Damn Good Biking

Damn Good Biking
Mammath Mountain

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Why we come

It should come as no suprise that we all venture out into the world for different reasons and there is no absolute guidline of how we are supposed to percieve our experiances or react to them. My former enlistment in the military made me appreciate the sanctity of life and listen and learn from my vetran patients about the horrors of war and the each soldiers attempt to regain thier humanity after surviving combat. My path to the Peace Corps is a direct result of my personal conflicts of serving in a military but there many other tales to tell.

Despite a strong anti war presence throughout the world much of America still seems oblivious to the horror of war or the folly of our decision to enter Iraq. The Iraq war has impacted so many lives and despite there being no lack of stories to share we still find ourselves shamefully unaware or aloof to what is really happening there. It is imparitive that we all strive towards a better understanding of this incredible event in history and then maybe we can strive to change some error of our ways.

This blog is a soldiers story, a story about a friend currently serving in Niger after his tour in Iraq. Matt is the same character spoken of when I wandered over to the Goethe region and observed the gold rush in the post prior to this one. Originally posted on a blog titled farmsnotarms.org, he wrote this as he comes to terms with a former life and begins a new one. I hope noone minds me reposting this tale. It most certainly is a good waste of time, or continue being oblivious to the realities of the Iraq war, you decide.

This is one soldiers story.

PVC Matthew Mccue is an Iraq War vet turned farmer and member of Farm Not Arms. He is now teaching Agriculture for the PeaceCorps in Niger, Africa.

Swords to Plowshares – One Soldier’s Story PVC Matthew Mccue.

My hoe strikes the ground every time I take a step. A local woman follows behind, tossing seeds in the holes that I dig. The West African sun beats down without mercy but I keep working. The soil is a well weathered remnant of the jungle that used to dominate the arid land that is now known as the Sahel. I am planting millet, one of the most robust crops known to man. I can not create or even fully control what will spring up from this seemingly barren field. I can only guide it.

You can cover a soldier with night vision, Kevlar, GPS tracking systems, advanced infantry weapons, put him in a Bradley fighting vehicle, and send him in to battle but without his or her personal force and motivation the equipment reveals itself for what it is: lifeless machinery. If I tell you of my experience in combat surely you will be able to read a story with more bravado, more blood, more adrenaline, and more pain. I can tell you that to kill you have to shut off a piece of your heart, and to see another soldier die will shatter what is left of it. To function you have to become immersed in the machine that is killing you and keeping you alive at the same time. You have to bring life to the machine.

Rather than thinking of Iraq as the place where my heart was broken and my mind was controlled I prefer to think of Iraq as the place where I discovered the key to my freedom. I prefer to remember the trucks full of watermelons and pomegranates that would pass through our checkpoints. I felt strangely human as I waved cars by with pomegranate seeds stuck to my Kevlar vest.

I witnessed many unforgettable things in Iraq but the aspect that changed my life more than any other was the way the farmers kept working and selling their produce through the chaos of a regime change. Farmers have a quiet power that made me realize that I could not accomplish anything good for the world with my M16 in hand. It was in Iraq eating fruit that I realized that I needed to find a new way to think. It was also in Iraq that I learned to hide how I felt.

I returned to Fort Hood, Texas a newly promoted sergeant. I spent the next seven months training kids how to kill. At night I would find myself in my room listening to anti-war music as I prepared for the next day of training.

When my time was up and I left, I had no clue what to do. As an accomplished infantryman I could become a cop, private soldier or oil rig worker. I chose to collect unemployment and climb mountains in the Pacific Northwest. Unemployment ran out and through a series of events that included a summer stint in Alaska as a commercial fisherman, I found myself in Pahoa, Hawaii. I came to volunteer on a five acre permaculture farm owned by a friend of a friend. It was there that I stopped being a soldier.

I learned about the concept of sustainability and how to compost. I saw so many beautiful plants and learned so much I was almost overwhelmed. I was secretly still afraid of getting mortared or running over an IED as we would drive into Hilo. I took up bogie boarding and faced a very real and logical fear of drowning because I am a weak swimmer.

As I look back, my time in Hawaii was priceless. It was there that I applied for the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Because of my lack of experience and formal education I really had no idea if they would let me into their six-month apprentice program, but in April 2006 I found myself setting up my two-person tent on the edge of one of the fields.

It took about three seconds for me to realize that I had found a very special place. I spent the next six months with the smartest group I have ever worked with and ended up in a heated discussion about every day. My most frequent debate partners were the people I loved the most. Just about everyone knew more about horticulture than me. Everybody taught me something.

