Saturday, March 28, 2009

Niger: A Letter From Me to You

Niger, Thank you, Tanamere, Merci. I’ve taken away from you far more than I can give back. You’ve rejuvenated me, inspired me, inflamed me, you’ve awakened me from slumber. You have infused my creative energy with your African spirit, so thank you. I don’t know how I will be able to live without you, although it would be difficult to live within you, always. I am not from you, of your sand and the dust that canvasses the air. I cannot drink your water or live under the animosity of your sun. Your temperament threatens me, although I would never want it to change.

You and I are not of the same world. I feel as if I should be taking a space ship, not an airplane, to my home on another planet, a place that seems, in retrospect, lost in slumber. It’s a place where men and women do not pile tables, mattresses, cigarettes and bottles of water, all on top of their heads as they meander through the sand. It is a place where most people have enough food, where most people waste food and water as if it were the sand beneath their feet; I, too, am guilty of this. It is a place where people go not one day without a television, a remote control, an instant coffee maker—pushing buttons, to help life pass by. It is not, for the most part, a place where sewage sits stagnant in open gutters. I live in a place with infrastructure, boreholes galore, if you can believe that, which bring clean water right to down my throat every day.

Dear Niger, I promise to tell my planet more about you. I promise you won’t remain a statistic to any of the people I know. Or worse, I promise you won’t remain imaginary—the vast, sweeping country that you are. I intend to recount your impoverishment, as well as your wealth—the wealth of your people, your livelihoods, the way you injected me with those things every day. I promise to attach faces and names to make your people seem a little more like mine. And I promise to remain in contact with the people who have touched my life and made it greater, through the technology that exists on my planet, and now on yours too. I hope they can promise me the same.

I am not sure if I have made you feel more alive, Niger, or if I have offered you anything at all. I’ve witnessed you. I think about you. You have a large place, the size of the sweeping Azawak Valley, in my heart. I can smell the fire and the dust of Niamey quite clearly. I can see the color of the marsh water many of your people are drinking right now. I can hear the sunset prayers and see the men bowing down simultaneously as I walk and think, sometimes about you and sometimes about me. I can see all the anas and abbas with their Tuareg children, hear the women pounding millet, join the men drinking tea. I can taste the leftover tea leaves in my slight glass and roll them around on my tongue. I can’t promise you these sensations will last forever.

When they do start to fade, your heat becoming an enigma, I promise to mount my space ship again. I will return to collect from you a sense of life, a jolt to my system, to hold the many hands I held before. So, you see, I will come back only to take from you again. I hope you can condone my predicament.

I must ask you, dear Niger: what can I do for you?

I see the hundreds of NGOs circling your periphery in their large SUVs. I see the signs of projects, development all over. I will do my part to help some of your people to have water through my contributions to Amman Imman. But I still see so many of your children do not have enough to eat, water to drink. This seems unjust, although, without asking, Nigeriens would never tell me so. Instead, they smile and welcome me, in their rags and shoeless feet. They give me what they have, themselves, in this country of sand. So maybe becoming more like my planet is not exactly what you need. I know you need food, water, infrastructure and a place where the sick can get cured. Maybe, so many of your people are right: you just need faith in Allah. Beyond that, I like you just the way you are. I like the way your people spend their lives outside. I cherish the way they greet me, caressing my hands and wrists. The contrast between the way they dress and the brown, barren landscape is stunning.

But there I go taking away from you again, these images of beauty and hope. I must stop now to reflect and stop grabbing—a model the French, the Chinese and the Americans should follow also as they excavate your uranium and strip your people of what is rightfully yours.

So, farewell, Niger, my friend, I hope I see you again soon. Please don’t forget me and I won’t forget you. Please take away from me what you can.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

My African Nights

Barely able to see my fingers, I flipped through the photos on my computer. I shared my memories here with people who might never get to see them again. These were memories of them and me, together, sharing our nights.

Nights here in Africa are what I wait for all day long. I love being outside at night, when the sand seems a little less deep and my eyes adjust to the silhouettes around me. I love when the sun goes down, especially the way it fell over Akoubounou, where a million stars rested above us. I’ll miss life outside, the intensity of nature, how your life depends on what nature decides to do each day. I’ll miss that, for sure, because I can – because I am not actually subject to when the rain falls, and when it doesn’t. Today, nature decided to offer us, here in Niger, a trifle of wind, to slow the sweat, to better bare what 110 feels like. I hope it makes the same decision tomorrow.

Tonight, I became closer friends with Tisi, the sister of Achmadou. She is 23. She gets me. I think I get her too. She is, by Tuareg, standards a feminist. She believes in education before marriage. You’ll find when you travel that even on the other side of the world there are people who get you and people who don’t, irrespective of your culture. Perhaps you’ve already discovered this, in Africa, Asia, somewhere else along the way. Tisi is a secretary here. She wants to know how to use email, to open an account. I hope I can find the time before I leave to help her do this, I hope, so I don’t have to leave her completely behind, like the rest. Tisi and I exchanged necklaces, exchanged a small part of our lives. I am not sure Tisi completely understood the pictures she saw of Heather and I, but that may be for another time. There are some cultural barriers that will remain difficult to break.

I was already nostalgic, sitting there in Miriama’s tent, the place Fati is bound to for another 30 days with her newborn, showing Tisi and the family my photos. I showed the crowd the photos of our trip to Akoubounou. They laughed, they smiled, they asked questions, enjoying the cinematography. I occasionally glanced to the back of the tent to make sure Fati could see from her place in the rear. She glanced outward from her pink headscarf. She was there, still.

And she will be there, still, March 30, when my plane pulls into Dulles, maybe even on the 4th of July when I hear the sound of firecrackers all over Washington, D.C., because as of tonight, Fati has no other place to go. Her husband just divorced her, like that. He didn’t need a reason, a lawyer, papers, Fati’s signature. He is leaving her, now that she just gave birth to Aichitou. He did the same to his former wife when she had her last baby. This makes me angry. I clench my fists. God damn these cultural norms! At 20, Fati has been twice divorced, the lovely Fati who looked so tired tonight, tired with worry that this husband will steal away her child again, just like the last. Ariane considers kidnapping Fati, taking her to France, if she only had the means. Anyone would consider this once they had met Fati Matou.

I will remember my days and nights with Fati, in our house with Fassely, how she taught me to pat his back, in a certain way, to get him to sleep: the Nigerien way. At home, I will think of the numerous children - Aminatta, Moussa, Zacharea, Aichitou - at the homestead of Fati Matou. I will hope that Fati can possibly find peace, alone, or maybe love, even the infatuation, that she so deserves. Maybe this divorce is a blessing in disguise. Maybe one African night, the love of her life, someone more like Fati than not, will welcome her and Aichtou. When I return to Niger, perhaps I can spend my nights at Fati’s new homestead, a part of her new life. If I did pray, all these dreams would certainly be in my prayers for Fati Matou.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In the Company of Others

I just left the house to say my goodbyes to Elhadji, the owner of my local boutique. I promised I would. I’m trying not to break promises on my last days here in Africa. I thought I would be gone 30 minutes, maybe 45. Naivety, still, exists, for me. Visits, here, always take longer. Life does too. As I waited patiently for Elhadji who had gone to the Internet Café to check his email, I chatted with his younger cousin. He told me, at 28, he is ready to take his wife, an 18 year old Tuareg woman, but, unlike many other Tuaregs yearns for a small family with two kids. A relative of his in Agadez has four wives, 45 children. This is too much for me, he said. Me too, I agreed.

While I waited, he made me a leather piece on which to put a new piece of jewelry I bought myself at another boutique in Chateau 1. I offered to pay, but he wouldn’t accept. Before going over there to have it done, I thought, maybe, my friend would be angry I bought this piece from another jeweler, instead of him. Naivety again. They are family, of course. The owner of boutique is his cousin. But still, even if he wasn’t, I don’t think there would be animosity between them. Niger is a place of brothers and sisters. Even if you aren’t family, you are, I realized as I watched Djerma, Hausa and Tuareg men make jewelry for Elhadji’s shop.

One elderly man was making a cross of Agadez, a typical piece worn by many locals and tourists alike, here. It would take him from morning to night to make this one piece, melding, pounding, shaping, cutting. I imagined his hands must be stronger than the muscles in his legs. I watched these silversmiths, these jewelers, as I waited another hour for Tuareg tea to be prepared. I was hot, although not unusually so. My shirt was drenched in sweat, but my skirt wasn’t. There was a slight breeze today, blowing the dust around. This made it a more bearable day than yesterday, for watching these men at their craft.

Elhadji will take some of this work to New Mexico in July. He will try to sell it for twice the price he sells it for here. This will be his second trip to the United States, although he doesn’t like to stay there long. It’s too different, he told me, too very different. Referring to a small trip to New York City, he said people work too much, earn too much money, walk too fast, run through the streets. This hustle and bustle makes him feel alone. He asked me if I felt alone here too. Sometimes, I admitted, of course I do, because we live in different worlds, planets. I promised to meet him if he is Washington, D.C. again. Perhaps we can’t recount our memories of sitting outside of his boutique. Perhaps this will make him feel less alone.

