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Recollections from our Tour Diaries:

Niamey, Niger, November 12, 2004

The first two days here have been a real eye-opener.  We arrived at about 6:00 AM yesterday morning and went to our "hotel" which is actually a residence owned by Natalie, a French Canadian woman of Asiatic descent.  We are comfortable as it is reasonably clean.  The shower has one faucet and the water is neither hot nor cold.  We are covered by mosquito netting and while there seem to be some in the rooms, they don't appear to bite. We have air conditioning but it is not really the hot, hot season so we use it intermittently.  In the mornings and evenings it is quite nice--like Arizona in the summer!  We've had three meals down the road and it has been good--mostly chicken and couscous or rice.
John has been incredible--a fact noted by Eileen.  While most kids would have freaked at the conditions here (more on that soon), John simply said, "This is going to be a great trip!"  He has written extensively in his journal every day, and I think you'll be receiving a copy of that soon.
We've been quite wiped out by the heat and travel--no sickness yet.  We've taken numerous naps and are drinking a lot of bottled water.
Today was our first real Troubador day, and it exceeded all expectations.  We met the three musicians with whom we'll collaborate over the next two weeks, and they are wonderful.  They are all in their 20's and are primarily rap musicians.  They like that medium because they can communicate to the young effectively about their lives, political repression, severe economic conditions, etc.  They are particularly blown away by the fiddle, which they’ve never seen, and are intrigued by the harmonica.  They were under the impression that our mission was primarily AIDS education, and when we told them we were open to broadening that significantly, they were delighted.
John took some great footage of the preliminary discussion and meeting during which we discussed what we wanted to accomplish and how we'd go about it. We agreed that the most important objective was showing our audiences in both Niger and the U.S. that despite race, religion, education, social status, etc. people have a lot in common.  Our music will be the vehicle for doing so.  We also want to show Nigeriens that there is a different side to America than the one they follow in the news, and our new friends want Americans to know and understand them, as well.
We learned about six songs today.  Half of them are original collaborations that include singing, instrumentation and a lot of rap in both French and a local dialect.  It's going to be both wild and excellent from musical and social perspectives.  It was a great day, and John recorded and filmed it all.  The plan is to practice for several days then take it on the road.  The current idea is to stay in Niamey and the environs, but one of our colleagues, Saiid, thinks that to really see Niger we need to push into the interior.  We'll see what the time and budget will bear.
Niamey looks more like a village than a city.  Breathing is difficult due to a haze created by diesel fuel, sand, and coal fires. Poverty is everywhere as this is the second poorest country in the world.  One in three or four children die before the age of five, and the life expectancy is about 45.  It is quite safe, though, and we are told there is virtually no theft--probably due to the religion.  We have arrived at the end of Ramadan, a month-long religious holiday during which everyone fasts daily until evening.  It is also the Presidential elections--the current president is scheduled to win for, as Saiid, says, he is putting on the election....
We met a group of Canadian journalists last night and hope to see more of them.  We also had a good meeting in Paris with the persons responsible for cultural programs in Africa.  They are delighted with the "Troubador" philosophy and have forwarded our invitation to play for the American delegation here.  We hope to meet up with them soon.  The Paris contacts also have some money available for future trips.
Oumar, director of our sponsoring organization, the Centre Afrika Obota (CAO), is a very good guy and has been helpful, thus far.  We met with the rest of the local organization, as well, today.  They are a grass-roots organization that promotes democracy and has bases in several West –African countries.
That's it for now.  In short, we've had a great start to the trip, everyone is happy and healthy, and it appears that we will exceed our expectations for fulfilling the mission.

Niamey, November 14, 2004

The trip is proving to be even better than we had hoped.  This is a fascinating, very religious and very poor country.  Our musicians and driver disappear to pray numerous times each day, and we continue to learn about the culture and music.

The musical collaboration is fascinating and unique:  me, a traditional musician with rock background; Eileen, classically trained, traditional dabbler and interested in jazz; Saiid, a reggae background (but that doesn't cover it); Koye, a rapper in the Franco-American style; and Ibarahim, a rapper in the voodoo style--if you'll allow me some license.  The resulting music is unique, to say the least!

We visited the Che Guevara Radio station where, it turns out, the French Canadian journalists work.  Louis wanted to go to a war zone like the Sudan, but realized that he did not have enough understanding of African culture, so he came to Niger to apprentice.  Leonine is making a documentary on Ramadan, and Chantal is doing a web site for the radio station. Jenny, who was on our flight, is studying medicine and came to stay with Louis in order to do volunteer maternity work at the hospital.

They introduced us to Rakia, the "Shirley Littlefield" of our neighborhood and we were invited there to celebrate Ramadan.  All the women stayed up the night preparing the feast for the final day, and everyone was decked out in beautiful clothing.  Rakia moved the house mats out into the courtyard and we feasted, eating only with our right hands.  We had delicious bread, pheasant, and beans/veggies in a brown sauce.  Then we played music.

By the time we'd done a couple songs, the entire neighborhood had crowded in and were clapping, singing and laughing.  I told the story of "La Bastringue" about the old fellow who wants to dance with the young girl and then poops out--and the crowd laughed and laughed.  When we actually sang it, and Louis and Jenny danced the tradition Bastringue dance, the crowd went wild!  The children are beautiful here, and we have some wonderful photos and memories.

We had spent the previous evening at a club on a rooftop where the house band was very hot.  Eileen and I sat in with them and they kept calling her back to improvise on jazz numbers.  Nigerien television filmed some and they want to interview us.  We were invited to the guitarist's house for yet another Ramadan feast and learned the proper way to eat:

1)  Wash hands;

2)  Everyone sits on floor;

3)  With right hand only, make a ball of the rice/couscous meat combo by squishing it up in your hand (stay in your general area on the platter, and DO NOT walk over any dishes that may be on the floor, because if you do, they won't eat out of them);

4)  Bring ball to mouth, palm up, while positioning thumb behind it;

5)  Use thumb to push into mouth;

6)  Better to drink before and after the meal because it is impolite to use left hand for anything, even passing your glass, and right hand is full of food juice.

