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.