I stopped going with them. All my pictures are from those five days.




April 3rd, 2009


It's midnight-thirty and I'm under my mosquito night typing by headlamp. There's really very little to tell of my first week here. It's work work work but just office-in-a-city organizational stuff. We have cell phones (although the network is down almost as much as it is up) and internet access (ditto) and running water (ditto again).


If you look beyond the seas of discarded plastic bags that drift and swell along the roadsides, Niger is beautiful desert country. There are camels and palm trees and sand sand sand and men who won't shake your hand because you're a woman, but are pleasant and funny and happy to work with you, as long as you keep your physical distance.


I see glimpses of these things here in Maradi, but am hoping that maybe down the (plastic-bag-lined) road I might get out of the city into the towns and villages.


Gotta get some sleep - - -




April 13th, 2009


It's Sunday afternoon, my second Sunday in Niger. This afternoon we took a day off.


First we slept in and didn't get to the office until 9am, instead of the usual 7:30. Then I wrangled two small generators, three bed frames, and 64,000 doses of meningitis vaccine into two vehicles and sent them off across the desert to our project in a town called Aguié. Next we embarked on a household water storage project wherein we obtained and filled a dozen 25-liter buckets (there was running water again by then; last night and this morning - not so much!) to distribute throughout the house. Our four-bedroom house has four bathrooms, which is pretty luxurious. Although less so when there's no water.


Finally, we went to the pool. Yes indeed! At The Maradi Club, right next to the dilapidated tennis court, with creaky chairs and tipsy umbrellas and really slow waiter service - Pepsi and French fries and goat-meat shishkebabs - there is a rather tepid, rather murky swimming pool. It was awesome!


Now I'm sitting on our back porch, waving away the flies, charging my ipod, and drinking water. I drink a lot of water. A lot. Still, I don't pee much. It's dry here. Really dry. And hot. Sometimes the thermometer on my alarm clock drops below 90°F overnight.


Maradi is a city, population approaching 200,000. Our meningitis vaccination campaign currently involves three different teams working in three districts outside of Maradi. Each of the teams in the field is composed of seven or eight international staff and at least five times that number of local people working with them. The team lives in a town and circles out from there into the villages.


Maradi is supply headquarters for all three teams. Which means that basically what I do is send them stuff: vaccines, icepacks, vegetables, generators, replacement cell phones bought hastily from a ramshackle market stand while the vaccines sit waiting and warming (bad!) in the vehicles, cars (mostly of the beaten-down, patched-together Toyota Landcruiser variety), drivers to go with the cars, barrels of diesel, cartons of syringes.... Stuff. The idea is that everybody plans ahead for what they'll need when. The reality is that a lot of phone calls begin with "Can you get (fill in the blank) to me today, preferably this morning?!"


Maradi is flat and low and dun-colored. They recently installed their first traffic light. What is not pavement is sand. There's not a lot of pavement. There are cars and trucks and donkeys and goats and camels and desert oxen (I don't know what they really are - they're reddish milk-chocolate brown and have high curved horns and like everything here they're scrawny and tough and attached to heavy loads), and men with low turbans wrapped around their heads and faces, and women like ghosts in flowing brown and black and not even their eyes visible, and women with nothing on their heads driving their own motorcycles. Those are the extremes. Most women here cover their heads but not their faces; very few drive their own motorcycles.


We live in a house in the middle of a sandy yard behind a wall. Who "we" is varies a lot from day to day, depending on visits from the field, projects ending, others starting up, etc. On any given day “we” are Belgian; Guinean; Italian; American; French; Rwandan; Armenian; half-Japanese, half-Dutch, London-educated and currently living in Kirghizstan…


Out in the towns, the local staff includes teams of vaccine preparers and vaccinators. Here in the city our local staff is mostly drivers, guardians, and my two assistants - Ibrahim and Moussa. Moussa gets stuck with a lot of running around delivering and picking up stuff. Ibrahim is the guy who makes stuff happen ("Ibrahim, I need a 10-ton truck first thing tomorrow morning") and who tells us how things work and what's going on around us in a language (Hausa) that none of us speak. I can count to ten and say how's the heat treating you and see you later and good morning ...


Speaking of which, it is now Monday morning, 6am. Time to get up, make myself a yummy cup of instant Nescafe, and begin another week...



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Working with MSF / Doctors Without Borders in Niger