Sunday, March 15, 2009

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.

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