We had a good meeting yesterday with Oumar who is our CAO contact.  We reviewed the budget and program (taking a firm stand on the former).  Both are coming together very nicely, and Eileen is pleased. Starting tomorrow we have a pretty full schedule.  We practice every day and hope to nail another three original songs today.

John has become a minor celebrity in town because of his portable recording studio.  Musicians are seeking him out everywhere to get recorded because none of this equipment is available here.  Yesterday, a wonderful man named Moussa Toukou showed up.  He has won the Nigerien guitar and vocal contest eight years in a row.  As Saiid put it: "This is a Nigerien blues man who has no feet [crippled from polio].  He is courageous and has spent fifteen years doing nothing but music in a country where music does not feed you." 

John, known locally as "John Gee" for some reason, plans to record him and several others.  John is able to make a high-quality recording on his 8-track board and burn them a CD of it.  It is their opportunity to be heard for the first time outside of their region and country and reminds me very much of the pioneer work done by John and Alan Lomax in the U.S.

The poverty is overwhelming, at times.  Since the government privatized water, there is almost none available in some neighborhoods.  The only time it runs in Saiid's neighborhood, one of the poorest, is between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning.  Up to 200 women line up to get some at the local pump, and sometimes it does not come.

The French, apparently, are still milking the country.  The only export here is uranium (third largest producer in the world), and the French control it.  It is an interesting contrast to Central Asia where the Russians invested in the infrastructure vs. here where the French did not.  CA has a 94% literacy rate, and here it may be 4%.  No medical coverage either, so if you can't pay you are in trouble. The French built 11,000 kilometers of roads in their colonies but only 14 of them are here.

A Ramadan tradition is that each unmarried man must provide a brick of sugar to his sweetheart's family.  If he doesn't, the courtship cannot go forward.  It's a bit of a test to see how he will provide once they are married.  Since the election is Tuesday, the government is passing out sugar for votes.  The President has announced that he will not leave office, even if he loses the popular vote....

We went to the big market where I bought some flip flops and a Nigerien hat.  Bargaining is a way of life and the whole scene reminded me of souks in Morocco and elsewhere.

John, fifteen, is loving the trip and is a terrific travel companion.  He's taking lots of pictures and video, writing in his journal every day, eats everything (being careful, of course), never complains, and records everything, even in clubs.

At night the scene is surreal and desolate.  Because of the dust/pollution, you can only see a couple hundred yards ahead.  John wants to begin the movie with the band emerging from the apt metaphor.

Niamey, Niger, November 16, 2004

After a week in one of the world’s poorest countries, we are getting used to some things that no one should experience.  As one walks or rides, the sickly stench of human excrement wafts in and out of one’s consciousness.  The heat accentuates the impact of open dumps that are omnipresent.  Poverty is visible through disease and hunger.   The overall impression is one of a war zone. 

Once off the main drags, the dirt roads are navigable only in first gear.  Square and round huts are intermingled with cinder-block construction.  Each block features its open dump that is being scavenged by sheep and the occasional child.  Open fires everywhere lend to the haze especially apparent at night.

The minor inconveniences seem hardly worth mentioning.  The flies are everywhere but don’t seem to bother us.  We take our malaria pills every day and don’t worry too much about the mosquitoes.  Our bed and breakfast rooms haven’t been cleaned since we arrived nor, apparently, before we got there.  Water is available occasionally and then only in dribbles.  The bottled water we drink it always warm if not hot—we had some that had been in the freezer for a couple hours yesterday, and it was wonderful! 

We do have a fan and air conditioning, however, and sleep under mosquito netting.  Breakfast is served every morning, and most days we have a practice here.  Chez Tatayi has become our home, and the several Nigeriens who manage it are gracious and have become friends. 

Life feels safe, too, despite the desperate need.  Saiid says that a Nigerien who steals is one who hasn’t eaten in many days.  Beggars are neither aggressive nor insistent.  We learned about hotel security when we came back from the rooftop club at 2:30 AM—the person responsible for it was sleeping in front of the main door.

The night before last, we were invited to play music for Peace Corps volunteers at their hostel near the Canadian Embassy.  They were a lively group of young people doing wonderful work.  We thanked them for being such good American ambassadors and had a great evening playing music.  A couple of them joined in on guitar and vocals.  It was also a good opportunity for our band members to shed their nervousness—especially in front of an all-white audience.

After the gig, Jeff Olson, who was in charge, invited us to visit his village, Ouallam, where they are doing, among other things a series on AIDS education.  Jeff said that if we came it would be something that the villagers would remember their entire lives.  He gave US 30,000 francs ($60) to make the 100-kilometer trip to the north in the van that first horrified us and has is now viewed as very functional, if not comfortable.  We will head there on the 23rd after doing a gig in Niamey that morning. 

After the Ouallam performance, we will head to a neighboring village, then return to spend the night at the Peace Corps hostel.  The following day, our last, we hope to visit the villages of Tolkobeye and Simiri on the way back to Niamey.  It turns out that Simiri is band member Koye’s native village, and he was very pleased that we will be performing there.

The program is filling out nicely with at least two performances per day for the rest of the trip—mostly at schools.  Our only day off is today, Election Day, and we have scheduled a practice.  We are also scheduling musicians to be recorded at the “John Gee International” portable recording studio.

