A Day in the Life During Language Immersion

8/28/10

 The four of us sleep in one room, side by side on our thin mattresses, our mosquito nets collectively forming a yellow cloud that hovers over our sweating bodies. At four A.M., we’re unwilling roused from our slumber by the high-pitched cajoling of a young boy yelling “Fwanke da MI-ya.” He’s selling the Nigerien equivalent of donuts and is doing it at such an ungodly hour because it’s Ramadan and 98 percent of Niger cannot eat once the faintest hint of light has trickled into the sky.

 We groan, mumbling cusses at him in a language he will likely never understand and fall back asleep. I wake up before the other three girls and somehow manage to escape from the maze of mosquito nets and step outside into the mud that the nightly rains have bequeathed upon my yard. I used to curse the rain for making us sleep inside and for staining my sandal-clad feet a permanent brown. Now I know better than to deride the lifeline of the hand to mouth, agriculturally-based economy of Niger.

 I shove my weight against my front door, grunting until it pushes open on broken hinges. I run. Down the muddy streets I sprint, dodging cow turds, chickens, goats and even the occasional child who decided to play in the early morning mud. I’m free—finally alone after almost two weeks of constant togetherness as the four of us Peace Corps Trainees attempt to master Hausa, the most widely spoken language in Niger, with the help of one incredibly patient teacher. I run faster.

 I pass women clad in bright African prints, many of them wearing hijabs that leave only their faces visible under the pink, yellow or blue folds of the cloth. They remind me of brilliantly-colored butterflies until I catch a glimpse of the towering bundles of wood and millet atop their heads and realize that Nigerien woman are anything but butterflies.

 The rains have been good this year and the fields I pass are full of flourishing millet, peanuts, squash and beans. Last year the crops failed and Niger found itself once again begging for international food aid. There’s a vicious cycle of droughts and desertification here in the world’s poorest non-conflict country but you’d never know it from smiles and laughter that fill the muddy streets.

 I return to the house and hide behind a blue and pink curtain to splash cold water over myself in an attempt to feel clean. Our teacher, Konate, enters the yard with a loud Salamu alaikum, Arabic for “Peace be with you.” We answer Alaikum salam “And also with you” and begin our daily Hausa lessons.

 Sometimes we go on field trips, navigating the crowded streets while uttering constant greetings. Sunnana Laila I tell the thirty children forming a parade behind us, giving them my new Hausa name of Laila. Sannu da aiki I say to a man in the process of cutting out the innards of a goat splayed across a mat. Barka da zuwa I tell one of the town’s V.I.P.s as he wizzes past us on his motorcycle.

 We return to the house tired but exhilarated by our new-found ability to communicate and excited to prepare dinner. We fry sweet potatoes and try to make burgers out of lentils, laughing at our attempt to create something American amidst a world so foreign.