2006.04.22: April 22, 2006: Headlines: COS - Niger: Happiness: South Whidbey Record : Anna Petersons has worked in the small village in the Balleyara area of Niger for the past two years sponsoring garden projects for women and children

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Niger: Peace Corps Niger : The Peace Corps in Niger: 2006.04.22: April 22, 2006: Headlines: COS - Niger: Happiness: South Whidbey Record : Anna Petersons has worked in the small village in the Balleyara area of Niger for the past two years sponsoring garden projects for women and children

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Anna Petersons has worked in the small village in the Balleyara area of Niger for the past two years sponsoring garden projects for women and children

Anna Petersons has worked in the small village in the Balleyara area of Niger for the past two years sponsoring garden projects for women and children

Her duty could have ended after her two-year stay, but she extended because of ďcontagious happinessĒ among the people. "Nigeriens are happy and when I am there I am happy, too,Ē she said. "I donít understand all of the reasons why, and Iím not sure itís a good thing for development, but people in Niger really enjoy their lives, enjoy each otherís company, and spend most of their time feeling good, even though they live in a harsh climate in staggering poverty,Ē she said.

ďI like it. I like the happiness that rubs off on me. I want to figure it out, to be able to capture some of that inside my own heart ó the relaxed soul, the firm belief that everything can and will go wrong, and this is no big deal. Nothing to worry about.Ē


Anna Petersons has worked in the small village in the Balleyara area of Niger for the past two years sponsoring garden projects for women and children

Growing the future of Africa


By Michaela Marx Wheatley

Apr 22 2006

Anna Petersons usually wakes up to the long, wavering sounds of the morning prayer.

Itís about 6 a.m.

There are no walls shutting the sounds out, as her bedroom is the outdoors. She sleeps in front of her primitive hut under a mosquito net.

If the prayer has not made her rise from her bed, made of a frame and a Western style mattress with a Spiderman print, the rooster calls - echoing through town soon after - will do the trick.

As the village awakes, the townís women start the morning fires, smoke fills the air and Petersons gets up and prepares for a day at work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa.

Petersons, who grew up on Whidbey Island, has worked in the small village in the Balleyara area for the past two years sponsoring garden projects for women and children, learning how to install and repair hand and foot pumps in wells, and planted, cultivated and harvested her test plots of millet, peanuts and beans.

She taught village children and was taught by them. She also learned how to negotiate with village chiefs and resolve disputes among village women over garden plots.

She also gave presentations to county officials, found funding for projects, and bargained for everything she needed - all in Zarma, the local language.

Now, Petersons is back in Langley for a month-long visit before returning to Niger and her new village, Sadore, which is near the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics station where she will work during her third year with Peace Corps.

Her duty could have ended after her two-year stay, but she extended because of "contagious happiness" among the people.

"Nigeriens are happy and when I am there I am happy, too," she said.

"I donít understand all of the reasons why, and Iím not sure itís a good thing for development, but people in Niger really enjoy their lives, enjoy each otherís company, and spend most of their time feeling good, even though they live in a harsh climate in staggering poverty," she said.

"I like it. I like the happiness that rubs off on me. I want to figure it out, to be able to capture some of that inside my own heart - the relaxed soul, the firm belief that everything can and will go wrong, and this is no big deal. Nothing to worry about."

People donít get hung up on petty things because they face unimaginable challenges on a daily basis. Itís part of life.

"When people speak about the future they always say. ĎIf Allah wills it,í" Petersons said.

Niger is one of the hottest, driest and poorest countries in the world. Living under these conditions has changed Petersonsí life in many ways.

She went to Niger with an idea of what to expect, but Petersons was surprised about what she found.

She knew the country was predominantly Moslem. She expected a culture that was restricting to women, but she found a different reality.

Especially in her first village, she lived in a strongly matriarchal society, Petersons said.

"Women had lots of power. I came in with the view of hard-working, oppressed women, but found strong independent women."

Men donít interfere much in womenís business. However, women and men live very different, very separate lives, she said.

"The Nigerien people really opened my eyes how welcoming Islam is and how extreme the American view of it is," she said.

The people in her village focus on the study of the Koran, not political or religious leadership, Petersons said.

Petersons is the only Peace Corps volunteer in the village.

She was welcomed with open arms by the locals. She brought skill and knowledge from America, but in return she learned agriculture techniques and wisdom from the natives.

These lessons often came from the least expected sources.

Haouna is a 10-year-old girl who became Petersonsí guide when she arrived in Niger.

"She became my role model," she said.

Haouna looked out for Petersons, made sure that she would use appropriate etiquette when visiting in town, and made sure that villagers didnít teach Petersons wrong customs or bad vocabulary for a giggle.

"Subtle or not so subtle, she (Haouna) showed me the right behavior," she said.