Yesterday, we met in the morning with Sita Chakaraty, the Public Affairs Officer at the American Embassy.  She had heard of Project Troubador from Stuart Leigh with whom she met in August and was delighted we were in town.  She had also heard of Old Grey Goose from Angier Peavey whom we met in Paris last week.  Sita was delighted to hear that we had played for (and with) her old friend Conrad Turner in Kyrgyzstan.

We told her we were available for some gigs, and she wants to organize at least two: one in collaboration with the Franco-Nigerian Center that will be held at the American Cultural Center and another at a large sports stadium (“My first stadium gig,” sighs Earlene) where we will play with another local group during intermission.

Sita said that from her point of view what we are doing is especially significant in that it was not the U.S. Embassy that brought us here, but rather Project Troubador.  She feels the message will be all the more powerful because of that. We asked Sita if there were any resources (van, gas money, etc.) available to help us get to more villages.  She said she would try to get us an honorarium for the stadium gig and that we could have the door money for the other.

After our daily rehearsal, we piled into the van to head for our first school performance.  The only problem was that there was no one there when we arrived!  It turns out something happened at the school that day, the teachers went on strike, and by the time we arrived it was deserted save for some beautiful peacocks (?) roaming the yard.  At that point, Saiid had a great idea that saved the day and proved inspirational to us all.

We headed through the now familiar, funky back roads to the local orphanage.  Unannounced, we presented ourselves and asked if we could play.  Once the gates opened, we found ourselves in paradise: Trees, greenery, happy, well-dressed children living in family-style, clean housing, with one house mother for each 10-12 children.  We saw smiles, children at play, doing their own laundry, and watching after the little ones.

It turns out that this is part of an international, private foundation started by the Germans.  It is called SOS Kinderdorf International and has, perhaps 100 branches throughout the world.  They take in, after careful screening, children who are orphans or whose parents simply can’t support them.  They live in a family environment, maintain contact with the extended biological family, prepare individual education and social development plans, and eventually reintegrate the children into society.  It was incredible.  It was as if these children had been snatched from certain doom and given another chance at life.

The gig, too, was wonderful, and the children were very excited to have visitors.  Some recognized Saiid from when he had been on TV, and the guys began by getting all the children singing.  It was interesting that when I spoke in French, Ibarahim had to translate into Hausa for many of the children.  After we played a few songs, they performed for us, and before long it was a free-for-all with everyone singing and dancing and laughing crowded together on the floor.  Earl had to stop playing because her fiddle bow was clunking kids in the head.  It was a great way to end the day, and we made our way home as the light faded on one of the few oases in Niamey—outside of the lush Embassy compounds.

Election Day:  We don’t know what to expect today although we plan to stay close to home.  The current President, who has reported he will not be leaving office no matter what, is apparently a cut above previous leaders here.  There is, nevertheless, the usual corruption associated with emerging democracies.  His is a five-year term, which is up for renewal.  Evidently, his backers during the last election were paid off for their support in a grand way: they were given the rights to Niger’s most precious resource—not uranium, but water.  Water used to be nationalized, and it is now privatized.  The result is that it is not available in the poorer neighborhoods, and it is very expensive.

One of the songs we sing is about water, and the kids in the orphanage all sang along.  It is called:  “Amane Imane” (Water is Life.)  The chorus is (phonetically): “Away done cool-ison” (or “Everyone knows it.”)

Other songs we do, some traditional, but mostly original, include: “SIDA” (AIDS); “Droit de L’homme” (Rights of Man); “Common Destiny”; “Bakan Dala Si” (Even Without Money); “Pourquoi?” (Why?); “Let’s Think a Moment”; and “Fou Koye” (The Proprietor of the House).

“John Gee’s” fame continues to grow among local musicians and was enhanced when he was presented the only metronome in Niger—broken.  He had it operational in fewer than three minutes and took it home where permanent repairs could be made before returning to its owner the following day.  His nom de plume is now regularly heard in local rap songs….

Niamey, Nov. 18, 2004

Election Day

The stories are numerous--and mostly come to us from the Canadian journalists who spent the night going from polling station to polling station.

The way it works here is that there are two rounds to the election.  After the first round, the two candidates that receive the most votes have a run-off in a subsequent vote.  It’s actually a pretty good system, since it allows people to vote their conscience (a Ralph Nader, for ex.) on the first round and, as they do in France, their pocketbooks on the second.

Due, I assume to the low literacy rate, each eligible voter is presented, in advance, with pictures of the six candidates.  When they go into the polling station they choose the picture of the candidate they want and put it in an envelope.  Then the fun begins.

Upon leaving the polling station, the President’s party greets each voter with 10,000 ($20) franc bills in hand. If you can produce the photos of the five opposition candidates (in other words, if you voted for the President) they trade your cards for the $20. 

The opposition cannot afford such luxuries, but they have come up with some shenanigans of their own.  For example, they have gone to villages and told the people that they should keep the President’s card in their homes because when he wins he will come to each village and give presents to those who have his card.

Political parties also rent large trucks and send people to their native villages where they can pick up their cards and return to Niamey to vote.

There are other stories of village chiefs who arrive in town by camel with the cards for their entire village, which they quickly trade for the easy cash.

Long story short:  It looks like the President is going to declare victory on round one (he needs 51% of the vote to do so) rather than bother with a second round.

John Gee

John has a new routine for filming and recording now.  He sets up on top of the van with video and recording equipment.  We try to pull into a shady area where he can see both the musicians and the faces of the crowds.  It is working well.

JG also continues to build his reputation as the MacGyver of the band.  We realized the instruments were getting very dry in this arid climate and were worried about them cracking.  John devised humidifiers for me and Eileen by punching holes in pill boxes, filling them with moist tissue (we are looking for a sponge) and hanging them from the strings, (when not in use) so as to humidify the interior of the guitar and fiddle.

