No, I’m not talking about a time of day. I’m talking about our cat. Midnight has been our pet for over 15 years, almost the entire time we’ve lived in Téra. While we’ve had other cats, Midnight is the only one that has survived all this time, including three home assignments, when we were gone over a year each time.

We got Midnight about three months after we moved to Téra in 1992. Nancy had taken the kids and gone to see some women as she studied the Songhai language. While visiting at one home, the kids noticed a cat with kittens. Daniel pleaded with mommy for one of the kittens, and the rest is history.

Midnight is quite an attraction in Téra. She is older than half of the people in this country. Every so often, children come into the yard, and one will say to the other with some awe, “That cat is older than you are!” Also, Midnight is the only cat in Téra we know that has been fixed. After having three litters (we once watched some being born), we decided to have her spayed. This was the source of endless curiosity among the Songhai people. They came to see “the cat who had the operation,” laughing at the crazy white people who do such weird things.

Midnight has never been a terribly affectionate cat. She would almost never sit in anyone’s lap or purr. She is quick to hiss at you if you invade her private space. Her idea of affection is to jump up on the couch next to you and fall asleep right there. Daniel was the only one who could pet her and get her to purr.

Midnight once fell down the latrine. We were getting ready to go to Niamey and couldn’t find her, but we heard plaintive cries coming from the direction of that foul hole in the ground. With a flashlight we could see her down at the bottom looking up at her would-be saviors. We solved the problem of getting her out by putting a long log down into the latrine, and she climbed up it. Last year as we were getting ready to go to Niamey for our annual field conference, Midnight was very sick. We thought she was going to die, so we tearfully bade our good-byes to her. When we got back two weeks later, there was Midnight welcoming us, alive as could be. We were all very happy to see her.

Midnight is now an old lady. She has only one tooth left and isn’t quite as active as she used to be, but she still catches mice, and her vision is impeccable. She sneezes a lot and can't tolerate milk. She is much more affectionate that she used to be and she loves to curl up on the couch next to one of us, especially in the cooler weather at this time of the year. She even purrs. She has been a special pet for our kids, and when the time comes, it will be hard to say good-bye to her.


Walliyya aka Abdim's Stork


A bird commonly seen in W. Africa is the Abdim’s Stork, also known by its Songhai name, walliyya. This bird summers north of the equator and “winters” in southern Africa. I use the parentheses around “winters” because though it is “winter” in W. Africa, it is summer in southern Africa when the stork lives there, so you might say it’s a real “snow bird,” if that expression can be applied to Africa. It likes to be where there is eternal summer.

The Abdim’s stork usually appears in W. Africa in April and migrates back to southern Africa in October. This corresponds roughly to the hot, humid period in our part of the world. In April one of the common questions you may hear will be, “Have you seen a walliyya yet? The walliya is supposed to be a harbinger of the coming rainy season (June-September in Niger), and when you see one, you know that the rains are on their way.

Interestingly, the Abdim’s stork nests only when it is north of the equator. It is very gregarious and usually builds a nest in a tall, leafy tree in a town or a village near a water source. The brood consists of 2-4 eggs. During the rainy season, the chicks hatch and learn to fly, and by September, they’re ready for the long trek to southern African with their parents.

So it was quite a surprise one day this month (November, 2007) to see a walliyya walking around in the street outside out gate. They should all have been long gone by now. And this one wasn’t flying. Either it was injured in some way or it hatched late and was too young to fly when the migration took place. Earlier this week, the walliyya came into our yard looking for food, and we snapped these pictures of it.

It’s not the prettiest bird. Actually, it’s rather gangly and ugly, but it does play an important role in encouraging everyone during the long W. African hot season (March-June). You might call it the “rain bird.”


Choking Weeds

Isn't this a pretty picture? Some beautiful flowers floating on the edge of the Niger River at the ferry crossing. Actually these are dangerous weeds. They're called water hyacinths, and they're choking up rivers and lakes all over Africa, killing fish and the organisms they feed on. It's kind of like kudzu in the southern U.S. In some places, there is a mat of hyacinths several miles long extending from the shore out onto the surface of a lake. The fishermen have to struggle to paddle their boats to get to open water where the fish live. The mat of weeds gets bigger and bigger, and the amount of open water shrinks. It is difficult to get rid of this weed. Poisons don't kill it, and it harms the fish and the people who drink the water and eat the fish. It has no natural enemies that eat it, either. Recently, I read about a microorganism that feeds on the hyacinth. It gradually eats away at the roots little by little, killing one plant at a time. It was the only known method of getting rid of the flower at the time the article was written.

It occurred to me that maybe my life is a bit clogged up with clutter that is choking up my life. It's not so much sin (although every one of us has his or her besetting sins). It's just that I've got so many little details to manage that I can hardly think any more. My life is terribly complicated and full of lots of irreconcileable differences. I'm being pulled into Niamey for different meetings when my main ministry is supposed to be in Tera. I'm supposed to be working in the Songhai language with Songhai people, but I'm actually working mainly with other people groups using the Songhai and French languages. I have some priorities I want to work on this term in Niger: finishing up translation work and publishing it, launching the church in Doumba to be on its own, setting up a good language and culture learning program for Niger, and trying to get repairs to the sports field in Tera moving. But I have gifts that are barely getting used, and I'm getting a little frustrated by that. I'm wearing a lot of hats, and I'm being pulled in many directions. It's hard to concentrate on all these things and do them well. Then there's all the interruptions from people at my door. People are more important, but I also have to get some work done.

I need to simplify, but how? I can't set loose a lot of bugs to finish all the work. And I can't wave a wand and magically get everything accomplished. Little by little some things are moving forward, but it seems as slow as the desert tortoise. Maybe I need to stop and admire the "roses" God has created for a moment, even if they are destructive. These water hyacinths are prominent every year at this time on the Niger River. So far they haven't choked up the river, but they are sometimes a problem for the canoes. I don't want my life so choked up that I'm paralyzed. But I do want to have time for beauty and laughter. Let's look at the "roses."


