Saturday, February 21, 2009

Walking These Streets

In between time spent caring for Fassely, cleaning, washing clothes and trying to read and write, I walk. This is how I prefer to see the world in Washington, DC, this is also how I prefer to see Africa. I walk to get to know the city, I walk to meet and greet people, to make new friends. I have now conquered this street and the one adjacent to it, and I am on a first name basis with most of the guards along the way. Yesterday, I walked back from the American Embassy. This was a new path for me. Although I got to the embassy to register with the consular so that they could track me in case anything were to go awry in the Bush, my mission remains incomplete. At 2 p.m., on Friday, most administrations close, including our own. But it wasn’t a journey in vain. What I saw on this new path was a community in isolation; Americans driving SUVs to and from, to and from, not walking around. They live behind gates, grand gates, away from the local smells, the sounds, the many people who greet you in the street. They live protected. They work on a tree-lined street, one of the cleanest in Niamey. They drive new cars. This is America, in Africa.

On my walk from the embassy back home, I met maybe 10 different people, wishing me a good day, good health, health for my family. I tell them about Amman Imman’s work in the Azawak. They respect this, this work of bringing water to people who need it. And when I returned home, I found something even more astounding: the United Nations of Niger in our living room. We had Djerma, Tuareg, Fulani and even someone from Burkina Faso visiting yesterday all in our home. Fada, the older Fulani man, brought his crafts, handmade purses, shirts, belts and jewelry, although he was sick. I offered Fada Western medicine to cure his stomach ailment. I can only hope it is nothing serious. Yacuba and his friend presented us with Tuareg tea, laced with mint leaves. It was delicious. Fati and her cousins braided the hair of Debbie and Ariane, in traditional style. I played with Mohamed and Zacharea on my computer, astounded that Mohamed had learned to play Solitaire and Free Cell at his school. He knew the music of Eminem and the Black Eyed Peas. He is a fan of Barack Obama too. Mohamed is smart, small for his 16 years, but incredibly intelligent. He speaks French fluently and is learning English in school. I want Mohamed to go all the way with his education, make a difference in the world.

In between these encounters, I took another walk with Fassely. We walked and skipped, one of Fassely’s new favorite things. He loves to be on my back and feel me skip through the sand. He cracks up; those seeing this spectacle, laugh as well. People move slowly in Niger - to see a pale woman skipping through sand, laughing and singing makes them laugh too. I am glad I can be their entertainment. I think Fassely is too.

Tomorrow, Debbie and I will depart and walk through the streets of Tahoua, where we will stay for a couple of days with Achmadou, a friend of Ariane’s, before again leaving for the Azawak. Denis and Ariane will follow after finishing up some last minute paperwork in Niamey. We will have to learn what water we can drink and what we can’t. I might be hungry. Most people will be eating meat, I am warned. I have packed cashews, cliff bars and energy gels. This will get me through my time away from this “big” city. We will attend the festival Achmadou has helped organize: a camel festival. There, we will see Tuareg men on their camels sitting, racing, enjoying their time together. I will cover myself the best I can when I am in Tahoua and the Bush. I will be modest, as tradition is more rigid where it is more rural. I cannot wait to walk these new streets, to meet new people and walk some more.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Prey, Pray

I received my first marriage proposal today. It wasn’t love, or romance, it was practicality for this young man. He was maybe 18, 20, wearing a pink button down with a flipped collar and stone washed jeans, straight from 1985. Although I told him I was taken, he argued I was his ticket to America. Well, at least he puts it straight out there, I thought, no lies, no manipulation. I told him I’d tell all my friends about this charmer. If you’re interested, let me know, because he is too. Other than trying to get foreigners to exchange money on his black market, as opposed to the one next door, he is on the hunt for an anasara, in particular an anasara who is a woman.

“Anasara, anasara,” they yelled as Denis, Ariane, Debbie and I walked toward the Grand Marche. This term, if you haven’t guessed yet, means white person. The shout followed us past the slums, the hawkers trying to hawk to us whatever they could. It follows me to this very minute -- Anasara, indeed. It followed me as I took greater notice of the sewage, the filth littering the streets all the way from the Stadium to the Grand Marche. It followed me as I tried to avoid walking in anything wet, what might be raw, fresh sewage, as I feared breathing through my nose. It followed me before I even knew what it meant, this morning, throughout Chateau I, as Debbie and I shopped for local gifts and we were followed by a mob of Tuareg men trying to get us to buy their products. I already knew most of these men from the other day, when I, too, tried to take a walk through Chateau I. “Madame, c’est le prix du jour.” It’s the price of the day, says Abdul, a stunningly cute teenage boy with a deep jaw line and almond shaped brown eyes. I joke with Abdul that, Sunday, the last day I saw him and bought a box for him, it was also the price of the day. Only, today, did I notice the price was 500 CFA lower. I see how it is, I say. Only because he was charming, had followed me for over a mile down the only tree-lined street in Niamey, had I bought the box. Now, I am his prey, although I call him “mon ami,” my friend. I give him advice: if you ever happen to arrive in the United States, go into the business of selling cars. He laughs. He gets the American humor, but I am still prey to him, I think.