I took, finally, after two hours, the first Tuareg tea. I then had to go, to return to the house, for the little French baby here. I felt guilty for spending too much time, there, sitting, waiting. There is much to be done at home. But not to understand the time spent, the time waiting, would, again, be to not understand Niger. I measured, in my head, whether this time spent was productive, the American that I am. Although it was – I got to see a new craft, speak French, ask Elhadji more about his family – in measurable terms, that shouldn’t matter here in Africa. This is a country of company. Time spent in company is not time wasted, never wasted.

I wonder if I will take this mentality back with me. I don’t know that I will. As Americans, we like to feel productive, I think, even if we really aren’t. I sometimes do things, just to be doing something, not knowing anything but the feeling of productivity. Talking at the market, exchanging greetings, often takes too much time, in America. This is not productivity. But it is, I swear to you it is. Try it. Because when I lay down at night, I remember the people I meet along away, the hands I touch, the things I share.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Broken in, my bed feels like home now. The sheets have gone from sandpaper to something between sandpaper and silk. Cold water showers are the most refreshing thing in the world. On occasion, I’ll drink the water, everybody does. I don’t hesitate to do a little barefoot wandering around Fati’s homestead. I wash my hands a little less. I tried the salad at Elhadji’s the other night. Sometimes I can understand a full and detailed conversation in fluent French. I bring my camera with me less. I am acclimating, just in time to leave.

My phonebook is filling up with phone numbers of acquaintances and friends I have met along the way. I am beginning to understand them, just beginning, when they call me and speak French to me on the phone, in the fast and muffled way we all universally speak on the phone. I’ve begun to replace one ring with another, one bracelet with the next, to make room for the gifts that my friends here keep giving me, the generous souls that they are.

But it would take much more time to acclimate completely, if that is possible, to release myself from some degree of culture shock. Some missionaries I met in Abalak told me it takes about two years until the highest degree of culture shock ends, and a more subliminal version begins.

I still can’t get used to the hungry people. I am still culturally shocked by that every day. I shared Fassely’s cheerios with three small boys today, as I took a roundabout walk from home to Chateau 1. They devoured them, like they always do. I’ll always remember this about dry cereal, about omelets, about my rice and other things I’ve shared along the way. I fear I haven’t shared enough, because I never could.

In some ways, I wish I could stay longer, but I know I can’t. In other ways, of course, I am desperate to get home. I know I might not feel as alive there, but I’ll feel less lonely. My departure next Saturday will be a bit premature. I’ll miss what it is like to feel the first rain.

In another piece of writing I did, this is how I imagine the rain falling over Niamey:

I imagine people running into these red streets and dancing, kicking up the mud, covering themselves. I imagine people sticking out their tongues and letting the rain drops fall and trickle down their throats. I imagine shirtless children stomping in the puddles, taking a plastic cup and then drinking from them. This would certainly be the most monumental rain shower in the world. In the valleys, by the river, brown would turn to a deep green. I imagine smelling the green only for a short time and then all the impurities of the city too. The dirt under people’s fingernails, I imagine smelling that. I imagine smelling the meat from the Petit Marche, the sweat of my neighbor – the blood, sweat, toil of Africa – this I want to see.

In the Azawak, it would be even more incredible, I know, because the marshes would begin to fill and the sand would begin to produce green things, maybe even a few things people can eat. I know the Fulani would be starting to celebrate these rains, with festivals, called Gorowols, where the women choose their favorite men who are dressed and bedecked in make-up and jewels. I would love to see this, would love to line the eyes of a Fulani man with eyeliner of my own.

If I want to stomp the puddles, pick the crops, cover my feet in not just sand, but mud – I’ll have to return some July or August. I hope the rain is still falling then and the skies haven’t completely dried up over dear Niger, as they have started to. I pray for this, here, for my friends living in this country of sand.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mr. American

Last night was my first invitation to dinner solo, without the company of Ariane and her family. It came from the owner of the Tuareg jewelry boutique near to our house. He quickly learned I was American and I just as quickly bought several of his silver earrings for my friends in the States. I expressed my enthusiasm for his jewelry and his shop, which could have been a transplant from any New England boutique at home. He must have sensed my enthusiasm. Before long, I had agreed to bring a package of his goods to the States so it could be sold in Washington,D.C. Humdillila. In return, he agreed to cook for me, and another of his American friends.

When Ariane first learned about this invitation, she expressed caution. Beware of what you eat and drink, she said.

Fear pierced my heart. Might she mean rufees, here in Africa, in Niger?

No, she said, beware of the magic. If a man wants you to fall in love with him, she said, he might put magic powders in your meal. I must have smirked. No it’s true, she said, alluding to stories where she and her family members had been put under Nigerien magic spells before; one causing some temporary pain to her romantic relationship. I was still skeptical, although, deep down, increasingly aware.
Let me at least meet him first, she said.

And she did.

Haphazardly, still, I went off for a meal as a part of his American convoy.
This is where I met Steve.

Steve works for the U.S. Treasury Department here in Niamey. This is his fifth trip to Niger, although he has been all over Africa, with our government. Steve is quintessentially American. As we sat for dinner on the Tuareg mats outside of Elhadji’s place, Steve could recount every meal at every restaurant he had eaten in Niamey, meanwhile renouncing the indulgence of American appetites. Apparently the cheeseburgers at the place by the Petit Marche are to die for. A Lebanese restaurant in Chateau 1 sells hummus. Ziggys, or Iggys or something like that has the best kabobs and the coldest beer and an Olympic size swimming pool. Who knew Niger was such a foodie’s delight!

Screw the poverty, Steve is eating his way through Africa, I thought, although he has yet to try millet and milk, the choice meal of the Azawak and hadn’t yet eaten the traditional Tuareg bread Elhadji’s wife so generously served us. He still didn’t know the term piecemealla.

There could still be a lot of firsts for Steve, in Niger; for instance, Steve’s shoes. If Steve and I do, indeed, end up sharing the coldest beer in Niger, I will tell Steve he needs to try walking, in open-toed shoes, through the streets of Niamey. He needs a Nigerien footprint. And in his Nikes, his black socks he could never retain one. I am sure he has no calluses to match my own, to match Elhadji’s. I am sure black soot doesn’t line the crease marks on the soles of his feet. Elhadji offered to replace Steve’s stone washed blue jeans with some Tuareg ones, the kind that are loose at the waist and tie with a cinched string. There’s a start. Steve might also want to try, for a real cultural experience, visiting the Azawak, or just Abalak, for a start, although not on this trip. He might lose his job if he does. Despite the fact that Jeff, at the embassy, said it was safe for me to go on my journey, American government officials are restricted from traveling on the same route. The rebels in the North can never be too far off, according to Steve’s account of the restriction.

An old German fellow with a young Tuareg wife who also joined us for dinner said the same. You can never be too careful, he said, one balding one white man to another.

I know this. Don’t let your guard down in Africa, to Islam. This I have been told, hit over the head with on my own soil. But, to tell you truth, I feel safer here, felt safer in Abalak, than I ever do in Washington, D.C. Perhaps I am just naïve.
Right around the holidays, not long before I left for Niger, there was at least one mugging, sometimes armed and sometimes not, in my D.C. neighborhood. There was one shooting a week, usually within one mile of Mt. Pleasant. I don’t know the crime statistics here, but I can’t imagine there are too many guns. Knives, yes, machetes, ok, but guns, I don’t think so. Who could afford to buy them? Who would want to? I’m not sure. Sunset, here, is for prayer, not for malice.

There are, of course, the areas you probably want to avoid late at night – the areas where the nightclubs are, for instance. Perhaps those are the areas Steve was reminiscing about when he offered me a ride home. I mentioned that if it wasn’t so far, I would have liked to walk, after such a large meal, all the way home.
But it’s night, Steve said. And darkness does give us all the creeps, I suppose, especially darkness in an underdeveloped world.

I hopped into his brand new SUV, where his driver had waited for him while he devoured the meat, the bread and the fruit two hours before. Actually, I am not sure if the SUV was a 2009 model, or not, but it seemed new to me: leather seats, air conditioning. I could have set up shop in that vehicle. On the way home I mentioned to Steve that I might like to write an article about Elhadji, his business, his family who historically famous for being some of the most talented silversmiths in the world.

Well, in your article, said Steve, don’t say “Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world.”

I thought about this request for a moment. Steve is right, I thought, Niger isn’t just destitution. It is a place with many rich cultures, beautiful people. Is this what Steve might be talking about? I’m not sure. But Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, and not to know that would be to misunderstand Niger. If given more resources, these beautiful people would retain their own beauty but also have the chance to live longer and more fruitful lives. Why shouldn’t the world know that?