The Road to Tera

Traveling the road to Tera is always an adventure. You never know what you're going to see or what is going to happen. This is true at no time more than the rainy season, which corresponds roughly to summer in the northern hemisphere. I have already posted a blog on the back road. Now it's time to talk about the main, paved road.
Shortly after Suzanne and I returen to Niger on July 30 after our summer vacation, we tried to return to Tera. At first, we heard that the back road had been washed out by heavy rains. At the same time the ferry wasn't working, so the main road was also not an option. We had to stay in Niamey a few more days than planned.
Finally, on Monday, August 6, we heard the ferry was working, and we could get to Tera. However, we were not informed of another hazard, and just a few miles outside of Niamey, we came upon this scene:

Now what should we do? It was already after noon. There was no way to get to the other side of the canyon. There didn't appear to be any detour around. Would we be able to get to Tera at all? This is what I mean by adventure.
We learned later that the bridge had been washed out by a wall of water that came down the creek on Saturday night, August 4. Over four inches of rain had fallen that night, and it was too much for the bridge. Probably the water washed away the road at either end of the bridge, causing it to collapse. Normally there is no more than a trickle of water flowing in this creek. I've never seen angry floodwaters in it.
At the time of the bridge collapse, a bus or taxi loaded with people was barreling down the hill from the other side. It dive-bombed into the canyone which had just been created and twenty people were killed. We heard by the grape vine that eight people were washed downstream and that their bodies were never recovered. Whether that's true or not, we don't know. In any case, all this happened the same week as the major bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Though this bridge was much shorter and only one vehicle was involved in the accident (in contrast to the many scary stories we've heard about the bridge in MN), this one produced more deaths.
Suzanne and I did find a way around the bridge (at that point it was a scary detour of about 5 miles which included lots of sand and mud) and we made it to Tera where we were able to stay for a week. The way around has now become a permanent detour (it has been graded and new dirt has been laid on it), and there is little risk of major floods now because the rainy season is over. We won't see much rain between now and next May.

In September, when Nancy came home, we took a lot of pictures of the broken bridge and the canyon created when it collapsed. Here are a few of my favorites.

The jagged edge of the road and the old bridge lying at the bottom of the canyon.

Me standing on the old bridge at the bottom of the canyon.

Nancy at the brink!



Any of you who know me know I like languages. I have studied six (including Biblical Greek and Hebrew) and speak three fluently(French, English, and Songhai) and know another African language a bit (Hausa). I get bored and restless in a monolingual environment. A multicultural, multilingual setting seems so much more dynamic and interesting. In the places I've lived in the US, I've unfortunately experienced more of the former than the latter. That is changing, however, and I think it is good for us as Americans, even though it does produce some "growing pains."

Thus it was fascinating last Friday, Aug 31, to participate in our monthly Day of Prayer meetings held in Niamey at Sahel Academy. Not only were we using French and English, the two main languages spoken by SIM people in Niger, but there were also other languages spoken. Two short-term workers from Romania gave their testimonies. One spoke in Swiss German (low German) and was translated into French. He is very gifted in languages and already knows some French and English in addition to German and Romanian. The other spoke in Romanian and was translated likewise into French. By the way, watch out for the Romanians. They are serious about their commitment to God and His work. They may become the next Koreans or Brazilians or Nigerians in the missions movement. Later in the prayer session we watched a DVD in Arabic with French subtitles. So, there were five different languages used in one prayer meeting! How's that for a taste of heaven?

I love being in this kind of work where many languages are used. Let's get used to multilingual environments. They're going to become more and more commonplace.



No one likes to say good-bye, especially if it's for a long time or potentially for a lifetime. I don't like good-byes, either, and I've had to say a lot of good-byes over the last few months.

The first good-bye occurred in June when we said farewell to our long-time colleagues Martin and Lucie Brown. They have been in Niger almost as long as Nancy and I, and their daughter, Naomi, has been one of Suzane's best friends. We don't if or when we will see them again.

The next good-bye was even harder. On Thrusday, July 26, I said good-bye to Daniel. I took him to breakfast that morning, told him everything I thought he needed to know (how do you do that in 30 minutes?), hugged him, and waved good-bye as he left for work. The tears misted my eyes as I drove back to MRF, where we had been spending our vacation. Later that day, Suzanne and I left PA to go to CT and fly on to Niger on July. It's hard to leave your grown-up son (who still seems so young) and not know if you'll see him in the next two years.

On July 27, I said good-bye to Nancy for five weeks. Though I'll see her again when she returns to Niger on Sept 5, I feel a little like a part of me is missing.

The last good-bye occurred when we arrived back in Niger on July 30. Unbeknownst to us, while we were en route, our dear friend and colleague, Helene Zoolkoski, died. She had been diagnosed 16 months ago with stage 4 melanoma. There is no cure for this stage of cancer. Helene did not take any medicine and remained symptom-free for almost a year. Her husband, Chris, is a doctor, and together they decided to return to Niger to live as long as they could here. Early this year, Helen began experiencing symptoms of the encroaching disease. I saw her for the last time in late April, and at that point she was having more good days than bad days, but by June when we left it was evident she was failing fast. The last week of July,while we were still in the US, we were hearing ominous reports of her condition, and we knew the end was near. In addition to her husband, she leaves behind three children: Elisheva, Zeb, and Joel. Eli was in the dorm last year and knows Suzanne well. She is the oldest at about 14. Joel is 6, and Zeb is about 10. They are returning to the US with their father tonight, August 14. Pray for them in the months ahead.

Nancy and I have known Helene since we were kids. She was only a year older than us, and we went to school together in Nigeria when we were all MKs. In our adult lives, we have worked with Helene in Niger off and on over the years. Nancy and Helene even taught together one year at Sahel Academy. She has been an educator, a mom, a wife, and a person of faith, and she will be greately missed and mourned in SIM Niger. Because of her love for and service to Sahel Academy, a tree was planted in her honor and in her memory at the school during this morning's opening assembly at the school. Good-bye, Helene


I was present at Creation

No, not the one that happened "in the beginning," but during our vacation in the US this summer, I have attended two events that had some relation to the word "creation."

The first event was Creation Festival 2007, a musical event in honor of our Creator. This was a camp with concerts by Christian artists which lasted for four days at the end of June. Suzanne, Nancy, and I went. There weren't many facilities at the camp (we had to walk a mile to get a shower and there wasn't running water or electricity hookups), but hey, we deal with a lack of amenities in Niger, so it wasn't much of a hardship for us. We got to hear some of my favorite artisits: Newsboys, Casting Crowns, David Crowder Band, Aaron Schuste, and Third Day. There were four different bands every night. We heard some new ones we had never heard of before. Leeland became a new favorite.

