Damn Good Biking

Damn Good Biking
Mammath Mountain

Sunday, October 28, 2007

News from our Situation

Okay clan, here is what’ s going on.

I am in Niamey, a group of us have gotten together and we are going to fight!

Matt is completely on board and is going to refuse to return to Iraq, so we have a lot of work to do, but with a unified message and the help of everyone this will catch a fire.

Concerning our message we wish to stay out of the politics of the debate, this issue with Matt is beyond the legitimacy or status of the Iraq war, this is a human issue. We want to raise the issue of matt’s problem and fix this situation, peace corps volunteers are serving our country, and they should be allowed to continue thier service.

We need to strive towards influencing key legislators, especially in New Mexico (matt's home state) and change department of defense policy and prevent this from reoccurring in the future.

I have finally calmed down and have accepted the situation, but however the question remains?

What does it say about the Peace Corps or America when we start pulling our peace makers out of their post to go off to war?

Initially this has been devastating to the morale of everyone in PC Niger, but many have rallied together and we realize that we do have a chance to get what we want, now we just have to generate the buzz.

Last night was a pretty difficult evening, Matt and I and a few others gathered at a friends house and we played, oh lord we played. Throughout the night many misty eyes were looked on as matt and I jammed, we all thought this was the end.

Fortunately Air France is having a little strike or protest, so they are not able to fly Matt out of the country until Tuesday so we are going to have a few extra nights with him until he departs and get everything strted. I will for sure be in Niamey until Tuesday or Wednesday 30th/31st, so call, email, text, if your in.

But man we all needed to unwind last night, we were all at our nerves ends, so thank you “mai gida” (head of the house hold) for the great food, fantastic beverages and providing a place we could sit around, relax, and be allowed without distraction to do what we do best with our imaginations and instruments. Damn I am going to miss our jam sessions!!!!

Currently we are coming together and there are many things in the works to get things moving. So by Tuesday there should an information packet for everyone to have and use for wide spread dispersion.

It cannot be stress enough, this needs to get out, and we need to be out there promoting peace.

So as Matt begins his legal battle and other obstacles I will be coming home in a month for support and if possible we are going to try and connect and hit the road so to speak, talk with groups, media, who ever.

It is critical that we get out and start promoting peace and talk about how matt is going to help vets with his veterans farm. We also have a lot to share about what its like to promote peace, work towards establishing food security, and many other ramblings.

Damn it feels good to be able to joke about this now, seriously the tension has been thick.

As for my own movements, its true that christmas is a difficult time to mobilize or arrange for events but I am coming home the 13th and by the 14th I am willing to come to schools, churches or where ever to start talking with people about this, or just my work in development in general.

If the situation demands, I might be able to extend my time back in the states to work on this issue so seriously guys use us. But remember we make 7$ a day so our resources are limited.

Okay we are having a meeting in about an hour and I’ll keep you up on our efforts.

I also have a lot of good news to tell about my last month of being at post, So much has happened, in essence the entire dynamic of my village life has changed and its all choice stuff.

So hang in there, I am doing better, thanks to the some of you that have already started mobilizing back home, and those who have supported us already.

Yours in peace,


Its time to catch a fire!!!!

Now Listen.
this is just to inform you all of current events more official things will be posted soon.
Those of you who know me well know how happy I am here, but in light of recent events the skies have clouded and a storm is brewing in my future and I think I am going everyone’s support and love to pull through this.

Mere days ago I learned that my good friend Matthew Mc Cue who is currently serving in Peace Corps with me is at this time being released from the responsibilities of his Peace Corps service and is being handed redeployed orders to serve another tour as a infantry soldier in Iraq.
A couple of years ago Matt served distinguishably as an infantry platoon sergeant leading his soldiers into the thickest swarms of the urban warfare landscape leaving alive, but in serious need for coming to terms with his war.

Matt’s’ solace was discovered though horticulture and his gifts to humanity and his own personal healing have blossomed beautifully by his understanding of how to nurture life instead of take it. Years spent after his war has been devoted to healing, moving on, and learning how to positively impact other returning veterans.

A few weeks ago matt was recognized for his involvement towards reconciliation and outreach and was flown to the United States to speak about his story at the Farms not Arms Rally, and was also invited as a guest to attend the recent Farm Aid concert. Matt doesn’t involve himself with politics, or committing himself to bipartisan opinions, he lives, he grows things, and he enlightens the word through his work and his self styled “socially sloppy” goofy way of walking through life.

As a result of this act of courageousness he feels he is being punished for his involvement and has been ordered to return to the place that nearly destroyed him. Our goal is to cease the continuing madness and struggle to keep people like matt exactly where they belong.

Waging Peace not War!

What ever your opinion of the war is, or political affiliation, this is not the place or time. If you feel this is an injustice to those who wage peace, and those who served their time then....

This is a time for action.
This is a man who served, did his time, and has healed healthily and continues to reach out to help others unselfishly.

Matt’s goal after the Peace Corps is to attend a horticulture institute and build on his passion for horticulture and promote recovery for other returning vets by establishing farming communities and opportunities for other veterans transitioning from the struggles of Iraq to the United States.

This is a case of those who struggle for peace but are swallowed up by the tidal wave of injustice spread by war.

As the first night of this news slowly digested we thought naively that this had to be unprecedented but sources higher up say Matt is not alone. Since the war has been going on what will be the onset of its 5th year this coming march, many vets who were answering the call for service once again but this time,for peace, are being pulled from our ranks to join the military’s due to contractual agreements after their service.

What kind of days are we living in when answering the call to serve others for peace is trumped by the war?

