DAY THREE of our trip to Niger, February 4th, 2010

It is midnight and we are just getting into our room. What a day. We were picked up at 7:45 am to go to Liboré, to the village of Guireginde, to launch the first ever Farmers of the Future program. There were two armed soldiers on our jeep escorting us every step of the way holding long rifles to protect us. The Mayor was taking no chances with our safety.

We (Robin, Ed, Dini, Ron, Jonathan, Corey (son of an ORBIS volunteer doctor who had been tremendously helpful to ORBIS and us) arrived at the village and there were many elders, women and children waiting for us and creating a circle around us. We met Dov Pasternak for the first time after a year of corresponding. Dov works with ICRISAT, an international organization that works in the developing world to improve agricultural opportunities. He created the Farmers of the Future program (FOF) as a way to alleviate poverty. The theory is that if you train young primary school children to properly irrigate their land, plant vegetable gardens, fruit trees and fatten animals, and then market their produce and invest their proceeds, then they will no longer farm for subsistence only, but to earn a living for the future. I heard of Dov from an article I read and wanted to bring his program to Liboré. While he had experimented with this project on a small scale in Sadoré, a village 45 km away from Liboré, this was to be the very first FOF official pilot program in the world.

Dov introduced us to his colleagues and Lennart is the one who will now work with Hamani directly to implement the program once we leave. The contract is signed and we are ready to begin. We were taken to an area where we would “officially dig our shovels into the ground” for the kickoff of FOF. I had printed off the names of each of our Executive and Advisory Board on 8 1/2 x 11 sheets, laminated them, and had the children hold them, so our team would feel they were there with me and I would not feel like I was launching this great initiative on my own…we are a team in every sense of the word.. The sheets simply said “In honour of ________”their name”__________ P4K member.

I asked Dov to say a few words and he spoke eloquently but firmly about the importance of the program for the future of the country. “If we teach the children how to farm in order to make a living and not just subsist, they will have money for the future” he said. That is the way to alleviate the spiral of poverty. He gave a great example of some people who were taught how to improve their crops, and were so successful that they had enough produce for the following year. When he went to visit them he saw that the fields were bare and no work was being done. When he inquired what was going on, they said there was no need to work because they had enough to last them for the year.
“That”, he said, “was the subsistence mentality, that says, “if you have enough for your needs, stop.” He wanted to change that way of thinking and teach the young children in Guireguinde to treat the program as a way of making a living for the present and the future and not just to feed themselves in any given year. His words were powerful and were translated to the villagers in Zarma. I told the crowd I was honoured to partner with them and with ICRISAT to help improve their lives and prospects for the future. Then Dov and I, each with a shovel in our hand, and the hands of some young children on ours, ceremonially dug into the earth to make it official… My laminated team members reflected the light of the sun and absorbed every moment with quiet anticipation.

The crowd cheered and the children smiled. The Chef de Canton and the Mayor were explaining to the villagers afterwards more about the impact the program can have. Dini was surrounded by children who were laughing and enjoying her attention, and the games she taught them, and I went skipping with some others back to the car, as they imitated every “skip” that I made, laughing all the way. It was a great start to a long and rewarding day. I have such faith and hope for this FOF program as it is something sustainable for the community and educational for the children.

Then the Mayor, trying to keep us on schedule, whisked us away to our next appointment.

A few minutes later we arrived at the inauguration ceremony for the Vive la Vie classrooms at Ecole Centre. There are no words to describe the scene when we got out of the cars. We were met by the “band” of men, hitting their drums in rhythmic style and ushering us to the courtyard. Hundreds of kids were holding Canadian and Nigerien flags. There was a podium, a stage and a singer playing the guitar. There were chairs set up for all the dignitaries, and we were placed in the front row, behind tables filled with refreshments and food. I was seated beside the Chef de Canton and the Vice Mayor. Gambi, a councilor on the Mayor’s committee, then brought in a chair and put it between me and the Vice Mayor. She and I do not speak one word in the same language, but she always calls my name…..”ROOOOBINNNN”…… “ROOOOOOBINNNNNN”…..and I say “GAAAAMBIIIII”…… “GAAAAMBIII”……

The ceremony to officially launch Vive la Vie then began.

First three spiritual leaders began the prayers for the occasion. Everyone held their hands cupped in their laps with their heads bowed as the melodic voices of the elders lifted our spirits.