I would still go to sleep afraid of mortars but the joy of the present and anticipation of the next harvest made the past seem to loosen its grip on my life. I learned more from six months on a college farm in Santa Cruz than four years in the Military. I escaped the army without a scratch -- but before learning to care for life I was caught in a slow death with nothing to watch but my own mortality and the horrifying news.

I feel like the luckiest person alive because as I work in my field in west Africa my body becomes stronger and I am no longer an observer of the quiet beauty, I am a caretaker. Having been very effectively conditioned to kill and accept death, taking care of plants has had a kind of opposite effect on my mind, heart, and soul.

Sometimes I feel that the torment that has plagued me during and after my time in Iraq was just the plowing of the field of my heart before the deep rooted seed of peace and sustainability could grow within my soul.

The quiet power of farming has overtaken me and I no longer live in fear.

Farms Not Arms is made up of farmers seeking a more peaceful world. Our Swords to Plowshares project makes our farms available to Iraq and Afghan War vets looking for employment, job training and places to heal.

In California we are forming a non-political Farmer-Veteran Coalition, bringing together the farming community with veterans, their advocates and their survivors so we can help care for the disproportionately large number of veterans that are returning to rural America, and bring new energy to our farms.

Farms Not Arms and the Farmer-Veteran Coalition will offer scholarship assistance to any returning veterans that wish to attend the Agroecology apprentice program that Matthew did at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Yellow Fever. A modern day gold rush

On the road...

Okay currently returned from a wonderful road trip to the river basin area of Goethe it was amazing. I have to admit openly that my feelings were hurt when my language assignment was to Hausaland. My only preferences for the Peace Corps was put me somewhere with rivers, mountains or forest to disappear in from time to time. But make it Africa, but we know how this ends so we will leave it at that.

In the Goethe region there are a couple of friends who wanted me to come and visit and since the work in my field was completed there was a lull period perfect to escape from my village and come to Niamey and visit some new country. This trip is practically my first real trip on my own, until now my travels have been with others to group events.

This was my first experiance of feeling confident enough in my own abilities to wander off in my fashion into new territory. So off to river country I went, armed with my trusty mando and a change of clothes my goals were to visit with my agropheliac friend, play music, and help him work in his field while hang out with the Goethe “A-Team” afterwards.

Matt is an odd ball socially-awkward Iraq war veteran who never seems to stop moving until collapsing in a exhausted heap, and also happens to be my favorite musician to play my mandolin with. Plus it was time to come out west and boast on the greatness of my field (It turned competitive with matt). He has a good field but the bone head hadn’t planted trees yet!!!

On my way to his village I learned of a gold mine shanty town and then talked with my friends about visiting the place if time permitted. Turns out they were needing to go anyways to sort out some plans. So after a long day of planting trees and thinning out and weeding his sesame’ field we decided a hard days work should be rewarded with a rest day. We considered our rest day to be a 18km round trip walk through the bush in 100F+ heat to visit a gold mine boom town.

When I first learned of this place the oppertunity to witness an African shanty town ripe with the yellow fever was to tempting to pass on. Sure beats watching reruns right?

Prior to arriving my mind wandered onto all the tales of western gold towns and the global similarity of the corruption, culture, and societal ills that plague every establishment of the raw extraction of precious resources. Congo Moussa was found not to be devoid of these preconceived notions. Guised as real work our goal for the day was to observe the conditions of the settlement and speak with the chief gendarme and a very generous woman wishing to establish with an impending Peace Corps event related to AIDS education and safe sex.

Walking into the shanty town one immediately sees the red clay covered equipment used to separate the unearthed clay in search of the yellow. Cesspools of stagnate water signify each camps purpose for taking up residence in this shanty town. Distinct in the cultural regard that nearly all the people met thus far seem to be farmers first and something else second. In congo everyone is mining for gold first and working something second, or thirdly. Life appears temporary and difficult in this place everyone has their own dreams but they all share the same dream while burrowing through the subterranean veins.

The only signs of permanence are the mud bricked cafes that double as commercial stores to buy prepackaged fresh water and other items such as milk, tea, coffee, batteries.
The lack of permanent structures and the most basic of essentials such as a fresh water supply is absent in this town. To choose to live in Congo one has to scrounge to survive and pay for everything in its inflated market value.

Congo is isolated many miles away from a market town and separated by a temporary river than runs voluminously during rainy season. Despite its isolation “Congo Moussa aptly provides everything from flashy clothes, radios, liquor and prostitution. This community is everything expected one would expect to witness first hand as a typical place to strike it quick and spend big when gold is found. Everything is in abundance to bleed the irresponsible dry.

