Monday, April 9, 2012


The bug that I stepped on 2 hours ago is still writhing around on my bathroom floor. That's one thing you can say about Niger--resiliency. Which is funny because when donors come here, they are obsessed with resiliency. How can we enhance resiliency? How can we ensure we get the most out of the funds we send? Can we make sure we don't have to give these same people money ever again?

Well, that's a nice idea. But do you think 2 goats and 3 months' worth of food are really going to turn someone from rags to riches? Especially when Mother Nature and the Sahara Desert are continually toying with them? Development on the's that been going for the last 50 years?

On a related tangent--We need to put more money into development training schools--not for upper/middle-class kids from the US, but for HCNs (host-country nationals). Not just staff located in capitals, but for the field staff. They are on the ground, implementing the programs, collecting the data, and, ultimately, the ones that will see to the success or failure of the project. But how many times do they get to go to a training in the US? Whether it's the US or Africa, field staff always get taken for granted, whether it's pay, training, or simple appreciation and recognition. Take time to hug a field agent today.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Little Dune the sand

Does anyone remember that song? It takes me back to a time when I wore a green apron and plastic gloves at Schlotzsky's deli...and that delivery car I drove with the giant light-up phone on top. (Ok, so I just had to YouTube Dune Buggy and Peaches--worth it. Take 5 minutes--it's like a time machine.)

Christmas in Niger was good, as far as a Christmas in Niger goes. It's not like you can really replicate Christmas at home, so I think it's best just to celebrate in completely different ways. Like, for example, on Christmas eve, you could try grilled meat, a keg, and dancing; and on Christmas day, jet skis, driving cars on sand dunes, and a hippie picnic as the sun goes down.

Our office has had off all week, which allowed for some wonderful Grand Marche shopping (hello fabric and sunglasses); several trips to, and a fight with, my tailor; a Twilight movie-fest (all 4, one night); and a head cold. I may try to go see a doctor today, mostly because I'm bored, and I think it will be a strange experience (it's sure to be no trip to the Peace Corps doctor Laurent).

Happy New Year! Sannun ku da sabon shekara! And happy anniversary to Judy and Bob!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Snow Flurries

When it's 90 degrees outside, it's kind of hard for a girl born and raised in Wisconsin to get into the Christmas spirit. But I get an A for effort.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Niger, I missed you!

Good morning! Here, it's 8:55 am and where most of the people that will be reading this are, it's probably like 3 am--so, really, good morning.

I really don't have anything profound or pithy to say (then why write a blog, right?). But I've been back in Niger for about 3 months, and it's taken me this long to open up the old blog--basically, I just wanted to 'break the seal' so to speak.

I arrived in Niamey in mid-September and am living not too far from the old Peace Corps hostel. I have a 6-ish month fellowship with an NGO, where I have, so far, been managing a small projects fund for local NGOs, grant- and newsletter-writing, and occasionally translating things into English.

Travel restrictions are a little bit tighter than they were last summer, BUT I did get to stop in my village (MaiLafiya, 10K north of Dakoro) for 10 minutes back in October. I was on a 'mission' with a group of US funders (and an armed escort) to visit an emergency livestock project we implemented in Soli, which is about an hour north of MaiLafiya. The group of funders were kind enough to stop on the return trip, even though we were pressed for time.

But 10 minutes is not a lot of time to greet a whole village, so I jumped out at the Chief's house and greeted his family; meanwhile, the soldiers with us took up positions along the edge of the village (it was kind of surreal and a little goofy). Then I ran around from house to house greeting people. At least three women had had babies within the last week--one had been named already so she had to be at least a week old, but two hadn't so they were probably only a few days old.

I also saw the new grain bank, and it looks great. It also has a great name--Jessica. The Chief told me that more people had planted and purchased improved beans (cowpeas) this year, so that's what they keep in there I guess.

The tricky thing about cowpeas is that they get buggy--totally infested with these little black bugs that chew holes in the beans, which makes them hard to sell and nasty to eat (though people still do eat them). Fortunately, when I got here in September I found out about a new bag 'technology' called SAC PICS. It's basically 3 plastic bags that hermetically seal in the beans and suffocate any bugs or larvae, thereby preserving the quality. Of course I had to buy some.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Big Thank-You!

On behalf of myself, Jennifer Blouin, and, according to the chief of Mai Lafiya, THANK YOU!

We were able to raise over $800 to help support the grain bank. The money has been received and the bank cooperative is in the process of purchasing grain (also potentially considering enlarging the storage facility!).

I will try to figure out a way to get some pictures. :-)

The chief, Ali, has said that this year's harvest was okay, which is good news. By contributing to the grain bank, you have helped enhance an incredibly important community institution that will help buffer the community from future food shortages. (It's also given me greater peace of mind!)

Again, my sincerest thanks.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Request for Help

(The text below is from a letter sent to family and friends, hence some repetitious information. However, the request for help is new--and urgent. Thank you.)

On June 13th, I left New York City for a summer internship in northern Nigeria. I'm working with a project of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, where I'm currently attending grad school--1 year down, 1 year to go!

Since returning from the Peace Corps 5 years ago, I’ve been itching to get back to Africa. The region I’ve been working in since June speaks the same language I learned in Peace Corps—Hausa. The internship has kept me plenty busy (evaluating tree nurseries, surveying nutrition and cooking practices, etc.), but I was able to get 2 weeks off to visit MaiLafiya, the village where I lived in Niger.

Many of you helped fund a village garden, and you’ll be happy to know that the last volunteer there helped them purchase fencing to protect it from animals (photo on my blog). Also, the grain storage bank we started is still in operation—and they expanded it to include millet AND beans!