Though I am former military but not a veteran I as well as many others consider ourselves just that after our Peace Corps service, and we will answer or stand as such when the time comes to honor and recognize the efforts of others.
As Peace Corps volunteers we serve humanities need at great sacrifice to our health, family, and personal lives. Everything we are is invested and challenged for at least two years, some have even lost thier lives in service to our country and humanity.

Do you think this warrants exemption from the recall contract with the military?

Then if so we have a fight and we are going to need everyones help.

Make no mistake about it, matt left with his physical health and the ability to heal emotionally the last tour, if he goes back the chance of returning with either is limited to deathly narrow margins.

As of Sunday, October 28th Matt will leave Niger with an uncertainty of his outcome, in a month I am coming home and I will be silent no more.

As soon as we put together our plan we will need the complete mobilization of our peace movement; we need contacts back in the states to inform everyone possible of this injustice. I know I am coming home in the worst time of the year to do this, but the time to stand up and speak doesn’t adhere to a seasonal calendar.

Matt’s story is the dose of medicine our country needs to stop, listen, and come to the understanding that we tried war, it didn’t take.


My phone number her is 227 96 43 45 22 and I can send and receive text messages any time, but can only speak on the phone on Mondays when I go to my market or to my regional hostel. Which for the next week I will have cell service. Call!!!

In these times both sides are mobilized and when these occasions arise it is the responsibility of the meek, and peacemakers to stand together to show how effective and courageous believing in peace really is.

If you wish to mobilize with us the time is now. Call text, email, write comments on my blog, send this story out, get it generating.
There will be ensuing blog entries and emails that will detail our plan of action so please stay posted, but have patience.

Aside from this development my plan is still to come home and spread my experiences of working as a development worker living in West Africa. My goal is to speak about development issues and raise awareness of this monstrous event.
If you are interested in having me, matt or the both of us to speak, play music, or whatever, please do not hesitate to contact me.
With tears,
and peace steadily guiding my hand….
I love you all.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

My Goings-Ons

Rainy season has come and gone, my field has developed beyond any of my expectations and harvest season will be ensuing for the next couple of weeks. My plan for the next two months before coming home is to burrow into my village and work on integrating, language, and a few other things…

What may those other things be? Glad you asked.

Well after harvest season at about the mid-to end of October I will be heading to Zinder to pick up my computer so I can begin making videos and other multimedia morsels of my existence here. Its all for you peeps!!

It’s about a 3-4 hour bus ride east of Maradi, I plan on traveling by bus this time, but prior to leaving for ‘merica my plans are to ride my bike with a couple of friends from Zinder to Maradi. This will probably take two days and will be a good test run prior to achieving my ultimate goal. Riding from Zinder to Niamey. This epic trip is virtually cross country and should prove to be an amazing opportunity to see some beautiful country and meet some new people. It should take about two weeks and will probably be achieved prior to next hot season.

Waskally Wabbits!!

I am getting into the rabbit business, and my villagers seem incredibly excited to start working with rabbits. After harvest season I am going to purchase three or four rabbits and let them get busy. Might have to name my house the “Bunny Ranch”

My goal for this project is to create a lucrative business venture for women and children in my village and ultimately provide households with a cheap plentiful supply of meat.

Prior to coming to Maradi a month ago my villagers were heckling me saying “why you leaving” your never here” why you going to Maradi”…Well I am going to look into raising rabbits here….”you are?”….”Then why are you here, get going we want rabbits”

All I need to do is build a couple of hutches and start forming a women and childrens group with individuals motivated to work with the rabbits.

The Goat Lane Project.

Now this is kind of a regional development idea that popped in after wandering around the bush and looking at peoples field. I started to recognize good things that my villagers were doing such as planting trees for construction, fuel, and food along the paths adjoining their fields. Then I saw that others were building living fences with bushes, and shrubs both for field protection and for animal food. Shizam!

Why not plant trees all the way out of the villages and intercropping trees for food, fuel, construction and firewood as well as field protection!!!

So to achieve this I am going to have to pool a lot of resources together and find some funding for building a bigger tree nursery. Recruit farmers and motivated individuals. In a perfect world I would like to plant between 500-1,000 trees for my SEF model, and for the Goat Lane Project (GLP)

I am writing a book

I am currently recruiting some support to write a technical manual for Sahelien Eco Farming for villagers, other Peace Corps programs, and future PC NIGER agriculture projects. Already I have recruited some others to be working with me next year. My goal for the next growing season is to coordinate with other volunteers and establish SEF’s all the way across Niger. My goal is to start SEF’s in each region and craft each field individually to market forces and environmental constraints. Hopefully this project will open some doors to potentially explore some of my academic curiosities. SEF’s or a variation of, is going to be the future of agriculture in the Sahel, hopefully. Currently there is a lot of room for some research and who knows I might be returning to the Sahel or other areas after working for the Peace Corps to work privately for an organization or as a graduate student.


Seldom is there not a melody popping around some where on my mind. Even before I started playing music, I lived and breathed music. I love studying the history of music, the significance of the songs, and how we can learn from the artist.

After being here for 8-9 months I have finally achieved a major goal and that was to break into the local music scene in Niamey. It was an incredible opportunity to play with the Rasta’s, and the other musicians and we will continue to exchange our culture and music to create something unique and beautiful. Already my friend matt and I are discussing the possibilities of recording an album at the studio here, it can be done pretty cheap and we should have some recordings of our jam sessions.


Every group of volunteers in Niger is provided with technical training from current PCV’s, our responsibilities are to prepare new volunteers for their future in Niger using language, and sharing our work experiences. Sometime in November the list for potential trainers are sent out and it seems that it’s very likely that I will be asked to work at the training site in Hamdallaye. The benefit of this position is getting to meet the new kids, and being able to enjoy the wonderful food. In training we eat really well. I love food.