Prey throughout the Grand Marche, prey – to the beggars, sellers. I hope they at least remember my name, as I struggle to remember theirs. Toward the end of our journey today, we became prey to a desperate pair: an older mother - or maybe she wasn’t older but her missing teeth and the lines around her mouth, her eyes, made her show age – and her infant. The infant was sleeping, being carried Nigerien-style, with a scarf, on her back. As I dipped my head over her shoulder, as she dipped her hand toward us, I saw this child: mucous leaked from the child’s closed eyes. The slits were oozing green. Snot ran from her nose. This child was gravely ill. This child will not live, I thought. We gave her 500 CFA. We needed to give her much more. To save this child’s life, we would have needed to get down and pray with the rest of the country. Piecemealla.

I felt down, desperate. But then as we continued on our way, I was met with greetings, smiles and I was uplifted again – people coming out of the sewage-ridden streets and smiling. This is Niger. This is Africa: so much sadness, so much hope; so much poverty, such rich culture. This is why I love Africa, for its desperation and for its resilience. I’m not sure Africa loves us, but I hope, in some way, it does, it can. I know that Nigeriens love Fassely, Faisel. I would bet that Faisel might be the only white baby any Nigerien has seen. And, here, we find common ground. This is a child, an infant, we are all born this way, we are all the same, in some ways. Of course, in other ways, we are not. We will always be, to Africa, white, privileged. It will always be more difficult for us to make true friends in Africa than for fellow Africans to do the same; just as it may be more difficult for Africans to find friends overseas. I hope I am wrong.

So this is Niamey, thus far. I hope you have a picture in your mind now, at least vaguely, of what it is like. This is urban Niger. This is the place people fled to in 2005 during the food crisis here, when locusts invaded, the dry season wore on and the country didn’t have enough rice, millet to feed its own people. This is still the place Nigeriens come, to look for work, to flee from hunger and thirst. Monday, we plan to travel out of Niamey to a city called Abalak and then East to Tchindabaradene, part of the Azawak. This is where we will see how Amman Imman’s first borehole well has changed people’s lives, an oasis in the desert. Once seeing the borehole well last year, a Newsweek reporter wrote:

When I first went to the Azawak, I visited camps and villages that had no water. I saw Hell, and people dying. I then travelled to the Amman Imman borehole of Tangarwashane. There, I saw a Paradise amidst Hell. People had water to drink, eat and bathe. Men were using the water to grow crops, and even the animals were thriving. They now have a store from where people everywhere come to buy goods. The children were playing and happy, and a school had been built [although it still isn’t being used]. These people worshipped their borehole. It was their God, and they took care of it like they would an Idol.

I’m not sure I am ready for this Hell, but I am certainly ready to meet them in their Paradise.

(And for all of you wondering, and have kept abreast of the unrest in northern Niger, I will not be traveling to areas of unrest. We will be far from any conflict areas. I was assured by the American Embassy, just today, that Abalak and the eastern regions are safe.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Language, Time, Singing

Life begins early in Niamey, just like in the rest of the world. Finally completely over my jet lag, I was able to get up this morning and seize the day. I took Fassely out on my back and we enjoyed the morning, just before the heat crept into the air, the sand, between our toes. We saw kids going off to school, kids not going off to school, selling various items by the roadside, from their straw huts. We saw many, many goats, always eating the trash, and Fassely’s favorite: the baby chicks.

And then I served as a translator, English to French, French to English all afternoon. This made me feel proud, showing Debbie (who arrived just last night) around this little city that I have now lived in for 9 days. I haven’t lost track of time, because time moves so slowly here, although not in a bad way. We passed the time with Fati again today. I understood and conversed with Fati for the first time today, almost fluently. Fati was adorned in gold, a sign that she is now married to a wealthy man. I offered Fati some of my own jewelry that I brought over to Niger for the purpose of giving it away. None of the jewelry, to Fati, signified wealth, although she did take a ring - green, black and silver - and a piece of turquoise on a silver string for her daughter. The ring fit on Fati’s delicate middle finger. She wears it proudly next her to Tuareg jewels. Fati now has a piece of me, the places I’ve been, with her. Debbie and I took Tuareg tea, two rounds today, the strongest and sweetest rounds, of what can be a five-round tradition. The tea starts off at its strongest and gets weaker by the round. The children finished up the grand finale.

Songs that have crossed my mind here:
Don’t Drink the Water by The Dave Matthews Band (mentioned previously)
The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia – changed to – The Night the Lights Went Out in Niamey
Have You Ever Seen the Rain by The Creedance Clearwater Revival – changed to – I’ve Never Seen the Rain
Put A Ring On It By Beyonce – changed to – Put a Diaper on It

Holding Your Hand

They cover your hand like a glove. Coming, going, they grip your hand lightly, but steadily, and slowly slide their hand from yours - always their right hand from yours. The left hand is for doing unhygienic things, the right for eating, for greeting. Wrist, palm, fingers, breathe, hold, breathe, breathe, pull away, slowly. They apply increased pressure just before giving way, on your fingers. You get to know them through their hands, usually clammy, yet cracked from the dry heat. They get to know you too through yours. I wonder what my hand feels like to them. I use moisturizers, obsessively wash my hands, here, maybe 20, 30 times per day. I wonder.