But Steve, although he is liberal in his political views just like me - a huge Obama fan - isn’t in the business of aid – so this fact just disappoints him. Steve, I am sure, has a place in his heart for Niger no greater or less than my own. He will remember the sunsets over the Niger River that he says I must see. He reminds me that Niger has one of the last remaining herds of giraffe in all of West Africa. He is impressed by the wireless Internet available at the burger joint.

Steve has his memories and I have mine.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


The flowers seem to be fully in bloom. The dirt reminds me of Terra Cotta, California roof tops, Arizona, perhaps. I notice trash cans, as I never have before. Someone had raked the dirt on the next street over, to make it level, to make it less impossible to have to thrash about with each new step. This isn’t the Niamey I noticed before. But it’s all relative. Abalak was dirty and we couldn’t escape it. Even if we raked the sand and picked up our own trash, the animals would soon shit, a neighbor would just as soon litter the week’s garbage on our doorstep. So I wonder if, while we were gone in the bush, there was a neighborhood clean-up, here in Niamey, or, if, I will repeat, it’s all relative. I think it is.

I’ve found a sense of peace being back here in Niamey, with my own room, and actual floors Fassely can crawl around on. He doesn’t have to share the sand with the goats, sheep and cows. Today, I let him pick up a carrot off of the floor and eat it, because this is a controlled environment. This is modernity. I feel cosmopolitan here in Niamey. But I’m trying not to forget. I know I will.

I’ll be back in the United States in less than two weeks, and am already, mentally, checking out – while keeping a roster in my head of the most poignant memories:

The boy in the salmon colored shirt who so intuitively told me about how if he had more to eat, he could grow more, grow to the size he should be, at 16; the family running to Debbie and I with their sick, feverish child in their arms, hoping that we would be medical missionaries, not just the useless women we felt we were; the three women begging for my cheerios; the three men begging for my cheerios and then falling to the ground after one cheerio as it disappeared into the sand; the beautiful women almost of Insakan; the dirty water the beautiful women of Insakan were drinking; the dwindling rations for the school of Akoubounou; dancing in Miriama’s tent; the way Miriama’s sister Fati Matou stared at us from her own space, outside the tent; Mahmoudine’s cough; the night Mahmoudine recounted to us his experiences with evangelism under the stars and by the fire in Akoubounou; the children singing, chanting “Amman Imman,” following Debbie and I out to the bush; Debbie singing “The Circle Game” for the men of Akoubounou; singing the Dixie Chicks as the sunset over Abalak; the graves of Kijigari, where sand had fallen on men trying, always, to find water; holding the hand of Attaher’s grandmother; the guilt I felt wasting water on my clothes at Akoubounou; riding that Arabian; tasting the water, the Evian, at Tangawarshane.

I must say I don’t miss showering in an outdoor toilet. I also don’t miss sand in my food. But I miss, already, sleeping under the stars in Akoubounou. I miss driving back from the bush, walking back from the bush at sunset, and it has only been days. I miss Mahmoudine, Miriama, Tchichigadon and Jamila, and I am not even across the ocean yet. I will miss this place, when I am not here. In retrospect, struggle, hardship, beauty always feel exaggerated.

But just when I feel my memory roster is full and I start focusing on the future, the anxiety of what this experience will mean to my future, I have to add something else. Like last night, when Ariane, Denis, Fassely and I made our nightly visit to Miriama’s, Fati’s family. We went to see Fati and her newborn baby who entered the world just five days ago and will be named tomorrow during her Islamic baptism. And I met a new child there: a little boy who had a loud, cacophonous laugh.

“Ssssshhhhhh,” I said to the boy, as he bellowed.

“Il est sourd,” his sister told me.

The little boy was deaf, but brilliant. I snapped a photo of him and then he snapped one of me. He shouted every time he took a photo. He quickly learned how to operate the zoom and the review button. He directed photographs, placing his friends here and there. He ran to me, proud, to show me each photo he had taken. This is another child I won’t forget, when I am back at home.

When I am home…

I’ll run the tap in my DC shower and think of the men and women, children and animals, as in Attaher’s own village, pulling and pulling from the Earth just to get – water. I’ll throw my dirty clothes in the washing machine and be in wonder at how clean they actually are, no brown residue dripping from them when I tense every muscle in my arms to wring and wring them dry. Or maybe I won’t, because my life has been filled with water, excess. Maybe I’ll go back home and feel the same as I always did. Acclimation. I hope I don’t.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On the Road Again

The following seven posts are published in reverse chronological order (beginning with “Beyond Niamey: A Journey” and ending with this one). All the posts are from my time spent outside of Niamey and in the bush. I hope you enjoy the read.

It is my last night here in Abalak, the city of the bush. I thought I would be away from Niamey for one week, maybe 10 days, now, it has been about three weeks. Nothing has gone as planned, nothing ever will, in Africa. I am just getting settled in, just getting to know the landmarks around my home: the metal barnlike structure just across the road, the particular cow who waits patiently outside our red, rusted door to come in and devour our own cow’s food, the mosque and what look like mud-walled bungalows beside it. I can now go out at dusk, walk a mile or two into the bush and find my way back, without asking for the paved road, its relationship to this little house. I can finally pronounce and remember my friend Tchichigadon’s name – a girl who has helped me with Fassely, with life’s practicalities. But now it’s time to go, again.

We will be back on the road tomorrow. Maybe I’ll get some time alone then, or maybe I won’t. Nigeriens don’t believe in alone time, I have noticed. They want to accompany you wherever you go, want to stay in your house with you during the day, walk with you at night. Who would want to be alone, they think. In death, you are alone; in life, always in the company of others. Kids, hordes of them, follow me out to the bush each night, as I try to escape this companionship. As an only child, a fairly reticent person, I need to escape. When I am here, alone, with Fassely during the day, Yusef, then Jamila, then Miriama, then many more, come by. They play with Fassely, they greet me over and over again. The mother of the family brings me millet each morning. With the father, I act as a nurse and give him arnica for his arthritis. I am never alone, here in Africa.

I don’t know what I will take away from all this, although I do, indeed, know I am taking a lot away. I am stripping Niger of its people, carrying them with me – their generosity, their hunger, their thirst, their companionship. But what am I giving them in return? I will go back to the United States and continue to talk about them, write about them, in my communications work for Amman Imman. But will this feel trite in the face of such indignity, living without water. I think a lot of things in my life will seem trite after what I have seen here, which has made me, albeit depressed at times, feel very much alive. Driving back from the bush, walking back from the bush, I feel I owe these people my life, for rejuvenating my spirit, for waking me from slumber. At the same time, I don’t know what I can possibly give, beyond my contribution to these borehole wells, these oases in hell.

We will return to Niamey to negotiate with the contractors and find out if, indeed, we have the money to dig the borehole well in Kijigari, or if we have to fundraise for a few months and then come back to bring them the most basic human right: water. If we must delay, this will cost the families of Kijigari many of their animals, maybe some of their children too, because the dry season has arrived and will only become more insufferable until July, when the rain is due to fall. These families can wait no longer for the clean water beneath their toes.

Ariane and Denis, most importantly, have appointed a local team to help manage things and keep the project running when they are not around. This team consists of a leader to consult with the men at Tangawarshane, a driver, another man to help interview and talk to the men of all of Tangawarshane and the surrounding villages and a woman, who will spend time with the women of the Azawak to assist them with meeting their own needs. Many have a desire to further their own education, not just their children’s. Others want to be better educated about hygiene and health. Just because these women live in the bush, behind cloistered walls, this doesn’t mean they don’t have desires and aspirations of their own.

The Women of Insakan, Obama, Baby Goats

The dye from her indigo cloth had dyed my arm a deep blue black, the baby goat on my lap had pissed through my skirt onto my undergarments below, dust formed a ring around the jewelry in my nose, the tops of my hands were brown with filth. I was unsanitary, completely, upon my return home tonight from another trip out of Abalak to the bush, although I didn’t quite feel that way. I teetered between feelings of anemia, euphoria, disgust, as I entered the homestead with little Laurel, our new baby goat.

The goat had been given to us for Fassley by women, not quite a part of Insakan. Three of these women, who we grabbed on our way to visit Insakan, another prospective site for digging a borehole, were some of the most beautiful women in the world. We slid into their encampment, six kilometers from the actual village, and many kilometers from anywhere, not knowing what to expect. We were a project coming in to snap photos, document their presence, their lack of water, their own filth. We thought we would stay for two rounds of tea, and, with our photos, be on our way. But you can never have expectations in Africa - this is something I have learned. Have no plan, no program, or you will be disappointed. Let yourself go, just be, and you will be floored, graced. The women, almost a part of Insakan, graced me.