My tuner came apart, and we lost the screw.  No problem.  Before I next needed it, I noticed it was repaired via paper clip.

We have nicknamed our “voodoo” rapper: the “Babe Magnet” because of the impression he makes on the young ladies.  John, too, makes quite the impression and we often hear giggling girls call out: “John, Cherie!”

We have scheduled a recording session for both us and the bluesman for Saturday morning.  The acoustics won’t be everything but it will be fine for John Gee’s portable studio.

Carry-on Baggage

One of the big jokes of these trips has been that ever since I invested in a guitar case that could withstand being run over by a Mack Truck, I have never had to put in under the plane.  People see this beautiful white case and just assume it merits a spot in the cabin.  Known as the “Devastator” it is a dangerous article to carry carelessly as it has been know to punch holes in sheetrock and chip Ambassadors’ pianos.

But the Devastator was one-upped on this trip:  as we changed planes in Casablanca, Morocco, we saw what looked like some of the Saudi Royal Family boarding a plane.  One of them had a unique piece of carry-on baggage perched on his arm: a hooded hunting falcon.  I wonder what Homeland Security would make of that!

Food & Water

Our breakfasts are always interesting and always good.  We’ve had fried rice cakes, French toast, eggs, a variety of fruit, Nescafe, bread and butter.  For lunch and dinner we have a choice of meats: lamb, chicken, steak, sausage, tongue, liver, cow’s feet and fish; and a choice of pasta, rice or couscous.  We’re becoming a bit more adventurous now that our stomachs have survived for a full week with no ill effects.

One of the drinks we tried last night was particularly interesting: ginger juice.  It is a traditional drink made by peeling huge quantities of ginger root, grating it, pounding it and, I assume, adding water and sugar, then letting it sit.  It has a unique spicy-sweet taste and has caused no ill effects.

There are two kinds of beer, here: Biere Niger and Flag.  I tried the latter for the first time last night and prefer it to the former.  And, we must admit, we’ve had Fanta Orange and Coca-Cola.  It is fascinating and, perhaps, sad that Coke has significant market-share even in the poorest countries in the world.

The Canadians drink the water here, but we still don’t.  We have caved, however, and had the occasional ice cube in our drinks since cool water is unavailable.  We know, however, not to even let the water touch our lips once we get into the villages. (Don’t worry!)

As mentioned previously, one of the songs we sing is “Amane Imane.”  It means: “Water is life.”  Did I mention that the organization that privatized water made a mistake and messed up the chemical mixture permanently impairing 600 children?  They will not take responsibility, and the rap portion of this song addresses that issue.


We have been playing twice a day at schools and played a third time yesterday at a basketball game.  The school gigs are great—some schools appear more prosperous than others, but all the kids are very appreciative of the music and our message: that despite differences in color, religion, and ethnic background, we are one people and that it is our hope to demonstrate that through musical performance to the Nigeriens and through performance and video to the Americans upon our return.

The kids tend to crowd in little by little until we are one—pretty good symbolism.  Their smiles, giggles, and enthusiasm are wonderful.

The stadium scene was pretty wild: two teams from Niger played on a concrete floor in an outdoor setting, and they were quite good. One American from Georgetown University played for each team, and they were treated like heroes during and after the game.  We saw Sita Chakrawarti, the American PAO (Public Affairs Officer) there and met Jonathan Edwards the DCM (Deputy Chief of Mission).  We are scheduled to do two more gigs the Americans have arranged:  one which will be as much a conversation as a performance at the American Cultural Center and another that will be at the Franco-Nigerien Center.  Sita plans to sing a couple of songs with us at the latter.

One more week, and then we’re home.  We can’t remember what hot water  feels like to bathe in and what cold water feels like to drink!

Niamey, Nov. 20, 2004

We have had a great two days in Niamey playing and recording music, including playing at three schools.  One was especially fun because it was indoors instead of on the playground.  When we’re outside, John Gee Productions sets up on top of the van with video and recording equipment, often stringing a mike to a neighboring tree.

For this gig he was able to set up in a classroom, and we had a great conversation with the kids about our program and goals.  Earl had a good idea about including a “question and answer” portion to our performances so as to be better able to address perceptions and misperceptions.

The other day, for example, when we told someone from the ministry of education that we were Americans, he replied, “Oh, Iraqi killers.”  This kind of greeting has been the exception rather than the rule, however, and people have been incredibly receptive and responsive to our message of unity, harmony and peace.

Ever since Ibarahim, our Djerma (local dialect) rapper, saw our Canadian friends dance La Bastringue, he can’t help himself.  He jumps up, grabs a partner, and the place goes wild as he enthusiastically hooks elbows and twirls.  It is especially fun to see him in action at the school gigs.

We ate, the other night, with the band, driver (Hama) and Canadians at a wonderful rooftop restaurant.  While waiting for the food (John and I had rabbit and fried bananas, Earlene had chicken) Louis taught us a game that came from Canada and was translated into Hausa (another of the several local languages).  It involves two teams, one on each side of the table.  One team passes a coin back and forth under the table.  At a given moment, the captain of the opposing team calls for everyone to put their hand on the table, thumbs up (one person has the coin).  Then, at another call, everyone has to flatten their hands on the table and the other team guesses, by elimination, who has the coin.  If you eliminate everyone who doesn’t have it and get down to the final hand that is covering the coin, you win.  The winning team gets to pinch, pound, or gently touch the person opposite.  Hint if you play this game:  listen for the coin hitting the table when the opposition goes from thumbs-up to hands flat on the table.

After our school gig yesterday we went to the Centre Afrika Obota, the NGO with whom we are working and with whom Louise and Earlene worked with in Cameroon and Benin.  We opened the gates and did a concert for the neighborhood.  The kids were incredibly cute and loved the music.  It was interesting to note that they didn’t understand French when we spoke, and one of the guys had to translate.  It turns out that children don’t start school here until they are eight years old and then only go until they are fourteen unless they have the money or a scholarship to continue.