The Word of God also played an important part in the festival. There were messages by renowned speakers, and all the concession stands and booths closed down during the preaching. We had a lot of fun in the out-of-doors with the green and the fresh, cool air. We borrowed a tent and cooking utensils from one friend and sleeping bags from another.

It rained a few times, but we like rain. One night they said there were about 70,000 people at the concert!!!

Another day Daniel and I had the chance to go to Strasburg, PA to Sight and Sound theater to view the production of "In the Beginning." It was an elaborate stage recreation of the creation of the world, the fall, and, at the end, the restoration of the world to the way it was "in the beginning." The music and the production were excellent.

That's some of what we've done on vacation. No, the theme of our vacation is not "creation," but in some ways we are experiencing a recreation as we begin to feel refreshed and rejuvinated after a stressful and difficult year in Niger. We are also experiencing the wonders of God's creation as we hide out in the beautiful rolling Poconos of Pennsylvania.



Humanly speaking, 50 years is a long time. How many of you can remember where you were 50 years ago? I can't because I haven't reached that milestone yet. That was 1957, and I wasn't born until two years later. Think of all the things that have happened in the last 50 years: econmical jet travel, missions to the moon, computers, e-mail, IM, independence for most African countries, many wars, the growth of evangelicalism, the Lausanne Covenenant, Islamic resurgence, people pushing for all kinds of "rights".
From God's perspective, of course, amd even considering the recorded history of the world, 50 years is a mere cursor blip on the screen. Casting Crowns sings a song that inculdes the following words:
"I am a flower quickly fading
Here today and gone tomorrow
A wave tossed in the ocean
A vapor in the wind..."
The song goes on to say,
"...Still you hear me when I'm calling
Lord, you catch me when I'm falling
You show me who I am:
I am yours...."
Isn't it great to know that we are His? That we belong to Him and that He controls all the years of our lives?
Fifty years ago an event happened that has great significance for my life even though I wasn't there when it happened: my parents got married. If it wasn't for that event, I wouldn't be here!! The date was 15 June 1957. To celebrate this great milestone, family and friends from near and far came together at Trinity Covenant Church in Manchester, CT, on 24 June 2007. We had a grand celebration remembering 50 years of God's faithfulness. I am the oldest of four boys, all of whom are in the picture below.
Nancy, myself, and our two children, Daniel and Suzanne, traveled from Africa to be there for the big day. Jim and Beth Anne and their boys along with two girlfriends came from New Jersey. Tim, Laurie, and boys, who livein Manchester, were all there. And Dave (the one who looks like me) flew in from Oklahoma. His wife Debbie and their four were unable to come, and we missed them. In addition, my mom's four sisters and their living husbands (one died of cancer two years ago) all came from Seattle, Washington. See the picture of my mom and dad (on the extreme right) and the sisters with their husbands on the left. The woman to the left of my mom is Aunt Muriel. Her husband, Uncle Sev, is the one who died.

My dad's brother came from Florida with his daughter (my cousin) and her husband. There were other guests, mostly members of Trinity Covenant Church, where my parents have attended for 30 years and where my dad has been pastor of missions and mentoring for many years. Others came from CT and from Florida.

The relatives arrived on various days of the week before the big day. We arrived from Africa on Monday, June 18. Those from Washington came in to Hartford on Thursday, June 21. The relatives from Florida were there on Saturday, June 23. And my brother from Oklahoma also came in on Saturday. We had a picnic at Tim and Laurie's on Friday, June 22. Unfortunately, it was cold and rainy. Saturday noon all the relatives that had arrived went to a Chinese buffet. And all the older generation went to a nice restaurant Saturday evening. That did not include anyone under 50.
Sunday afternoon, 24 June, on a glorious sunny day, we four boys hosted a reception for my parents at Trinity Covenant Church. We estimated about 200 people showed up. That was an excellent turnout to honor two who have modeled fithfulness and godliness to us all. Many could not make it. A 45-minute program in the sanctuary was well-received. Mom and Dad surprised us by making a powerful 20-minute DVD which included pictures I had never or rarely ever seen of them and us when we were growing up.

Fifity years. In this crazy world, where commitment no longer means what it used to and where people trade spouses like they trade commodities, we are pleased to honor my parents, Bob and Jean DeValve, on their 50 years of married life. Congratulations!


Rain and Traveling to the US

It's 3:30 p.m. on July 4th, and it's raining. A thunderstorm! Just like Niger. Though it's cold (only in the 60's), I try never to complain when there's clouds and rain. We see so little of either in Niger that I've come to appreciate both very much, even when it feels like winter to me. iIve got on a t-shirt and a sweatshirt. Our last day in Tera it was 111 F in the shade with about 40% humidity, a heat index of nearly 140 F. Unfortunately, we haven't heard that Niger has had much rain yet, and that's not good. They should have had rains starting before the end of June.

We're back in the US for a vacation. Our trip here was another adventure. We were supposed to leave from Niamey at 2:45 a.m. on June 18 (local time). We dutifully went out to the airport at midnight after not getting any sleep since 6:30 a.m. the previous day, when we got up to have church and travel down to Niamey from Tera. We quickly got through baggage check-in with our loaded suitcases, then proceeded to passport control. That took a while, and then we had to get in a line for security. It wasn't long before we were in the single waiting lounge in the departure section of the airport. We waited and waited and waited..... Our plane didn't even arrive until 3:30 a.m, and we weren't in take-off position on the single runway until 4:30, nearly 24 hours after we had gotten up the day before.

The big surprise of the trip was that we had a scheduled layover in Ougadougou (try that mouthful on for size), the capital of Burkina Faso, only a 45 minute journey from Niamey. We thought we were on a direct flight to Casablanca, Morocco. The layover was supposed to be 45 minutes, but it turned out to be triple that. First they asked Nancy and Suzanne, another family we were traveling with, and several others to move from the back of the plane. Then they unscrewed some of the back seats and lowered them to install a frame for a stretcher. Then they installed the stretcher and a curtain and carried a sick patient onto the plane, escorted by his daughter and doctor. I had never been on a plane with a medivac before. It was quite dramatic. It was well after sunrise before we took off around 6:30, and we had burned up over three hours of a scheduled 3 hour, 40 minute layover in Casablanca. We were afraid we would miss our flight to New York, but when we landed in Casa at 9:40, we had hope we might make it to the 10:45 flight.

