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.)

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