Then they had the little kindergarten kids, from Clara’s Kids kindergarten, aged 4 or 5 sing the first song. (It is called Clara’s Kids because Clara, a nine year old girl from Toronto read an article about us in the Globe and Mail one year ago, and was so moved she decided to donate all her birthday money towards P4K. She raised over $1400 with her family and friends and with that money helped sponsor a Kindergarten which we then named “Clara’s Kids”.) They were too cute, reciting words, and singing at the tops of their voices. One little girl was shouting her words so loudly and strongly and with such confidence that I was mesmerized……I stood up after they all finished and gave a standing ovation. Then the older girls came forward, probably about 11 or 12 years old, who sang a great song and added some dance moves as they recited the words. They were very animated and always using the words “Pencils for Kids” in their verses. I couldn’t quite catch the meaning of all that they said, but I did keep hearing “Pencils for Kids”.. The audience clapped and cheered throughout.

Next was a great skit written I think by a combination of the teachers and students and Hamani. It was beautifully acted and expressed by the children who were about 9-11 years old, I think. It was about a man who lives in the bush and comes to stay in Liboré with his daughter. She attends school. But then the man comes home one day and he wants his daughter to be pulled out of school to get married at age 11.. The people from Liboré respond that “We don’t do that here in Liboré. We study and stay in school and Pencils for Kids has made that education possible. No girl should be married so young. She should stay in school and learn.”

That was the gist of the play which I think was meant to educate the parents as well as entertain us. It was a fabulous idea and performed beautifully. I couldn’t help but think that Louise’s introduction of theatre a year earlier, was instrumental in the success of this little skit……even though they weren’t the same kids, the planners thought to put on a skit, write it themselves, and get the kids to act it and project their voices. That was progress. What a great way to convey that important message about staying in school and the value of education for girls as well.

More treats followed. Hamani had hired a composer/singer, Abdou Salam Mamoudou, whose wife teaches at Vive la Vie to write a song especially for P4K. A group of young children came up to sing it…..and it was in both English and French. It was catchy and easy to sing and I was falling deeper in love with this community with every passing minute.

I hummed along once I mastered the rhythm of the song and thought to myself….perhaps one day we can have many children in the world singing this song in support of education and literacy worldwide…..

Here are the words:Pencils for the KidsTomorrow will be the bigs.By your simple giftBe sure you gave us a lift. Kids we have the willWith your magic pencilsTo reach the top of those hillsAnd get plenty of…..of knowledge. Le savoir est une clefUne fois dans vos mainsVous rend la vie merveilleuse Pencils for the KidsSoyez en convaincusEn nous venant en aideVous nous donnez là….la clefCette clef toute magiqueQui ouvres toutes les portesOu est cachéle savoir Pencils for the KidsLiboré vous dit bien merciLiboré vous dit bien merciLiboré vous dit bien merciLiboré vous dit bien merci Then the speeches began.. The podium was facing the dignitaries…….the Mayor, Chef de Canton, another government official, and then me. The Mayor thanked us and began listing all the programs and projects we had supported and accomplished together.

When I got up to speak, the Podium covered everything but my head, I was so short… Since my speech was in French and Zarma, I could not say it without notes, as I was not confident enough in either language to do this. So I remained behind the podium and began. Every time I finished a paragraph, the people cheered (even though I am not quite sure they understood my french or zarma!)……I spoke for ten minutes in French and Zarma…………thanking people, explaining how this school was sponsored by a generous Canadian couple, named Vive La Vie because it reflected their views about the importance of loving life, loving what you do, embracing education and loving each other. In Zarma I asked them to stay in school, learn as much as they could and believe in themselves because we believed in them.

At the end I called up the Mayor, Vice Mayor, Hamani, Mary and Gaston and after I thanked them personally, gave them each a pair of Red Canadian mittens from the Olympics with the Canadian flag. It was after all the Games of La Francophonie that brought us together and the Olympics were one week away, so it seemed only fitting that we should have some symbol of the Games to wear together. We took a few photos of all of us holding up our hands in friendship and solidarity, showing the flags imprinted on the inner side of the mittens…….. Of course I mentioned that they needed the mittens because it was so “cold” in Niger..

When I stepped away from the Podium, the band of men started a frantic beating on their drums and I was compelled to start dancing along with them, looking like an idiot I am sure. Am not looking forward to seeing this on video..

Afterwards we officially unveiled the banner for the Vive la Vie school – I was given a string to pull, and the plastic that was covering the banner came down revealing the beautiful new sign, Vive la Vie, sponsored generously by two Canadians. This was a moment to remember.