To make room for our new friends - with lashes two, three, inches long, eyes, shaped like almonds and flecked with dust - Denis, Ariane and Mohmine hopped on top of the truck for the six kilometers to Insakan. Full lips, high cheekbones, a ballerina’s cadence, small, slender wrists, their braids peaking at the tops of their foreheads, I couldn’t stop staring at how magnificent they were. We took three women, but left one in a bright orange veil behind, the most beautiful woman of all, maybe 16, 18 years old. She had a small baby called Obama. Obama had been born last November, the day Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America. These women, this family, living in the middle of the sand, the thorns, hell, knew Obama, although they didn’t know not to drink the water, the clouded water from the last marsh nearby fast drying up.

It is hard to imagine being so beautiful without water. Upon my return home tonight, after settling in, putting down Laurel, I rinsed off every inch of my body, to clear myself of the sand, the piss, the bacteria. I still don’t feel attractive, or clean. But, somehow, they do it. The three families actually left in Insakan, a village that is normally home to 23 families during the rainy season, are reliant upon the 20-year-old chief who has a car and goes of the Tchindabareden, a city about the size of Abalak, once a week to gather water from the borehole there. All the other families are traveling, looking for water, for their children, for their animals, because in Insakan there is no water at all. The few marsh wells that form during the rainy season and eventually dissipate are now dry. But the women are beautiful, still.

They are aware, I think, of possessing beauty, of how they smile, of how the world will perceive them. They offered to smear mud across their faces to be more compelling, to look more miserable, less beautiful for the world, for the project, for the empathy that needs to generate donations for Amman Imman so that this village, these women can get their borehole. Insakan is now on Amman Imman’s radar as a place under consideration, following Kijigari, for a new borehole. Ariane and I sat with these women, in a female space, to ask them about their need for a borehole. They chanted, as many before, Amman Imman, their greatest problem, they said, was this lack of water, as they picked lice from their children’s hair, children who were scared of us, who screamed and cried when we entered the tent. They eventually warmed to us , most of them did, but some of the children had memories, maybe sad memories, of abbreviated visits from other projects, from a doctor who had come through earlier to offer vaccinations. Enchala, at least they got vaccinated, piecemealla. Next on their list of needs was a school not for children, because they did have that, but for them. These women are not educated, but they want to be able to speak French, speak directly to Ariane and I, instead of talking through an interpreter - maybe they want to learn math and science too – science to teach them about medicine and the body and how sicknesses should be cured - maybe they want to be empowered to be the doctors giving the vaccinations, to be the ones who can save their own children. But just maybe, I am projecting.

Blogging, journaling, is about analyzing, projecting, what I see, interpreting. And what I see in this hell has amazed me. Again, today, I could have cooked on the tops of my toes, could have screamed as thorns pierced the bottoms of my feet, could have run when thousands of crickets sprang from the trees above the dry marshes, flapping their wings, these insects of the sand. These people live in a place where crickets, fried in their own oils, are a solid source of protein. Maybe, just maybe, this lack of nutrients, is why little Obama is very small at seven months.

But it’s a bunch of survivors out here, so I don’t run, I listen and observe. And what I see is a people not giving up yet. Although deprived, these families offer gifts: Laurel, bracelets, rings, rice, pasta. As Ariane had told us before, although grossly impoverished, they will give you their last grain of rice, their last piece of meat. Their generosity is hard to understand. Maybe – and let me project here - a spirit of generosity is how they survive, don’t die off, don’t succumb to thirst. It’s how they preserve their beauty, maybe.

Mood Swings

I feel differently every day here. My moods ride the highest highs and the lowest lows. Yesterday, my guilt about being here, white, eating, drinking filtered water, was less. This morning it grew again, burst. On my morning walk with Debbie and Fassely, the wind was whipping up Niger’s finest: plastic bags, goat poop, diesel, cow manure, human filth, all flying past us, brushing our nostrils, becoming entangled in our hair. I felt angry at this filth, at how Fassely, though protected by my back, might be getting pelted. I was upset.

Debbie and I, for the first time, were going to have breakfast out. This means taking a sweetened coffee and fried egg omelet by the roadside, a little Starbucks in Africa. I began eating my omelet, slugging down the sweetness, trying only to look straight ahead, ignoring the periphery: a skinny young man, maybe 16 or 17 hanging out, covered in dirt, ash, looking desolately at the ground, the road. The omelet was gross by American standards, something many would have turned away in a New York City diner. But here it was gourmet. I picked around the onions that probably weren’t cooked enough to be free from bacteria and ate about half of the eggs before becoming stressed out and handing it to the young man in waiting. He devoured it voraciously. Debbie did the same with hers. The young man participated, again, tried his best to satiate his empty stomach. As we walked on, people that recognized us greeted us, mainly in Tamashek, others asked us for gifts, always for gifts, cadeau madame. Even with our feet covered in dirt, my skirt dirtied by Fassely’s many meals and my battles with the sand, we are rich. I would ask us for gifts too, if I were poor, hungry. Sigh.

I dip down into a state of despair, of being overwhelmed, of not knowing what the hell do with all of this poverty. I sit outside in the small bench outside of our house, in the scorching sun, and I feel my arms burning, every piece of skin not covered by a light cloth, absolutely simmering in the heat. I see myself on the plane out of here, processing, reflecting on the things I see here. I imagine myself with my parents and Heather, trying to tell the stories, trying to remember. And I have no idea how I’ll remember it, where it will fall in my heart, all these highs and lows. Because following the afternoon, everything changed again.

Debbie and I visited the main primary school in Abalak. This is where we will conduct another Friendship Bracelet Exchange on Thursday. We will do the exchange with 12 classrooms, 12 classrooms of beautiful, relatively clean, hardworking children. And these children are getting an education not because they are simultaneously getting food to eat, as in Akoubounou. Rather, they are there just to be there. The most successful students will be able to participate in the exchange, because participation is a privilege. It means they will receive a gift, get their photos taken, two favorites of kids in Abalak, like kids anywhere in the world.

These kids are hope for a place where men will scramble to the ground over two fallen cheerios. I’m not sure, with an education, what sort of hope they will possess, but they will have something greater than those without it, of that I am sure. I know that most of them, probably all of them, will remain, for their whole lives, in Niger. And if they do, I hope they run the projects that are bringing their people water, food, education – all of life’s necessities. I hope they run these projects well, honestly, fruitfully. But if they do end up in the United States, studying at a university, I hope they get the support they need to go all the way, to earn their degree, to send remittances to their families and to help the world better understand Niger, Africa, this other planet. I hope we won’t misunderstand these children, when they are older, stepping on the soil of our country. I hope, like our friend Attaher who was born in a village five kilometers from where I sit and now lives not three hours from my real home, in Washington, D.C., they will have luck, make friends, because as confusing as it is for me to see people so disadvantaged, it must be just as complicated for Nigeriens to see all the indulgences in America. The few Nigeriens in the United States must feel very alone amongst the traffic, the roads, the express ways, the strip malls, the food and water we waste and waste away. They must.

Mama Africa

I’m not his mother. On some days, I feel very close to Fassely. On other days, I don’t. Today, I feel like Fassely is a part of me. As new visitors come to the house, he likes them, smiles at them, but then he reaches for me. I am his support, after a month. He tells me he is tired by resting his head in my lap. He tells me he is hungry by becoming sour. He doesn’t need to tell me he is thirsty. We are always thirsty, Fassely and I. Aman, throughout the day, Water, always.

Fassely has been a little under the weather the past couple of days, a slight bout of diarrhea. It could have been something he ate, we are not sure, in the sand, something he carried on his hands after playing with some Tuareg children who know no concept of hygiene, of hand washing. It could just mean that he is changing, growing up, Jala told us. Jala is the Tuareg man who owns the house we are renting in Abalak, the place we have been occupying for the past week, 10 days, maybe two weeks. I must admit I am losing track of time, losing myself in Niger.

At first it stunned me, all the little children with their dirty hands, their sick bellies, there snotty noses, their ashen faces. Now it is all I see, these little kids of the sand. They are so dirt poor that when I give them cheerios they devour them as if they are life-giving, like water. These cheerios are food for little Fassely, one of the snacks I take with us when we go on our walks to point out the goats, the cows, the camels, to be followed by a herd of these small children. But I no longer feel guilty giving Fassely these snacks in public, in front of children that don’t often eat. I just do. Because this is my job here, part of it, to keep Fassely healthy, happy, nourished; and it sometimes seems like the hardest job I will ever have. Everywhere there is dirt, excrement, sand children. When Yusef almost fed Fassely part of his lunch today, I jumped. When Zainabou wanted to offer Fassely her water tonight, I lurched, grabbing the Aman from her hands. Because the water looked clean, from the Chateau of Abalak, but I knew it couldn’t ever be clean enough for Fassely, for this delicate little child, my responsibility. Sometimes I want to scream, scrub myself, Fassely until we have new skin, without Niger on it.
After our walk through the trash, through Abalak’s market, I put Fassely down for a nap. He slept so soundly, falling fast asleep to my own rendition of Blowin’ In The Wind. He slept for an hour, and I jumped again – up and into his sleeping space to watch his tummy go up and down, a maternal worry that there was some chance his tummy wasn’t going up and down anymore. I touched his stomach, laid my head down next to him, felt his little breaths. Breathe.