We had to go through security into a waiting lounge, and then we were bused to a secondary terminal, past our waiting plane sitting on the tarmac. At the new terminal, our plane was already boarding. We had to go through secondary security: a thorough check of our hand luggaged and a frisk down. I was wearing cargo trousers with a lot of pockets, and they were full of travel stuff. I dutifully pulled everything out of my trousers. One thing I was carryin in a side pocket was a bee-sting kit. I'm allergic to bee strings and have to carry this kit wherever I go. The policemen looked at it, promplty popped the 1/2-inch needle out of it and reprimanded me for trying to take a needle on the plane. I tried to explain that I'm allergic to bee stings, and the medicine in the kit could save my life. He glared at me, seeming not to comprehend a word I was saying (all in French) and not happy with the needle sticking out of it. I don't think he'd ever seen or heard of such a thing. He said he'd have to confiscate it. I said he might as well because he'd exposed the medicine to the air, and it would lose its potency quickly as a result. We got on a bus that took us halfway back to the other terminal, where our plane waited. We boarded our flight and took off only a half hour late (11:15 a.m. local time). We made up the time in the air, and arrived exactly on time at JFK in New York at 2:45 p.m. NY time. We breezed through passport control, baggage claim, and customs, and found ourselves out in the lobby of the international building arrivals area. We had decided to take the "Connecticut Limo," a fancy name for a comfortable van, to Hartford, CT to meet my parents. It was an expensive, but easy way to leave the New York driving to someone else. We were picked up at 4: 30 p.m., but it took another hour to pick up other riders at other terminals, and we had to switch vans at one point to accomodate even more passengers. So it was after 5:30 before we left the airport, and you know what that means on a Monday afternoon. It was bumper to bumper on the Van Wyck "Expressway" until we got to the bridges going over the East River to the mainland. Then we had to drop passengers off in three different places in CT before we got to Hartford. My brother, his son, and my mom were waiting there with a van to pick us up with our large assortment of baggage and take us home. We went home, had a delicious supper of subs, and then crashed at about 10:30 p.m., EDT, nearly 24 hours after we had taken off from Niamey, and about 45 hours since we had had any real sleep. This is the stuff of international travel, and I begin to wonder why I thought traveling was so much fun when I was younger.

Next blog I'll detail some of the things we've been doing on vacation.



I'm tired and emotinally drained after a week of celebrating our son Daniel's graduation from high school (see picture below). Where have the years gone? It's only this week that it's beginning to hit me that Daniel will not be around next year with his playful spirit and sincere heart. I'm really going to miss him. He has grown up and is ready to fly on his own. It's true he's been in the dorm at Sahel Academy in Niamey for a number of years, but he was only a 3-hour drive (and this past year a quick phone call) away. Now, he'll be nearly a full 24-hour day journey away by plane, and the contact will be much more difficult. I know he can cope, but I still want to protect him from all the unknowns.
This week there were two big ceremonies to honor the 6 graduates of Sahel Academy (SA). (Daniel was the only American among the six--there were 2 Koreans, 2 Nigerians, and one Ghanaian, in addition to Daniel). The first was the graduation banquet Tuesday night, June 5. All the staff of SA, the juniors and seniors, and the families of the graduates were invited. It was a time to laugh and cry as we remebered the years that each of these 6 have spent at SA. Of the six seniors, Daniel had been at Sahel the longest, starting there in 1999, when he was in 5th grade. The juniors gave some prophecies about where each of the seniors would go and what they would do in life. Some of the prophecies were really funny and fit quite well the personalities and backgrounds of the seniors.

After the prophecies, each parent had a few moments to share some thoughts with their children. Nancy reminded everyone how Daniel loves food and exhorted him to feed on the Word and not just on bread alone. I recalled the time when Daniel was 3 and came up to Nancy and said to her, "Mommy, when I grow up, I want to be a killer." After being reprimanded for saying something so awful, Daniel, nearly in tears, had replied, "But I just wanted to be a killer like David who killed Goliath." I told Daniel that there are many giants out there, and they can be quite fearsome. But I reminded him that, like David, we do not need to fear, because God is with us and we are on His side. Then I said he had our blessing to be a killer and to go out and slay some giants.After all the parents had finished their speeches, I got up and sang a song sung by Mark Harris called, "Find Your Wings." I can't sing it like Mark Harris, but it expressed a lot of what I would like to say to Daniel and all the seniors at this time. I made it through the song without choking up. Here are the words:

Find Your Wings

It's only for a moment you are mine to hold
The plans that heaven has for you will all too soon unfold
So many different prayers I pray for all that you might do
But most of all I want to know you're walking in the truth

And if I've never told you
I want you to know,
That as I watch you grow

I pray that God would fill your heart with dreams
And that faith gives you the courage to dare to do great things
I'm here for you whatever this life brings
So, let my love give you roots,
And help you find your wings.

May passion be the wind that leads you through your days
And may conviction keep you strong,
Guide you on your way.
May there be many moments
That make your life so sweet
But more than memories


It's not living, if you don't reach for the sky.
I'll have tears as you take off,
But I'll cheer as you fly.


The graduation ceremony was last night, Thursday, June 7, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Niamey. It was attended by everyone from the international community involved with SA, about 100 adults and children. In addition to a speech by one of the faculty and by the director of the school, each graduate gave a short speech. None of the six graduates like public speaking very much, but all six did an excellent job. Daniel did the best speech of his life, and I was so proud of him (we have it on video). He even spoke a few words in Songhai to his best friend from Tera whom we had invited down for the occasion. I couldn't help the tears during the ceremony. It was very moving. Afterwards, there was a simple reception in the SA dining hall, with cake punch, snacks, and most importantly, the love of friends and colleagues. And then it was all over, and Daniel is now flying on his own. The high school kids stayed up all night watching all three Lord of the Rings videos in the extended version. But Nancy and I came home to try to calm down and get some sleep. We were going to go back to Tera today, but we are too tired and have too much to do, so we'll go back tomorrow, where we'll spend a week letting Daniel say good-bye to his home and packing up for our trip to the US on June 18.