The school itself is large and inviting with French posters on the walls that we had sent in advance and soon there will be photos of the children who attend the school in its first year. The donors felt it would be a wonderful thing for future students who attend the school to look at the photos of those who have gone before them and became leaders in their community, to offer hope to every new crop of students coming in to Vive la Vie. What an inspiring idea.

We gave out many pencils that morning with our Logo imprinted on them, donated by my generous neighbours.

We witnessed a portion of a spelling bee or as they call them in Liboré, “Spelling wars” – a concept we introduced to them last year and they have embraced. They do it differently than we do and have created their own system which is great to see.. We are hoping this becomes a regular part of their curriculum to encourage literacy and love of words. Each of the students was wearing a white collared shirt donated by two other Canadians, Danny and Lisa.

It was getting hot, and I kept losing my water.. But there was so much more to accomplish in this day that we kept on going and videotaping and talking to everyone, constantly surrounded and pulled in different directions……Jonathan was filming the whole time and was fantastic…..I felt badly that there was no time for a break, but knew that our time was limited.

At one point I was surrounded by a group of girls who said in French, “We are the girls in your sewing program”… They were giggling and hugging and so enthusiastic and warm…..I literally jumped for joy and we were all hugging and laughing….as I was pulled away I promised to visit the Second Chance Sewing program shortly.

We then walked over to Clara’s kids Kindergarten to visit the small children who had participated in the opening ceremony…..as we walked into their straw hangar, with the sign Clara’s Kids on the outside, the small children were holding up Canadian and Nigerien flags at their pint-sized desks….and looking very serious.. The teacher got them to start singing and by the time we walked out they were laughing and smiling and feeling less shy in our presence.

Finally it was time to visit the sewing girls across the road in the little shed that was the home base of the Sewing Program we had started with help from the Spirituelle Divas. I just love those girls. They were not in school anymore so this was an opportunity to educate them with a skill that would help them earn a living in the future. Their excitement was palpable as was mine.

It was a very small space where there were benches behind the sewing machines….and behind this space was a doorway to a tiny office where Hamani and LIBO have set up shop. Small by any standard and bare, yet accomplishing so much already. To my surprise the girls had made us and some of our sponsors some beautifully embroidered squares or pillow coverings, with the name Pencils for Kids, Chance for Girls sewn onto them. Stunning. It was so emotional and they had even made three for our colleagues, Dini, Ron and Jonathan.. It was obvious to me that we need to widen the space of the sewing room by adding a shade hangar, as Hamani suggested and buy more sewing machines. I already asked Hamani to submit a proposal for this.

The girls have been making baby clothes already and selling them to the community and all the profit has been going right back into the program for more materials etc…A truly great start.

Afterwards we all piled back into the cars and headed towards our new library, Bibiliothèque DHL……..piled with books and not enough shelves for all of them. A far cry from the empty shelves we were so used to seeing. We made presentations there to the Mayor of the books from Vivian Leung and the Oakville Chapter, of the Bananagrams, (I played a game with the Mayor for fun.), of Tshirts from Ron, of a book from the Mayor of Oakville, of the paintings from Shirley Scoble, paintings from Suzanne Ramsay and from Bernice Henry, my mother. They will all be hung in the library to make it more appealing. I did meet Fati, the Librarian, and could see that this job is an overwhelming one for just one person, with little background in library cataloguing or management. Fati is corresponding with a Librarian, Carole, in Toronto and I am hoping that together we can help her cope with this responsibility or build a team around her in Liboré.

Just outside the Library, the four girls receiving our scholarships arrived. I had hoped to spend more time with them, but it was a day filled with so many things that our time was shorter than I would have liked. I presented them each with a photo of themselves (they had never seen themselves before.), a French – English pocket dictionary, an Official scholarship certificate and a tin can with a sheet inside on which to write their dreams and hopes for the future. I had heard of a woman from Africa who had done this and then buried the tin can. She then went back each year to see what goals she had reached – My hope is that the girls will each do the same, in their own way. I asked them for their letters to their pen pals and they were quite shy in their response. Apparently they have hesitated returning the letters to their pen pals because they have a fear of making mistakes. This is quite common I was told. I asked Hamani to let them know how much we value mistakes in our culture and see them as the best way to learn. Later in the day we did receive the letters.