Today was a tremendous day for us.  John Gee Portable Studios recorded the “bluesman” Moussa Toukou.  Moussa had polio as a child, as did many who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, including Koye from our band.  They simply did not have vaccination programs then, although Koye says they do now.  The Germans have helped a lot by providing cripples with bicycles that can be peddled by hand.

Moussa was influenced by a Mali musician named Ali Farka Toure who is evidently known abroad.  He has wanted to record for fifteen years and was never able to afford it.  His family discouraged his music because he couldn’t make a living with it, but he kept going all this time.

We gave him a new set of strings for the Yamaha guitar he has had for ten years, and he laid down eleven tracks with only one retake.  We were completely blown away by his skill and grace and by the beauty of his music.  He plays a two-finger picking style on a left-handed guitar.  We not only recorded it but also made a video of the entire session.  We hope to present him his “album” before leaving the country and will send him the movie upon our return to the U.S.  Band member Saiid says we could not have had a greater impact on Moussa’s life or on the future of Nigerien music—which felt pretty good.  “Vous l’avez soignée,” (You healed him) said Saiid.

After lunch we, too, went into recording mode and recorded six of the original songs we have put together over the past week.

It was a very good session, and John Gee did a terrific job.

From the recording session we headed to the Franco-Nigerien Center where Saiid had been invited to sit in with a band.  Since he had been practicing with us all week and had been unable to practice with them, he asked us to play.  We opened for a Reggae-Rock band, playing two songs that were very well received.  We put in a plug for the show we will be doing there on Monday, and then headed for the Internet Café.  It’s been a busy day considering we didn’t have any scheduled gigs.

Tomorrow we head for the villages.

Villages of Ayoru, Kandadje and Della, November 21, 2004

The White Pit Reincarnated

When Becky and I were courting, I had a car that was lovingly called the White Pit.  I got it for free, and our friend Enzo procured an engine for free and installed it.  The White Pit did well for us for several years, except for one hitch:  it never started.  Thus, Becky had a preview of what life married to me might be like when she had to push the car to get it started for each of the ten or so days we dated in Paris.

Up until this point in the Niger story, our White Van with broken windshield, one seat belt, and Project Troubador signs duct-taped front and back did what it needed to do, skillfully nurtured by our wonderful driver Hama.  Hama is a sweetheart.  He is 36 years old, has two wives and six children (the Koran allows up to four wives), and is looking for a third wife—preferably aged nineteen.  He is always on time, drives safely, is almost as resourceful as John Gee, and disappears regularly to pray—the only time we cannot find him when we need him.

Over the past couple days, the White Van has been making funny, gear-slipping sounds and smelling like burnt rubber.  Hama usually “winds ‘er” until she catches, and we continue on our way.  Today, however, with a 200-kilometer trip ahead of us, and a full tank of gas (60 liters)--thanks to the two Embassy gigs we will do on Monday--the White Van failed us. 

Fortunately, it broke down in Niamey in front of the market known as the “Crazy Market” where one can reputedly find anything.  And, Hama did: another van, within fifteen minutes.  The next challenge was to unload all twelve of us, the four, 100-kilo bags of millet and the one 50-kilo bag of rice that Salou (also of the CAO) wanted to take to his village due to the drought and locust plague, and, the biggest challenge: transferring the 60 liters of precious gasoline.

Needless to say, we presented quite a scene to the onlookers, many of whom wanted to help for the hoped-for tip. The most fun, of course was the gas.  We undid the fuel line, caught gas in several large bowls, fashioned a siphon out of a plastic bottle (John’s Leatherman proving useful once again) and poured it into the new van’s tank one cup at a time.

About an hour and a half later, we were on our way, running very late in Western terms and par for the course in African conditions.  The best thing about today’s route is that the roads are paved.  Driving through savannah (or more accurately Sahel, or sub-Saharan semi-desert) was glorious, and a great treat after almost two weeks in the congested, dirty and very sad city.

Louis Lessard, Canadian journalist, and his girlfriend Jenny who will study medicine after her volunteer work in the Niamey maternity ward came along to see the famous city of Ouallam. 

Louis told a great story of his recent ride to Benin during Ramadan.  They had eleven people in a Subaru Outback for the twelve-hour trip.  Half the passengers were Muslim and, therefore, were fasting each day until sundown—including water—while the other half were not.  After about nine hours into the trip, someone up front was slurping water noisily, and the fasters were being driven to distraction.  A request to stop and then threat of bodily harm was issued without effect.  Suddenly, people from the back were pulling people from the front across seats and a full-scale brawl was underway—all at 130 kilometers per hour.  As the car careened back and forth across the road, Louis let out a primal scream (from where it came he knows not) and shocked the situation under control.

Thus, twelve in our reasonably-behaved replacement van no longer seemed either crowded or unreasonable, and we made our way up the road towards the interior of the country.

Louis also updated us on the election:  The President needed 51% of the vote to declare victory, but he only received 40%.  Candidate #2, the socialist candidate received 27%, the next highest received 21%, and the remaining three shared the rest.  Louis says it is deal-making and alliance time.

It was shocking to hear that 35% of the deputies cannot read or write.  They have typically been commercial successes and have thereby bought their positions in government.  The President also barely speaks French and is little more than a figurehead for the Prime Minister who is the real power broker.

The first real election in this country was held in ’92 or ’93.  The previous leader had been installed via coup and promised he would hold elections the following year.  He did, but it was a corruption free-for-all with all the ministers stealing money from the government coffers. They even built themselves a compound in which many still live today.  The then President disappeared, and the era is known as “Republique de la Joie.”