Congratulations, Daniel!!


Dust Storm!

We have a lot of dust in Niger. In a previous blog, I talked about the harmattan. This is the dusty wind that can blow off the Sahara any time during the long dry season (October-May). It is especially bad in December through March. See the dust that collected on our windowsill in a two-week period in March below:

This time I want to talk about dust storms (or sand storms, as they're sometimes called). At the end of the dry season, there is a three-month period of time called the hot season (mid-March to mid-June). This is a time of intense heat and rising humidity as the monsoon winds begin to blow in from off the ocean to the south and west and work themselves in under the upper-level winds which keep blowing from off the Sahara. Towards the end of the hot season, small storm cells begin to form as the hot, humid air rises into the atmosphere, creating towering cumulus clouds. These storms can be extremely violent, with high winds, hail, and pelting rain that accumulates at a rate of more than an inch an hour.

The high winds in these storms pick up all he loose dust, which has very little to hold it down, and throw it hundreds of feet into the air. The result is a huge wall of orange or black dust preceding the storm. It comes rolling in like a tsunami. Sometimes we joke that weather predicition in the Sahel consists of watching for the dark dust cloud on the horizon and knowing that when you see it, you have about ten minutes to get your laundry in off the line before it hits. The dust storms can turn night into day, and they can blow for as long as an hour. Rain may or may not follow the dust storm, but the dust storm is always associated with the rain clouds, and there will be rain somewhere even if you don't get it. In one dust storm, you can see as much dust settle on your windowsill (and tables, chairs, desktops, computers, etc) as you see in two weeks of harmattan dust like in the picture above.

I wrote about these dust storms backin 2004. I'm going to paste in what I wrote here:

"Few things are as spectacular or as dramatic as a sandstorm in the Sahel region of Africa. For days on end during the months of April and May, the heat and humidity build as the monsoon winds blown in from off the ocean. When you feel like you can't stand it one minute longer, and sweat is pouring down your legs and off your face, you know a storm is not far off. A dark line of clouds appears on the horizon, and you run to shut all the windows in your house, knowing that you have 15-30 minutes at most to prevent your house from becoming a disaster area.
As the storm clouds approach, a bright orange "fog bank" appears ahead of the storm. This is the sandstorm, which boils out in front of the rainclouds. The fierce winds pick up the fine Sahara sand and throw it hundreds of feet into the air, creating a massive orange cloud of dust that gradually gets bigger and bigger as it approaches. As you watch it coming, the air is still and close. Suddenly, the sandstorm hits, and the winds increase to gale force knocking down trees and branches and carrying away anything light with them. The dust sandblasts your face and skin, and the day becomes dark and gloomy. Sometimes there is so much sand in the air that the sky becomes black as night. The sandstorm may last anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour. The temperature drops dramatically, often as much as 30 degrees fahrenheit in the space of five minutes. After the sandstorm passes, the rain begins. Huge thunderclouds unleash their reservoirs of water, and torrents of rain begin lashing the ground. Within an hour, an inch or two or rain may fall. After the storm all is cool and still, and the smell of the rain settling the dust perfumes the air. "

We've had two big dust storms this past month in Tera. We had our first on May 6. That one was rather weak and only turned the sky a milky orange. It wasnt' terribly windy, either. The areas surrounding Tera got a lot of rain that day, however. We got about 0.15 inches in town. The next day, Monday, May 7, we had a doozy of a dust storm, one that turned the sky into almost night at 4 p.m. Here is a picture of the approaching wall of dust.

We didn't get any rain after this dust storm, but it was cooler for a day or two. We did get 0.75 inches of rain on May 13, however. That was in the night, and it didn't have a huge

dust storm with it, just a lot of wind. That night was really cool. We haven't seen any rain in Tera since May 13, and the rainy season hasn't officially started yet, but some parts of the country have already been blessed with good first rains. Once the rains get going, they settle the dust down, and the dust storms don't blow any more.

I'll leave you with a picture looking out our window around 4 p.m. on Monday, May 7, 2007.


As Stubborn as a Donkey

We've all heard this expression, I'm sure. In Niger we see donkeys everywhere, and they are some of the most difficult animals to work with. Yet, they get a lot of work done. Most of the carts that carry stuff around Tera are pulled by donkeys. Currently, we're having a lot of our water hauled in by donkey cart since we don't have any water coming into our pipes.

The classic stubbornness of donkeys is most revealing when you're traveling. If they're standing in the road, they won't move out of the way even if you're honking at them or racing up on them fast. At twilight, the gray donkeys are particularly hard to see because they blend in with the road and the sky. You have to keep a sharp eye out for them on the road because they won't move out of the way.

This stubbornness was illustrated in a hilarious way one day as we waited to catch the ferry across the Niger River. About 150 donkeys had come across the river on the ferry to our side, and the herders were trying to get them off the ferry so the cars could get on. There was a small gap of no more than three inches between the deck of the ferry and the ramp of the ferry. The donkeys refused to step over this gap. They would rather stay on the deck of the ferry where there was no food or water than step over the gap and move on to the "greener" pastures below. The herders were doing everything they could to get the donkeys to move: beating their backs with sticks, pulling their legs (literally), pushing them, and grabbing them by the nose and ears. The donkeys refused to budge. Or if they did, they would come up to the crack and circle back around onto the ferry deck. It was funny watching the whole incident.

Then it occurred to me that we can be a lot like those donkeys. We're comfortable where we are, thank you, and we don't want to move out of our comfort zone. God wants to lead us on to greener pastures and take us beside still waters, but we refuse. We'd rather settle for the slim pickings this earth has to give us than to step over the gap in faith into His arms and let Him lead us on. Sometimes God has to bring suffering or pain into our lives to get us moving and push us to step over the small crack we're afraid of. Or we're just happy to rely on all the things we possess and don't want to make a small leap of faith to trust God. God then gives us a good whack or pulls our legs, and we have to make that step of faith in pain. We question why God is doing this to us. If only we'd step over without complaining and knowing He is with us, we'd have a much more pleasant life.