My last project which will probably take up a lot of my efforts for the rest of my service will be to help establish a seedbank for local farmers to sell their improved seeds regionally to other villages. I have one of the most incredible farmers field schools in Niger. Though Dan Saga’s FFS is just starting out the individuals are incredibly motivated and they have been working closely with the Nigerien National Research Center INRAN over the years to improve farmers yields by teaching them improved methods of field management, techniques, and the use of improved seeds. As a result of the FFS’s success INRAN has decided to begin a seed bank in Dan Saga. This incredible task is to create a major income generating venture for the local farmers to sell their improved seeds regionally. Currently if farmers want to purchase improved seeds they have to travel to major business centers and then arrange for the transport of seeds.

What is my role you ask?

Well I have recently become a recipient from a sizeable donation from the rotary club to purchase around 10 tons of cereals. My idea instead is to potentially invest my pardon the pun but “seed money” to establish the farmer’s seed bank. Aside from my SEF ambitions this is my big project, so if I can help in any way to achieve this ambitious project then I can say “Shakanan” it is finished. I will be coming home happy.

Who would have thought last year I was a long haired bartending college graduate, now I am saving the world.

Damn I love my job.

My Mandolin History

“It was love at first site….”

The opening phrase to Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22 perfectly captures how I felt when I picked up the mandolin for the first time. When Captian Yossarian first saw the Chaplin, he understood this person would be the center for his elaborate plans to escape from the military.

When I first played the mandolin something within me said YES!!! Now this makes sense!! At first my playing ability reflected my current state at first my playing was insecure; my fingers fought the demand to reach out and learn how to speak for themselves but as the uncertain skin began to peel off, new abilities emerged and as my fingertips became more confident with the emergence of calluses something unexpected came from underneath. A new ability to speak. I don’t understand my connection to this new thing, I have no plans to move to Nashville and live off the music dream, my only plans are to continue traveling and who knows maybe make a few good stories and friends down the road.

It started because of the journey….

A little more than a year and a half ago I approached a friend of mine named “rich berry” who played the blues regularly at my bar. Since I was leaving for the peace corps and had ample time on my hands it seemed an opportune moment to learn how to play guitar. So I suggested that we should go shopping for a guitar and as they say the rest his history.

Unexpectedly when we walked into the store Rich stopped at the door and the following conversation occurred;

“You know Josh, I don’t think you want to learn how to play the guitar”

“I don’t?”

“Nah” “I was thinking about his last night, and the guitar seems all wrong for you”

“Think about it, your always camping, canoeing, hiking, biking, hell moving to Africa! You need to play something small, something you can travel with”

“What like a Ukulele?”

“NO Man!! the Mandolin.”

“What the hell is that?”

As I said….it was love at first site.

So we started shopping and found a good starter mandolin, case, tuner, and strings so we pulled on the managers heart strings and wooed him with my future trip to Africa, as a result he reduced the prices on everything and then we walked out with about $400 worth of musical equipment for less than a hundred bucks.

A few days afterwards my big “greecy” friend Akis had his annual orthodox-Easter celebration which means eating incredible greek food…ah the roasted lamb, ah the good times. And guess who showed up for her first party…Mandolin Albright, the name of my first mandolin.

Another gentleman came with his guitar so around the camp fire we played, and even though it was the worst campfire performance of all time. Making music with my drums, harmonicas, and badly tuned mandolin was a pretty darn cool thing to do. Sure it really was a buzz kill on the party but it was my first camp fire playing my own mandolin, of course the music sucked, but man I was hooked.

A big freak’n van, some guitars, and a dog that yodeled

It was weeks after purchasing my mandolin that I met and made a super talented and generous new friend by the name of Bruce Goldish. It was summertime when he came breezing through town and I was blessed to listen to some of the greatest guitar music I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. Bruce played at my restaurant for a couple of nights, he taught me so much not only about how to play music, but how to create unique music. Bruce has an incredible attachment to his music due to the fact that his songs and style are a direct result of his life and his journey’s all over this fantastic planet. When we met at my restaurant he was in the middle of a 10,000 mile magic carpet ride. His magic carpet was in the form of a 1980’s huge ass econoline grey van with plush seats, and limo lights lining the roof. The only passengers were his guitars and a loyal African dog that yodeled on command.

I didn’t understand then my attachment to the mandolin, it was just something I couldn’t put down, I never thought it was going to be part of my journey. Bruce has been around, his music reflects his own course through life in awe it is a foundation of my playing style to learn from him.

I needed to learn how to become an individual through the mandolin, damn if he wasn’t the best suited to teach me this. A portion of my decision to take my end of service trip to Europe is to play music where ever I can there, see what I can do, and try to squeak out a small allowance from the streets.

It shouldn’t be too hard, I only make seven bucks a day now.

“Home is where I am and the company that I keep”

I would say they just don’t write lyrics like that anymore, but they do.

His link is on the bottom.

The other link, Josh Cotter illustrations, is another talented friend who was with me a couple of those nights kicking it with Bruce.

In a few short months after my purchase I improved greatly due to meeting Bruce, he instilled a passion into his art and damn if it wasn’t contagious. Ever since our meeting when I start learning a new song a little voice goes off in my head saying “how would Bruce play it?”

At first I could barely tune the mando let alone play anything but it didn’t stop me from trying harder, it never occurred to me that I would be capable of playing music, but yet there I was hammering the mando, losing finger flesh day in and out. Always the same tunes, night and day, before work, after work, the park, my bed, anywhere, the case was a wasted purchase, my mandolin never saw it.