The entire criminal, judicial, and executive branches in Niger are evidently corrupt.  Favor and jobs are all family-connected, and corruption starts at the lowest levels.  The police, for example, hadn’t been paid in four months, so they began road blocks to extort 1,000 CFA ($2) from each passing vehicle.  Once they began to receive pay again, they kept the “toll” system in place.  Louis feels it is important to challenge the corruption even at this level.  The infamous Subaru was stopped 12 times between Niger and Benin.  If you don’t pay, you wait.  It’s all a negotiation—something, by the way, Hama is brilliant at.

Hama never pays.  When push comes to shove, he brings out his family connections to the police, and we generally get moved along.  Maybe seeing white people also makes them a little more concerned about possible repercussions.

Hama also is brilliant with the horn—which one hand almost never leaves.  He can blast someone one second and earn their forgiveness the next with a smile and serious of waves that somehow do the job.  Hama can read goat, lamb and cow minds, as well.  He knows when a blast will move them of the road before we hit them and when and how much he needs to slow down for the less-enlightened beasts.


When we reached Ayoru, Jenny and Louis rented a pirogue and paddled off the see the hippopotami.  Having canoed 7,000 miles together through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere, they were well equipped to take off on their own.  Salou was concerned because they did not know the traditional verses that would guarantee a hippo wouldn’t capsize them.  John sat on the shores of the Niger and reported that a tortoise came and went that was big enough to stand upon which, upon urging from the locals, he did.

Eileen, Salou, his childhood friend, Ibarahim and I went to visit the famous Sunday market.  The scene was timeless.  The passages were narrow; babies suckled from mother’s breasts; commerce of all kinds was being conducted; an old one-lunger engine chugged along grinding flower; large decorated boats were being loaded with grain which would be paddled and motored to Mali; fresh-baked bread came out of the oven; and animals shared the crowded streets with people.  We ate lamb and bread purchased at the market while sitting by the shores of the Niger.

A lot of Touaregs or nomads were present.  Their clothing is especially colorful, and a number of the men were wearing swords.  For centuries, these people herded camels and goats across the Saharan plains leading a hard but independent existence.  When the French colonized the region in the late 1800’s, the Touareg put up a fierce but ultimately unsuccessful resistance.  When the French gave independence to their West African colonies in the 1950’s, the Touareg were parceled out among the newly created countries, and their nomadic existence was severely diminished.  But an independence movement was quickly established and one of their main forms of expression is music.  Groups like Tinariwen, who toured the U.S. in October, have updated the traditional lute and flute with electric guitar, bass and drums.  According to Susan Weiler who wrote about them for their debut at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, MA, members of the band have become living legends—playing music, living underground, fighting with sword and gun.  Their cassettes were banned in Mali and Algeria, and it is said that if you carry one of their recordings in those countries, you can risk bodily harm. We found their CD in Paris on the way to Niger, and Louis made copies for the radio station and interested Nigerien musicians—many of whom have heard Touareg music, but none of whom have been able to get their hands on some recordings.

Village of Kandadje

On the way back from Ayoru, we stopped at Salou’s friend’s village.  He had come to see his mother who was ill, and they left two of the bags of millet there.  It turns out that the rainy season only lasts seven days in this part of Niger, and it only rains for about 20 minutes each day.  This year, it only rained four of the seven days, and it was a disaster for the people who depend upon the grain crops for survival.  Then, to top it off, a locust plague came, blacking the skies.  The result was devastating, and people are starving.

We played for the villagers in the most beautiful setting we had seen yet on the shores of the Nile.  Large and small boats were docked, and the sun began to set on the water while we were there.  Evidently a hydro dam is going to be built nearby, and we hope that it is not going to flood the village. 

While we played, Jenny held a several-week old baby girl whose mother had died in childbirth.  She was beautiful.  Jenny and Louis got the kids dancing to La Bastringue, and the mothers just giggled at Ibarahim’s unique style of rap—which he did in the native language of Djerma (or Zarma).

The village loved our music, and Louis interviewed a few of them.  They said that the only time they had visitors is every four years around election time.  The politicians come and throw a party, with music, to try and garner votes.  He asked them whether they liked us or the politicos better, and they overwhelmingly said us—probably because we were not asking for anything in return.

Village of Della

From there, we made our way to Salou’s native village.  He is of the Peul-Fulani people, and his sister and family still live in this beautiful, rolling cattle country.  Most of the cattle are dead, however, due to the drought.  They live in mud-brick construction, and he showed us the school house he attended as a child—currently in disrepair.

We also saw the family granary that should be full, but is empty.  They were pleased to receive the unexpected visit and gift of millet and rice.  Since there are no phones, Salou could not announce his arrival.

The sun went all the way down while we were there, and a breeze picked up—probably the beginning of Harmattan, a north wind from the Sahara that blows from late November to March.  It was difficult to think about anything except the present while standing there experiencing the Nigerien countryside.

We made it home late, after running out of gas once and nearly twice.  The first time, Hama simply put enough in from a plastic water bottle he carries in the back.  The second time, he pulled over in the dark, yelled out to a dark house, and ten minutes later we were on our way with another, larger bottle of gas in the tank.

By 11:00 PM, we were quite hungry, so we bought some guinea fowl (pintade) from a street vendor and went to a café to enjoy the delicious meat with a bottle of Flag.  It was wonderful!

Niamey, Monday, November 22

This was a very successful day for us.  We went to Louis’ radio station and were able to download and burn CD’s of the various recordings we’ve made.  Until that moment we were a bit nervous that we might not be able to present the musicians we recorded with copies of their own music before leaving town.  Now, we knew we could, and the radio station has copies, as well, so that the musicians will get some air time.  The recordings include Moussa, Alameda (live on the rooftop), and Troubador 2004 (a.k.a. Earlene and her Babe Magnets), featuring our three musicians who each have their own bands.