One older Tuareg man, who has children ranging from two years of age to older teenagers and resides in a tent next to Miriama’s, has so much life in his hands. His hands have far surpassed the cracked phase, and have taken on spotting, peeling, giving way to new hands. Underneath the peeled away layers of skin, they are pink inside - pink like mine. He took his hands and began drawing in the sand, the left hand drawing in the sand, teaching me his name, Mohamed Abdili, always Mohamed, so many Mohameds, like Sam or Pete or John in the States. He taught me greetings and how to give thanks. He wrote the phrases in a roman alphabet, as we know it – he called this the French alphabet. He wrote the other two in what he called “Tuareg,” or Tamashek, and then the other in Arabic, I think. I watched his torn hands drawing in the sand. We sounded out the words. He looked up at me through his white, dust-covered turban, only his eyes revealed, surrounded by one hundred crease marks, of life, of age, of beauty. His small son sat leaning against my right arm. Would his son be so worn, in 40, 50, 60 years? Would his son be so worn in less?

Nigerien feet, too, show the signs of life, hardship. They attach themselves, bare, to bike pedals and motorcycles and the sand. They walk through the charcoal, ashes, remnants from the open fires cooked over by the roadside. Some are darker than the dirt; they are the color of the charcoal. Others camouflage themselves. Much of the light Tuareg skin melts its way into the sand. Yet all these feet share something: the white, ashen, dryness on their bottoms. This is life, without luxuries, amenities. This is hard work. How long would it take me to get feet like that? I come home at night and feel my feet stiffen in their dryness. They bloat and I can’t sleep from their discomfort. I take my Suave moisturizer and I slather it on, in mass. I wonder if I did this inside their tent, would insects, of all shapes, sizes and colors find me, the insects that kept creeping onto the bed as we hung out on in Miriama’s tent last night and looked at their only photo album. That is my father driving a car, a real car, little Zacharea said proudly pointing at one of the photos. I think they would. My moisturizer smells too sweet.

This is why, last night, when Denis and I ventured out to see Sean Kuti, the son of the infamous Fela Kuti, a Nigerian singer who is extremely popular here and in the States, I got eaten by mosquitos. We took two local beers and I swatted and scratched. Sweetness, I should have known. Besides the biting, scratching, itching, we caught the three last songs of the set, arriving on African time, about two hours late. And this is where I came back to the Western world. I saw 40, 50 white people, maybe more. They were all there to see this musician. They might have been tourists, Peace Corps volunteers, aid workers, uranium company employees, I am not sure. There were a few Americans, wearing their quintessential halter tops and jeans, and then mostly Europeans. They looked strange to me already, these jeans and halter tops. In Niger? Hm. The truncated show was great, Kuti was accompanied by dancers who could shake and flail like I only wish I could. After taking an African dance class in South Africa, I found out I was never made to move in that way, oh to be African and dance…

After watching the show, Denis and I talked business, me in French and he in English. He explained to me more logistical elements of constructing the next borehole well. We have five sites picked out that are a possibility for the structure. These sites were picked because: the water table isn’t too deep, closer to 600 feet than 3,000 feet; they exist where there are small villages – this means the community isn’t totally nomadic and we can pick out a management team to take care of the borehole well. The management committee will be in charge of keeping the maintenance of the borehole in tact and selling the water. All the water is sold for a small fee to generate a profit for the community, meaning between 20 and 25,000 people. The community can then use the money to build schools, clear roads, save up for health centers – all the things these places currently lack. We are planning to leave Niamey sometime between the 20th and 25th of February and head out to the bush to pick our site – to hold more and more hands and to walk until our feet burn dry.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I was raised by a Jewish mother, who felt closer to atheism than Judaism, and a father who renoucned Catholicism long ago. As the product of these two, I never thought the sound of prayer would bring me solace, but it does. Five times per day, I hear the chants. Men kneel on the side of the sand-covered streets, on their intricately decorated prayer mats, in their colorful robes, and pray. Peace-miel-la, they say here. May God be with you. Peace-miel-la. I love the sound, the language, of peace-miel-la, hamdilah. Although I could never accede to their traditions - the arranged marriages, the multiple wives - this sound of prayer will always have a place inside me.

I also find myself unoffended. I do not look the elder Islamic men in the eyes too long and wear my long skirts proudly. If I were forced to wear a Burka, refrain from driving, going to school, etc., etc., etc., of course I would feel differently, of course. But most of those living in the urban areas, like Niamey, are not fundamentalist. I feel at peace acceding to their rules, for now.