The importance of a grain bank is that it helps insulate families from drought and famine--families contribute a certain amount of grain after the harvest and store it until the next hungry season. Hungry season is the time period when grain supplies are running low before the new harvest; it's also the time when the market prices for grain are the highest (and least affordable).

Going back was A-MAZ-ING! I surprised everyone when I rode in on a motorcycle on a Tuesday afternoon! (You can read about it in a previous blog post.) They asked me a million questions--how long I'm staying, how my parents are, if I'm married (see, just like Aunt Jeannie and Uncle Milden at Thanksgiving!).

In non-famine years, grain from the bank is sold on the market at the high prices, and the profits are used to buy more grain after the harvest when the market is flooded and prices are low. In famine years, the grain is sold to struggling community members at lower-than-market prices. During my visit, I found out that, since the bank was created, the grain has been sold within the village every single year.

This year, Niger is experiencing an extreme food crisis. The rains last year were bad, and in some places, people literally have nothing to eat. Mai Lafiya is not out of grain yet, but it is running very low. The Chief told me his family has resorted to eating ‘hura’, which is a watery millet drink, for 2 of their 3 meals. I would like to make a ‘deposit’ in the village grain bank—and I’m asking for your help.

A relatively small contribution goes a very long way in Niger—just $50 can buy a sack of grain, like in the picture, which provides about a month of food for a family.

Every size contribution helps because US dollars go so far in Niger. If you are able to contribute at this time, please send a check by Friday, September 17th, made out to ‘Judy Johnston’ (my mother) to:

Judy Johnston, 1301 N. Shawano Dr., Marshfield, WI 54449

My mom will cash the checks, and we will send the money to the Chief via Western Union. If you’d like to read more about my internship experience and visit to MaiLafiya, check out the rest of my blog postings or Picasa photo album: .

Thank you very much for any support—financial or moral—that you can provide!

Trix Are for Kids (and so are trees)


We just got back from tree-surveying. It was a little rough out there! "Damana" (rainy season) is in full effect! We couldn't get to 1 whole cluster because of the seasonal river. And then there was another spot we couldn't get to because we needed to head through a rice paddy. We started to do it, too. I had no idea rice paddies cut up your legs--tiny little cuts, but hella painful.

And they're very swampy--and wet mud is slippery. I fell and drenched my whole right side in sloppy, smelly, mud-water. When I fell, the GPS and the compass were in my right hand, which I used to break my fall. The GPS was strapped to my wrist, but I dropped the compass. So I spent 5 minutes groping around in the muck for it, successfully thank goodness.

As I watched Dauda in front of me, carrying my orange canvass bag full of 'kayan aiki' (measuring tape, data sheets, Android phone, digital camera), I thought it best we turn back, lest he fall, too, and ruin said 'kayan aiki.'

We won't get to all the 64 sites they'd originally wanted me to survey (survey: locate a GPS point, put a stake in the ground, run a 17.84 meter string out in all directions from the stake like the radius of a circle, record names, circumference, and height of all trees within the circle, take pictures North-South-West-East). We ran into some timing issues, i.e. the roads aren't good after is starts to rain; really, they weren't even 'roads' to begin with--only cattle and foot paths, which is why we go out on motorcycles. We lowered it to 53, and now it looks like they'll only get 49.

We have certainly made an effort--in Hausa, you might say sannu da kokari. We PCVs in Niger used to translate that into greetings on your effort--like, someone is surprised to be conversing with an American in Hausa and, to express their appreciation or offer encouragement, they say sannu da kokari. Here, however, my colleagues translate it as 'You're trying,' And it annoys me every time.

I was exploring why this is, and I blame the PIRGs--mostly Stacey Hafner, Mia Scampini, Trevor Kaul, and Jessica Tritsch, who drilled it into my head that "try" is "weak language." A better word for "trying" is "working." Anyway, we're "working" on getting as many plots surveyed as possible. For what purpose? Data collection!!! (JAZZ HANDS)

I love data--without it, you can't possibly know the right direction to choose or strategy to hatch. Plus, you get to create exciting excel sheets. As it has been explained to me, this particular data could be used to establish whether or not there is potential to create some kind of global warming/carbon sink/carbon offset program here, which wouldn't be a bad way to generate some income.

Plus, knowing how many and what types of trees are here now will allow them to evaluate whether or not the forestry resources are improving or degrading in the future (as well as biodiversity). They can use it to estimated the economic value of current forestry resources, and, perhaps people smarter than me can use it to figure out something about the rate of deforestation, erosion, and climatic moisture levels.

Today, one of the staff went out to finish up the household survey we put together about trees--what kinds people find most important, what they use various trees for, which ones aren't around anymore, which kinds people would be most likely to care for if they received them from the village tree nursery, etc. I'm excited to see what it says. I wish I could stick around to work with the tree nursery--I even took one of the "How to Run An Environmental Camp" handbooks from the Maradi hostel. (PS--why didn't we ever do one of those?? They sounded SO fun! Imagine--giving a little Nigerien kid from a village a chance to go to camp.)

There's a ton of untapped potential for environmental ed in the schools here. What do I most remember about elementary school? The science project in 1st grade where we drew a face on a styrofoam cup, filled it with dirt, planted grass seeds, and 'cut' Harry's 'hair' when the grass grew; the year every student from every grade went out to the edge of the playground and planted a pine tree as a wind break; trips to school forest; and of course, the days we'd release helium balloons to see who's balloon traveled the farthest. (I don't really remember WHY we did this, but is was exciting...probably not environmentally friendly, though.)

I don't know if these are the same things other students remember, or if I'm just uniquely predisposed to remember enviro/hands-on stuff, but young kids have a lot of energy, and they need to expend it. Hence, I propose creating a giant militia of tiny tree-planters. I think that would pretty much take care of that silly deforestation/desertification problem.