"People are very polite. They wonít say anything to your face, but they will remember for years to come and theyíll speak about the white person who didnít know nothing," Petersons laughed. Haouna saved her from that fate.

Over time, Petersons turned from being the white newcomer to being part of the village. In her first village, she was attached to the chiefís household.

She often shared meals with the family.

"Nigeriens are very welcoming about food," she said. People like to share their meals with guests.

Petersons has a propane stove in her house, just in case that she craves Western foods, but usually she eats with local families.

In her new village she lives near the chiefís wifeís house.

"She keeps an eye out for me," Petersons said. But she is not the only one.

The Nigeriens open their homes to Petersons, because it is an appalling thought to them that somebody would want to live all alone, away from family in a strange village.

"They take us in, because it is a horrible thought to them to be there alone. You need brothers to fix things, a father for advice and you need little kids to run errands," she said.

She has planned her return to Niger for the start of the rain season. Itís a special time.

"The land is mostly pale brown. Sand and dust. There is very little color until rain season," she said.

"After the rain the air is so clear and it smells so good," Petersons said in anticipation.

The arrival of the rain is also special day to locals.

"The day after the rain, kids put on their best clothes and jewelry," she said. "Then theyíll go out and plant," she said.

Petersons decided to join the Peace Corps after college because she wanted to learn agricultural methods with simpler means and under tougher conditions.

She has exceeded that goal and added many priceless cultural experiences - thanks to her many local friends who gladly share their lives and thoughts.

Petersons lives near three brothers. One is the local prayer caller, Ibrahim; one is a capitalist at heart, Iska; and the third, Petersons calls him the brother of sorrow, is a convinced pessimist. His name is Ahia.

The three men, raised in the same village, are a good example how differently life shapes people.

When she first encountered the pessimist, she wondered why he was so grumpy and unhappy.

"He is always sick, he doesnít seem to like his wife, he doesnít like his kids and you often find him sleeping in a tree," she said.

Then she learned from his wife that they had eight children, but only four lived. The oldest living son is under the age of 4. That means the oldest living heir is still in the risky age, as many children die between the ages of 3 to 5.

"This might be his last baby," she said. Not having a son is a devastating thought, she added.

"You live on through your family. No wonder he is so unpleasant."

The spiritual brother couldnít be more different. He is the man who sings the morning prayers - the first voice Petersons hears in the morning. He has eight living children, just about the norm; the average number of children born to local women is 8.5.

Even though his wife recently died in childbirth, his future is secure.

"He has less to worry about. He is happy, kind and generous," she said.

Understanding these dynamics are important when doing any kind of development work.

"A lot of people seem to think that population control is the best for the development of the country, but family, children are important to people," Petersons said.

The capitalist brother, a business man, is always scheming about ways to make money.

"Heís always got a plot," Petersons said. He tried to talk her into investing money to help buy cows, for example. He explained how her $100 investment would multiply itself as he bought and sold more cows, and then a cart, and so on.

"I donít know why Iska is the way he is. Each of these three brothers came from the same family, but their personalities, their attitudes towards life, have made their lives very different," she said.

Ahiya, the brother of sorrow, has a cement well and a nice garden, but he is still dirt poor because heís too sick or too depressed to work most of the time, she said.

"Ibrahim is very knowledgeable about gardening, but his garden is small and modest; any guest who visits him leaves with a bundle of cassava roots from his little plot. He could expand his garden, but heíd rather spend time reading the Koran or hanging out with the guys at the mosque, talking over the town news and offering people advice," she said.

Iska also has a garden. He just rebuilt it this year with his nephew.

"The plan was that they would make the fence together, dig the wells together, and then each man would take half the garden to plant whatever: cassava, onions, henna, lettuce, etc."

"Abdou, the nephew, planted his patch as soon as the wells were dug, and every afternoon, Iíd see him watering, weeding, transplanting onion starts. When I left, Iska still hadnít planted his half," she said.

"Iska always has big plans, schemes and theories, and only about 10 percent of them pan out. Thatís enough, though, to make him wealthier than most family heads."

Thatís the way life is approached in Niger. Petersons cherishes these experiences.

The Peace Corps, seeking to promote world peace and friendship, has three goals:

- To help the peoples of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers.

- To promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served.

- To strengthen U.S. understanding of the world and its people - to bring the world back home.

Petersons, will share pictures and stories of her work creating sustainable gardens in the village of Hollabella from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 26 in the Bayview Cash Store Front Room.

Petersonsí presentation is aimed at the third goal of bringing the world back home.

She is looking forward to seeing many of her friends again who helped send her off two years ago with a rousing march through Langley on a cold winter day in January 2004. She also invites any returned Peace Corps volunteers to join her in describing the Peace Corps experience.

© Copyright 2006 South Whidbey Record





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Story Source: South Whidbey Record

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