Last night, the sound of prayer followed Denis, Fassely and I through the streets on our nightly stroll. We strolled by a particulary large house, a castle. This was not a house owned by white people, or a foreign government; these were Nigeriens. Their kids played outside under the trees they had planted in front of their gates, trees that could have been transported from Florida or California, and they looked Western. I could picture them vacationing in Europe, having dinner at an upscale restarant in Washington, D.C. I could picture their house on The Real World, Niamey - however frightening such a show would be. They had bikes and toys and they were clean. These Nigeriens wanted to be our friends, I believe, because we were white, clean, they found more in common with us than with their own Nigerien neighbors, squatting in their own filth. They said come back, stay with us. No thanks, I thought. This castle, amongst the ruins, upset me, as do the castles owned by the Europeans, Americans, Canadians. But they had every right to this castle, to their cleanliness and wealth, I suppose.

But, last night, they too, despite their royalty, and like everyone else, eventually became shrouded in darkness. Power outages are common in Niamey and last night was my first. Denis and I sat down to have a soda and as we were about to depart, the lights went out, everywhere. Along the main streets, the lights of motorcycles and cars shined the way for us. On the side streets, we used only the little light on Denis' cell phone to see the way. If I was alone, I might of felt scared. For I know my skin glowed in the night. But, in the company of friends, I enjoyed trudging through the sand at night, trying out best to count "un, deux, trois" rues until we found home, and, indeed, we did.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Oh, Administrative Africa, Oh!

Today was a day spent in Africa’s administrative hell. Ariane, Fassely and I set out this morning around 10 a.m. to renew the permit for her car, which is this great, old white pick-up truck affixed with a cab that is affixed with lots and lots water canisters and other cool adventuring contraptions. This is our Azawak vehicle, so rugged, so tough. It’s awesome. This will bring us out of Niamey to - Amman Imman - the site of our next borehole well. Anyways, we were supposed to be gone an hour, but getting the car permit went so well we decided to tackle another administrative hurdle: the “permits de sejour,” or living permits for Ariane and Denis. Apparently, Ariane didn’t have the correct verification that she had paid for her previous permits de sejour, from 2005 through 2007. Thus, she was going to be charged a large fee to get a new one.

Well, we asked at the car place where to go to get this matter settled. This led us to office number two. On the journey from office number one to office number two, we also picked up a friend: a middle-aged Tuareg man who works for the administration and decided to help us jump through the hurdles. He had nothing better to do today than to hang out with us. Welcome, sir. We spent about an hour waiting there, the four of us, with the secretary. This was the first air conditioned space I had been in since coming to Niamey, so it was alright. But Fassely was getting cranky. Thus, Ariane lifted Fassely on madam secretary’s desk so he could watch her type on her type writer – that’s right, not computer, but type writer. Well, Fassely liked the jovial lady in bright yellow so much, just tap, tap, tapping away at the keys, he got excited. And then the little pant-less wonder peed all over her desk. She didn’t notice. Tap, tap, tap. Ariane looked to me – I looked to Ariane. We spoke a few words in English trying not to burst out laughing, and she quietly took her scarf and wiped up the liquid.

Enter monsieur: a serious looking short, stubby fellow speaking rapid Hausa, carrying papers with some sort of official seals. He places them on the desk for madam secretary. He looks up, looks back down at the desk, and then asks in French: has it rained in here? Yikes! And…just in time, we are called into chief’s office…which brings us to office number three. This office is luxury for Niamey. There is a television playing some Nigerien or Nigerian music videos. I can’t tell which. He has what looks like a pleather sofa. This space, again, is air conditioned. Ariane explains her ordeal. She speaks a little Hausa. He likes that a lot. Don’t look at me like that, Babou Hausa, I say (no Hausa here). The four of us head off to office number four, where they must verify what he just verified.

Another hour is spent in office number four. Fassely snacks on some leftover rice cakes, and my hunger and level of heat grow. I start to fade, which means any ability I once had to grasp French fades as well. A woman speaking Hausa finds Ariane’s small knowledge of Hausa enough to suffice for her amusement, and I space out. Thank God for Hausa today. Our new friend speaks some limited English to me, hoping to engage me a little; his English in quite good, refreshing. He wants to learn more English, wants me to speak to him in English. He says there is only one English teacher in Niamey who works for one hour each day. How sad! I need to be an English teacher in Niamey, I think. But then think better of it. I’m delirious. We wait and wait, and, finally, on to office number five. A lot of French, and rocking of Fassely while Ariane talks to a new monsieur and repeats her ordeal. Our new friend also steps in. He helps to settle the matter, saves us most of the money, somehow. Hausa, French, Tamashek, Djerma, I’m not sure. But Ariane must return in a couple of hours. We can wait if we want. Lord help us. We decide, instead, it must be time to eat. We wander, me listlessly, through the Petit Marche and get some lunch. Since we ran out of water over an hour ago, all I want is water. Amman Imman, Amman Imman, Amman Imman. They bring out a pitcher: do I, against all precautions, drink the water? Ariane does. Our new friend does. I can feel it drip, drip, dripping down my throat. I agonize, but decide against it. I, instead, again, have the best Coca Cola of my life, even better than the other night. Ariane and I share a dish of spicy rice and fish. Besides the flies also sharing our dish, the meal is quite good, anything was good at that point. Our new friend wants me to try his juice on the rocks. I refrain.