We had a Nigerien guide from Matt’s village who quietly showed us the location of the abysmally dangerous holes where the men lowered themselves in on long vines strewn together consisting of tree branches and ripped chords to fasten from nylon sacks. The one meter circular holes are hand dug and bore straight down to luggie guesstimated measurement of ninety feet. At the bottom of the shafts there is networked labyrinth of dangerous lateral tunnels sprawled underneath the settlement. Our guide in his fashionable clothes, accessories and athletic shoes weaved us through the village and even pointed out the hole he once worked in. With an emotional detachment he spoke frequent of deaths attributed to cave-ins and the numerous health hazards such as black lung. I do not recall on him commenting on the prevalence of STD’s related to the sex industry but from our first five minutes in congo “Eye Spied” working girls.

As stated earlier the mission for the day in Congo Moussa was to establish an opportunity to conduct sensibilisations on safe sex and HIV/aids awareness. Due to not speaking the local language (Zarma) or being from this region my goal wasn’t to do anything more than focus on observing activities and taking in the local culture. With my goal achieved an incredible experience was gained and my understanding of the reoccurring theme of precious natural resource extraction and the modern day exploitation and culture related to gold mining was acquired. Our journey into the bush in search of this village was an incredibly educational and pleasurable experience for all of us. These types of trips are crucial to understanding the dynamic of this culture and its desperation to cling to any resource available.

My goal for the next few months is to embark on as many trips as time allows and observe, interact, and learn as much about Niger as possible.

Or maybe I will just continue to do what I love most which is just to wander and pick out a few tunes on my mandolin and learn about life somewhere else.

And some think Peace Corps is just a two year vacation......... Well okay it is actually.

Monday, August 6, 2007



It has come to my attention from current PCV’s that some of their family members have appreciated the site. So thank you for reading and I promise your daughters are in good hands....he..hehehehehe. I am kidding of course.

Also it has been wonderful learning to use this medium to express my thoughts and convey my experiences with others and it never ceases to thrill me to be contacted from friends and family who have been coming out of the woodwork and we have had the opportunity to catch up on many lost years. So if you are one of the stumblers onto my site and have any questions or comments, or one of the out of the woodwork folk please don’t hesitate to contact me via email at wayfaringpeacefully@gmail.com

Your questions help me sort out this whole mess that I find myself about ears deep in so really shoot away. But “sai hankuri” (have patience) for the time being internet access is limited so if you do not get a response sit tight I’ll get to you.

As my experiences continue to grow so will the site so if you know anyone interested in what’s happening here please pass along the site.

Thank you all so much for all the emails, comments, phone calls, gift packages, prayers, and any other form of the “hey josh” ways you show your love. Thanks, Thanks, Thanks.


Also go to the bottom of the page for my current mailing address. I like anything, jerky, dried fruit, new movies, (DVDs), new music for my Mp3 player and computer. Please no bubble gum pop music, The return postage is murder.

Update from the Frontline. 8-6-07

Greeting wayfaring readers,

Well time to catch you all up on all things Niger, or how Niger pertains to yours truly here anyways. First off thank you all so very much for the very wonderful packages from home, last month was a really tight month since this poor boy was flat broke and would have starved without your generosity. Don’t worry about me my pockets are lined with all sorts of colorful play money now and will be washed out like the roads from existence very soon. This brings me to my current forward fighting position.

Last week after two months of spending all my time in my field, it fills my heart will joy to announce that after planting the last of my trees “pomme de sahels” or (Sahelian Apple Trees) what was once a great field is now simply amazing. Don’t take my word for it ask my villagers...ah can’t reach them on your smoke signaling device from home...well then take it from me they are impressed, my boss came to visit me and he left very impressed, and after being in Niamey for the last couple of days and when the other folks heard about my field, they were impressed. But not until after informing them that two plots were filled with sweet corn and that the sweet corn should be ready by next month. Just in time for my next trip to Niamey for the next groups swear in and Peace Corps 45th anniversary in Niger, and that said sweet corn might just be shared freely.

