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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Whose Reality Is Real?

Africa, Niger


I live in a village in Niger, in West Africa. Often when people think of Africa they think of exotic images they've seen in photographs and amazing tales they've read about in books. However, living in a small West African village as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I find that my daily life in Niger is the reality while life in the U.S. is just a dream. It is just too far away and too alien to me now. Let me explain.

Each morning at dawn, I rise, dress, and walk 20 feet across my walled in yard, called a concession, to my horse, Noel, where I feed him and muck his manure out. Then, I put away my bed and bedding. You see, while I have a small mud hut, it's too hot to sleep in it, so I sleep outside much of the time. With the concession tidy, I go out into the village to buy my breakfast and greet people. After breakfast, I saddle up and exercise my horse. Once I get back from exercising Noel, it is time to start my farm work for the day.

Morning is the time that I do the heaviest labor; it is still relatively cool—110 degrees Fahrenheit (keep in mind that I live just south of the Sahara in the region of Africa called the Sahel). So, if there's fieldwork to be done, I do it early.

My work in the village varies, because work is done according to the seasons. For example, in the hot season, the villagers are busy preparing their fields and planting seeds in anticipation of the coming rains. During the rainy season, the villagers busy themselves with cultivating weeds and grasses and harvesting millet, beans, sorghum and peanuts from the fields. Then, after the rainy season is over, the weeds are cut and stored as hay, and the tall grasses from the edges of fields are woven into fences for use in the concessions or as bins to store millet, a kind of grain. In the cold season, gardens are watered or houses are built, repaired, or "re-mudded." Then there are some things that never change, like pounding millet or going to the market.

Once I finish my morning work, I return to my house and cook lunch—visiting with whoever drops by while I'm cooking. This is the time I laugh the most and eat the best because I have the time to cook my food. I don't cook my food over an open fire, as many villagers do, because I have a gas stove. In the evenings, I'm usually busy with chores; thus, I don't start cooking until after dark, which means I make something quick but not always good.

After lunch, I go to my friend Howa-o's house. For the past year, I have been apprenticing with Howa-o, a traditional potter in my village. There I prep my work site and sit down to work pottery with Howa-o. I do this every afternoon as part of my routine. It's technically not work, but rather something I do for pleasure. It also seems that the villagers enjoy watching me learn how to make pottery in their traditional style.

After spending all afternoon making three to five pots (because I'm not too fast), I begin my evening chores. I feed Noel and clean up his manure again, water the plants in my house, spend time visiting with friends and neighbors in the village, and, if I'm lucky, I make supper before taking a bucket bath. Finally, after I have eaten and bathed, it's well after dark and people start coming by to socialize. This is my time to sit down and chat with friends and neighbors, whereas during the day I can visit with them only while I'm on the go. Sometimes I'll spend the evening recording events in my journal or writing a letter, but mostly it's a time to visit and socialize.

When I think about my life here versus how I lived in the U.S., I wonder, which reality is real? I've gotten so used to a very different set of sights, sounds, and smells that I'm a part of them now. Many times I feel this is all I know and I'll even forget that I'm white because I never see myself. It seems like a dream to go back to the U.S. and see four-lane highways, when seeing a herd of camels grazing across the landscape seems perfectly ordinary to me. 

About the Author

Jess Wysopal

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger from 2001-2003, Jess Wysopal worked on projects involving agriculture and livestock.

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