I played once all the way across Kansas while driving.

Climbed a mountain, mando was there, canoed with my dog for week, guess who else came. mandolin.

Chopsticks and Flatpicks

Most the way through college I worked at a fantastic restaurant and bar called “the Jazz”. They let me come and go as I pleased and was a great job to have. A perk of the job was that it heavily supports local music so as a result I was privy to some really great music and was befriended and tutored from a diverse assortment of unique individuals. Eventually towards the end I even started hiring out gigs to a pair of friends of mine.

Andrew and Rob.

Andrew is a unique story all on his own. Andrew is from China, and a few years ago after listening to some bluegrass he decided that he wanted to move to the United States and learn how to play this beautiful form of music, and guess what he pulled it off! He is an amazing guitarist and musicologist.

Rob is a life long musician and has been teaching music nearly as long as he’s been playing it and after years of hard work his fiddling and comprehension of music is second to none. Though his constant fixation on achieving the perfect sound could be a little challenging when trying to manage a restaurant, when he gets it right gets warmed up well its just how traditional music should be played.

Watching a tall Chinese kid wielding a guitar and a white guy in overalls pulling some soul out of his fiddle or guitar it’s a beautiful thing to watch. I have never in all the years seen my restaurant completely captivated by the musicians. Its true bluegrass/traditional music is an acquired taste and it usually seems completely foreign to the masses, but once someone sits down and starts listening to it all its familiarity comes back.

By incorporating my love of history with my playing mandolin its given me a whole other perspective of American History. It’s the songs like “John Hardy”, “you are my sunshine”, and songs woody Guthrie belted out after pointing his feet towards the road proclaiming “this land is your land”. Man this is incredibly moving music. These songs have been passed down from generation to generation and to me they speak of an America created by a combination of hard work and generosity for each other. Ahh the long forgotten beloved American spirit. Where is that now?

On Sundays Andrew and I played in an old 19th century single room school house with local musicians. Every Sunday they spend hours dedicated to playing ole’ time classics, not to mention occasionally they had square dances. The roots of traditional music were calling to me, I have loved music all my life, why did this form of music fly under my radar for so long?

Who would have thought a kid like Andrew would come from China and with all his enthusiasm re-educate our own culture to the long forgotten history of America.

How can one not be inspired to play with someone like Andrew?

From these performances of “Chopsticks and Flatpicks” as I so warmly named them we started having all kinds of people coming out of the woodwork to listen to the music. Which brings me to my next inspiration for playing mandolin.

Ole’ Blue Eyes”

No, not Senatra, Barty Crawford. Barty is a 71 year old blind since birth mandolin player with radiant blue eyes who is now living out his twilight years in a retirement home in Kansas City. I met Barty through some friends whom frequented my establishment and was introduced to him shortly after Andrew and Rob started playing at jazz. He would come play a song or two with them and then drift back to the table and raptly listen to the music. Often while watching him listen to the music we were delighted to observe his expressions, they suggested his visiting long forgotten memories experienced during his years on the road. On occasion he would tell us about playing with his family and with other famous musicians to the likes of Ralph Stanley and the late great Bill Monroe.

When time permitted I would go and visit Barty in his retirement home and we would spend a couple of hours talking music and playing some incredible old tunes on the mandolins. Some days Barty was dead on and would hammer out some amazing music, others he could be a little absent, but each time man I was given such a gift to sit and listen to his tales. Could you imagine playing with a living encyclopedia of the very music your attempting to learn? How could I find a better teacher?

In essence Barty is what I strive for to achieve in my lifetime, who knows one day possibly the friends I speak of playing with could one day be the ones we hold in such esteem today. The musicians I have met and played with in Niger are no different from this classification. Barty’s life is the best of living and playing: Live, play, and share.

“Cikin Niger” (in Niger)

When I first arrived in Niger I couldn’t say anything spectacular about my playing, about the only thing I knew how to do was play G C D over and over and then play some old fiddle tunes. But I did plan on getting better and the multitude of music books I carried represented my commitment to learning.

I often comment that I don’t have a clue what I am doing most of the time or where my things are, but the mandolin, I always know where he is. If “mishka” isn’t strapped to my back or in my lap you can be rest assured he’s not far from me or my thoughts. During training the only way I could pass the down time, or evade the gossip circles, was to play, play, and play.

During training I greatly improved and developed quite a repertoire of songs. After training we were told for the first two months at post do nothing. Not one to violate orders, especially good ones, I spent my entire two months at post doing little more than sweating profusely and playing. Eventually prior to our returning to Niamey for our “inservice training” I had my most important breakthrough musically. This auspicious occasion occurred when a group of us from training had a naming ceremony for a friends kittens. Okay a little cultural background lesson.

Naming ceremonies. These ceremonies are commonly held for nearly every child born in Niger. For a period of seven days after birth the mother and child are retired to the home to heal, bond, and rebuild their strength. After this period of time everyone invited comes to a ceremony where the household provides roasted meat and other delicious food and then the child and mother are presented and a name for the child is given.

So we did this for my friend Alisa’s little coven of kittens, we invited the village to attend we provided food and then we all sat on the mats as the names of each kitten was presented to the village.

Then it happened…

The villagers saw my mandolin and Lachlan’s guitar and asked us to play for them so obliging their wishes I sat on the mat, tuned up, and then started playing the ole time fiddle tunes I had been playing forwards and backwards for the last ½ year. And you know what ….they didn’t like the music.