Apparently the thing I learned about this whole farming experience is that you can take the boy away from the sweet corn, but when the family sends him sweet corn seeds everyone want to be friends with the boy with the sweet corn. Giving up my vain attempts to spout socialist propaganda or cull the spread of American imperialism and the vexing ills of corporate governance. I decided its best just to allow the best of America come to Niger and man that’s sweet corn. My villagers didn’t really know what the how wonderful the magical seeds really are, but man if the all didn’t want some to plant in their houses, and did. So what the hell I might never convince them or myself that our war in Iraq wasn’t a bad thing or that no really Bush is a good president. Yeah they don’t even come close to buying that. But they do love Clinton and Reagan But by hell or high Shelia flood water they will love the best of the American hot season (summer) and that is sweet corn. Or the annual Willie Nelson 4th o’ July bash.

Sorry, about 3 or 4 days with little to no sleep. Last night after going to bed I was accosted by mosquitoes so I might be a little scatter brained. About 0400 the pests woke me up after a tosser of a sleep and then they carried my away from my bed about 0400 this morning to the computer lab where I sit freezing in the air conditioned computer lab of the peace corps headquarters. Shivering and bloodshot, really suffering just to bring you all up to date on things here, so please bear with me.

As you have all surmised from previous post, travel in Niger is perilous, it sucks. My trip from Maradi to Niamey was pretty much uneventful besides the multiple people vomiting all around me and the soaking wet cloths due to the monsoon weather we had. Once it would be nice on the bus not to have to be exposed to or slimed by another’s bodily fluids on a bus ride in Niger but even I was fighting the urge due to the two hour detour through the bush (seriously) around the washed-out bridge on the National Highway. Due to heavy rains the roads are in terrible conditions more so than usual and that’s saying something. The day before yesterday a bus overturned and killed about ten people or so thank goodness none of us were on the bus, but seriously as much as we all ride the buses and bush taxi’s across country it is amazing that more serious accidents do occur. It’s a numbers game I guess and I am really nervous about traveling as it is all ready so this doesn’t help things.

Okay something a little more jovial to hear about what do you say.

Why am I in Niamey? Why not. I have been working extremely hard, my field is finished and just needs a little time alone so why not come to Niamey and spend my hard earned money. Not to mention really needed to escape from my new roommate (which I will get into next) No it’s really nice to leave me region and come to the capitol and eat at nice restaurants and enjoy some time with estranged friends on this side of the country. The super bonus is playing some music with the inclined here. There really is an enduring cruelty to keep me away from things I love most in this country. First I am a river rat. The only preference I had was to send me to a country with rivers to navigate or wilderness or mountains to climb. Niger. Go figure. Do not go in the water! Doesn’t even need to be posted, bad things float there, and it’s not a baby Ruth if you remember caddy shack. Next, as a budding mandolin player it was gods send to learn there were other musicians here and half of those prefer playing bluegrass, for the moment fortune favored me, YES!!! And then guess where they are....give up Niamey. Or close to anyway, and where am I? ...A grueling 14 hour bus ride away.

As for my roommate, yeah that is a good one. It is only a matter of time before the Peace Corps discovers this and really flips, probably for the best.

Okay, so the other day a camera crew comes to film a documentary in my village about gender development and when the film crew leaves they leave one behind, who I then learn was voted off the island and now will be the star of a reality series about what happens when a Nigerien PhD student moves in with a bewildered peace corps volunteer. Sometimes it feels like my life is suffering from the post traumatic kind of experience similar to waking up after a college keg party pass out and waking up the next seven months saying “Where the !#%# am I?

All my villagers said that day was “Nazifi are you happy you are having a visitor” Huh? “He’s staying for four months!”...after they move all his stuff in. “OH SHIT!!!” How does one say “ARE YOU #$^%$#@ KIDDING ME!!!!!) My house is smaller than a jail cell, and my yoga in the morning is usually in the buff or near so every morning, plus not that it bothers me to have strangers move into my house, if you know my family, which is future blog entry soon explaining this, then you would understand more clearly. So as fate would have it that first night the rains came and guess that was sleeping intimately close to this guy....I didn’t even know his name. Still stunned by this chain of events the next day my boss came, there was a free ride back to Maradi, so like a NRA member on a gun expo model I was on that truck. In twenty minutes after planting my apple trees, bathing, packing, and ready to get the heck away from my village all I said to him was here are the keys and don’t drink all the beer in the fridge. “Huh?” “Never mind man, see you in ten days”

Well today should be exciting I am crossing into unknown territory to explore the Goethe region and will be visiting friends, playing mando, and planting trees with my fiercely competitive friend one up me in my field. But guess what he ain’t got no sweet corn, so no one wants to play with him.

Peace Out, I’ll write more if my canoe makes it across the Niger River today. The bridge is washed out.

Yeah sorry about the messy blog entry.