We spent the afternoon in his pool. I no longer feel too guilty filling his blow-up pool up an inch with water, as I did before, because without the pool, we are trapped inside all afternoon, due to the heat. The pool, in the shade, provides a place for us to hang out, for the Nigerien kids to congregate and play with Fassely. After the dip, we danced. I popped on some Black Eyed Peas, some other pop music, and Yusef shot music videos of me and four little girls shaking it. It was pretty awesome. Although I would have rather have been in the field today, visiting women with Ariane at Tangawarshane, I had my own little field experience here. Jamila taught me, finally, how to properly wear her scarf; I don’t think I could replicate it. I learned how to say, coming and going, in Tamashek, and I showed the kids how we dance in America. It was a little peace, away from the dirt, poverty, restlessness of the streets of Abalak.

But eventually we needed a break, Fassely and I. Around 5:30 pm, when the sun starts to fall from the sky, we decided to take our second walk. We walked, speed-walked, through the neighborhood behind ours, resisting all the demands for gifts, the child who had the audacity to kiss my feet yesterday. We passed it all, on a mission: to be alone. Mission accomplished. Once surpassing these neighborhoods, we arrived in the bush, the start of which begins about one mile from our residence. We had Niger to ourselves, here in the bush, at sunset. We walked about another mile, until all we could see was a Tuareg shepherd herding his goats to downtown Abalak. We reached the precipice of a small hill, turned around, and headed back, me and Fassely. And we sang some more, Dixie Chicks, Patty Griffin, a little American Pie. There is nothing like singing Cowboy Take Me Away at the top of your lungs in the middle of Africa, nothing like it. The moment brought me back to road trips, to college, to friends I haven’t spoken to in forever, at a time and space so far away from before, from ever.


We sat underneath a tent made of millet stalks, ready to begin our meeting at Kijigari: a potential site for our next borehole well. Unlike the dark, dank mosque of Tangawarshane, the tent offered a path for the morning breeze on all four sides. Ariane, Denis and I kneeled in front of about a dozen men, men that could have been the same one a saw a week before, in Tangawarshane. They dressed traditionally in robes, different colored robes, with matching white turbans. They were of all ages, of 18 maybe, to 75. A retired teacher, with whom I discussed Barack Obama and America’s role in the world, led the meeting, translating from French to Tamashek and back to French. However, I saw no cloistering, no skirts, no veils blowing in the Nigerien breeze.

That soon changed. This meeting will not start without the women, Ariane directed. I looked down at my sandals, slowly falling apart, their bottoms almost reaching sand. I didn’t believe Ariane’s call, for women, would be heard. I had no faith that this was going to be any different from Tangawarshane, where the men took control of the borehole and the women remained stuck underneath their tents. But I was wrong. Soon after looking up, women, eight of them, came marching toward the covering, most with hidden faces, blue and black veils. One woman wore bright peach. Here they are, I thought, the future of Kijigari.

As they marched forward, I recounted that, of course, it would be different here. Kijigari is about 60 kilometers closer to Abalak, the central city in the Azawak, than Tangawarshane. It is not as isolated, not as dusty or barren. Close to 1,800 people live in Kijigari, as opposed to 20 cloistered families. The women in this village already have a role. They operate a vegetable garden, they act as seamstresses, they work in the small shop now operating in Kijigari. I wonder and need to ask how they have all this, because this is development in the Azawak. Although there are virtually no latrines and barely any water, they have other things. They have a school with real walls, where 120 students, 70 of them girls go to learn.

But they need a borehole. As we toured the village, I visited spot after spot where people dig in what used to be a marsh to find water. They dig 10, 20, 30 feet down to get to this water. They attach themselves to ropes and come back with only a small sack filled with dirty water. Each excursion down to the depths of the Earth brings up a little more than a bowl of water, which they then, in most cases, toss into a small trough for their animals. Hundreds of animals wait for this dirty water, brought to them by sweaty boys, men, women. I wondered when they, themselves, would stop for a drink. As we walked, we also saw circles in the sand, filled with cracked and dry earth, branches. These sites were now off-limits, we were told. These were places where people had tried to dig for water, and failed. Underneath these forbidden zones, men who were at one time trying to dig for water, trying to make another well, are buried. Before they were able to reach water, the sand fell in and suffocated them; each year, at least two or three people die this way – for water.

We then visited a well, one of the many unsuccessful wells here, where women pull up water for drinking, for life, filling their large, yellow canisters. One well in Kijigari is more advanced: it has a cement infrastructure with a pulley system, better referred to as a deep well. As I flung the top half of my body over the edge of this well, however, I saw that, although deep, it was almost bone dry. As the driest, hottest season of all approaches, in April, May, June, where temperatures might reach 120 at midday, I saw that their water supply would dwindle, disappear. Once the throat of the well becomes vapid, more men would have to start digging, digging to hell, in the hot, cavernous Earth. Only a borehole that hits live, running rivers could possible help these people, bring them the water that the people in Tangawarshane now have.

Water is our greatest problem here in Kijigari, those at the meeting, those in the village, those everywhere, told us. But this problem, of water, “is a women’s problem,” said Zainab, a colorful Tuareg woman in a green dress who openly participated in the meeting. Women work for the water, she said. Although we saw many men that day digging for the water, she said, on a daily basis, it is the women, the small girls who spend the most time fetching water. They rely on it, to cook, to clean, to take care of the small children.

On our way back from Kijigari I had never felt so alive, in the face of such adversity. I had witnessed life, real life. These are not people with conveniences, like the people of America. We get in our cars, with heat, or air conditioning, or a nice spring breeze, and drive to work. We flip on computers to communicate, to see who may have communicated with us. We have running water, washing machines, dryers, stoves, even microwaves. This makes our lives quick, fast, convenient, the antithesis of Africa, in particular the Azawak of Niger. Everything here is dire, dependent on how much water you can find to drink each day. Everything here is dependent on family, friends, friends who share their marsh holes until the real hot season begins - when 105, 106, as it was on my visit to Kijigari, is a distant memory, a once cool day.

My Red Tank Top

I have been in Niger 27 days now, and outside Niamey for 11. I don’t know what changed yesterday, but I decided, against all traditions, to wear my red tank top. It might have been that the hot season has been creeping in. This means it is over 100 degrees every day, rather than just over 95. I think by 10 am yesterday morning it was probably 98. While the nights are still temperate, the degrees rise by the minute each morning. By 10 am today it was creeping to 100. By 2 pm, out in the field, you could have fried an egg on the tops of my toe nails.

It felt good to put on my sleeveless shirt and my brown skirt that reaches to about 4 inches above my ankle. My arms, arm pits could breathe for a while. I could reach over and trace the condensation forming on my upper chest, instead of reaching under cloth, beneath my clothing. The sun felt good on my tanned skin as we walked to the market in search of a few fresh vegetables. I wasn’t alone. Some small girls wore ripped dresses, just falling off their shoulders. I felt in solidarity with these little girls, baring our shoulders. I might be a little older, a little paler, but they too could feel what it is like to walk through the streets of Abalak and have the sounds of the motorcycles, of the cows, bounce off their bare skin. All these other women, closer my build and stature, my own age, would never feel this, all covered up in their fabrics. Some even cover their heads, others their faces. Cloistered, my favorite word, concept here; my favorite nightmare.

I know I’ve explained it already, but to cloister, means to cover fully. Sometimes women will wrap their shawl fully around their faces, with only slight visibility through a lightly woven scarf. At other times women will do this and take it a step further: by wrapping a mat, maybe it is a prayer mat, around their bodies as well. Being a free spirit who can feel imprisoned after a day in an office, her own apartment, cloistering feels like death to me. The shawls, often dark blue or black, leak over these women’s faces and when they peek out from beneath their shelters, their skin takes on the color of their scarves. They are blue-skinned, wide-eyed, religious. They seem frightened.

But that is they, this me, in my red tank top. I wear it through the marketplace and down the street. I wear it the way I would in America, until I don’t. An older man, in typical traditional dress – white turban, long blue robe – stops me. He doesn’t speak French, but starts saying something to me in Tamashek. I have no idea what this man is communicating, until I do. He starts doing what looks like an odd sort of modern dance routine, lightly running his fingers over his shoulders, over his chest, over his belly and then pointing back at me. I’ll never know if he was amused, confused or dishonored by the way I wore my red tank top, but he put me back in place. Who was I in this world of cloistering to be so free? Who was I to dress this way in a world of shrouded women? I suddenly felt belligerent, the way my hips and chest curved out, so obviously there, so obviously a woman, and for all to see!
I left the man there, in the market, still gesturing. I scrambled in my bag for the green scarf laden with peace signs that my mother got me for my trip to Africa, to cover up, to assimilate, to be part of the landscape here. I threw it hastily over my head, wrapped it around my shoulders, and let it fall awkwardly from one side to the other, never evenly balanced, never fitting right. Because this is me: trying to wear a scarf to cover myself. I can’t do it like Fati or Miriama, like any of the cloistered women I see. I don’t fit in that way. It falls, it loosens, it flies away in the wind.