So to myself I said “ah !@$# it” I stood up put my fingers on the G chord and belted out the loudest most energetic sound I had ever produced. I stopped looked at my pick and said “WHOAH!” then I looked around dazed, and saw that the villagers responded, then I tried again, this time only I started hammering out a G, C, then D. The villagers got up, kids, women, old people where dancing and singing, two hours passed the party never stopped a beat though we moved all over the village. I finally learned what it meant to make some music from the soul, not just something rehearsed and regurgitated. I was making music with some spirit, my body turned numb, my hands went from clammy to dry, the nervousness waned and something within me just came out and kept coming and coming.

If you look at the first picture of my blog with me playing mandolin with the villagers in the background looking on, this was the moment I got up and had this monumental occasion.

Once I hit the tarmac with the mandolin in tow something just felt right. Something incredible within keeps emerging. And it just keeps getting better.

My fingers now speak a new language that expresses any range of my emotional states much more accurately than any written or spoken word could suggest. What they say now is that a confident, seasoned, and more capable man now most aptly understands that truly the journey defines the experience not the destination.

Reggae Roots

It is a proven fact that everyone in the world loves bob Marley.

It can also be proven that a steady diet of bob Marley is indeed good for the health and can overall improve the respect one has for fellow man and our connection to the planet and the spirits.

Lastly it can be proven now that a white kid from northern Missouri with a year of bluegrass mandolin experience can meet up with a group of West African Rastafarians one day and then record reggae music with them in a studio the next. Not to mention make some of it sound pretty damn good.

Prior to coming here I started playing mandolin; not knowing that I had any particular talent for making music my enthusiasm usually was enough to carry me through all the hump days. Though I have had only maybe 2 real lessons a lot of hours have been dedicated to learning how to speak through my fingers and so far playing music has taken on some pretty amazing adventures.

It has taken me 9 months to get the opportunity just to play with Nigeriens, and then when it happened ka-blam! I hit the mother load. National TV, Famous musicians, Reggae, traditional music, and all kinds of other things came together as well on this trip to Niamey.

When I decided to join the Peace Corps I never thought for a minute that learning how to play the mandolin would be one of the hallmarks of my service. It was something I took up to pass the day and learn something new. I never thought that I would be mixing it up in West Africa with local musicians some famous, some up and coming, and some just old school Rastafarian. Despite our playing style, skill level, or instrument I have learned over the course of the last week that as long as one learns how to put the pulse of their soul into a rhythm then anyone with the same passion can play with them.

You know music really is a wonderful medium we use to connect to each other. Back in the states I started playing bluegrass mandolin because a friend of mine from Beijing China decided a long time ago to move to the United States and learn how to play bluegrass. And you know what?….he pulled it off. His passion inspired me to pick up an instrument for myself, then I met another who used to play with Bill Monroe and all the other greats and he showed me some of his tricks, then here I am today in the capital of Niger listening to my Mp3 player and grooving to the rhythm of my reggae recording from yesterday’s jam session. Currently a mandolin, a fistful of harmonicas and one blazing desire to play music is all I need in the world to keep thinking, yeah man, it’s a good life.

Have I mentioned that this weekend was also the 10th anniversary marking my High School Graduation? I know we all want to attend our reunions and say hey look at me blah, blah, blah, so for the last month I have been racking my brain trying to put into a letter what I could say about the last 10 years of my life. The Army, traveling, the amazing array experiences acquired from living, working, and loving wastefully. Man its tough.

Today I would just simply write, sorry can’t attend I am kicking it like a ninja playing reggae in Africa. YE-AH BAA-WOY!!!!

Afterwards the boys and I sat on a bench listened to our recording, made videos, pictures and shared all kinds of things while focusing on creating something instead of setting our minds on tearing down.

It's just a beautiful way to live.

I would assume that when the great ones came to us with incredible messages and deliver their insights they have to think man is this always falling on deaf ears? Is anyone going to actually understand what I am saying? Are the ones who are left behind going to actually understand the message before the mass production of T-Shirts and God-o-plexes start cropping up? Days like yesterday make me think that when folks like Jesus or Bob Marley look down from the heavens and look at what some of us are doing they say. Yeah, alright! Some of them got the point.

As of this week I have been nationally broadcast on television playing music with some of
Niger’s finest traditional musicians and yesterday after playing with the Rastafarians….well they just say I am now part of the gang.

And I thought impressing the ladies only with saying I worked in Africa was enough….

Man. Its hard to believe the Peace Corps only pays me $7 bones a day to do this.

Coming Home!!

Yes you read it correctly. I am coming home for the holidays (insha allah) “if god wills it” as my lovely Nigeriens would say…..well for pretty much everything.


Well there are many reasons for my change in heart and decision to come home instead of doing something like for example vacationing in Ghana, or some other West African country. Sure a nice vacation on the beaches of some W. African country does have its appeal; actually my plan was to go to the African Cup in Ghana…..but after rationalizing this decision during a very therapeutic mandolin session, the major deciding factor is family. But there were a variety of reasons, so this entry will be related to those reasons.

1st Family and Friends

The decision to join the Peace Corps is never taken lightly it means making some very difficult decisions and living with that decision for two years as life continues to go on in our absence. In our absence our families grow, people we care for pass away, relationships change, who knows, old flames start new lives, even my dog misses me. But as in all cases life doesn’t stop just because we are no longer living with those we know, my dream was to make decisions towards realizing my dreams. As a result it emotionally deflated a lot of things from me; imagine cutting the best thing out of your life and trying to be happy about it. I tried, couldn’t do it, and in the end the decision was the right one, but it took a lot of nights to convince myself that everything would be alright. Dreams are meant to be pursued and it’s either go after them or spend the rest of my life only dreaming.

Don’t think I am homesick. But….

