Monday, June 26, 2017

My Butterfly Effect

One of the fun things about being a parent is that you can teach your children facts and reality as you perceive them. I have named our new home in Africa "La Maison Des Papillons" (The House of Butterflies) and am proceeding to teach them a completely incorrect version of the Butterfly Effect. 

Life in Africa has been a daily struggle and adventure. I have taken the opportunity to create my own butterfly effect of small acts of kindness and goodwill to try and always teach by example. 

Initially, we basically stayed within the walls of our house following strict security guidelines and what we were told about our neighborhood. In this time I decorated our metal interior doors and the wrought iron stair rail with dozens of lifelike and life sized butterflies to remind my daughter of home (she had a butterfly room and we used to visit the butterfly pavilion at the local Museum of Life and Science on a weekly basis)  and break up the whiteness of our new embassy provided house. When we did go out I try to smile at everyone and greet each person I see with a smile and "Bon Jour" or "Bon Soir" depending on the time of day. 

In our first month here I met an artist, Boubacar Djibo, who has a small metal shack where he sells his paintings at one end of our street. He was patient with my broken French and we found a way to communicate. Boubacar loves Niger and it is reflected in all of his paintings of local scenes and nature. He wants the rest of the world to see the joy and beauty here. I asked him to come and paint a mural in our living room; now we have large trees, some bright flowers and two large butterflies adorning the walls. My children were enthralled by our artist in residence and painted along with him as they rediscovered their love of art. 

In an earlier post I described how one of the first plants I recognized to fill my new garden with was a lantana, so we have a butterfly garden. I finally had an open house and in the invitation told everyone that we lived in "La Maison Des Papillons." Our first party was also a showcase of Boubacar's recent works to support the artist and share some of the bright colors with all in our acquaintance. I also printed out the wikipedia definition of "the butterfly effect" and scattered it on coffee tables. 

As each day brings whatever new challenge or pain for me, I try to be as relentlessly positive and friendly to those around me as I see so many other people who struggle to survive.  That is the challenge of living in Niger: we are surrounded by profound poverty. Outside our walls are naked children. When I drive around the city, children swarm my car every time I am stopped in the chaos of traffic. I try to keep extra bars, candy or change to always give them. When I don't have anything I smile and apologize. I never ignore them or pretend they aren't there. I also can't stay home; somehow I still need to go to the store everyday for milk, juice or bread. Now, when I run this errand I am grateful of the luxury of affording whatever food or whim my children have and being able to quickly meet that need. 

I've tried to unlock the city by driving around and being courageous. Others in my position have retreated to their homes but I want to understand where we are and in each interaction give a positive impression of Americans who are compassionate and good. We have a military presence in Niger and a travel warning that had scared away the tourists that were one of the main sources of income for many different sectors. If shopping for handicrafts can be a force of good then I am a superhero. With the help of a missionary friend I ventured into the local fabric markets and have had long skirts made.  It only took one assisted trip before I had befriended a few merchants and have since returned numerous times myself and with others, my daughter has a wardrobe of new dresses. The bright fabrics are addictive, I love to buy them but lack the vision to design interesting things to make with them so for now am hoarding fabric. 

We have found an orphanage to help, they are on Facebook at REMAR Niger. Initially the trips were planned by someone at the embassy but she has moved on and now the activity is mine to plan. When we arrive the children line up and sing to us, in order of size the rock back and forth while bursting with a hymnal. The local law prevents Americans from adopting. Last month I prepared for our trip by purchasing candy, a bushel of mangoes and printing out sheets of Maya Angelou and Serena Williams to color. I also found a French translation of the poem “Still I Rise" and printed out several copies for the older girls. After the children sang to us one of the older girls read the poem and the everyone colored a picture. On a previous trip when we gave them bunnies to color they gave us back the pages at the end of the visit. This time they focused on coloring a picture of a woman who looked like them and wrote famous words with reverence and concentration. As they finished I noticed them slipping away to put the finished pictures in their private hiding spots to treasure, no one offered to give us back their finished work. 

Niger has recently been rated the worst country to be a female child. I don't want to blog about the sadness I have witnessed. Each day I try through my actions to send ripples of a little joy and inspiration. 

Here I have a gardener, a nanny who helps with the housework and a lovely woman who comes to make dinner. I hoped that this help would give me space to rest and feel better. It may be the heat (average temp last month was 110) or that I still wake at 5:30 to make pancakes and interact with my children, but I find that I am overcome by fatigue and pain every afternoon. Fortunately, I can sleep for a few hours. 



A decade ago when I was very sick, a family member asked "what would you do if you lived in Africa?" trying to imply that my fibromyalgia wasn't real and that as a twenty something I needed to "tough it out" for the sake of the family. Now I know what I would do in Africa. I keep a positive outlook, take care of my children first, and help as much as I can before the pain and fatigue drag me into bed.