Update: Ariane was sick to her stomach throughout the night and into today. As Dave Matthews once sang, Don't drink the water...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Kidnapped (Not Literally)

11 February 2009

First, I want to say, if you are visiting this blog for the first time, I am sorry all my posts from Africa, thus far, are getting published at one time. Getting to an Internet Café that is fully equipped - meaning the electricity and the computers are both functioning – isn’t easy here. And things are slow in Africa, very slow. But I digress.

I got some CFA today, that is, Nigerien currency. But not in the traditional way - or maybe it is traditional in a Nigerien sort of way. I’m not sure. I took half of the $1,000 in cash I brought over here (probably far too much for food, Internet and gifts) and went into a room in the middle of what is called the Grand Marche (as opposed to the Petit Marche mentioned previously). After walking past several Islamic men lying around on their prayer mats, I found the beholder of the CFA to the back: an overweight, sweaty, Nigerien man dressed in black. He sat at a decrepit desk drowning in dollars, Euros and CFA, for all of the Grand Marche to see. I told him how much I had. He gave me the rate, which I was promised was better than at any bank. He then pulled out an old calculator, probably from the 1970s. $500 means 252,000 CFA, according to the calculator. Sounds good to me. I counted my cash and headed for the market, where vendors sell everything from traditional fabric to Western-style belts and sunglasses and shoes and even mattresses. “Viens dormir,” they yell (come sleep). Right…because Grand Marche is just the tranquil space where you want to take a little cat nap. It is extremely polluted, loud, and chaotic – a traditional African market on steroids.

Before going to make the exchange, I had a more tranquil morning with Fati (pronounced fah-tee), watching Fassely. If you didn’t read the previous entries, Fassely is Ariane’s son who Nigeriens call Faisel, the Arabic pronunciation, and Fati is Ariane’s closest friend here and now a new friend of mine. Fati is stunning. She is a light skinned, petite Tuareg woman, with deep set brown eyes, who looks as if the world hasn’t touched her yet…although it has. She is now in her second arranged marriage, at 20, after fleeing her first marriage with Ariane’s help and getting a divorce from an abusive man she was promised to at age 14. Yes, it is as you read in the papers. She lost her two children as a result of the divorce. She had nowhere to go but back to her family who promised her to another man - her new husband, 49 years old. When I asked her if he was a nice man, this new guy, she shrugged, her lips stagnant. She is eight months pregnant. I can only hope her new child is healthy and brings fulfillment to her life. Fati and I looked at photos of Barack Obama’s inauguration. She looked completely mystified, but, did, indeed, know who our new president is. The gift of marrying a well-do-man: a television. We listened to some Christina Aguilera – she liked the song “infatuation.” I hope one day she can feel what it is like to be infatuated, to be in love, I hope. I want to kidnap Fati, bring her to America.

This brings me to my evening: the kidnapping. I was kidnapped by a posse of Nigerien children, all shapes and sizes, with different demeanors. At one moment I was snapping a photo of Fassely with one young woman’s child, at the next I was being swept down the dirt road. A girl wearing a shirt that had “sexy” written across it grabbed my hand. The mob spoke barely a word of French, only Djerma. My Djerma vocabulary consists of “Fofo,” Hello, which I would repeat over and over again in that 20 minutes. I was shifted between straw huts and various squatters to where this group called home, in their own squat. They wanted to introduce me to their mother or who some of them called “mama” – mama enticed me to dance while clapping her hands and stamping her feet from a seated position. The children cracked up as I danced about. I am sure this white girl dancing in the sand with her dirty, red feet looked absolutely ridiculous to them. They then wanted a photo of the group. About 25 people gathered with mama. I snapped the shot. About 30 kids ran toward me to see the shot on the back of my camera. I wonder if they know what they look like, how often they see their reflection. They seemed quite pleased. I promised to bring them the photo. I would like to keep this promise, but know it will be difficult. Mission: find place to print out digital photos. That may take me the next month. This would also mean I have to find my way back to their squat. I should have counted the straw huts, the dirt roads to their space. Perhaps Ariane could show me the way. Everything looks the same in Niamey, (dirt, dirt, dirt, trash, trash, trash, camel, goat, camel), which is why 20 minutes after my disappearance Ariane and Denis became worried…and eventually found me amongst the mob. They pulled me away as about 10 stragglers followed us, laughing, grabbing my hand, down the road. I loved them all.

And this is my predicament, feeling like I want to give everyone the shirt off my back, the sandals off my feet, the bag off of my back, but then feeling helpless. Mama pulled at my shirt and I actually considered giving my shirt to her. If only had I had a shawl I could wrap around myself in my bag, I thought. But, of course, I am not sure if that was what she was signaling at all – probably not. I want to bring all of the children to our home and bathe them, feed them, let them dance around to my Itunes music. I want to break up the monotony of their days. But maybe they are just fine and I am projecting. At least, I don’t want any of them to be sick. I want them to live long, healthy lives. I want them to get an education. I want them to visit me in the States one day. I want all of that for all of them. I don’t want the girls to marry men 30 years their senior when they are still girls. I want them to remain innocent, untouched, girls.