If it wasn’t for the terrific support from my incredible friends then I never could have made it here. I am coming home to pay you in the only respect I can at this moment and that’s to let you see me getting to the top of my game. J Really I love you guys, ah the cast of characters. Damn I love you guys.


Concerning the craziest folks west of the mighty Mississippi, My family.

Your support and love equaled the efforts of such magnanimous friends. Possibly if I was serving a few years prior as a younger man then I most likely would not be coming home. My youthful vigor and determination keep on wandering would be to difficult to avoid. My choice would have been Ghana, or who knows tumbuktu? (really its an option) . But similar to my experience in the great land of Mexico where the most common theme is nothing but family, family, family you finally have to say. Ok I get it. Yes Family. So amplify that exponentially by something in the ball park of….hhhmmm I don’t know a billion, and you see what family means here in Niger. After all these years of wandering and not doing the most important things such as visiting the grandma’s as much as I would have liked, it appears to be the time.

Prior to coming here I caught a lot of flak from individuals concerned about my decision to move to Africa, although very sharp criticisms hailed from all corners of argument, it was for good reasons. Since my departure a lot of the criticism has morphed into encouragement and support due to their fears waning and a better sense of understanding surfacing about the world. Many of us are introduced to the world as a perilous maze of tiger traps, and evil lurking at every corner. The reality is that there is a lot of bad in the world, but on the whole our world is quite beautiful and its filled with amazing people, and it just wouldn’t be right if some of us didn’t brave the elements and face the challenges. So now it seems appropriate to bring home some of my journey to know that your love for your volunteer is not misguided. In fact my decision to come here is largely your fault. Really.

You never realize how much you reflect the best of what the people instill in you until one day something clicks and you understand that all the things you love in life is because someone spent time with you during your childhood doing things like reading, telling bed time stories, teaching, gardening, horseback riding, fishing, riding bikes etc. etc. These are only a few examples but damn if they weren’t elemental in my preparation for this place and I think its past time to come home and pay homage to the incredible people who impacted my development so much.

So I am coming home to my family and you all each have some really BIG hugs coming your way.

Honestly I am not really home sick but its just important for me to come home eat some mashed potatoes, friend chicken, corn and gravy, I have lost I don’t know a 1/3 of my body weight. FEED ME!!!!!!!

Anyways take my advice, though it’s painful to roam away from everything familiar; if you want to live fully and understand the world and yourself better. Leave everything you know behind, live fully, love wastefully, and strive towards what you most intimately want. Its tough, but in the end we always come home.

2nd Music

Now I am not going get to much in detail about the story about how I came to playing the mandolin because its going to be a blog entry soon, but its something very important to me. Ultimately it was the primary catalyst that finalized my decision to come home, I don’t know how to describe it, but something about the mandolin has really started a fire within me and I like to share it with others. Learning to play the mandolin has been a life altering experience and I kept a lot of good people awake at night playing bad music. So I am coming home to keep these people up once again but this time the music is louder and hopefully much better.

Anyone up for another reunion show at my house….How about a Dan Saga Benefit concert? ;P

Without the commitment to make the journey to realize your dreams there is no destination, take the journey.

3rd Future Plans

Hot season is brutal. Other than spending my time sweating, the only thing I was capable of doing while panting in fierce convulsions like a dog was to look at my world atlas and daydream. What emerged was a potential trip spanning from Greece to Norway by speaking at development agencies, universities, etc or just play the mandolin on the street for change, who knows. Its an avenue to keep wandering so once again my passion for geography is forming another potential epic journey. Well that’s the current plan, as has been suggested I’ll have a 100 plans fail to commit to most of them but make at least one really good one.

135 Fahrenheit is brutal I had to put my mind in cooler climates something about daydreaming about the cold frosty waters of Norwegian fjords or the sands of Greece really seemed to make hot season tolerable. So time will be spent researching the potentialities to this trip or I don’t know East Africa, it really is a dangerous thing to give me a little money and time before moving onto my next journey. But camping out in the mountains for a couple of months doesn’t sound to bad either.

The other side of the fun is that I need to tend to business, fortunately in my line of life work and life work pretty congruously so having plenty of time to think I have reduced my post Peace Corps to three options

1. Teach, I love it. Always planned on doing it, but I feared becoming someone responsible for teaching others about the world but never seeing it for myself. So I have failed miserably convincing my family that all my traveling excursions were purely for professional and personal development, but you have to admit, it hasn’t hurt anything has it. Tax deductible business expense?

June, July, August. The real reasons to teach.

2. International Development. Studying in Holland immediately after my post military debacle was really needed to discover my interest, as it turns out I kind of had a knack for this line of work. So here I am swinging from one vine of opportunity in mid-reach for the next vine. Me tarzan, you give me job.

Hey I am just trying to figure out what’s next?

3. Academics. Very appealing. For those who know me best it is probably the biggest surprise since I have always hated school but loved learning. Its one thing to be forced to sit in a class and learn what someone wants me to learn, but when I get to dictate what I want to learn and get paid for it…FORGETTABOUTIT!!! I’m in. But there’s a snag. Test. I hate freaking test!!! My last semester in college I started vomiting from nervousness during a math exam, kind of freak’d out the professor and I bombed the test anyways. Which means the GRE will probably suggest being admitted into a psych’ward afterwards. Its partially the reason why I chose Peace Corps over graduate school, I have enough things on my resume’ to suggest being capable. But test aaargh!!!

Okay well that’s about all I have the energy to put into a few of the many reasons to come home. I can’t believe my trip will be in only 3 ½ months. Can you believe January will mark my one year anniversary of living in Niger!!!!

I can’t believe how fast time has flown here.

