Thursday, February 12, 2009

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.

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