Would that be simple? I doubt it, but I have some hope. We found out today that will take a mere three days to dig the next borehole well. This is astounding to me, that people can spend decades, lifetimes, without access to water, and it only takes three days to tap water that runs beneath their feet. This seems grossly unfair. I only wish we had the extra $50,000 we need to make sure the pumps and faucets get built as well. Any ideas? The pumps and faucets would take an extra month, but would make life so much easier for 25,000 more people. I probably consume an average of seven, eight liters of water per day here. It is so fucking hot and dry. It wouldn’t take long to die of thirst. Amman Imman.

Dust, Pollution and Poverty

10 February 2009

In terms of air quality in the United States, today would have been code red. It actually wasn’t as oppressive today as it has been. The wind was blowing , taking with it the trash and garbage as well. Then, around, 4 p.m., the air got stuck. It no longer moved. Everything was frozen in place, the garbage, the dirt, the dust, all posing in midair. When we went out for our evening stroll we were walking through a cloud of dust, mixed with exhaust from Niamey’s rush hour. I felt asthmatic. I felt faint. My knees were weak by the time we got home from meeting with some of Ariane’s friends and picking up some meat.

Ariane has lots of friends here, on almost every street, someone knows her. This is her home, she says. She heard sad news today that one of her dear friends who operated a Tuareg jewelry shop in Chateau 1 had passed, due to a bout of malaria. She choked back tears. This is someone her family had known for 20 years. As a mutual friend told her the news, he kept smiling. After all, he had been run over a car while sleeping on the side of the road and had survived. He knows adversity, death. His face is now deformed, but he lives. For most, death is commonplace. If you haven’t read much about Amman Imman, know that this country is consistently ranked as one of the poorest in the world, and a couple of years it ago it won the prize for the poorest. If people broke down and bawled every time they experienced loss, they would be dry inside. Half of kids die before they turn five, hence why there are so many charming kids, under the age of five.

I cried for the first time too today. We went to another tent after randomly running into relatives of Mustapha’s who have also settled in Niamey. They invited us to sit down. The chairs they offered us were made of rusted metal and string. I thought, Lord, please don’t let me fall through this and break their only furniture. The string was obviously taut, strong, it held me. They wanted to serve us tea, but we had to be on our way. There was an angry, abused dog eyeing and growling at us from the corner of their squat. It hated us, hated the world. Two small girls sat watching us while we hung out at their tent for a moment. They were forlorn. I never use the word forlorn, but this is what it was: dirt, dust, covered every crevice of their little bodies, dirt and sand and probably excrement everywhere. They must have been collecting this amalgamation of bacteria on their bodies forever. It was, indeed, stuck to them. I imagined having to use a brillo pad, steel wool to get it off. They had dirt running from their noses. The little one held my hand. It was sticky. They didn’t smile. They were sad, I think. This made my heart fall and break for the first time in Niger.

We continued on our walk, meeting up randomly with friends from Ariane’s past, but I couldn’t break myself from those two little girls. Little boys followed us around, asking us for money. I wanted to give all and everything to everyone; that is the feeling I have here, of course. I knew I would. Ariane has more experience here, and has a rule: only give to the handicapped. That, alone, could clear your savings. I’ve noticed a lot of people with limp hands, which means their forearm stands upright and then their hand slumps parallel to their forearm, useless. Is this handicapped enough? Or might she mean the people with no legs that I noticed, multiple people without legs, by Petite Marche. I don’t think I can make rules like that, although I know the motto of giving: give to the organizations, give to sustainable projects - do not give to the person who could spend the money on alcohol or drugs or prostitutes. Don’t be that white person. I guess I’ll try my best, but I doubt I’ll succeed, although I might be on my way: the only thing I can say clearly in Hausa is “ba-boo chang-ee” – I have no change.

So, this is Niamey, where they have water and some people have food. I cannot mentally prepare myself for traveling outside of this city, for what I might see. I know we all know this: but if you are reading this, sitting in front of your computer, you are lucky. We are so lucky, so, so blessed. I need to shower now.


9 February 2009

Today, I took my first walk alone without Denis or Ariane, and today was the first time I got lost in Niger. I simply turned left from my street and walked straight toward the stadium that looms largely at the end of the intersecting road. I spent a hot hour or so at the closest Internet Café, and decided to turn home. Although I had counted “un, deux, trios” rues until the stadium, I somehow became confused (probably the heat) on my way back. I wandered one or two streets too far and then wandered some more. I saw lots of large walls like our own , adorned by the same purple flowers. I heard the sound of prayer, like I hear four or five times per day from my own home. I saw red dirt, lots of red dirt. Everything looks the same here, and it is so, so hot at 3, 4 p.m.! I saw all the day guards loafing around and they all started to resemble each other, “bonjour madame.” Eventually, I was able to retrace my steps and step back on to my own porch, following a camel all the way back to the main intersection. Following the camel made it all ok, I think.