Then it was time for the interviews with the elders, a project that I have been dreaming of doing for the past few years. There is so much wisdom in the people of Niger that I wanted to share with people at home and the only way I could think to do that was to interview some of the female and male elders and ask them about their advice for life. We came up with questions that we would ask in English, would be translated to Zarma and then would be translated back for us. By this time, I was thoroughly exhausted from the day’s events and was neither eating or drinking too much. I still wanted to visit the Liboré Medical clinic to see what was there. Dini agreed to conduct all the Elder interviews and sent me on my way to the clinic. I knew we were in the hands of a master interviewer and that this dream to record their wisdom was on its way. 5 men and 5 women were waiting patiently to be interviewed, and each one was taken separately to the entrance of a school classroom. Many were younger than us, but looked thirty years older. Life is hard in Niger. Dini was struck by the gems that some came out with and the moving and poignant things they had to say. Every single one stressed the importance of education, even though many had never had any education themselves. They were wise. They were kind. And I can’t wait to see and hear everything they had to say. Their words were translated by Hamani into English and Dini asked follow-up questions afterwards. Everyone was asked only select questions, not the full range to everyone. I am so happy that we have finally realized the dream to do a book and video of their wisdom.

Here are some of the questions that were asked:1. What is the most important advice you give to your children?2. How do you see the role of women? Of men? Of children?3. What are your hopes for your children’s future?4. What are your fundamental beliefs – trying to find out the spiritual history that has come down as wisdom through the ages?5. What are your greatest fears?6. If you could receive one gift – anything in the world – what would you ask for? (What are your dreams?)7. What is the most important thing to know in life?

While Dini was doing the interviews, Ron, Ed, Corey and I went with the Mayor and Chef de Canton to visit the health clinic, Liboré’s largest medical clinic. It was so sad to see the state of the clinic and this was their “best” one. Really there were a few empty rooms with few supplies. There was a crumbling mattress, and two other birthing tables but few instruments or sterilization protocols in place. Apparently women don’t want to go to have their children here because they have to pay and it is cheaper, though probably more dangerous, at home. Now the women are being promised free health care for the children until the age of five, if they pay to have their children at the maternity clinic. We also saw a donkey and a cart beside the clinic. This is the ambulance in Liboré. Literally.

Ed presented to the Nurses at the Clinic money from the Wishing Well Lions Club in Toronto that was donated before the trip started. The clinic staff was thrilled to have this money to use. We also donated some stuffed animals for the children who would frequent the clinic, donated by a volunteer doctor from ORBIS, and some TSHIRTS from Ron as well for the staff at the Clinic.

While I headed back with Ron to the interviews, at the CES school grounds, Ed went with Gaston to the hospital. Unfortunately, Gaston’s car broke down as they arrived at the hotel, so Ed and Corey went to visit the hospital in Niamey on their own.

Hamani drove me, Ron and Jonathan to the Handicapped Centre that we had visited the day before, but this time we brought with us TSHIRTS that Ron had brought with him to Niger with our P4K logo and we gave out 11 of them to these fine young men – men with amputations, or crippled by Polio, who crawled on the ground to get around, or were in wheel chairs – they were beaming and so genuinely grateful that we had dropped by yet again to see them. They all donned their TSHIRTS and we all found it was one of the most moving moments of the day. Pencils for Kids will definitely buy more balls and furniture from them in the future, if the need arises.

Finally, after a very long day, we returned to the hotel. We had a short time to relax when Ed returned, and then Gaston picked us up to attend a Rotary meeting of his club at the Grand Hotel at 7pm. Ed and I were both introduced at the Rotary meeting and I was given a few minutes to tell the story of P4K and ask them to consider partnering with us in the future with a Rotary club in Toronto perhaps. Another seed planted. I noticed that they met for only one hour, without any food or drinks, as that, I was told, would take too much time and cost money. This group was all about business and accomplishing as much as possible. This was Impressive.

Dini, Ron and Jonathan went with Hamani to the airport to pre register and save time later that evening as their flight was past midnight. Then we joined them on the terrace of the Grand hotel for a very relaxing night. Jonathan entertained us all with amazing magic tricks (who knew he was so talented at this too…) and we had a great view overlooking the Niger River…brought back memories from my trips to the Grand with both Ed and Sam two years earlier.

After dinner we went back to the Terminus Hotel where the Chef de Canton was waiting to say goodbye to Dini, Ron and Jonathan. The Vice Mayor had dropped off wonderful gifts for each of them from the Mayor and Liboré – very thoughtful.

We said our goodbyes – we were only together for two full days yet I felt I had known them for years. I felt sad to say goodbye but knew that we had definitely given them a taste of P4K’s relationship with Liboré.

And then we went to our room….

At midnight we were finally off to sleep….a long and rewarding day.

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