Well, it took a half hour for the herders to get all those donkeys off the ferry, but they finally did, and what they left behind was their smelly detritus. I won't explain it to you, but you get the picture. It was awful. And the cars in front of us couldn't wait for the ferry workers to clean up the mess and sweep it off the ferry. We had to hold our noses when we got on and watch our step if we got out of the car. I'm not sure there was a spiritual application to that part of the journey, but I'll let you make an application if you can see one.
Maybe next time we should offer a carrot to the donkeys. NOT!! I don't think even that would have enticed them to step over the gap.


Thailand vs. Niger

Thailand is a truly and amazing and wonderful country. Nancy and I had the privilege of visiting there in March. Although I had lived in Asia (was born and lived the first four years of my life there), I had never before been in SE Asia. Nancy had never been in Asia at all. So it was quite an adventure for us.

We didn’t get to see a lot of Thailand while we were there because we were in meetings most of the time at a resort complex and we arrived and left at night, but what we saw gave us lots of room for comparison with Niger.

Of course, there are many differences. Niger is a land-locked country that is mostly desert while Thailand is situated on the ocean with a long coastline and abundant rain. Niger is on the shore of the Sahara, but we don’t have much water. Here is the view of the Gulf of Thailand that we could see every morning from the balcony of our 12th story room.

There are other differences as well. While the roads in Niger are very good for West Africa, the roads in Thailand are startlingly good. We were amazed to see so many traffic lights. And some of the lights had timers on them that digitally counted down the seconds until the light would turn red or green. In Niger we have very few traffic lights, and many of them don’t work all the time. Almost all the traffic lights are in the capital. You rarely see them outside of Niamey. In Thailand people drive on the left side of the road, and we had to constantly reverse the way we looked for traffic before crossing the road. Instead of looking first to the left, you have to look right. All of W. Africa (including Niger) drives on the right.

Another difference was the food. The staple crop of Niger is millet. Only three countries in the world have millet as the staple crop. The staple crop of Thailand is probably rice, but if I were judging by what we ate, I would say it was pineapples. About 30% of Thailand’s pineapples are exported to the United States, either in canned pineapple or as juice or in some other fashion. We can even get canned pineapple from Thailand in Niger!!! We had fresh pineapple on the table at every meal, and it was delicious and melt-in-you-mouth sweet. I am a fruit freak, and I had pineapple every single meal. There were also a variety of other fruits available, especially watermelon, banana and papaya. All these fruits we can get in Niger, but there also were some fruits that we had never seen. My two favorites were the dragon fruit, a pink pineapple-looking fruit that has white flesh with lots of little black seeds, and the rose apple, a light red, pear-shaped fruit that was crispy like an apple but was lightly sweet like an apricot. Then there was Thai food. Every night we had a choice between traditional Thai food and more western-style food. Nancy always went for the Thai food which was spicy and often had noodles with fish or Thai dumplings. It was all delicious. Our last night, we got to eat at a roadside café and really enjoyed the cuisine.

We saw very little poverty in Thailand, at least not like we see in Niger. Of course, we were in the tourist areas and Bangkok and did not get up into the countryside, and we did see some very simple dwellings (see photo), but the poverty seemed to be on a much more limited scale than we would see in Niger’s capital. Thailand looked like an economic boom town to us. That has its down side, and you are probably aware of the terrible traffic in which many in Thailand are engaged, but there were nice supermarkets, malls, several-story shops, etc. They even had Starbucks!! That’s something you don’t see in Niger. We had never been to a Starbucks before. Thailand was our first experience in a Starbucks.

The buildings in Thailand were also very different. There were lots of high-rise buildings, especially tourist hotels near the beaches, something we don’t have too much of in Niger. There were more humble dwellings, and as in Niger, there was very little wood used in construction, but many buildings were very fancy and modern-looking. Very few were made out of mud block, at least in the areas that we saw.

Another difference was, of course, the language and the religion. The language of Thailand, Thai, is spoken by about 60 million people and used all over the country, quite a contrast with Niger’s 20-odd languages, none of which is spoken by more than 10 million people in the country. Thailand is a Buddhist country, and we saw many Buddhist temples. Niger, of course, is a Muslim country. There were also huge statues of Buddha in the airport and many little shrines everywhere. We even saw a shrine outside a supermarket. The birds were eating the food offered at the shrine.

There were some surprising similarities between Niger and Thailand. The first, which wasn’t so surprising, I guess, is the weather. Both countries are, of course, in the tropics, so their weather patterns are similar, with alternating periods of dry and wet. Thailand was very humid, much like Niger is now in May. But it was nowhere near as hot as Niger in April and May. Another similarity is that Thailand was still in its dry season while we were there in March. (Niger’s dry season goes from October to May.) We were surprised at how dry everything looked. It wasn’t as brown as Niger, but the grass was often yellow, and trees looked a little limp and dry. We were told that it was the end of the dry season, and we did have one gully-wumper storm while we were there, but otherwise it was sunny and dry all day long.

Another similarity is the latitude of the country. If you look at a map, you’ll be surprised to find that Bangkok is at about 14º N latitude. That is the approximate latitude of Niamey, Niger. We thought Thailand was much farther south, towards the equator. Parts of it are, but only the long, skinny tail, down where the tsunami of 2004 hit.

There are also similarities in the transportation system. There are all kinds of cheap transport in Thailand, and vehicles often carry more people than they are supposed to. In Niger, 12-person vans called “bush taxis” are often loaded with as many as 24 people. They may also have loads on top which are taller than the taxi itself. In Thailand, they have modified pickup trucks (called “tuk-tuks” I think) with benches along the back and a step on the back for people to hang onto if the benches are full. We saw lots of people hanging onto these “tuk-tuks” and even got to ride them several times.

One of the most beautiful similarities between the two countries is the friendly people. Hospitality to strangers holds a very high place in both cultures. This is not true of the USA and most European countries, at least nowhere near at the same level. The Thai are a beautiful, hospitable people who try to make you feel at home and provide for your creature comforts. We were well cared for. Niger’s people are also very friendly and hospitable, and you can easily make friends with total strangers.

It was a great trip to Thailand, tiring with long layovers in airports (we got to visit Dubai airport for the first time and fly Emirates, one of the best airlines in the world), and we really enjoyed our visit to this wonderful country.


Toad Trivia

Here are several things I did not mention in my last blog on Téra’s toads.

You know the story about the prince that was turned into a toad by magic, and the only way to break the spell was for a princess to kiss the toad? Well, for all you princesses out there, I advise you not to kiss these toads. They are definitely not prince material and they do not live in Toad Hall.