I took a rest and recharged with two liters of water, and then headed out with my friends. We went to an area called Chateau 1 where all the artisans, mainly Tuareg and Fulani, sell their goods. This really brought me back to the Africa I knew before, everyone trying me to sell me something (by the way, I got mistaken for a German twice more tonight), “miss” “madame” “bon soir miss.” I met two teenage boys who were convinced that because I said knew Akorn (meaning the music of Akron, of course) in my choppy French, that I actually knew Akorn. And, multiple times, Denis got asked if I was his second wife, as Ariane is the only wife everyone knows. I had a small debate about this with a guy on an oversized tricycle trying to sell me some beautiful, hand-printed cards. He argues that having many wives is the normal way. “C’est normale!” He asked if I had a husband. I said I had two. He laughed, I laughed too, nervously. I live for these interactions, by the way.

We looked for a place to eat, a place where I could possibly find something without a dead animal resting on the plate. There were none, but we did find a place serving “tuna.” I thought, my God, where could they have gotten tuna, but acceded to it. After waiting about 30 minutes and having the best tasting coca cola (in a bottle) that I have ever had, while Denis enjoyed a nice, light local beer, I took my “tuna” home. Well, there it was, all of it, face and all, although it certainly wasn’t tuna. I still can’t identify what type of fish it was. I should have known - this is Africa. I couldn’t exactly be grossed out by the fish when Mustapha - who has family and friends living in the Azawak that do not even have enough water to drink - is sitting there. But it all worked out fabulously. Fassely loved the head and Ariane didn’t mind digging through it to get the meat. I happily ate the body, the first time I’ve ever eaten a creature with its head still attached! And, no, this is not my first step toward becoming a carnivore, not at all. I was also able to share my leftovers with a little dog, Toko, who rests outside our house. Toko struck gold tonight.

Seeing the Light

8 February 2009

Darkness is always unnerving. Ever since coming out of the darkness my first night in Niamey, things have seemed more rationale. The red dirt I expected is all there. Goats frolic on my doorstep. We have an awfully nice porch, covered with slated tile, a blow up pool for the baby, shaded by what look like purple flowering trees, straight out of Southern California. A morning breeze litters the flowers on the tile. It is beautiful. This is privilege.

Just outside my house is a small bench where the guard, other bored men or young boys loiter. They speak just a little bit of French and then Djerma – which I know not a word of yet except how to say the basic hello – “Fofo.” The boys are adorable. There are children everywhere. They run out into the street to say “bonjour,” “bon soir,” they are far more charming than in pictures. I love each and every one of them. They are enamored with Fassely, a blond enigma.
Thus far, I feel very comfortable. Unlike my travels through South Africa, or sometimes even on the streets of Mt. Pleasant, I do not feel men leering. I do not get a sense that I am prey. There is a certain respect. I wrapped my head for the first time today, not in a burka sort of fashion, but rather as a turban. I should add that such a wrap wards the heat off quite well. And it is hot. Midday, the sun is brutal, although the complete lack of humidity keeps the suffering to a minimum.
This evening, around 5 p.m., when the day had cooled down a bit, I visited a traditional Tuareg community. Tuaregs live in tents with simple cots or mats to sleep on. Fati, one of Ariane’s close friends fixed us Tuareg tea – something so strong and sweet it makes your lips pucker. At 20, Fati is eight months pregnant with her third child, or she thinks she is. She is not certain when she will give birth. She is going to help us out with Fassely a little to make a little extra money. I look forward to getting to know her better.

While visiting the tent, I was offered a goat, but don’t worry, not in the sacrificial sort of way - at least not yet. One of the children brought a baby goat over for me touch. How sweet. There were many children, all very entertained by the entrance of the blond baby. They passed him around, they put him on the goat. They loved him. I loved them.

It is actually hard for me to grasp how poor they are. Although they were dirty and sand covered with soiled clothing, they were so gracious. They smiled and laughed. They found the pictures of themselves on the digital camera particularly amusing. Just as in South Africa, and even the division between NW and SE and Washington, DC, the gap between rich and poor is astounding. The American government, for instance, has its own row of houses with their own water towers and pools and probably luxuries that most Nigeriens could never even imagine. I would guess they import, a lot.

And just across the street from where I am staying, maybe 20 feet away and beyond a wall, families are squatting. I peek out of my gate in the morning to see what is going on outside and they peek from behind their wall. The very first girl I saw was maybe seven, wrapped in a peach colored shawl. If I had something, anything to give them, I would give them it all. But they aren’t asking for anything and I would have no idea where even to start. I guess bringing people water seems sensible, Amman Imman, indeed. Maybe I’ll leave behind most of my clothing and jewelry before I depart, although one guy already has dibs on my sneakers. Perhaps they will like that. Who knows.

Bye, Bye Western World, Hello Africa

Niamey resembles a string of unattached Christmas lights from the sky.
About ten minutes after the seat belt sign lights up on the plane, the sky below remains dark. I think to myself, I know this is poverty, third world, but this is also Niger’s capital city. There must be lights. And then I see them: small, fluorescent lights dotting the sky. They don’t exist in straight lines, they don’t exist concentrically. They meander without direction, without rationale. This is Africa, I think.