Well guys there are a million other reasons I could go into why I am visiting home but you all get the gist of it. So be ready, have the instruments tuned, the conversation ready for full engagement, and the stock of quality pale ale’s piled high.

Lastly it has reached my attention that there are a lot of people following my adventures and it inspires me to hear how much support has been given from home. Life in Niger is rewarding but damn its demanding. Currently I feel inadequately prepared to really digest the breadth of my experiences so coming home and speaking with people about it helps both me and those interested. If there are interests for me to come to speak with schools, social groups, churches, whatever I am more than happy to. While you all are working I need something to do, plus I am incapable of passing up an opportunity to have conversations about things that matter in this world. So I implore you, take advantage of me. My services are cheap. Lunch and engaging conversations are my only fees.

Nature and Children

Today while reading the new edition of the Missouri Conservationist I read an excellent article pertaining to the joint efforts of local schools and the Missouri department towards integrating outdoor nature classrooms into coursework. Outdoor Classrooms are a schism from the traditional classroom approach and provides a hand’s on approach to foster environmental education and not to mention a pretty darn cool way to teach everything from literature to biology. So far in the great land of Missouri this program has had tremendous results, my hope is that it is establishing a foundation of interest for the natural world especially for those who wouldn’t have regular access for nature based activities. So how is this going to apply to Niger you ask? What will this entry be about? Wellllll…….

…………Its about how we learn about the world through interaction and observation, it is about how our two very different societies understand nature and value its resources. Also it speaks for how important it is to incorporate a little nature in our life for our own personal development.

While reading the article my mind drifted in and out of how we educate our youth about nature through recreation, classes, or whatever but in Niger these classes don’t exist. The classroom is the world and the children live in it.

In Jared Diamond’s critically acclaimed work “Guns, Germs, and Steel” he argues that individuals from the developing world who in my terms “live as a part of nature” instead of those “apart from it” are in fact more aware of their environment and generally better adjusted and integrated in their communities. He suggests the better adjustment is due the lack of distractive items such as televisions, video games, toys etc, etc. While our kids are secluding themselves from society and reducing their learning capacity the kids from the other camp are integrating, working, and learning in a real environment to be future citizens.

Mr. Diamond then broadens his arguments by suggesting that those who “live as a part of nature” are in fact more intelligent than those who “live apart from it” due to the constant stimulus provided by direct contact with their environment and the total integration and interaction as responsible citizens within their society.

It is easy to argue with due merit that the ample list of achievements from the western civilizations is noted, but… After being here for approaching a year I see that his argument does have merit the bulk of the developing world are intelligent, just uneducated.

Concerning our own education….

Being from the “apart from nature” society what as a whole do we really understand about how the natural world operates? Or really know for that matter? What is the impact of alienating ourselves from nature? What are our perceptions and value of nature in comparison? How can I integrate what has been learned in Niger in America?

Rainy season is rapidly approaching its conclusion and soon we will be harvesting our crops and storing away all of our food for the coming year. As life transitions to the changing seasons I am starting to understand what it means to center my life on living as a part of nature. With certainly the next couple of months will be spent saying to myself in the mirror “what the hell just happened to me” but after this growing season concludes and the build up to the next growing season sets in I have to be honest with myself. What have I really taught them? I have definitely learned more from my hosts then I could ever teach them.

Again, what I have learned about nature is largely from not being in it constantly, they are.

My first rainy season in the land of the “a part of’s” has meant spending my days in the Sahelian outdoor classroom. On most occasions when I am not out wandering on my own, my teachers are children who spend countless time with me in the bush. I am constantly amazed with their deft ability at identifying each and every plant, animal, insect and tree by name then describing its edibility, usefulness, or in many cases traditional medicinal value. On the opposiste spectrum I think wow, our “apart from nature” kids can in the same detail describe every aspect of a pop icons wardrobe or lifestyle or how to pass a level on a neat-O video game. But ultimately what does this teach us about our wonderful world?

Consider the comparison of our cultures of how these contrasting lifestyles relate to one another, one civilization that survives off of the connection to the earth, or the other that in large only cares about what we can take from it. How would this impact our intimacy and need to understanding and appreciating nature. As a result of their lifestyle the children spend everyday in the bush foraging for food, working the fields, or playing games in the shade of any host of trees. Why and when do our kids in America get to interact with nature? Or what activities are they engaged? Sports? Hunting? Family Camping retreats? Is a portable Ipod or gaming season in tow?

Are you asking yourself now as I was; how was your childhood spent? What do you understand about nature’s circle of life? Can you even describe what exist in your backyard? Consider all the time you have spent in nature as a kid and consider the typical child’s experiences in nature today. Perhaps you could probably half that and it might accurately portray the typical child’s interaction. I have friends with kids and the kids always ask me to take them camping, the interests is always there, maybe just not the nature. But who knows, I don’t have kids of my own.

Sure in the “apart from” camp we have the scouts, after school nature programs, youth nature outreach etc. etc. Where I currently reside the children live in it and are using their imaginations constantly not to mention being challenged by their environment constantly, what kind of character do you think this develops. The sense of responsibility?

How does enjoying nature or living from it directly correlates with personal development?

The article from the Missouri Conservationist borrows the phrase “Nature-Deficit Disorder” from Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Wood: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. It states:

“Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and, therefore, for learning and creativity”

Putting context to my own experience “Nature Deficit Disorder” struck me as something that puts into technical jargon what has been on my mind for years. I don’t know about you guys but I start getting a little jumpy if separated from nature for any extended portion of time. A lot of my childhood was spent exploring areas in rural Missouri and Arkansas and as a result it cultivated my self confidence, creativity and self dependence. Reminiscing over my childhood my thoughts drift to my youth spent at my grandma’s and how I would say to her on many occasions after breakfast that I was “going snake huntin” so I saddled up the horse and would be out all day eating berries off the back of the horse, swimming in the ponds, or reading under a shade tree in-between imaginative adventures. Afterwards wandered off to the ole’ fish pond and would bring home a mess of catfish for dinner and enjoy our harvested vegetables from the garden. Ahhhhhh the strawberry patch!!!