A few weeks ago, Nancy attended the wedding of a neighbor. The women were all sitting around outside on mats in the darkness, and who should hop up to join the party but one of these wart-covered toads. One of the ladies attempted to pick up the toad to eject him from the party. You know what a toad does when you try to pick it up? Yeah, and this one let loose with all jets, and sprayed Nancy on the leg. Then, of course, there was a lot of fuss as the ladies tried to clean Nancy up and get all the sticky liquid off of her.

We’ve had a few rains in Téra recently (May 6 and May 13), and there’s been enough rain in the surrounding countryside to fill up the dry stream bed that flows not even a kilometer from our house. A few days after the first rain, we heard the bloated burping sound that many toads together make coming from the direction of the stream. We had not known the stream had filled up with water, and were surprised to hear the noise after many months of dry weather and fewer toads. Oh, well. At least we know the toads are looking for juicy insects to munch. I’ll cheer for them whenever they catch a female anopheles mosquito.

One last thing. Have you ever noticed the scum that develops on top of stagnant ponds? The Songhai have a colorful phrase for that scum. It’s one of my favorite Songhai phrases. It’s “korboto yeeri,” which translates as “toad barf.” This is no joke.


We live in Toad

Yep! That's right. How would you like to live in a place called "Toad"? Well, that's where we live. The town carries the name of Tera. In the Gourmantche language, the word Tera is a form of the word for "toad."

How did it get that name, you're probably asking? Well, the town was founded by the Gourma people many hundreds of years ago. The Gourma are an ethnic group who live next to the Songhai people and are sometimes embedded in Songhai territory. When the Gourma founded the town, they founded it on the banks of a seasonal river. Here is a picture of the river which flows right through the town of Tera.

The river is dry most of the year except for the rainy season. In the 1980's the Chinese built a big dam to hold back the water of the river and conserve it for watering plants and animals. Today we have a 4-mile long shallow lake behind that dam that provides water year round. (We're getting water for our plants from this dam--see my last blog and the part about our water shortage in Tera). Here's a picture of the lake:

Natrually there are many toads around this river. Though they don't like to be submerged in water, they like to stay where it's cool. On a breezy evening, we can hear the throaty croaking of the toads down by the river. They love to eat the insects that breed down there. The river is less than one-quarter of a mile from our house. Here is a picture of one of our African toads. Pretty, isn't he? Don't you just want to squeeze him? Actually they find our way into our house, our shoes, and our lives. They can be quite annoying, and I sometimes pick them up and throw them against the wall where they go splat.
And this is what Tera is named after: a famous city named after a lowly toad.



You know all those "Survivor" and Survivor-inspired shows on TV? We think they're a bit of a joke. They're not really about survival, just about who can claw his or her way to the top by any means possible in order to win the US$1,000,000. To us that smacks of all the worst of our society. We think we've got a better and much more intense survivor tale to tell.

Imagine that you're living in temperatures which approach or even exceed 115 F in the shade every day! Not only is it hot, it's positively exhausting. Every night you fall into bed completely worn out. Though you have an air conditioner, it's only in the bedroom, and you can only afford to use it during siesta and at night. So, though you get an adequate night's sleep, you don't feel rested. Energy is always at a low ebb. Every task takes monumental effort to accomplish. Productivity dives. You can't concentrate on any task. Your mind gets tired easily. It's easy to get cranky and snap at everyone. Everything is a dry, drab brown because it hasn't rained for over six months. You drink and drink and you don't feel satisfied. You also drink so much you don't feel too hungry because your stomach is bloated with water.

Now add to that not having any running water in the house. You have to haul in water from outside. Some of it comes in on a donkey cart each day from the dam. You use this to water plants. Occasionally, you have a barrel of clean water brought in from one of the public taps so you can wash your clothes . You also take six large plastic jugs each day to a public tap that has some water pressure and pick them up about four hours later. That provides you with drinking water and dishwashing water. Then you conserve water as much as possible. You use some of the wash water to water plants. You reuse some of the hand-washing water. You take only one spit bath a day. You can't flush your toilet because it uses too much water. And you have five adults in the house using water. And because it's so hot, you are drinking more than a gallon a day each. Constantly searching for water eats up time and energy that you would like to conserve for other tasks. It also eats up more money than the water that is supposed to be piped into your house.

In addition to all this during the first few days of the week you have only a pit six feet deep and six feet in diameter for a latrine. Since you're not using your toilet, you have to use the pit. There is no other option. The smell is horrible. The cockroaches swarm over the pit. You either have to balance on the edge to do your thing (and try hard not to fall backwards into the pit) or do it on the ground next to the pit and shovel it in when you've finished your business.

Then one night you have a scary run-in with a nasty critter. After you turn out your lights and crawl into bed and you're almost asleep, you feel something big crawling on your neck. You try to flick it off only to get a wallop of a pain in your finger. That's when you realize you've just been stung by a scorpion in bed. The pain is severe, and you can't sleep. You go outside into the hot, close air to try to while away the pain and not wake everyone else up. Two tablest of extra-strength Tylenol do nothing to quell the pain. It takes several hours for the waves of throbbing to subside. Even then sleep is fleeting.

Take all that into an environment where people are hungry and have not had enough to eat on a daily basis. The pressure to help as much as you can is very high, and you feel guilty with the abundance and variety of food you have. You can help some, but your resources are limited, and you have to say no at some point. Does this mean one or more of your friends will die of hunger? It is possible. The poverty is overwhelming, and it's hard to know how helping one person can be more than a drop in the bucket of need.

That is the situation we have been living in for most of the past two weeks. It is not for the faint at heart, and sometimes we feel so faint. You ask who was stung by the scorpion? It was Nancy on the night of Thursday, April 5. The latrine was repaired by the middle of the first week, but not before we wondered if we could make it through one more day without some kind of toilet facilities. The cockroaches are just as bad at night, however. The temperatures this hot season have been some of the highest we have ever seen in Niger. In fact, on April 4, we recorded a high of 116 F in the shade, the highest temperature we have ever seen in this country. The water problems continued throughout the two weeks of the Easter break while we had our kids home and at first, Jeremy, then a son of friends. We had to refuse to accept other visitors because we simply couldn't keep up with water for any more people.