From there, we checked email, had lunch, and headed for our gig at the American Cultural Center.  It turned out that Sita wanted us just to talk about Project Troubador during the afternoon rather than play.  It was a very interesting session with all the band members talking and answering questions in a press-conference format.  The audience included Nigerien journalists, musicians, educators, and others.  The questions were fascinating, and John recorded the entire session on video tape.  One of the dominant images was that of a growing and nourished tree.  Now that the seed of American/Nigerien musical and cultural collaboration has been planted, they wanted to know, are we going to ensure it continues to grow and bloom, or was this a one-shot deal?  We told them we wanted to accomplish the former and that an important part of our program is bringing home what we learn so that American awareness can be elevated as ours has been.  We also said it would be a dream—although one dependent upon funding—to be able to bring the band to the United States so that the story could be told as effectively as possible.

After the conference, we grabbed a quick bite during which we saw some more of the Peace Corps gang and went to the Franco-Nigerian Cultural Center to play.  They have a beautiful outdoor venue and the best (and only) sound system we saw in Niger.  We played well to a small but receptive audience and had Sita come up and sing two songs with us.  We also invited one of the Nigerien traditional musicians, Abdou Salam, to play.  He had attended the press conference and gave us his CD and cassettes.  He has also been to the States to play music.  The instrument he showed us was a two-stringed Gourouni and is played with a ring on the thumb for percussion. He played the guitar and sang two songs at the concert with Eileen backing him up. All in all, it was a very successful evening, and we were interviewed about Project Troubador by a French-speaking Voice of America reporter who attended the concert.

On the way back to Auberge Tatayi, our home for the two weeks, we sought out the bluesman, Moussa.  Even though it was 11:30 PM, Saiid was confident that he would be on the streets sitting with his friends—and he was.  John Gee was able to hand him his first and only CD of original music (it turned out incredibly well).  Moussa was moved, as were we, and we took some pictures of all of us with him before saying goodbye.

Tuesday, November 23, Village of Ouallam

We stopped at the American Cultural Center to pick up our gas money, and had a very nice conversation with Sita and her assistant Boubacar Assoumi.  They were delighted with the two programs yesterday and want to work with our Nigerien band members in the future.  This was huge news for the band.  Sita also loves the Project Troubador philosophy and would support future trips and collaborations however she could.  She enjoyed meeting Stuart and mentioned that he would be returning later this year.  She was genuinely grateful that we contacted and reached out to her organization once we arrived in Niger.

The White Van is back and, true to form, struck again.  This time is was the fuel pump.  After chugging around town for half an hour, Hama simply got out, without a word, flagged a cab and disappeared.  About an hour later he reappeared with yet another van, and we did the transfer again—thankfully without having to deal with the gas since the vehicle was already close to empty—not that any gas gauge we saw the entire trip actually worked. 

We picked up the rest of the group at the CAO and headed 100 kilometers north to Ouallam, where we had been invited to play by the Peace Corps.  This road looked a lot like the back roads of Maine in March before grading has been done—it occurred to me at the time that a washboard and thimbles wouldn’t be a bad percussion instrument to bring on a Troubador trip.

Due to the delay, we arrived too late to play in Ouallam that day, but the Peace Corps had an AIDS education session planned for that evening, and fifteen of us piled into the van to go another 18 kilometers to the town of Tondi Kwindi where, according to PC resident Nate, 1,600 souls live without electricity and it gets to 130 degrees F. in the summer.  The road to Tondi Kwindi makes the road to Ouallam feel paved.  It was so rough one couldn’t sing without sounding comical—which didn’t stop us.

The setting was, again, beautiful.  The stars looked like a Maine sky, the wind was blowing softly, and we could see reasonably well due to a fairly full moon.

John Gee ran microphones from the van to a flag pole and set up his studio.  To get the attention of all the villagers so that the AIDS program could begin, he took a drum that is held under the left arm and beaten with a curved stick held in the right.  The wooden drum is vertically strung with string, and by squeezing it under the arm like bagpipes you can change the tone.  Pretty soon, he had at least a hundred kids laughing, clapping and following him around like the pied piper.

After the SIDA talk for which John held a flashlight so that the posters could be seen, we played for an animated crowd.  Jenny and Ibarahim danced and got some of the kids going, as well.

By the time we finished, we were pretty bushed, but the women insisted upon feeding us.  When the food finally came it was about 11:00 PM, and we ate in the semi-darkness using our right hands, crouching in the dirt around several large bowls of rice and tomato sauce.  It was delicious and timeless. 

Sixteen of us (a new record) rode back to Ouallam, where the PC gang set up cots outdoors in the courtyard, rigged with mosquito netting.  As fate would have it, Koye had an uncle who literally lived right next door, so half our crew went there for the night.  We slept the sleep of the dead from midnight until early the next day.  The cacophony of sound that night was fascinating with roosters crowing as if they were a pack of coyotes, and sheep braying their sometimes raucous, sometimes plaintive cry.  It was, however, the critters scrambling directly under me that gave me some pause.

Wednesday, November 24, The Villages of Ouallam and Simiri

The following morning, Normandy, who is from Pennsylvania but actually attended the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine two years ago, cooked us beignets (donuts) and prepared a fresh-fruit breakfast.  John interviewed three of them, as well as an Ouallam resident, for a Biology project he is doing on the environment.  It was interesting if somewhat depressing.  These Peace Corps volunteers are doing God’s work: living in the villages alone, helping with reforestation and gardening projects, and educating villagers about AIDS There is actually a fairly low AIDS rate in Niger, but the problem is that many of the men leave the country to find seasonal work and come back infected.  With up to four wives and many children, there is potential for disaster.