I walked home with my tank top partially hidden, only the bottom part of my stomach still visible in red. I hope the man in the market is happy now. But maybe he isn’t. I could have it all wrong. He could have been complimenting me; perhaps he likes red. I’ll never know, but I do know this: my red tank top is not for these streets.


I wish I could paint for you the picture the Newsweek reporter did: of an oasis in hell, of people bowing down and worshipping their idol, their borehole. But I can’t, because it wouldn’t be the truth. It would be dramatized, boiled down with emotions I didn’t really feel when I finally saw it.

Denis and I woke up early the morning we traveled to Tangarwashane, the site of Amman Imman’s borehole well. We hopped inside an old four wheel driver, accompanied a representative from the minister of hydraulics and two technicians who would test and analyze the construction, the up-keep and the strength of the infrastructure.
I was dressed in cargo pants and something that covered my shoulders. I couldn’t worry too much about dressing traditionally. I still felt delirious from our move from the village to Abalak, where we would spend two days with Abdoulli, our friend Attaher’s uncle. (Attaher is the young man from Niger who Heather and I have helped to get an education in the States). We had to get up too early that day, be on top of the water and the food we needed to keep with us to sustain us through our first day in the bush.

To get to Tangarwashane, we turned right off of the main road, the soul paved road in Abalak, and back through what would be considered the slum of all slums in the United States: a residential district. Bump, bump, tossle, toss. We hit the road, two well dug out crevices amidst the sand. We turned sharply around any rock or tree or when the road ceased to be. In the packed car, we rocked from side to side. I rediscovered the sweat of my neighbor, as I did on the ride from Niamey to Tahoua a week before.

Prior to reaching Tangawarshane, we stopped at a small village where a man was trying to dig a well; trying being the key word. Two men had dug 15 meters in over a month, by hand, by shovel. To reach water, these men have about 85 kilometers more to go. The sand, however, is more likely to topple over and cover them, bury them, suffocate them, before they reach the water, if they do. This is life in the Azawak Valley. This is what our project is about - preventing these accidents, this suffering, limiting the time spent every day by the people of the Azawak just to find water.

We hit the road again, for another hour or so and eventually saw, in the distance, a tower over the desolation of this sand. This must be it, I thought: Tangawarshane. This is the place I have worked tirelessly to build - the run for water, the administrative work, the burden I felt in my heart ever since Ariane told me about this place called the Azawak Valley. I was ready for children to come running out and hug me, as a part of this organization called Amman Imman, Water is Life, a saying more true than life itself in the Azawak – a saying that followed me through Niamey,through Tahoua, Akoubounou, Abalak and now into the Azawak itself. People say it everywhere. Their lips transform into a smile when they hear me say it. They repeat after me, they chant, Amman Imman.

Eventually arriving so close to the tower, I could picture myself running underneath it, hanging from its bars, showered in its cool water, but the place wasn’t a celebration. It felt abandoned. Besides about 20 or so settlements, villagers who have made their life here, nomads who have settled because the pasture land of the Azawak has completely dried up, there wasn’t much life. There was water, hardly life.

Before visiting the tower, the faucets, the troughs, we stepped inside the mosque. Because I couldn’t yet identify the school made of millet stalks, this was the only structure apparent to me. I joined, again, many men, inside this mud-walled mosque. They fed us millet and milk, they stared at me, their lips held parallel to the floor. Some chose to shake my hand, others didn’t. Although I couldn’t understand the Tamashek they spoke, I could understand that we were not being looked at as saviors, as water missionaries, but, rather, as intruders.

Once French began to flow through the walls of the mosque, I discerned that they were worried about their friend Mustapha, who had originally introduced Ariane to the Azawak. Why wasn’t Mustapha with us? (Because he was dishonest is the truth). Where was their friend, their fellow Tuareg? Mustapha was family, the whole village was family, and this was their borehole now. They also asked after Ariane, who was home resting with the baby that day. Denis and I were dispensable, intruders, I felt. These were my thoughts as I watched the men break for prayer, the dozen or so, standing, bowing, kneeling, eventually with their noses to the ground, and their fingers grazing the dirt floor. The pray, synchronously, always, like a practiced dance routine, in traditional robes, the contractors in their suits and gold watches.
Denis gave it back. Where are the women, he asked. An original condition of us building the borehole well was that women be included on the committee to manage the borehole, which would provide water to people at a small cost. The profit would then be used to fix the infrastructure, should something go wrong, or to develop Tangarwashane further - this desolate, isolated place. There are no women, they answered. They are cloistered behind their veils, I thought, their mats, religion hiding them away from the world, from this meeting at Tangawarshane. These were my thoughts, as I watched the men.

And where is the money, Denis asked.

Just as there were no women included on the management committee, which now consisted of one man solely, the others having gotten sick or dropped out, there was also no cash. Shit, I thought.

After visiting the borehole, we figured out that water was, indeed, extracted from the structure, but there was no system for making it into a business. Some people paid, some people didn’t. When family members went hungry, the bank went dry, I concluded. Because these aren’t people living in “a castle on a hill.” These aren’t the Nigerian princes, we often read about siphoning the profits of oil riches. These are people living at the end of the earth, where the sun boils your feet and turns them into portable stoves and the wind blows dust through your soul. Between the sun and dust, you are blind. But this is also a place where you must see. You must watch your feet. The only existing trees carry thorns that carve holes in the bottoms of your sandals. These pins slip between your tongs as you walk, never ceasing to cause you great pain. This is life, hardship in the Azawak Valley. This wind, this climate has now brought the people of the rural bush a bout of whooping cough. The wind has carried the disease from child to child inflicting one of the many diseases that has, no doubt, come through this place, this hell.

But the water tastes wonderful. It is crystal clear. It is Evian. There is no after taste. I filled by Camelback to the top with it and drank the water like I was standing at the precipice of the end of the Earth. I looked down and over the precipice and I felt the water trickle down my throat. The dust settled over my eyelids, but I had this water, this life in my bottle. It would all be ok.

In the two hours that I hung out by the faucets, three different groups got water. One woman all in black, a green mat shaping her into a walking cone, came and went. Another group was of Tuareg children on their donkeys. I watched one little girl sling the large yellow water canisters over her mount and disappear with water into the dust. She might have been going back to school this afternoon, I hoped. There was a school, somewhere, I was told, with 20 students, lost in this dust. Another group was a Fulani family, who thought my presence, my camera, was quite funny. They asked me for change, change that might go to their next cup of water. Little boys, who I recognized from Ariane’s pictures, treated the borehole like it was their own. They shooed off the thirsty animals when the humans came by. Many nomads here do not like their cows to drink every day, for a reason I can’t remember now. The treatment of animals is too cruel, too much for me to reflect on here.

These kids were treating the borehole like it was theirs, because it is. Amman Imman built it, but now it is for the common good of Tangawarshane and the nomads that still move through the Azawak. But we can’ t feel good about the mismanagement. We want the borehole to be sustainable, to last and last, to make a future for this village, because with its demise, there will be no life, be no future at the end of the Earth, here in the Azawak. We need solutions.

Beyond Niamey: A Journey

I left Niamey nine days ago – nine days that I will never forget, a time that has changed the way I will live, I think, time that has changed my life. Since departing from the capital, I’ve spent most of my time in a village that rests in between Tahoua and Abalak, two of Niamey’s larger cities. Akoubounou sits on the outskirts of the Azawak, a region I have wanted to visit since I heard its stories from Ariane almost three years ago. In the following blog post I will try my best to recount the journey, the nights and days, although, in truth, most of my time has become a panoramic snapshot, each moment blending into the next.

Chapter 1: Driving in Your Car

Bihim’s forearm rested not far from mine, but it rested there dry, free from the sweat, from my own body’s salt that was all-encompassing. Tanned, his arm peeked out from his light blue Tuareg robe, his hand delicately resting on his lap until he made his next gesture, in French or English, helping Debbie and I through the day. Bihim was one of the seven Tuareg men who accompanied us, yesterday, on our 11-hour journey from Niamey to Tahoua, a 550-kilometer trip. Bihim is one of the only Tuareg politicians, acting as mayor of Akoubounou, a small town in between Tahoua and Abalak. Bihim is intelligent, kind, worldly. He has traveled to France to engage in cultural exchanges with schools; he runs a local NGO that seeks to empower the Tuareg community by engaging them in their own development. His NGO teaches how to farm organically, helps mobilize schools and helps to teach his fellow Tuaregs about health. This is Bihim, this is change for Tuaregs in Niger.

