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An Adventure in the Sahara

by Lisa Mixon '02 and Jennifer Post Stoudt

The trip through the rugged desert terrain covered with sand and gravel, massive expanses of volcanic boulders and the occasional patch of green grass and bushes seemed to take forever. For hours there were no signs of human habitation except for occasional herds of goats, camels, and donkeys tended by Tuareg nomads.

It was hot. Temperatures reached 120 degrees as the Toyota Land Cruiser, the only kind of vehicle that could handle the rough trip, neared Iferouane, Niger, a desert oasis with a population of 2,000 people, located five hours from any other village.

Peace Corps volunteer Stephanie Clark ’97 had just reached what would be her home for the next nine months.

Clark admits that this part of Africa wasn’t what she initially expected. “ I was expecting to be sent to the African jungle but instead was posted in the Sahara desert,” she says. Niger is the most underdeveloped country in the world. Homes were one or two-room mud or straw huts with sand floors. Clark says she had a luxurious two-room mud hut with three windows and a latrine (commodities not found in all households).

With no air conditioning and extreme temperatures, it was common for people to sleep outdoors on straw mats, beds made of small sticks or larger logs, or Western style beds with netting around them during rainy season, if they could afford it (to keep out the mosquitoes, and thus, malaria). There was no electricity and the nearest phone was six hours away.

two in front of hutBut Clark says she was ready for the adventure.

During her first three months of intensive language and cross-cultural training, Clark lived with a Nigerien family in the village of Hamdallaye before being posted in Iferouane.

The Tuareg people, a historically nomadic group who inhabit the village, speak primarily Tamachek, but many also speak Hausa, a widely-spoken language in Niger. These two languages are “extremely difficult to learn,” says Clark. In the Hausa language, she says, “you conjugate the pronouns as well as some verbs.” She also had to learn to speak French, the official language of Niger. Tamachek was even more challenging, she says. “It seemed like every word was conjugated either by tense or gender.”

Clark was one of more than 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers who serve in 70 countries, working to bring clean water to communities, teach children, help start new small businesses, and stop the spread of AIDS. Since 1961, more than 163,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps, serving in 135 nations. While posted in Iferouane, Clark worked at the community radio station, La Voix De Tamgak, FM 99.9, serving as a business consultant, advocate and disc jockey. Small communities and nomads have less access and reception, she says. Many people in Iferouane couldn’t listen to the nearby city’s (Agadez) FM, although some people had shortwave radios to hear news from Niamey, France, Nigeria and even La Voix d’Amerique (Voice of America)

“Niamey, the capital, was so far away, so I would go there for the villagers and deal with the red tape and bureaucracy and try to get funding.” Clark helped to keep the radio station up and running after it’s founding only several months prior to her arrival. Although it did play some music, its goal was to help teach people about things such as gardening and basic health, as well as to serve as a tool for communication in the immediate area.

“For example, we could invite the head of the local health clinic to give a program on using soap and water to clean cuts or have the school director come to discuss the importance of sending children, especially girls, to school.” Clark says.neighbor

She also spent time talking with school children about the cultural differences between Niger and the United States, and provided presentations on AIDS prevention.

In her free time, Clark enjoyed spending time with the village women and immersing herself in the culture. Hauling water to her house, sometimes on her head like the village women, became a daily routine. Harvesting wheat, cooking, weaving mats, braiding hair and doing henna were also ways to pass the time. Henna is a plant which causes temporary red staining and is used to adorn the hands and feet, especially in preparation for weddings and baby naming ceremonies. “They would also drink very strong, sweet tea from shot glasses, as much as five times a day,” Clark says.

Adjusting to the culture was often a challenge for Clark. Although, she notes, “everything is just a matter of getting used to it.” In the village, she says, mealtime consisted of “rice and beans on a good night, rice and sweet potatoes on a really good night. Otherwise, it was either corn or millet tuwo, a grits-like dish with a sauce that was tomato, or okra based.” Sand-baked bread, which is actually baked in the sand under coals, was one of Clark’s favorites, she says. But homemade couscous topped her list of favorite foods.

However, actually eating the food was another challenge. People in Niger eat with the right hand only and do not use utensils. They also eat from communal bowls or plates. “I was nervous at first,” Clark says, “because I didn’t want to commit any serious cultural faux pas. But it was kind of fun. We couldn’t eat with our left hands so, as insurance, we sat on them.” Eating couscous covered in sauce with no utensils and only one hand was often “a struggle,” says Clark. “It takes some getting used to. I’d have to squeeze it together with my fingers and roll it into my mouth. Of course I always got it all over me.”

In addition to the challenges, Clark says she learned a lot about herself while in Niger. “I learned how little I really need,” she says. “I went to Niger with only two bags of my stuff and some pots and pans that I inherited from another volunteer. I still had so much more than anyone,” she says. “It was embarrassing!”

getting ready for weddingThe people of Iferouane have so little, she says, that one day when she asked a young girl how she did on a test in school, the girl said she had to wait almost two hours for another student to finish so she could use her pen. “I had a whole collection of pens,” Clark says, “and these children would go home and not be able to do their homework because they didn’t have pens and paper.”

But despite having very little, the people’s extreme generosity impressed Clark. “Nouna, my neighbor who “adopted” me, didn’t have her own children so she took care of me. She would bring me food at least twice a day and wouldn’t accept money for it.”

Upon her departure from Iferouane, Clark says Nouna went into her hut, scrambled through her belongings, which were few, and pulled out the best thing she owned…a pocketbook made in Algeria. “It was yellow plastic with gold sequins, big pink sequins, and plastic orange things that looked like fishing lures, but it was the best thing she owned. It was what she wore on special occasions, and she gave it to me.”

Clark says she thought to herself, “Would I give someone I know the best thing I owned?” Probably not, she says. “Sharing and generosity is just a whole different mindset there,” she says.

Unfortunately, Clark’s time in Niger had to be cut short. Although Peace Corps volunteers usually serve for two years, Clark’s post was closed early. Because Iferouane is so isolated from other volunteers, the post was closed for logistical and security reasons.

Now, back in the states since September, Clark says it’s been difficult adjusting to American life once again. “We just have way too many excesses in our country,” she says. “When I came home and saw how much clothing I owned I felt awful.” But, Clark says, “I’m coming to terms with it. It’s a cultural thing and it doesn’t mean that our culture is wrong. It’s just different.”

Now, Clark says, she is embarking on a new adventure…trying to land a job in the pharmaceutical clinical trials industry. She hopes one day, though, to be able work in international/intercultural consulting for a pharmaceutical company. Will she go back to the Peace Corps someday? “Not right now,” she says. “But maybe when I’m retired I’ll do something like it again.”playing Jenga

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