But what depresses the volunteers is that they feel it is a losing battle.  Due to overpopulation and deforestation, the region of Ouallam, and many like it, has changed from a beautiful, forested area that boasted lions and giraffes to near desert in less than 30 years.  The local man said that you can’t even find a rabbit to hunt now.  Nevertheless, these are wonderful folks—recent college graduates all—who are doing their best to help, are showing people all over the world one of the most positive sides of Americans, and will be bringing valuable lessons and experience back to the States with them.  This was not lost on poet, philosopher and band member Saiid, who said he was astonished and moved that these people would leave their comfortable lives in the United States and give their all during an extended stay with the poorest people in the world. 

The PC gave us letters to loved ones to mail from the States, their only other contact with the outside world being a short-wave radio.  Evidently there are only three computers for 150 volunteers, so email is not an option.

Matt and Jeff accompanied us to the market in Ouallam where we set up against a wall and began playing for a large crowd.  Half an hour later, we headed south.  But before leaving town, Oumar stopped at his uncles and was given a lamb (mouton) that was unceremoniously added to our number, claiming (in a number of unfortunate ways) the back of the van.  After about an hour of mouton braying, our mouton simply became part of the package and no longer bothered us.  Many sheep and goats are transported on the top of vehicles, but this was the first one we saw that got to ride inside.

The village of Simiri is about an hour down the road and is where Koye’s father was born, although Koye had never been there for a visit.  The first thing we did, after getting unstuck from the sand on the road-less plain, was seek out the village chief. 

He was a fascinating fellow named Amirou Moussa Sousou, and his official title is Chief of the Canton of Simiri, a position that is normally held for life. He and other village chiefs are responsible for settling all disputes in their villages.  We were led to his beautiful shelter where half a dozen, probably important, village men were meeting with him.  They were on rugs in the sand, and he was at his desk.  We were told to remove our shoes before walking on the whitest sand we had seen all trip.

It turns out that the Chief studied for four years in Texas and a month at Cornell to become an agricultural engineer at some point in the early 80’s.  He knew Koye’s father and greeted us graciously.  We spent half an hour talking, and he invited us to play music for his village.  He said he had just been speaking with his colleagues about Americans when we arrived, telling him that our countrymen worked hard, from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM because they were motivated.  For what purpose, you ask?  He said that from his observations, every American (man) wants four things: the nicest house, the latest model car, more money than his neighbors, and the prettiest wife.

The chief has done a lot of good in his village.  It reputedly has the best school system around, boasts a radio station, if no other visible electricity, and the crowd we played for was gracious and well-mannered.  Our timing was good, because just as we started, the children were let out of school.  They came running to the open-air concert where the Chief was seated and they stood in a semi-circle watching.  It was the last of our 20 concerts (not counting practices) and probably our best in terms of the music.  Koye was very proud.

We had been joking since the previous day how we would try to make a schedule and stick to it so that we could accomplish everything we needed to do before boarding a plane for home at midnight.  The joke was that nothing happens that way in Africa.  Amazingly, though, it did that day!  We said goodbye to the Peace Corps, played twice, met the wonderful Canton of Simiri, and actually got back to Niamey before 3:00 PM.  That gave us five hours before our goodbye dinner to do virtually all our shopping, pack our bags, eat, shower, exchange addresses, copy disks, etc.  In all, we had a list of 21 “must do” items to complete (of course you did, thinks sister Michele), and we pretty much got them done.

Number one on the list, even before eating, was buying some drums.  Koye took us to a professional drum-maker’s home where we purchased a djembe—it’s beautiful.  He left John to finish the tightening of the goat drum head so that it would survive the voyage home.  We had a quick drum lesson and headed off to eat.  We ordered while Ibarahim and Hama ran off to find other drums and traditional clothing for us to bring home.  Finally we made it to the dinner that Oumar put on for us all.

Louis and Jenny joined us, and Louis reported that he had just received approval to do a story on Project Troubador for Radio Canada International, It should air next week.

It was a great, if somewhat sad evening as it always is when leaving good friends who have shared an emotional adventure.  Some gifts were exchanged, and Oumar was effusive in his thanks and praise of the work the band had done.  On the way to the airport he made it clear that this had been very important for both his career and personal life, and that even if he did nothing for the next five years(!), this success had given him real status with both the CAO and his family.  Eileen made a similar, heart-felt speech, which I translated, thanking everyone for their enthusiasm, good work, and dedication to the objectives of the trip. 

I forgot to mention that we had been driving around Niamey with no headlights for a couple nights now.  The White Van, yes, back again, has a failing alternator (we think) and aside from having to push it each time we need to start, Hama feels he has to save the battery if we want to get anywhere at all.  I rode with Oumar to the airport, noted in the rear-view mirror that the ghost of the White Pit was following, and knew, in my heart, that all was well.

In conclusion, everyone wants to build upon what was started and feels that a strong foundation for Nigerien/American relations has been established thanks to Stuart’s visits and this trip.  We said goodbye at midnight and started the 30-hour slog home.  It took us to Casablanca, two airports in Paris, Boston, and then north and west, respectively. 

John and I got home very late on Thanksgiving Day—well maybe we missed it by an hour, but close enough for Africa time!  It puts life neatly into perspective when one sneaks, multiple times, to the airplane bathrooms just to feel the hot water, and when one is sincerely grateful for the luxury of the Concord Trailways bus toilet.

Election Update

Candidates #3, 4, 5 and 6 have all thrown in with the current president—basically deserting their parties and platforms.  One assumes they have been paid off with money and/or promises of position.  In fact, the #2 candidate went on TV to say that he had already paid off #’s 3, 4, 5 & 6 and that they were, thus, reneging on their contracts.

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