To my left was Achmadou. Achmadou made sure Debbie and I, as vegetarians had enough to eat throughout the day. He offered us bread, bottled water and even made sure we got an omelet before meat was served at our first stop on the side of the road. We traveled in a large, green, Toyota Landcruiser with these men, occasionally pulling over to take tea, to buy water or to have food with one of their friends. Occasionally, they prayed. We observed. At our first stop, we rested under what looked similar to a large acacia tree, the wide, low set, intricately shaped trees Africa is famous for. They took out the goat meat they had purchased earlier. Debbie and I ate our eggs. They spoke in Tamashek, under the tree, as a breeze that could have been off the ocean, but wasn’t, swept through the otherwise barren landscape. We then took tea, two rounds always offered first to us, then to them. We passed around their glass, always sharing, paratager, en francais, c’est le mot du jour. Share.

We then pulled back onto the road and headed east toward Tahoua. The ride was hot, a furnace. Since we are now in the heart of the dry season, the dust follows us through the streets, sometimes paved, sometimes not. To avoid dust in the car and to avoid aggravating Bihim’s asthma, we keep the windows shut for most of the time. This makes me sweat in ways I never thought I could, in places I didn’t know I had. This makes even the hot water I poured from the filter six hours earlier, taste good. The skin underneath my cargo pants stuck to my legs, the pants stuck on one side to Debbie, on the other to Achmadou. I took my sunglasses, on and off, on and off, to clear the sweat constantly dripping over my nose, downward. But for the 11 hours, there, losing water and salt, I was at peace. I learned so much in that little car, from Bihim, from Achmadou, both who were hosting the upcoming Tuareg Camel Festival in Abalak, that the heat mattered less.

The Camel Festival, I was told, is hosted for both the Tuareg and Fulani sects. It is meant to bring these two cultures together, to showcase their art, their music, their culture, and to give them a sense of self, empowerment. In the past, the central government was always involved in the preparation, the management. But this year, it is just up to these Tuareg men whom we are travelling with to pull of the event. I believe it will be a success. Bihim calls this the first step toward decentralization, a promise made to the Tuaregs since the last rebellion ended in 2001. This festival, from 28 February through 2 March will be a jumping off point, a starting point toward self sufficiency, Biihim thinks. Bihim also thinks this sense of independence can be won peacefully, without arms. But he is an anomaly in his thoughts. Right now, many Tuaregs, in the very north of the country are taking up arms, embedding landmines in their own soil, allegedly kidnapping foreigners. They do this because they are angry, poor. They are an ethnic minority without rights to their own natural resources. The Chinese, the French come onto their soil and drill for uranium, a precious, expensive resource, yet the Tuaregs get no share of the riches from this mineral. This is why Amman Imman is so integral: we are bringing water, a more life-sustaining resource to people who have none. Amman Imman will empower the Tuareg and Fulani who inhabit the Azawak, just as Bihim’s organization – l’Agence pour le Developpmente Nourriterre – will as well. This makes me optimistic. I see the space for partnerships with this local NGO. I see Amman Imman’s mission, growing, taking shape, doing more to help a vulnerable population. I learned all of this in the car.

As we traveled, we talked and talked some more, conversed in Tamashek, French, English, through laughter. We then stopped in Konni, a moderate-sized town on the way to Tahoua. It was there that we took more tea and listened to two Tuareg men play guitar and chant. Dusk set in over the musicians, another breeze came through, blowing the trash around, whisking the scarf from off my shoulders. Seated upon a string chair, I, again, felt at peace. We waited there for more men to join us, as they all affixed their turbans just so, dusting themselves off in preparation for tea, a few bites with the Minister of the Interior whom with we shared some white bread and a fava bean dish. And we hit the road again, only to get a flat tire after nightfall. Bump, bump, off of the cement and onto the sand. One Tuareg man to dig the hole, which , without a jack, would serve to pull the tire off the ground, another Tuareg man to pull out the screws, one other would get the tire from the back of the car and re-affix it the vehicle. And two white women would put on their fashionable REI headlamps in an otherwise dark world and to come up with ways to picture spending the night in the darkness, (on top of the car being the best way to avoid scorpions, snakes). The anxiety was presumptuous. One, two, three, on the road again.

We arrived in Tahoua at nightfall, to an unexpectedly luxurious haunt. The Inn we stayed the night in had air conditioning in our room, clean floors and even moderately warm water streaming from the tap. Bihim and the others found us canned vegetables to accompany the white rice. We charged our cell phones and our cameras and all the necessary electronics for documenting and sharing our African adventure. We got a decent night’s rest, the last remnant of a truly developed world that we would see for the next eight days.

Chapter 2: Getting to Akoubounou

It was in Tabalak that we first saw water. About 30 minutes east of Tahoua, on the way to Akoubounou, there is life - boys stringing fishing nets, the smell of fish and chips in the air, fish, because there is a lake made by humans. I felt like I was in South Africa again - blue water framed by a barren landscape. I readied myself for a large animal siting, maybe an elephant, maybe a hippo! No such luck, only the donkeys , cows, camels I have now become accustomed to, part of the landscape of my new, temporary home.

Little Fulani boys, dressed in colorful rags, sat on their donkeys, tap, tap, tap with their battle sticks on the shoulders of their steed. They ride with large, yellow canisters hanging from either side of their animals. Five gallons in each canister – of water, of life. They tie a goat skin beneath the belly of their friends, their animals, their sustenance, to carry water, to keep it cool. These goat skins are the Azawak’s version of refrigerators. I have yet to try a refreshing drink from one.

Around the lake, were small children, colorful children, who, like all the wonderful Nigerien children, love having their picture snapped, snap, snap, snap, we go. They gather around us, pulled at our hands, our scarves. They made me smile like I haven’t smiled in years. I felt alive next to this lake. I, again, felt optimistic, although, in reality, I had no idea how clean it was, what it really brought to the community. That would take more research, more time, just like everything in Africa takes so much time.

As we moved forward and away from the lake, the turbaned men, one French filmmaker, Debbie and I, eventually reach the perimeter of the Azawak: Akoubounou. Before arriving, we had no idea what to expect. After arriving, we had no idea what might happen next. We had no idea that we would live without electricity, running water, beneath a tent, beneath the stars. We had no idea where we were, that the doctor, the one doctor nearby was away, gone, that being white would mean being a doctor to the villagers. That people would, indeed, be thirsty, hungry and incredibly, incredibly poor. We wouldn’t know because the men we were traveling with never missed a meal, didn’t seem to suffer. We traveled with the cream of the crop, the mayor of the small village and his comrades. We would be okay.

Our home, our hide-away consisted of a dirt-covered cement floor, two mats on a wood planked bed and a small table on which to place our various creams, soaps, amenities. But we soon learned that, with a window only able to open at a 45-degree angle and little ventilation, our home would soon be under the stars. As we went to bed that first night, I marveled at the designs. Stars going every which way; I only wished I could have remembered the constellations.

Going to bed in darkness, awaking to darkness, this is Akoubounou. Because that first morning, we awoke with the cooks, the servants who get up earlier than the rest, earlier than the sun, to start the first rounds of Tuareg tea, to wash up, to fix whatever it is that needs to be fixed. The man who, as I understood it, directly served Bihim and our crew, was a delicately featured black Tuareg. He liked to ask “How are you?” so proud of the English he learned while searching for work in Nigeria. Because he did speak English and seemed educated, I assumed he was an equal, until somebody told me he wasn’t. There is a caste system here, I was told. The lighter skinned Tuareg, the men we travelled with, are generally of the higher caste, which, make no mistake, does not mean they are rich. This just means they often garner more respect than the darker skinned Tuaregs, who become their servants. However, black Tuaregs are more likely to send their children to school, Ariane has told me. This makes sense to me. Repression makes you think more about how to relieve yourself of the position you are born into. Lighter skinned Tuaregs remain very traditional, nomadic, where, in many instances, the boys will work, the girls will stay at home with the other women, until, at 13, 14, they will marry and remain stuck under a tent somewhere else.

Because this is what we saw in Akoubounou: men, troves of men visiting our camp. First there were five, then ten, then more than we could count, all these men coming to Akoubounou for the Camel Festival, resting not a few feet from us, under the stars. I have never been around so many men in my life. They came and they touched, caressed each other’s feet, held hands , finger rested upon finger, as they marched through the sand. They wore indigo, light blue, copper-colored robes, sandals adorned with beads, they carried hand-crafted swords and intricately woven leather turquoise and red boxes around their necks. They drank tea, always drinking tea, eating goats two, three times a day. But where are the women?