After landing, I experience one of the recent renovations that had taken place at Niamey’s airport: there is now a bus that takes passengers from the airplane to the airport – a distance of less than 50 feet. What luxury! The air doesn’t feel too hot, although the air inside the airport is stifling. I rip off my sneakers and exchange them for sandals. I almost do the same with my sweater, but become cautious about how inappropriate my black tank top might appear to the women covered in scarves. I sweat. Fassely (the baby) sweats. His cheeks turn flushed under the long sleeves and leggings he is wearing to keep him from the mosquitoes (most mosquito repellents are not safe for children under 7). I go through customs, speaking some choppy French and am greeted by Ali, a friend of Ariane’s who she had worked with at CARE International, and his wife. They are gracious people, beautiful people. Ali stands about seven feet tall and his wife wears stunning silver heels, faux diamond earrings and a traditional African skirt, dark blue laced with white flowers. Despite being almost two hours late after an extended layover in Algiers – they were still there, smiling, waiting to pick us up at 2:30 a.m.

While waiting outside the airport, I am also greeted by a young man, maybe 18 or 20 years of age. He has a thing for my sneakers, now hanging from the top of my hiking sack. He asks me if the sneakers are a gift. No, I say, no they are not, at least not now. His eyes are still attached to my sneakers. I broker a deal. Well, they could be a gift come the second of May, when I leave…I say in some version of French. He changes the subject, noticing that French is not my native language. He becomes the second person that day to ask if I am German. How nice, I must speak French with a German accent! I tell him, no, I am from America, as in the United States. He seems amused. We return to our barter: the second of May it is, we say, same place. He told me we had a pact with God. If he was meant to get the shoes it will be God’s will. Awkward silence. The shoes would mean the world to him during the rainy season which begins in June. Ok, deal, I say, in my native tongue, which we are now using liberally. In America, I say, we shake hands. Confused look. In Niger, we do this: two fingers held out in a peace sign, pointing at one another. Brush them lightly against each other, side to side, swish swish.

After sealing the deal, we head back to our house and this is what I see: a paved road, shacks, lots and lots of shacks sometimes with fluorescent lights and sometimes without, lots of people sleeping on porches outside of the shacks, packs of mean-looking dogs, sad, skinny-looking dogs. I want to save them all. Darkness, people gathering outside in the darkness, a little shop called “Walmart Niamey,” and I emphasize little. We pull onto our street , off of the paved road. I see red dirt, lots of red dirt. People loitering, staring at the Landrover filled to the top with our Western things. A huge gate: the fortress to our little castle. I notice a man. This man will serve as our night guard and will sleep about ten feet from the foot of my bed, just outside of my window. I enter another door with a gate, our home: tile floors, large windows, fluorescent lights, space, lots of space, a sulfuric odor. I am thirsty. I get myself a glass of water out of the tap. Paranoia, too much CDC research, can’t drink water. Try to set up Katadyn filter, too tired to figure through it, too tired to wait for filtration (each gallon takes about an hour and you have to filter four gallons before you can get your first cup). Solution: Micropur tablet (a toxic dose of chlorine that frees water from bacteria and any other nasty creatures that may be floating around in it). I pop it in one liter of water, dry throat, extreme thirst, regretting the glass of wine I had on the plane. Oops, directions: wait four hours for pill to take effect. Damn! I take out my watch and set it next to the bed. I will have my first sip at 8:05 a.m. I decide to sleep, at 4 a.m. I lay down on what feels like sheetrock covered by sandpaper sheets. I exchange the pillowcase that is there for Gold: a pillowcase from home, worn in and familiar. Solace.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

France and Onward

I have been in France for a week now. It is as I pictured it. Everything is smaller here, less intrusive. The streets are narrow, so having an oversized SUV is out of the question. The hallways are narrow, too, which makes obesity out of the question as well. The French use less water, because they have to subsidize for the poor. Waste seems less likely. Before even getting to Africa, I feel more aware of what I use, and what I do not. This could be a product of the progressive French family I am living with, or it could be part of an un-American culture. I like it. Everything is winter here right now, an off white, grayish tint encapsulates the country. This is as I expected France in January to be.

I will be off to the antithesis of this tomorrow: a place where the sun is relentless and people adorn themselves in color. I picture red dirt between my toes, underneath my nails. I imagine being enshrouded in an inescapable heat, even when I am bathing. I have heard people litter plastic bags like dust. There is sewage flowing through the streets. I picture the videos of Kampala I saw not long ago, only poorer. I think I will stand out, at least my skin color will. I will glow and anonymity will be tough. I will be thought of as rich, American, advantaged; I am not sure I will acclimate to my status. We will have a guard watching over our house at night. How absurd. I will also make friends, or I hope I will. They will invite me to their homes and cook for me, as Africans I met in the past always did. They will be generous, despite their hardship. I will walk outside after filling myself with breads and cereals and see little, dirty children with protruding bellies, sickness. I am not sure I will be alright. But maybe I will. I have been wanting to go "back to Africa" for so long that the whole journey now seems like a mirage.