It’s a different environment and culture but where I come from there are a lot of similarities to the Nigerien childhood. In fact just being here has made me appreciate so much more my incredible youth and how much in common my childhood in America has with my experience of Niger.

It's part of our nature as humans to want to enjoy a sunset, a path whatever…Whether we know it or not we all want a little nature in our lives? Lunch break in the park? We all understand the connection is important; it just takes getting out and doing it. Do you share these types of memories? Do you find the value of taking time to commune with nature? Good, then turn off the tube and take a kid out to nature, doesn’t even have to be your own. Just get permission first; child abduction is not too cool.

It would not take much effort to suggest that despite the failing test scores (blah!) we do receive great educations but is it enough? I love quotes and try to live by the good ones so when Mark Twain famously said “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education” it all made sense. It gave me a reason to skip class, bomb a test, or hop in my car and drive to Colorado to become a white water raft guide on a couple days notice? Sure my grades were pretty bad and the “not filling his potential” speeches were delivered like clockwork, but damn if I wasn’t out challenges myself and isn’t that what its all about? Why not concentrate on integrating the best of how we educate and putting it in direct connection to the world. If that means letting our kids get a little dirty and allow them to make mistakes on their own and learn for themselves, well would that be such a bad thing? And it doesn’t stop with only nature clubs does it?

In the typical villages of Niger if the students are fortunate enough to extend their educations beyond primary level they often chose to study something related to natural resources or earth sciences. Culturally they have a predisposition towards these disciplines and as Niger’s economy is largely based on development, the country has a base of very able bodied people capable of working within communities to improve their livelihood. But they lack the resources for formal educations due to money, transportation and culture. What do I mean by culture?

Unfortunately there is a down side to this type of informal education because the education system is quite contrary to the learning style of the Nigerien culture. To move through the education system in Niger one has to speak French, and since it is obviously not the native tongue of the country many are left disadvantaged and their formal education ceases. Or the schools are very rigorous and don’t tend to individual learning styles. But even if they are unable to receive formal educations, similar to the United States a culture of responsibility needs to be taught and that can’t always be accomplished in the classroom anyways. How does it start? Have you been reading this? J

The deficit of properly prepared youth for the real world isn’t just a Nigerien or United States problem and I think Harold Howe II an educator from Harvard accurately states that disenfranchisement of students often stems from the style of education provided.

“We suggest you sit quietly, behave yourselves, and study in the schools we provide as a holding pen until we are ready to accept you into the adult world”

Does it come to any surprise then when our children do not live up to our expectations? How can they become “our future citizens” when we cut them loose to fend for themselves without any real skills for the world? To paraphrase W.E.B. Dubois “Responsibility teaches Responsibility” how can we blame ourselves, others, and our youth for irresponsibility and the destruction of the environment when we ourselves never learned anything about it.

When it comes to learning about the world we all have an interest in the exotic species and environments but what do we know about the local? Unfortunately our education pertaining to nature is not hands-on learning. We have the national geographic channel, travel channel, PBS, and the late beloved Steve Irwin to thank for living out our adventurous sides as well as our ability to identify species. But what do we know about the world around us? Supporting this idea the Missouri Conservationist article suggest that often during a nature class dedicated to snakes children consistently can describe and identify cobra’s, boa’s pythons, etc, but when it comes to identify a local species most are clueless. Sound like you? Does this metaphorically apply else where?

The desire and interest to learn about our world is prevalent at our youngest ages. We can’t help it; this desire is the very best of our nature. Our need to explore and learn about our world needs to be reinforced but we don’t always cradle these desires. Academically, funding for geography is constantly undermined and we seem to shut off ourselves and our minds from anything else in the world.

Did you know about Niger prior to your family member or friend coming here?

It seems to me that when this disconnect emerges I think many of our societal problems surface. Everything is interconnected in the world, Humanity has been gifted with an incredibly inquisitive mind and ability to socialize so why waste it? Is this making sense or is it too far of a reach? Why is our country so reticent to learn about other cultures and environments? Or do we fail in our attempts to expand on our interests in nature due to the lack of it?

These are only my random thoughts and observations from my wanderings but as I can’t help but think about when I show pictures of home to my villagers they pick apart every detail and ask what kind of tree is that? What is kind of animal are you skinning? What kind of seeds do you plant in your garden? These are not questions that stem from simple minds; they are very intelligent observant individuals that understand quite acutely their surroundings. In my short time here the Nigerien’s have taught me so much more about their natural world and how they live in it. So when I respond “white tail deer”, “pheasant”, “catfish”, “sweet corn”, “oak”, “elm” etc, I can’t help but think of what it’s going to be like when I return home and show people pictures of Niger. What will be their questions? Do they safari? Was it dangerous? Do they walk around naked? What do they do without TV?....AAAARGGH are you kidding me?

Don’t waste your guilt or money by listening to the “oh those poor kids” late night infomercials or any other array of organizations portraying the “oh so sad” children of Africa. It’s true there are a lot of things needed here but damn it these guys are genuinely happy and consider I am in the “poorest” country in the world according to the United Nations Development Index. Doesn’t that speak volumes about the human spirit?

If you want to donate money make sure it goes to an education but use half of that money for your own. Travel!!! Or read for god’s sake.

I had to rant, sorry.