The women were where Miriama, a new friend of ours, took us our first afternoon in the village. They sat under their tent, the oldest, caressing her prayer beads, the youngest staring at the new strangers on her mother’s bed. Off to the side is the servant, a darker woman pounded millet. Off to the other side was a light-skinned sister, Fati Matou, making tea. Pound, pound, pound. Under the tent, we smiled, we danced - music, a language we could all understand. Tuareg guitar strings pierced the air. Miriama’s burgundy scarf spun in circles around us. I remained slightly obsessed about the dirtiness of my feet, all the animal excrement encircling the camp. But I was glad to be with the women.

Chapter 3: The School

More than one hundred children simultaneously tugged at my hand, mostly little girls. I’m not sure what they wanted, if they wanted anything at all. They greeted us from their school. That afternoon, air flowed through all the classrooms, as the sun began to settle and its light created a yellow glow across the wooden desks, the blackboards covered in simple French sentences. It covered the chair where the director would sit, its bottom sunken in like the top of a volcano. I was pleasantly surprised by the state of the school, despite his broken chair. There was a pit to go to the bathroom in, with a door and mud walls built for the student’s privacy. There was a woman making millet for the children, who knew how to say “Bonjour, cava?” These children learned the wonders of irrigation, of sustainable farming in the garden that rests just beyond their borehole. Development had begun, with water, in Akoubounou. Although the animals share the same, often contaminated water, with their fellow caretakers, this is progress in the Azawak.

But the school is still in want. The students do not have books, pencils, pens, paper, the basics of learning, Debbie and I would find out later. We came to the school to help Debbie, an administrator at a Montessori school in the D.C. area, to accomplish her mission: giving friendship bracelets made by the kids in the United States to kids at this school and, in return, to bring back bracelets for the kids in America from these Nigerien children. We had brought hundreds, maybe thousands, of beads, materials. The kids were game. It took little convincing of the director to let the whole plan fly. And it took off.

We read to the kids, with the help of our Tamashek translator and soon to be friend Mahmoudin, the cards from the children in the United States. They wished them well, wished them wells, wished them a life filled with water: Amman Imman. The children wore their new jewelry proudly, easily identifiable on the trails of Akoubounou. Some boys gave the jewels to their mothers, sisters. Little Hadiza returned the favor by decorating Debbie and I with multiple little plastic bracelets. She felt compelled; she wanted to give us something back, although, of course, we never expected it. After making the exchange, the director of the school sat us down. He held a concerned look on his face, his lips pursed in thought.

“What will our future relationship be?” he asked us.

Perhaps a penpal exchange between his students and ours, we said.

His lips remained stuck outward. He wanted something more serious for his children, more integral. He wanted the supplies mentioned before; he wanted food. He took us around back to the dusty room where the food supply for the students remains. He counted bags of maize, millet, beans, rice, salt, sugar. He gave me numbers. Since last trimester, the World Food Program has cut his supplies by almost two thirds. This means instead of the children eating three times each day, they eat twice, with each meal consisting of far less than it did just last year. The kids of Akoubounou, of the Azawak are hungry. His food rations depend largely on the number of girls attending his school. For each girl recruited, he will get more. But many girls are stuck under their tents; others are working, gathering water. He tells his girls they can be anything. He tells them Debbie and I did not need to get married and look at us: women, off traveling the world, making a difference. I am happy to be their role model for two minutes, but I have my doubts.

We are Americans. We have choices, so many choices that sitting here on my floor mat, typing, hardly seem real to me now. These kids have barely enough food and little choice at all.

Chapter 4: Water, Food and Sickness

One afternoon, I sat down with a child outside the school; a light skinned Tuareg, with sunken cheekbones, he sported a salmon colored shirt. He is going to be quite the casa nova, when he is older, I thought. Give him 10 years, when he was about 21, 22, and he will be beautiful. But I was wrong. It shouldn’t take that long. According to this child, Mohamed, he is now 16; he would be grown in 5 years, not 10.

But he is so small, I think.

His elbows jut out like the tops of swords. I tell him that in the United States, he would resemble an 11 or 12 year old, that he is so small for his age. Well, in the United States kids get to eat a lot, he said in perfect French. How many times each day do you eat, I retorted. He held up three fingers. I said that was much like the United States, where kids also eat three times each day. But the meals he eats here, at his home in Abalak aren’t enough. I am hungry, he said.

Because that is the way in Niger. While in the United States, we worry constantly about feeding our kids first, helping them to grow into strong, healthy adults, in Niger, the kids eat last. After the parents have filled their bellies, it is only then that the kids can try to fill theirs as well. This is why, throughout my stay in Niger, kids followed me around. This is why when I offered five little boys a portion of my cashew nuts, they seemed like they had found a long-lost treasure. This is why I felt so gluttonous, so indulgent when I remembered, reminisced, about all the nice, expensive dinners I have had out in Washington, D.C. - the fresh fish, the cheese, the wine. I remember making food, putting it in tupperware, forgetting about it and having to throw it out a week later. Sacrilegious.

And they are thirsty too. When it came time to wash my clothes, after a week of living in the sand and the filth of animal excrement, I filled basins of water to wash and wring out my items. To American standards, the wash would not even have sufficed. Brown water still poured from my clothes after the second rinse. But I couldn’t finish, not in the place, the time I was inhabiting. Just to my right, by the only trough of water nearby, kids were lining up. Aman, they said. Aman. Old men too, taking the water down like they had never tasted it before. This might be the soul cup of water for the same afternoon in which I had consumed three liters, or more. I’d heard about this, the thirst. But I’d never seen it. And until you see it, you won’t believe it.

People drank, hydrated, but never enough. One night we passed a man with an eye the size of a baseball. Flush it out with water, we told him. Thank you, may God be with you, he said. On another night we walked by a family, the father carried a sickly child to us in his arms. As he cradled this little girl like she was still a baby, she cried and screamed. She was obviously in pain. I touched the back of my hand to her forehead. She was burning up. Aman, I said. Give her water. They went to fill a bottle. They hadn’t known. They also needed medication, as their prescription had almost run dry since the doctor left town almost a week ago. We had left our first aid kit at home. May God be with that little girl.

Chapter 5: I’m an American Woman, After All

This is Life in Akoubounou, a life, upon my entrance into it, I thought I could possibly live. I could write a book about this community, these generous, beautiful people, amidst this poverty, this progress. I could become a part of Miriama’s family, dancing away each night to Tuareg guitar strings. I could do it. I could fetch the water, ride my donkey back home and cook up some Illiwa (millet and milk). Or could I?

After a week, I felt differently, and it was only a week. After a week of going to the bathroom in a hole without the luxury of toilet paper, with sand in everything, without having soap accessible anywhere I went, could I? Although I filter my water, wash up, brush my teeth, use more and more of Africa’s water, I can never escape the filth. I still grimace when the children grab my hands, grab Fassely’s, although I love them. Do they feel dirty too, I wonder. Or is this acclimation, a culture, a way of life. I am torn. For people who don’t know that boiling water makes it cleaner, that drinking water can help to cure minor ailments, like the headache of Mohamed, whom we met on the top of a hill in Abalak, how do we begin to teach? And how do we preserve their culture amongst the infiltration of our ideas, curing sicknesses without eradicating history, I wonder?

Because more than the filth, the state of the women, bothers me constantly. Are they happy under their tents? Are they happy keeping so still? Do they miss their husbands when they depart on long journeys with their fellow men? Do they yearn to call them at night? Are any of them in love? Or are they happy to be alone, dreaming of the men they once loved, at 13, 14, before they were given away to someone with more wealth, more standing. Maybe they were never in love, never knew it. This might make it easier. Maybe they were too young to know what they are missing out on, but I doubt it.

The men we traveled with were generous, kind, but after a week of compliance, I wanted to escape them. Always asking where we were going, don’t walk here, there, they would tell us. They donned us Tuareg names, Debbie’s name is pronounced Nejmoon, in English, mine Enora. “Nejmoon!” “Enora!,” they would shout, whenever they wanted to shout it, whenever they wanted us to laugh with them, to sing for them, they would shout. Endearing at first, it eventually became cumbersome. Leave me alone, I thought in my head, I need to be alone for a moment. Don’t carry that bed for me, fix that meal. I can do it myself! I am a fiercely independent American woman!

As an American, a white woman, our status rests somewhere in between the men’s and women’s, I think. But we will always be closer to women, always.

So when a Tuareg warrior, affixed with a sword across his front, rode is dappled gray Arabian horse over to our home the last day in the village, there was no chance I could have a ride. I pleaded with him, all the men standing around him telling me “no, no, no.” I told them I ride horses all of the time, have a horse in the United States, a much larger one than this Arab, but they didn’t believe me. Eventually, however, seeing my angst, they caved – wanting to keep their women happy. I hopped on the horse, barefoot, promising only to walk…I then galloped off through the sand. Farewell, thought Enora. I felt powerful. I released all the built up tension inside me about being a woman in Akoubounou, in Africa. I raised a hand from the reins and waved as I galloped by, an American woman.