Thursday, February 12, 2009

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.

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