After all that, are we surviving? Sometimes it seems like we're barely handling everything. And you still have to cope with culture and the difficulties believers and the church face in this land. Sometimes it seems like too much to handle. That's life in Niger. Hot season is always the most difficult time.

"Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose trust is in the Lord.
For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream,
And will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green,
And it will not become anxious in a year of drought, nor cease to yield fruit."

Jeremiah 17.7-8


Tom Sawyer--African Style

Remember the scene in Mark Twain's novel Tom Sawyer where Tom has been told to paint the fence as a punishment for some misdeed? What does he do? He manages to make it look like so much fun that everybody else wants to do it. So, pretty soon, there are enough people painting the fence that Tom doesn't have to do it at all. He just sits back and watches them do all the work and take his punishment.

Now this scene has been repeated in the heart of Africa. "How's that," you say? Well, it is African style, and the names have been changed, but it's much like the scene out of the novel.

Let's say you want to collect manure. "Manure," you say? Yeah, lots of cow and sheep dung. Well, what you do is go down to the edge of the dam where the animals come to drink and people bring their animal-drawn carts to get water. There's lots of manure there. You get out of your truck and start picking up the stuff (with gloves, of course). Pretty soon you'll have a crowd of curious onlookers who wonder what you're doing. Then some of them start helping you.

It doesn't take long, with lots of willing little helpers, to fill up the back of a pickup truck....and they don't have gloves!

But after a full morning of collecting the stuff in the hot sun, you come home pooped!

Now you're probably wondering why in the world we would be collecting manure. Well, we're making compost, and one of the key ingredients in compost is manure. Sheep and goat dung are the best, but big cow pies are the easiest to find and collect. So, we get as much as will fill the back of our truck, take it to our house where we've dug a pit, mix it with lots of good compostable material (in our case the only really good thing is the chaff off the millet), water it for a few weeks, and presto! lots of good compost. We are going to use the compost to make what is known as zai holes. These are small round holes you dig in your field. Into each hole you put a shovel full of compost. The compost not only enriches the soil, it also holds in the moisture (otherwise it sinks down into the endless sand) and helps prevent weeds from growing. Making zai holes in a field can double or even triple the crop yield, but it is very hard, labor-intensive work. We have decided to plant millet on our church property this year and use the grain to help feed the poor. Jeremy has already dug a lot of holes on the property (see photo), and a team coming up March 9-11 from Sahel Academy will dig more.

So the next time you want to play Tom Sawyer, come to Africa and help us collect manure.


Found--My Double

During the past few months, I have been mistaken for the same famous person on two separate occasions. Both times it was by kids, but it was in two different locations, once in Tera and once in Niamey. The first time, in Tera, I heard two little boys in the street arguing about my identity as I walked by. One said I was the famous person. The other one said, "No way." So, they asked me, "Are you ______?" To throw them off, I said, "Yes." (All this conversation was in Songhai, by the way.) The first little boy turned to the second and said, "See, I told you."

The next time it happened, I was running in Niamey, and I a heard a young boy yell out to me using the famous person's name as I ran by.

Now, who is the famous person, you ask? His name is Zinedine Zidane, one of the most famous footballers in the world. For those of you Americans who are not up on the world sport of football (or soccer as it's called in America), you may not have hear of Zizou, as he is affectionately called in France. He is one of the greatest footballers of all time. He led France to a FIFA World Cup victory in 1998 and has played for European teams for many years. This past year during the final of the World Cup in which France challenged Italy, Zizou committed an unpardonable foul by butting one of the opposing Itialian players with his head in the last minutes of overtime. He was red carded and some believe he lost the cup for France. Be that as it may, he still won the most valuable player of the tournament award. He is getting old for the sport now (he will turn 35 this year), but he is still recognized as one of the world's top players.

But the weird thing is that he bears a striking resemblance to me. Or at least some kids think so at first glance. What do you think?



Have you ever tried to look directly at the sun? If you have, you know that it's nearly impossible. And you've all heard the warnings about the sun's damaging effects on the eyes if you look at the sun. Well, here's a new twist on that story.

In Niger, there are times you can look directly at the sun without any effect on your eyes. Yes, it's true. It's because of a weather phenomenon known as the "harmattan." The harmattan is a wind that blows from the north and east during the dry months of the year. For us in West Africa, that means off the Sahara. Often, especially from November to March the wind is laden with a fine, gray, Sahara dust. This dust chokes up the atmosphere and may reduce visibility to less than a mile. It also chokes up your lungs, and for those who are allergic to dust (like my daughter Suzanne and me), it can make it hard to breathe. Notice the picture above. This is what the air looks like on a dusty, harmattan day. It's gray and looks like it might be about to snow. That's the actual color in the late afternoon. I haven't doctored up the picture at all.

The word "harmattan" technically refers to the wind, but it is often used simply to refer to the dust blown in by the wind, as in, "The harmattan is thick today." All in all, the harmattan dust creates a ghostly glow day and night while it lasts. The harmattan does not continue incessantly for five months. Some days are clear, crisp, and cool. But it may last as long as seven days at a time, sometimes longer. When the harmattan is bad, you can wipe your table off in the morning, and you can come back at lunchtime and write your name in the dust that has collected on the table in the past four hours. It doesn't do any good to close your windows, either. The dust has an uncanny ability to find all the little cracks and holes in your house's armor and seeps in on the fierce wind. It is hard to keep your house clean, but remember: eveyone's house looks like this, so you either live with it or spend your entire day cleaning and then starting all over again.

When the dust is really thick, you can look directly at the sun without any problem. And it won't hurt your eyes. The following picture was taken just outside of Tera at about 8 a.m. Notice the dusky yellow orb in the sky. That is the sun.
Now doesn't that make you want to come and see Niger? There are advantages to living here. You can do things you would never be able to do back "home."
This year we've had some of the worst dust I've ever seen, and it's lasted longer than most times I can remember in the past, sometimes more than a week. We've also had some of the coldest temperatures on record. On Dec 10, we recorded 49 F, the second lowest temperature we've ever seen in Niger. Since the beginning of December most nights have been in the low to mid 50s. December's average high was about 10 F lower than last year. The same is true of the average low. So, we're having a lot more dust and cold this year than normal. And we hear that the northeast US is having a much warmer winter than normal. Go figure.